Spartathlon Race Report 2015

 

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Simply Stunning Views along the Aegean’s Saronic Gulf – Courtesy of Sparta Photographic Club (Spartathlon 2015)

 

Summary 

Well after what seemed an eternity, the hardest race of my life, the iconic Spartathlon finally arrived and I’m delighted to report that I finished in a time of 31:33:53.

I was very surprised to finish as third British runner, although there were outstanding performances across the board, with the best British finish percentage in years (62%).

I’m a little disappointed that I couldn’t hold pace better after about 110 miles, as I was running well and figured a sub thirty finish was a distinct possibility.

I lost my rhythm somewhat after the mountain though as my quads and hams became as taut as piano strings. This compelled me to manage my pace very carefully to avoid potential injury. My goal after all was to finish first and foremost and I didn’t want to jeopardise that.

The cost of the cautionary approach cost me about a dozen places or so, but I could live with that. I couldn’t live with crocking myself when I was so close relatively speaking.

This was far and away the hardest race I’ve ever taken on, which is no surprise, given its standing on the world stage.

I had total respect for this race before I started training in earnest and now I’ve experienced it first hand, that respect has been well and truly vindicated.

Given another opportunity to race Spartathlon,  I feel confident that I can significantly improve my time if I implement a few tweaks to my training, although with so many variables involved you can’t take anything for granted of course.

I’ll be back hopefully!

 

Pre-race

For my pre-race build up I adopted a high mileage strategy, as I had done for the LLC130 just three and a half weeks earlier. I also ensured that every single training run was executed on roads and included hills in order to prepare me for what was to come.

I knew racing the LLC130 in such close proximity was a tad risky, but as I’d missed out on my benchmark race GUCR earlier in the year, due to a virus, I felt I needed some reassurance via longer races than those I had completed in between.

I also believed that higher mileage pre LLC130 would help me recover more quickly for Spartathlon. The outcome was favourable as I finished well in LLC130 and did indeed recover well.

On the flight out it was nice to be seated by two of the Irish team, Don Hannon and Anthony Lee. I passed around Andy Nuttall’s new award winning Ultra publication ‘Ultra’ for some quality reading to pass the time.

Chatting to Don we didn’t need to remind each other of the calibre of the runners in the race, but when I heard his qualifier, it served as another reality check.

The brutal truth is that in this race you know you are going to be surrounded by quality wherever you find yourself in the field. I figured this could be both positive and negative, as it could help me raise my game or lure me into the danger zone.

Spartathlon Start at the Acropolis - Courtesy of Sarah Dryden

Spartathlon Start at the Acropolis – Courtesy of Sarah Dryden

 

The Start at the Acropolis

We headed for the Acropolis and congregated at the start area, all excited and raring to go. I met good friend Rikard Hallgren here and wished him luck, as I also made my all important call to Gill before the off.

Me and Rikard Hallgren before the Off!

Me and Rikard Hallgren before the Off! (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

It was at this point I made a last minute decision not to carry my mobile, due to the combined weight with the tracker and other bits and bobs. Tremayne’s wife Jacque kindly agreed to hang on to it for me until we finished for which I was very grateful.

I think it was around this point that the Drone flew over head for a final sweep of footage for the live coverage. A final few photos of the team, handshakes and hugs all round and we were ready to rock!

Spartathlon Course

Spartathlon Course

 

Early stages:

Noted for my fast starts, I knew I would be under scrutiny in a race as unforgiving as this, so on our journey out of Athens I tried to hold back and stay behind Pat ‘Paddy’ Robbins for a while. Alas, that didn’t last very long as I found myself naturally picking up the pace again. The bottom line is though, I have to run at the pace I naturally settle in to whether its considered risky or not.

I knew from past experience that I’d likely see Paddy again around 35-40 miles, but as it transpired it wasn’t until around 90 miles we met up again, which meant one of two things of course. It turned out Paddy wasn’t having a great race due to stomach issues/nausea I think.

As we worked our way out of Athens, the police were great in controlling the traffic to give us a trouble free exit and motorists were on the whole just great. A few impatient exceptions as always.

I’d heard many tales of stray dogs following runners during the race, but I didn’t expect to be accompanied on a busy road for what seemed like 10 miles.

Frustratingly, a big black dog repeatedly kept cutting across the path of the runners I found myself amongst, nearly sending me and others tumbling to the ground on numerous occasions. I’ve never heard so many expletives in so many different languages 🙂

I should add that, this was not a cartoon dog, as Paddy had earlier described them to me at the GUCR. I suspect that when Paddy had seen dogs in his previous Spartathlon it must have been much later in the race when hallucinations had kicked in 🙂

 

Exiting Athens

I guess we must have spent a couple of hours or so exiting the city until we ventured onto the coast road to be met by the azure blue sea of the Aegean’s Saronic Gulf to our left and sheer rock faces to our right. Simply stunning views, but a long hot road with no respite from the sun. Our desert hats were a godsend!

Contrary to all warnings not to bank significant time as a buffer, I’d pretty much made up my mind that I was going to get to the mountain at 100 miles as fast as possible and do whatever I could to survive after that.

This is how it unfolded as I found myself going through 50 mile, 100k and 100 mile in PB times for those distances, aided by the brilliant encouragement of Marco Consani and what seemed like every child in every village along the way. Wonderful experience!

Top Man Marco Consani Encouraging from Start to Finish

Top Man Marco Consani encouraging from Start to Finish

I’d heeded the warnings of how to deal with humidity and cooling the body, so I adopted the strategy of dousing my hat and buffs (wrapped around my wrists) at every CP and soaking my head and neck with water using the sponges provided. This worked really well, especially as I made my way through the Isthmus of Corinth and on through the Olive Groves that followed. This was the hottest part of the race for me.

Isthmus of Corinth

Isthmus of Corinth

In terms of nutrition I had opted to try Tailwind for the first time but had used some in training of course. I very rarely succumb to any stomach upsets when racing and this race was no exception. Tailwind worked fine for me but I did supplement it with very small amounts of real food along the way. This included a handful of raisins here and there, a Greek yoghurt, a couple of half banana’s and some soup before the mountain.

 

Official Splits             Km                Mile                 Time            Elapsed Time

Start –                                                                          07:00

C/P No 4                     19.5                 12.11                8:38:36            1:38:36

C/P No 11                   42.2                 26.22               10:29:46          3:29:46

C/P No 22                   81.0                 50.33               2:14:43            7:14:43

C/P No 28                   100.0               62.13               4:33:09            9:33:09

C/P No 35                   124.0               77.05               7:31:00            12:31:00

C/P No 47                   159.5               99.10               12:44:27           17:44:27

C/P No 52                   172.0               106.87             02:49:45           19:49:45

C/P No 60                   195.0               121.16             06:23:11            23:23:11

C/P No 69                   227.0               141.05             11:10:46            28:10:46

FINISH                         245.3               152.42             2:33:53            31:33:53

 

The Mountain

I’d read somewhere that if you could conquer the mountain with time in the bag, you’d have a pretty good chance of finishing, but I took nothing for granted even though I had managed to get to CP 47 in 17:44. Any time in hand could so easily be eroded far quicker than it had taken to create!

I took on some chicken soup shortly before mountain base, or rather I was coerced by a lovely lady at the CP who insisted I have some to make me strong for the mountain. She also said that I should remember how good it was if I wanted to come back next year.

I didn’t need any persuading though, even though this years job wasn’t done yet. I think she thought I would perish being the whippet that I am.

 

Mountain Base with the Anglo Greek Volunteers

Mountain Base with the Anglo Greek Volunteers

Upon reaching mountain base, the warm and friendly crew checked I was doing OK, offered loads of encouragement and sent me on my way up the goat trail, which was full of switch backs on a tricky, loose rocky surface.

My go to shoe is always Brooks Launch regardless of the race, but I think on this occasion it wasn’t a wise choice for this section, given the number of times I nearly slipped into the abyss. I decided that on the descent I would take my time despite losing several places, as it wasn’t worth the risk of injury.

 

Annotated Profile (Courtesy of Bob Hearn)

Annotated Profile (Courtesy of Bob Hearn)

 

Beyond the Mountain

Thunderstorms over the mountains gave rise to heavy rain for what seemed ages, as we made our way through the countryside, eventually taking a left turn onto the busy dual carriageway to Sparti. This seemed to rise for an interminably long time without any evidence of the usual road signs we’d been accustomed to thus far.

It was at this point I panicked a little wondering if I’d followed a bogus sign. We were warned at the briefing after all, to follow only a specific type of road marking. Well after what seemed ages I came across another CP and an official Spartathlon road sign, so panic over.

It was around this section I came across Debbie Martin-Consani again who I thought had motored on past me long ago. Debbie had had the same concerns as me regarding the signs here, so was equally pleased to know we hadn’t gone wrong.

We played leapfrog for a while, until Debbie found some better legs and cracked on for a stronger finish than I. Good finish Debbie!

 

Descent into Sparti

As I mentioned in the summary, I had to manage my pace as best I could over at least the last twenty five to thirty miles to avoid twanging my quads or hams, so I lost a lot of time here which although frustrating, I felt it was necessary to ensure a finish.

As I neared Sparti proper I was concerned I was still wearing a jacket and carrying a head torch and weight I could do without, so at the first opportunity I offloaded this so that I could run in with my British Spartathlon team shirt visible.

 

Escorted by the Wonderful Children of Sparti

Escorted by the Wonderful Children of Sparti (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

 

When I say run in, I really had to muster all I had for the last approach into Sparti, but this was made so much easier when a young lad on his bike pulled along side me to escort me in. It was wonderful and energised me immediately.

I pushed on savouring the warm greetings from the enthusiastic crowds that lined the streets. It was such a wonderful experience that lived up to all my expectations.

All that was left for me to do now to complete this epic journey was to mount the steps to the statue of King Leonidas, kiss the foot and that was it.  I’d done it!

I’m very happy with 31:33:53 but I know it could and should have been closer to thirty hours. Getting the strategy right for Spartathlon is critical but I believe I now know what I need to do if I’m fortunate enough to have another opportunity to run this great race!

Kissing the Foot of King Leonidas marked the end of my Journey

Kissing the Foot of King iLeonidas marked the end of my Journey

I think mine was a pretty swift transition away from the statue of King Leonidas by all accounts and rather understated I’m told, but I can assure you I was full of emotion and overwhelmed by the finish of what James Adams has aptly described as the greatest race on earth!

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I was quickly ushered into the tent for the mandatory check up and  soon reunited with my enthusiastic team mates and support crews, after a short delay as my electrolytes were sorted. What absolute stars they all were! They made me feel like a real hero and I was very close to tears I must admit.

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I hadn’t heard too much about my fellow team mates progress so I was saddened to hear of some that didn’t make it, even though I knew that historically stats indicate that usually only around a third of runners would finish.

The reality was better though, as we later learned that the team had finished third highest in terms of percentage finishers, if you exclude single runner entry for some countries. So it was a great success all round really and everyone who earned that place on the start line were all heroes in my book.

Will I be back? What do you think? Although I’d better bring Gill 🙂

 

Highlights:

  • Proposing to Gill post race and then toasting her on the rooftop bar with a great bunch of lads and lasses!
  • Sharing some miles with one of my heroes Pat Paddy Robbins.
  • Hearing my prediction had been realised that Dan Lawson would finish in top three and probably win it outright. It’s only a matter of time before Dan rewrites the record books in my opinion. What an awesome athlete and result!
  • Witnessing Dan on the podium in Sparti at the closing ceremony.
  • The incredible camaraderie not just within the British contingent, but between all runners throughout the event. It was heart warming.
  • Making some great new life long friends.
  • The overwhelming support throughout the race by family, friends, children and families out on the course, support teams, truckers, drivers,  CP’s and via Facebook.
  • The amazing finish in Sparti, which lived up to everything I had hoped it would be.

 

Lessons Learnt

  • Run Faster! 🙂
  • To achieve a faster pace overall I may hold back next year to save the legs for the last thirty or so miles.
  • Practice downhill running on a similar surface to Mount Parthenio.
  • Build more hills into training! Although every training run I completed comprised long hills or long hill repeats, I believe for Spartathlon more is better to bolster the quads and hamstrings.
  • Strength training for the same reason. May consider some deadlifts/squats etc.
  • Use just one pair of socks instead of my usual two, due to swollen feet causing hotspots and lacerations to my ankles, which I don’t normally suffer with. Alternatively, wear a shoe a half to one size bigger. I had bought a pair for the purpose but underestimated the effects of the heat so didn’t wear them. Hmm?
  • Take Gill with me and may be have support 🙂
  • Knowing the quality of the runners that didn’t make it on this occasion proves that no matter how good you are, this race is such a leveller. There are so many variables that can undo your race, despite best efforts, so address every weakness you can and build on every strength you have.
  • Stretch out quads mid race / Maybe a massage, but do something proactive before it’s too late, or at least ensure you have quads of steel before you start this epic.
  • Don’t trust your luggage to anyone, even yourself 🙂

 

Thanks

  • First and foremost I’d like to thank my fiancee Gill for her tireless efforts in keeping everyone updated on my progress. No easy task when she was back in Blighty herself.
  • The ISA for staging the greatest race on earth!
  • The British Spartathlon Team for their support, camaraderie and the way they rallied to my aid when the saga of my missing bag kicked off, leaving me without a change of clothes, money or anything for that matter. Special thanks to Russ Bestley, Sarah Dryden, Dan Lawson and Russ Tullet. What a team!
  • Sparta Photographic Club, Sarah Dryden, Russ Bestley, Sandra Hopkins and Russ Tullet for the amazing photography.
  • Nick Papageorge for his tenacity in trying to resolve the mystery of the missing bags, finally reuniting me with my bag at Leonidas Palace, only then for me to leave my post race bag (and drop bag reclaim) on the bus back from Sparti. Doh!
  • Papadimitriou Kostis, Doukas Tsiakiris and Paul Corderoy for helping with the return of my bag from Greece.
  • Family, friends fellow club runners at Norfolk Gazelles and  anyone else I haven’t mentioned for their overwhelming support throughout this epic and post race too!
  • All the sponsors of the British Spartathlon Team.
  • Rob Pinnington, Paul Ali, James Ellis and everyone else who contributed to the teams success, profile and web updates. We certainly made a big impression and drew very positive comments from others on how well the team had bonded.
  • Elias Pergantis of Sparta Photography Club for the wonderful tribute video below:

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