Spartathlon Race Report 2016

 

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Courtesy of Giannis Xidis – Sparta Photography Club

 

Summary:

I’ve summarised below as I appreciate some readers may only be interested in the outcome. If you’re interested in the full report, I hope you find some of it interesting or useful. Please skip any sections which aren’t relevant for you.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Spartathlon, its history or what it entails you can find out more at the following link:

http://www.spartathlon.gr

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The long tortuous wait was finally over and after another year of tough training, much discussion and some improved results, the biggest test of my metal was beckoning once again – the iconic Spartathlon! This is without a shadow of doubt the toughest challenge I personally have ever faced but I absolutely love this historic race!

Last year on my debut I was delighted to finish in a time of 31:33:53 and third British runner, which was a great bonus, but the British team on the whole enjoyed great success with the best British finish percentage in years (62%)

Could I and the team even hope to improve on that this year I thought? Well, why not! We had a very strong team indeed heading out to Greece, everyone was positive and there was a great team spirit building throughout the year. Communication was good, knowledge was openly shared and we had some great sponsors to thank for kitting us out.

I also had the additional motivation of knowing I could make a positive difference for NANSA, a disability charity I was running in support of back home in Norwich, Norfolk.

As it transpired, I was over the moon to not only hit my target of a sub thirty finish in 29:14:36 but miraculously I came home as first British runner. I can’t tell you how delighted I am.

It was also fantastic to witness what must be the best British finishing percentage in Spartathlon history! Of the twenty five starters,  a mind blowing nineteen made it home to Sparta. That’s a staggering 76%! That result speaks for itself!

However, I now have it all to do again if I hope to qualify for Spartathlon 2017, but you try to stop me! Training has already begun!

Full report follows below…

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I was privileged to be able to run this great race again after a successful debut in 2015. My goal for this year was of course a finish first and foremost, but I really wanted to nail sub 30, if not 28:48 (auto-qualification via Spartathlon itself)

Initially it appeared an ambitious target, requiring at least a 1hr 34m improvement on last years result for a sub 30 or a 2hr 45m improvement for the auto-qualification target.

Stats also suggested that only around ten Brits had ever gone under thirty hours in the previous thirty three Spartathlons, so I knew it was a big ask based on that stat alone. Crucially however, I believed I had it in me and finding another 94 minutes over 153.4 miles should be achievable for the sub 30 target at least, right?

Training had yielded positive results on the whole throughout the year, although I did have a few scares. Firstly, early in the year I overcooked it with strength training on the legs which combined with my mileage pushed me into over training syndrome, meaning I had to seriously back off for quite a few weeks.

Secondly, mid year I thought I may have sustained a stress fracture on my right lower leg, so seriously eased off again. The symptoms certainly indicated a possible stress fracture, but rather than rest up completely, I built-in additional groups of rest days and thankfully it all came good.

Lastly, with less than a month until Sparta I developed some pretty severe right hip pain, which on reflection I believe was attributable to the massive increase in hill work on top of an already heavy schedule.

As with all my Sparta training, I had performed all sessions exclusively on roads which is crucial of course, but after closer analysis I believe the hip pain was likely attributable to over striding during the fast downhills. When I eased off and ensured I checked my stride on subsequent sessions all was fine again after approx two weeks.

Training wise I’d focused heavily on quad strengthening via an increase to an already heavy hill training schedule. I also maintained a similar high mileage approach as last year, but also increased core and flexibility work.

I also built in some sauna sessions to aid muscle relaxation for stretching, which in theory would have also aided with adaptation to the heat. However, I’m lucky in that I like and can tolerate the heat. Also heading out early to Greece was an added bonus as far as acclimatization was concerned.

Contrary to one school of thought, I’m unconvinced of the need to do very long back to backs or mega long runs, although I can’t be sure of course that I wouldn’t benefit from them. I was averaging 100 plus mile weeks, some as high as 120-130 miles.

Some of the mileage was accumulated due to additional runs with the my wife Gill. The high mileage is very doable via doubles and you get the benefit of enhanced adaptation but also faster recovery in my opinion.

In terms of racing I’d had some success, finishing third in the 145 mile GUCR and first in the 130 mile Liverpool to Leeds Canal Race (LLC130) Both races were key for me psychologically and instilled tremendous self belief.

As was the case last year, the proximity of LLC130 to Spartathlon was risky, but I figured as I’d got away with it last year it was worth the risk again, especially as it also served as a massive confidence booster leading up to Sparta.

Athens Bound

I headed out earlier this year with my wife Gill, Brother in Law Kelvin Sadler and Sister in Law Collette Sadler arriving in Greece the weekend before race week. The plan was to combine a mini holiday with some acclimatization and a more relaxed approach to race day than last year. (Don’t mention the bags!)

 

Me and My Amazing Crew of Gill (my wife) Kelvin and Collette Sadler (Brother and Sister in Law) (Courtesy of Sarah Dryden)

Me and My Amazing Crew – Gill (my wife) Kelvin and Collette Sadler (Brother and Sister in Law) (Courtesy of Sarah Barker)

 

Brother in Law Kelvin and I were to share the driving and I got to pick up the hire car and drive us to Glyfada. Did I say drive? Well it’s been a few years since I last drove on the right hand side of the road (that was in the States) where I did pretty well I thought. I should say though that I was on my own so there weren’t any witnesses.

Fast forward to Greece with three nervous back seat drivers and an interesting, albeit slightly tense journey to Glyfada via some as yet undiscovered areas of Athens and it became clear in hindsight that we should have mapped out our journey first and read the manual 😀

On arrival, a little later than anticipated, everyone headed straight to the bar for some strange reason. There was a strained silence for a couple of minutes 😊 Two bottles of red later, we were sorted and so began the big chill.

Over the coming days we chilled on the beach, in the Aegean sea, visited the Acropolis and other historic sites, but I still opted to slot in some runs right up until race day, as I’m not a great believer in tapering.

The cumulative effect of a more relaxed approach, socialising and virtually a zero taper all helped to put me in a positive, albeit cautious frame of mind, so when we happened upon a battle dressed Spartan in Athens, I didn’t need too much coercion for a great photo opportunity. I just hoped that it wouldn’t come back to bite me.

 

No surrender, no retreat!

No surrender, no retreat!

 

As well as meeting the British team members pre-race, it was also nice to catch up with Bob Hearn, Andrei Nana and Amy Costa from the US Spartathlon team. This event really does foster such great camaraderie. Every runner from whatever country had a friendly smile for each other.

We also had an opportunity to meet Elias Pergantis and his fellow photographers from the Sparta Photography Club who happened to be at the London Hotel. Absolute gentlemen, modest, skilled, utter professionals, every one of them!

Elias had kindly produced a tribute video for Gill and I as a gift for our wedding day last year, as I had proposed after completing Spartathlon in 2015.

Their crew were to be even bigger for 2016

 

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The last few runs I completed were easy paced and purposely timed for the hottest part of the day. In keeping with last year I also slotted in a couple of doubles earlier in the week. These weren’t prompted by self-doubt, just belief in my own strategy.

A Bonus Milestone

My wife Gill had been following her own plan since January having made great strides from being a non runner to smashing out her first runs over two miles before we arrived in Greece. She’d also lost 3 1/2 stone as a result since January!

What was particularly pleasing and unforgettable was that during the runs I accompanied Gill on, she managed to complete her very first 5k and then she proceeded to repeat it the very next day – 25 seconds faster! A milestone Gill is unlikely to forget in a hurry, especially given the location and occasion.

I also enjoyed a leisurely run with Tremayne Cowdry whilst his wife Jacqui, Gill and Collette enjoyed some beach time. A further easy 5 miler with Chris Mills and Russ Bestley along the beach front rounded things off nicely before race day.

 

Registration at the Fenix Hotel, Glyfada (Courtesy of Gill Thomas)

Registration at the Fenix Hotel, Glyfada (Courtesy of Gill Thomas)

 

Registration

As we were fortunately already in Glyfada, we’d already attended registration early on the Wednesday morning, meeting up with Tremayne and Jacqui Cowdry for a coffee afterwards at the Fenix hotel. It’s good to sort registration early so you can relax sooner rather than later.

 

Registration Sorted with Tremayne Cowdry (Courtesy of Gill Thomas)

Registration Sorted with Tremayne Cowdry (Courtesy of Gill Thomas)

 

Race Briefing 

Following the second period of registration on Thursday afternoon all athletes and their crews are required to attend the mandatory race briefing which is delivered at the Fenix hotel in Glyfada.

 

Race Briefing at Fenix Hotel, Glyfada (Courtesy of (Sparta Phitography Club)

Race Briefing at Fenix Hotel, Glyfada (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

 

Team Photo Session

Following registration all the Brits met outside the Fenix hotel for the obligatory team and crew photos, courtesy of our very own official photographer Sarah Dryden, who selflessly offers her photographic services completely free of charge for the British Spartathlon Team. Thanks Sarah!

 

Group Crew Photo outside Fenix Hotel (Courtesy of Sarah Dryden)

Group Crew Photo outside Fenix Hotel (Courtesy of Sarah Dryden)

Team Photo Outside the Fenix Hotel (courtesy of Sarah Dryden)

Team Photo Outside the Fenix Hotel (courtesy of Sarah Dryden)

 

I think this photo session is great and really does foster a united spirit even though we all had our own individual targets you couldn’t help but feel an obligation to do well for the team.

The crews had enormous challenges too of course and a spot of bonding was equally as important for them too and encouraged support and knowledge sharing.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to our great Sponsors and also Rob Pinnington and Paul Ali who have done us proud again this year kitting the team out, providing additional tracking via RaceDrone and keeping the website updated. The team and crews looked incredible again!

Pre-race Meal

Come the eve of the race, some of the Brits had arranged to meet at George’s Steak House for the pre-race meal, which turned out to be a great night, with great food and great company. We had special guests join us, Dave Ireland and his wife Tina.

Dave, who was teaching in Greece in the 80’s had helped John Foden map out the first Spartathlon route, aided by some of his 6th form students. Dave also popped up supporting at various points throughout the race this year including the finish in Sparta.

I of course followed my usual pre-race ritual of consuming one or two glasses of red and I now have it on good authority that fellow Brit Russ Bestley may be adopting a similar strategy 😊

 

Pre-race meal at Georges Steak House (Glyfada) (courtesy of Sarah Dryden)

Pre-race meal at Georges Steak House (Glyfada) (courtesy of Sarah Dryden)

 

Kit Choice

I opted for my trusted Brooks Launch (two sizes), Buffs for wrists and neck and a desert hat (all to be doused in water at CP’s for temperature regulation) plus a black vest for daylight hours. This I knew would raise some eyebrows in the heat of Greece where commonsense would suggest white as the ideal option.

However, there is a lot to be said for the impact the psyche can have on physical performance and to my mind I looked and felt the part wearing black race vest and shorts. I was convinced it would help me, even if in a very subtle way 😊

For the night section I opted for leggings, Montain Minimus, Petzl NAO head torch, long sleeve top, cap and gloves. I’d also planned to offload night gear and change back in to fresh gear for the final push to Sparta around CP 65.

Race Day

After a reasonable nights sleep, I boarded the coach to the Acropolis whilst Gill, Kelvin and Collette followed in the hire car, adopting tried and tested Greek driving habits I’m told 😊

I found myself separated from the team at the Acropolis, but as I had opted to run in a sleeveless vest and not the British team shirt until later in the race, it was just as well as I’d have stood out like a sore thumb and probably ruined any pics Sarah Dryden planned to take.

 

Race Start at the foot of the Acropolis (Courtesy of Sparta Phitography Club)

Race Start at the foot of the Acropolis (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

 

The start location at the Acropolis is probably the best setting in the world for the start of a race. Such a fantastic spectacle and of such great importance. It’s hard to describe just how special this race feels. The emotions were building.

From here we were about to follow in the footsteps of ancient Athenian messenger Pheidippedes who was sent on foot to summon help from powerful Sparta to repel the invading Persians. A battle of immense significance in world history and key to democracy.

I was as excited as last year but so pleased that my family were here to share in this unforgettable experience. One extremely well timed visit for nature’s call gave me just minutes to get on the start line. A quick hug for the family and we were ready to rock!

 

Ready to rock with Duncan Cornish and Paul Beechey (Courtesy of Gill Thomas)

Ready to rock with Duncan Cornish and Paul Beechey (Courtesy of Gill Thomas)

 

Strategy/Targets/Fuel

My primary goal was a sub thirty finish, but I had dreams of trying to nail 28:48 for an auto qualifier via Spartathlon itself. However given the difficulty of this race and the number of variables that can conspire against you, it is sensible to have as your ultimate goal a finish first and foremost in your mind.

I opted for just four drop bags this year as unlike last year I had crew (two official and one supporting)  I reckoned I could dispense with most of the drop bags I used last year but place a few key ones strategically in case of any crew rendezvous hiccups. This would save significantly on time, free my mind of worry and allow me to focus on getting to Sparta.

My fuel was to be largely Tailwind who are one of our kind sponsors this year, but I also supplemented with banana, melon, raisins, a little soup and for the first time chocolate milk drink (at every CP that my crew were allowed at)

I know I had broken the golden rule here as you should never try something new on race day that you haven’t already tested in training, but I seldom suffer with stomach issues so I was prepared to risk the chocolate drink. I’d made a late decision that I needed to ensure I was consuming far more calories at key points in the race than I did last year.

Yes, I had educated my body to burn fat far more efficiently with my tough training regimen, but I was convinced that calorie deficit was a significant contributor to my slow down in previous races in excess of one hundred miles (especially over the last third) I remembered just how much I faded here last year between Tegea and Sparti and I feel sure it wasn’t just attributable to muscle fatigue.

 

Annotated Profile (Courtesy of Bob Hearn)

Annotated Profile (Courtesy of Bob Hearn)

 

I aimed to put that right this year and although I believe I had partly addressed it by trebling my already high volume of hill runs, especially fast downhills (to develop tough quads) I was convinced I needed more readily available energy too.

I agreed with my crew where and when I’d meet them and provided a plan outlining what times I’d hit key checkpoints last year and a more sensibly paced plan for this year, again with estimated time windows. This would help them judge my progress and provide me with feedback at key checkpoints.

 

Spartathlon Course

Spartathlon Course

 

I simply broke the course down into three phases of 50 miles with some speed deterioration built into the 2nd and 3rd phase. The first third I’d gone for a time an hour slower than last years 7:14 to Corinth but I knew I was deluding myself that I would hold back and stick to it, and so did my crew. As it transpired I did default to my usual style.

It was funny as I’d had many entertaining discussions about strategy with member of the British Spartathlon team on the eve of race where there was a general and sensible consensus to run a safe but conservative pace to Corinth to protect energy levels and muscles for the hundred miles that follows.

The consensus was to hit Corinth (first major checkpoint) around 8.5-9 hours. The latter being just thirty minutes inside the cut off, with the knowledge and assurance that the cut-offs ease off gradually thereafter.

I’d arranged an appropriate drop bag and crew rendezvous strategy but allowed for some flexibility from CP35 onwards depending on changes in ETA.

Back to the race…

 

Athens to Corinth CP 0-22, 81km (81km for this section)

The excitement was tangible, as we were prompted to the start line, the drone hovered overhead, the countdown had begun and the time of reckoning had arrived. No time for self-doubt as the oft quoted words of John Foden come to mind…

“I shan’t wish you luck because if you have trained properly, you don’t need luck and if you haven’t trained properly, then luck is of no use”     

This was it, we were on our way! I was buzzing!

Despite all of the shared wisdom, commonsense and recommendations, I again hit default mode, starting relatively fast as I always do over the first third of a race, I just feel the need to run at the pace I naturally settle in to and basically if I’m running well and feeling good, I prefer to just stick with it. Next time I’m lucky enough to run this race I will not kid myself about starting slowly.

Perhaps I don’t have the confidence of fellow runners to start conservatively. Many do sensibly hold back to good effect including some of my compatriots and notable US athlete Bob Hearn. Bob had an outstanding result last year and an even better result this year, partly attributable to a restrained section to Corinth in theory, but we’re all different and there’s no guarantee this approach would benefit everyone.

I do remember however that Bob commented how difficult he found it to run at such an unusually slow pace too early on and this was a real concern for me too. I’ve always been convinced that it creates additional impact and effects my gait adversely.

On reflection however, I also think there are positives from a fast start here, as you can bank miles before the heat really rises, and if you can make continued progress, get through the mountain before temperatures plummet too much and avoid some of the heat of the second day on the approach to Sparta, it would certainly be of benefit.

We ran on down the cobbled stones of Apostolou Pavlou Street, passing the Thiseo metro station and entering the Platea Ag.Asomaton where we turned left on to Ermou Street. Cheering crowds lined both sides of the street as 370 runners hurtled down with reckless abandon it seemed, as though we were in the early stages of 10 miler, not a 153.4 mile ultramarathon!

Some of us would end up paying dearly for such over enthusiasm, but in fairness it is so difficult to exercise restraint at the start of this race. The occasion is momentous!

From here we entered the Sacred Way (Iera Odos) and stayed on this historic route until we reached the Daphni Monastery where we crossed the Athens-Corinth highway and continued on through Aspropirgos to Elefsis (24.2 km)

 

Sharing the first marathon or so with Florin-Sebastian Ionita from Romania (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

Sharing the first marathon or so with Florin-Sebastian Ionita from Romania (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

 

I found myself running alongside Romanian Florin-Sebastian Ionita for many of the early miles but despite not speaking each others language we communicated OK, taking it in turns to lead. Alas, he seemed to develop a calf issue and I eventually pushed on ahead, but I was pleased to discover later that he still managed to finish and in an impressive 30:50.

I was feeling great but we had a long, long way to go yet and the sun had yet to rise. It was time to settle the pace down a little and find that perfect rhythm.

At various points along the course it was great to be greeted by groups of wonderful children waiting to high-five runners as they passed. The following is a photo still from the official short movie capturing myself and Florin-Sebastian Ionita as we passed through Elefsina.

 

High-5's from the wonderful children of Elefsina.

High-5’s from the wonderful children of Elefsina.

 

It’s yet another heartwarming aspect of the race. The children are given a let from school to cheer the runners through as Spartathlon honours a major historical event in their country.

 

Courtesy of Elias Pergantis (Sparta Photography Club)

Courtesy of Elias Pergantis (Sparta Photography Club)

 

From here we returned to the old Corinth road passing Loutropirgos before arriving at Megara (Marathon distance 42.5 km) and the first CP (CP11) that crews were allowed at. It was great to see and hear the British crews supporting as I came in, especially as my crew were here to welcome me too.

I succumbed to the offer of a chocomilk here and hoped it wouldn’t backfire on me. My crew reminded me that I was not only not slower than last year but in fact was about seven minutes up (3:22) Clearly this was too fast but I felt good. I figured I should ease back somewhat though, in order that I didn’t average anything faster than 3 1/2 hrs for each of the first two marathons, which would mean hitting Corinth no faster than seven hours (7:14 last year)

 

Crossing the Corinth Canal (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

Crossing the Corinth Canal (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

 

Suitably cooled and hydrated I thanked my crew and headed out to the next major CP (CP22) and over approximately the next marathon distance I passed through Kineta and Agioi Theodoroi before eventually arriving at Isthmia and the bridge over the Corinth Canal (78.5 kilometres). This is absolutely breathtaking and brought a big smile to my face as it did last year too.

 

Crossing the Corinth Canal just under 7hrs (Courtesy of Elias Pergantis - Sparta Phitography Club)

Crossing the Corinth Canal (Courtesy of Elias Pergantis – Sparta Photography Club)

 

I believe I crossed the Corinth Canal in just under seven hours, but was feeling good. The route up until Corinth was pretty undulating and close to the sea, with a final climb towards Corinth itself, but after crossing the bridge we veered south inland to the Peloponnese.  I could have sworn that CP 22 was immediately after the bridge last year, but I was mistaken. It was about another 2.5 km before I turned left to arrive at checkpoint 22 at the Hellas Can factory (81 km).

This is the CP most runners do worry over reaching in time, but you do have 9 1/2 hours. As I reflect more and more on my strategy of arriving well inside this cut off, the more I realise there are pros and cons.

 

Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

Dunking hat and buffs – the preferred cooling strategy.(Courtesy of Gill Thomas)

 

When I reached here (2:03pm this year and 2:14pm last year) temperatures were really beginning  to rise, but should start to ease in a few hours. However for those runners around two hours outside of my time, they would be experiencing potentially lower temperatures during the same time as I hit Corinth as they’d be nearer the sea, whilst I’d be hitting the sun trapped olive groves inland. You win some, you lose some.

Corinth to Nemea – CP 22 – 35, 124km (43km for this section)

I met my crew here again, downed another Chocomilk, a banana and topped up the hydration. From here the road continues on to Examilia and then to ancient Corinth. It was certainly getting hotter but I felt good, positive and in control.

As we passed through the center of Ancient Corinth, we turned right at the Temple of Apollo, continuing through citrus orchards to Assos (100.5 km) approximately CP28. As last year I arrived here in around 9 1/2 hours.

It was around here I first came across Ricardo Rojas Peredo an Argentinian (who I played leapfrog with for many miles) Martin Hokes of the Czech Republic and Eoin Keith of Ireland. Eoin went on to run a stormer in around 26 hours!

 

Zevgolatio - CP29 -101.9Km (courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

Zevgolatio – CP29 -101.9Km (courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

 

The road starts to climb significantly here and separates Ancient Nemea from the sea. This very long meandering climb (351 meters in 24 kilometres) passes through the villages of Zevgolatio (CP29) and Halkion (CP32) to eventually arrive at checkpoint 35, Nemea (124 km) adjacent to the ruins of Greece’s ancient civilisation.

I arrived at Nemea pretty much as predicted at 7:22pm This was the most important CP for me as I collected my head torch, donned my gear for the imminent night section and ensured I was well stocked with calories to see me through the colder temperatures expected as night fell.

Last year I’d collected my night gear way too early, compelling me to don leggings and to carry a jacket and torch I didn’t need. All of which was wasted energy of course and a hindrance to running form.

On reflection I spent a few minutes longer here than I’d preferred, which cost me dearly as the race unfolded, but at the time I did what I thought I had to do, so no beating myself up. Basically, I had to bring forward my plan to change into a larger shoe due to my current shoe causing an issue with one of my toes. My original plan was not to change until after the mountain.

Nemea to Lyrkia – CP 35-43, 148.4 km (24.5km for this section)

Pushing on out of Nemea light soon began to fade, which required more focus along roads that were now rougher with potholes and loose stones scattered everywhere. Temperatures started to fall now although I was feeling fine.

 

Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

Malandreni (CP40) (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

 

Around 16km later I arrived at Malandreni (140.2Km) after which there is a rather stoney downhill section before the road climbs again to CP43 at Lyrkia village (148.5Km)

Lyrkia to the Mountain and Nestani CP 43-52, 172km (23.5 for this section)

Lyrkia is where this race really begins I believe. With around ninety miles in the legs already and the challenge of a long relentless climb to mountain base, it’s an early test of the resolve. Just around here I think I was joined by Bob Hearn, who once again was running a well paced race as he did last year, but Bob went on to better it by two hours on this occasion to finish in a stunning 27.33.08

Lyrkia was very lively, overflowing with visitors and supporters who were in party mood as they encouraged runners through the CP. They also had runners profiles displayed on a big screen as they passed through which was a nice touch I thought and helped keep supporters informed.

From here there’s the tough winding road, which rises steeply 960 meters over 13km to reach the Sangas Pass on the flank of the Artemission range. Eventually, after passing through Kaperelli village I reached mountain base (CP 47) 159.5km in 17:41, a few minutes earlier than last year.

En-route to mountain base I spent some miles running with fellow Brit Barry Miller as we occasionally played leapfrog, but were in effect helping to push each other along I guess. Barry took second and I third place at the GUCR in 2016, so I had a tough cookie in my midst, which really helped.

I think we both opted to go straight through some CP’s and as I topped up refreshments in Lyrkia Barry opted to skip this one himself. I knew a long tough climb lay ahead so wanted to make sure I was suitably energised and hydrated.

Some time later along this stretch I eventually caught up with Barry again and we shared some more miles and banter before I pushed on feeling more confident and energised than at the same point last year.

I was feeling really positive here and in buoyant mood ready for the imminent climb of the mountain pass to the summit. The Anglo-Greek volunteers manning the CP at Mountain Base were just great, encouraging everyone and updating Twitter on the progress of each runner. The same great support was of course evident throughout all of the CP’s.

 

Mountaim Base (Courtesy of Adrian Bratty Kouyoufas)

Mountaim Base (Courtesy of Adrian Bratty Kouyoufas)

Courtesy of Gill Thomas

Mountain Base CP47 (Courtesy of Gill Thomas)

 

Having arrived at Mountain Base at 12:41 a.m (12:44 a.m last year) I quickly pushed on up the ancient trail towards the summit. I was glad of my Minimus Jacket but the temperature was fine and over several miles of the climb before this point I’d tied it around my waist.

Reaching the top of Sangas is pretty tricky, requiring complete focus on a treacherous path interspersed with tight switchbacks on a loose stoney trail. It’s steep but not hand over foot. When I reached the summit (1,100 m – 3,608 ft) I felt so much more composed, energised and focused than last year. So much so that I managed to run most of the steep switchbacks to the village of Sangas (164.3 km) in Arcadia below, unlike my extremely cautious descent last year.

Once on terra firma I ran strongly on to CP52 at Nestani (172 km) arriving at 2:38 a.m (19hrs 38 minutes elapsed) Alas, this was two minutes too late for an auto-qualifier I discovered following post race analysis. Perhaps my enforced shoe change at Nemea cost me those two minutes!

 

Nestani (CP52) (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

Nestani (CP52) (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

 

It was surprisingly cold on the other side of the mountain, so opting for leggings, long sleeve top and Montain Minimus jacket was a wise choice. The cold is definitely my Achilles heel.

Nestani to Tegea – CP 52-60, 195km (23km for this section)

Having arrived at Nestani, I met my crew and polished off another Choco milk drink before heading out on to the plains of Tripolis. My crew reminded me I was doing great and that I was up on last year and also on target for sub 30.

There were a number of small hamlets along this stretch until I eventually reached the village of Zevgolatio of Arcadia. I played leap frog here for many miles with a few runners, which helped focus the mind and encouraged each other on.

The terrain is largely flat farmland and it was still surprisingly cool. I was really pleased that all progress post the mountain had been significantly better than last year and I was beginning to realise that a sub 30 was indeed a distinct possibility. This of course assumed I could hold it together, especially with a relentless tough slog still to come between Tegea and Sparta (50Km)

I reached CP60 Tegea at 5:41 a.m (22hrs 41 mins elapsed) with 50k (31m) to go. My resolve and self belief strengthened. I knew I should easily be able to nail another 31 miles in 7hrs 19 mins under normal conditions but presumed nothing given there was still a relentless climb to come, which would be exacerbated by the intense heat of a new day and 121 miles already in the legs.

Still, barring any silly mistakes or accidents, I pushed on with increased self-confidence. Mentally I was right where I wanted to be at this stage of the race.

Last year at Spartathlon I was pleased I’d finished on my debut but thought that the last third of the race was really a case of damage limitation and I was somewhat disappointed not to finish the race more strongly. This year in contrast I was a new man. The mind was good, energy levels were better, legs were stronger and I knew I had more left in the tank.

Training and races were paying off in buckets of Spartan gold now. Yes it looked like my dream time of 28:48 was too much to ask on the day but my main target of sub 30 was still on. I can do this!

 

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift”
                                                                                      Steve Prefontaine

 

Tegea to Sparta, CP 60-75, 245.3km (50.3km for this section)

I pushed on from Tegea beginning the ascent of the final climb 640 m (2,100 ft) to 975 meters (3,200 ft) over a distance of 22 km. This is the main highway to Sparta so pretty busy and dangerous if you don’t have your wits about you.

Within about 5k we passed through two villages Kamari (196.8 km) and Manthirea (202.1 km) along a relentless, twisting road that just seems to go on forever and ever! Last year it seemed even longer 😊

The closer and closer I got to Sparta now, the more I heard the sound of horns and shouts of ‘Bravo’ from what seemed liked every car, motorcycle and truck on the highway. Every last one of them helped me on my way over those last 50k!

When I hit CP65 to be greeted by my crew as the sun was just rising on a beautiful new day, it was so uplifting. My emotions were beginning to build now and the excitement was rising for me and of course my amazing crew. They must have been as tired as me, but now they could head to Sparta and relax a while.

Now it was time to dispense with the night gear (leggings, head torch and jacket) that had served me so well. I donned some fresh shorts, put on the all important British Team shirt and opted for a quick sock change as a treat. Sock changing is not something I normally do during an ultra and even with the aid of dexterous fingers we decided to abort a foolish attempt to replace my Injinji’s 😅

To save time Kelvin offered me a pair of his socks, which coincidentally perfectly coordinated with my British kit. I’m sure they enhanced my drive to the finish! 😊

 

A New Day and The Final Push for Sparta (Courtesy of Gill Thomas)

CP65 – A New Day and The Final Push for Sparta (Courtesy of Gill Thomas)

 

No chocomilk at this, the last CP that I would see my crew at before Sparta. I felt energised and focused though for the final ascent, but in my haste I pushed on without taking any buffs for my neck and wrists which I really needed if I was to adopt the same cooling strategy as for day one. I opted for my lucky black hat but I may have been better off with the desert hat again. The sun was rising fast now and if last year was anything to go by the descent into Sparta would be blisteringly hot.

The last 28Km to Sparta are mostly all downhill, so unlike last year I was able to capitalise with some faster bursts of running on legs that were far more fit for purpose this year. I was pleased to come into contact with Ricardo again as we once again encouraged each other on, taking turns to lead off.

Eventually I arrived into the Evrotas Valley and from the village of Voutiani (236.2 kilometres) the goal was in sight. My emotions were really getting the better of me now and after crossing the Evrotas river (243.5Km) met by first one, then two, three and what seemed an endless entourage of children I was feeling overwhelmed. These wonderful children were to be my escort into the heart of Sparta and ultimately to the statue of King Leonidas.

 

Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

This year I’d arranged to collect my Union Jack flag from the penultimate checkpoint (CP74) and as I arrived it was already waiting to be unwrapped and handed to me by these selfless volunteers. Just brilliant!

Somewhere around this point a solitary young girl was waiting patiently by the roadside and as I approached she gave me the sweetest smile and offered up an olive branch in friendship. My emotions were pretty fragile right now and this beautifully tender and simple act brought a tear to my eye. I returned a smile and thanked her for her kindness.

No sooner had I regained some composure when a lovely lady also approached me with the same kind gesture. She smiled when she noticed that I was already clutching an olive branch given to me by the young girl. I gratefully accepted it with a smile and she wished me luck! Generations may have separated my new friends but their acts of kindness occupied the same place in my heart.

Contagious smiles and endless shouts of ‘Bravo’ from all quarters just kept topping up my emotions as I pushed on with my wonderful companions.  The closer and closer I got to the King, the more I was joined by ever more and more children with beaming smiles.

 

Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

 

Then as I took that magical last right turn on the final straight and raised the Union Jack above my head, everyone seemed to be on their feet everywhere clapping and shouting ‘Bravo’ from what seemed like every hotel, balcony, cafe and bar in Sparta. Everyone was smiling, totally absorbed in the occasion, as I most emphatically was!

 

Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

 

I was totally overwhelmed and felt utterly privileged to be part of the greatest finish to the greatest race on earth! It seemed that the whole city of Sparta had turned out to celebrate this tribute to a memorable deed in their history.

Police stopped my ever growing entourage now as I was left to run alone the final 100 yards or so to the King. I should have grabbed Gill’s hand and took her with me when she thrust a small gift into my hand intended for any child who would be present at the statue, but I just wasn’t lucid enough.

I ran up the last few steps at the base of the statue and kissed the foot of King Leonidas, which marked the end of my amazing journey.

 

Courtesy of Sarah Dryden

Courtesy of Sarah Dryden

Greeted by Sarah Dryden - BST Official Photographer (Courtesy of Giannis Xidis - Sparta Photography Club)

Greeted by Sarah Dryden – BST Official Photographer (Courtesy of Giannis Xidis – Sparta Photography Club)

 

A firm high-five for the ISA President Papadimitriou Kostis, and then I was offered the customary chalice to drink water from the Evratos river before being crowned with an olive wreath, just as Olympian winners would have been honoured in ancient times. I couldn’t quite believe I’d done it. Sub 30 (29:14:36) and the first British runner home. I was euphoric!

 

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Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

 

Somehow Gill was delayed on the other side of the statue and couldn’t get through quickly, so when the medical crews tried to usher me to their tent for the mandatory check up, I hesitated until I’d had chance to kiss and hug the missus at the foot of the king.

 

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Courtesy of Elias Pergantis (Sparta Photography Club)

Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club

Courtesy of Elias Pergantis – Sparta Photography Club

 

It was an amazing reception I received from the crowds in Sparta and being met by Gill, Kelvin and Collette this year, as well as my fellow Brits made this such a special occasion for me. Even more special, given that Spartathlon was the catalyst for me proposing to Gill last year. It was also humbling to be cheered home by fellow Brits who alas hadn’t been successful this year.

I also can’t thank my crew enough for the amazing support job they did for me, especially Kelvin who also drove throughout.

 

Gill, Kelvin, Collette and I (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Clubz)

My Wonderful Crew and I (Courtesy of Sparta Photography Club)

 

Also, my fellow team mates and other crews did a wonderful job of supporting and welcoming everyone home with emotional comments and shouts of appreciation. It was a truly special day in my life!

 

Official Splits Comparison 2015/16

Splits                      Km                Mile         Elapsed Time 2015     Elapsed Time 2016

Start –                                                               07:00                               07:00

C/P No 4                 19.5               12.11           1:38:36                           1:34:48

C/P No 11               42.2               26.22           3:29:46                           3:22:00

C/P No 22               81.0               50.33           7:14:43                           7:03:00

C/P No 28               100.0             62.13           9:33:09                           9:31:46

C/P No 35               124.0             77.05           12:31:00                        12:22:42

C/P No 47               159.5             99.10           17:44:27                        17:41:35

C/P No 52               172.0             106.87         19:49:45                        19:38:20

C/P No 60               195.0             121.16         23:23:11                        22:41:34

C/P No 69               227.0             141.05         28:10:46                        26:46:57

FINISH                   245.3             152.42         31:33:53                        29:14:36

 

I’d like to say what a privilege it was to be able to run this epic race again. The most iconic and life changing ultramarathon in the world. After last year’s finish I was absolutely delighted to finish again and hit target.

The splits above are interesting and indicate that despite a fast start again I was stronger over the last third this year. Clearly I got some things right and some things wrong, but on balance it went very well.

Arriving two minutes too late at Nestani and twenty-six minutes too late at Sparta was a little harder to take though as it meant I had missed a golden opportunity to auto-qualify for next year. I have no regrets though, as I did what I did on the day.

It now means of course that I have it all to do again to qualify but that just reiterates to me that you really have to earn the right to make the start line at the Acropolis and when you do, it’s all the sweeter.

Congrats to everyone that started this epic race whatever your result and heed the very apt words of an Argentinian athlete being interviewed on the start line in 2015 who said “just to be here you are a winner!” so whatever the outcome of your race this year, just remember those words!

Bonus Award

My fellow Brits craftily abetted by my wife Gill had arranged a wonderful surprise for me after the awards ceremony in Athens when they presented to me my race number complete with personal comments from the British Team as a tribute for finishing first Brit. I was really touched by this gesture and I’ve very rightly framed that lucky number. Thanks guys, a really nice touch!

 

20161009_105421

 

Highlights:

  • Being greeted by Gill, my family, the BST and everyone else that made the finish so special.
  • The incredible camaraderie not just within the British contingent, but between all runners throughout the event. It was truly heart warming.
  • Being offered an olive branch in Sparta by two Spartans generations apart.
  • Being approached by a father and his daughter post race who asked if he could have a photo taken of his daughter with me. It was very touching and humbling. I gave her a British Spartathlon Buff as a liitle gift and thanked them both. My crew and I did wonder if it was the same girl who offered me the olive branch. Wish I had a copy of that photo.
  • My magical escort to King Leonidas.
  • Making new friends from across the globe.
  • The overwhelming support throughout the race by family, friends, children and supporters on the course, volunteers, crews, drivers and via Facebook.
  • My second finish in Sparta which lived up to everything I had hoped it would be and more.
  • Breaking 30 hours and coming home as first Brit.

Lessons Learnt

  • Ensure I follow the same cooling strategy come the second day. Dont forget to take buffs for wrists and neck plus desert hat when changing back into day gear.
  • Somewhat controversially, I aim to stick with my fast start strategy. It works for me.
  • Practice downhill running on a similar surface to Mount Parthenio. I didn’t do this in my build up as I’d planned, and although I was much better on the descent this year I’m sure I’d benefit from that area of specificity.
  • Trust to my current training plan of high mileage and it’s focus on hills to bolster the quads and hamstrings.
  • Also maintain focus on hamstring, quad and hip strengthening and flexibility via various forms of Bridging exercises. I am convinced that this in addition to fast downhill running prepared me better for the last third of the race this year.
  • May reintroduce suspension trainer exercises but more cautiously over the winter.
  • 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.
  • As per last year, stretch out quads before it’s too late, or at least ensure you have quads of steel before you start this epic. This year I made sure that I crouched down every time I doused my hat and buffs for cooling. This ensured I regularly stretched out the quadriceps at least.

Thanks

  • First and foremost I’d like to thank my wife Gill,  Brother in Law Kelvin Sadler and Sister in Law Collette Sadler for an amazing job of crewing me. This was a real team effort!
  • The British Spartathlon Team for their support, camaraderie and great sense of fun. We all had a blast didn’t we! 😃
  • Elias Pergantis, Sparta Photographic Club and Sarah Dryden for the amazing photography.
  • Papadimitriou Kostis, the ISA, all the volunteers and people of Greece for making us all feel so welcome and for staging the greatest race on earth!
  • Fellow Spartathletes from around the world who I enjoyed some time with before, during and after the race.
  • Family, friends, fellow club runners at Norfolk Gazelles and anyone else I haven’t mentioned for their terrific support before during and after the race
  • All the sponsors of the British Spartathlon Team.
  • Rob Pinnington, Paul Ali, James Ellis and everyone else who contributed to the team success, profile and web updates. We certainly made a big impression!

 

I can’t think of a more apt way to conclude this report than to use a quote I have unashamedly borrowed from the 2015 report of multi Spartathlon finisher Martin Ilot, so I’ll leave you with these words…

 “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’”
                                                                Rudyard Kipling

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to Spartathlon Race Report 2016

  1. Don says:

    Excellent, well done

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