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Spartathlon - Retracing the Footsteps of Pheidippides

I arrive in Sparta and kiss the King Leonidas statue; I am exhausted and emotionally drained. I get my phone out of my bag and tearfully ring my wife: ‘Anna, I’ve conquered Sparta! That was so hard, I have nothing else to prove, and I will never come back here again’. That was 2016.

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Raring to get going!

So what is the Spartathlon? It’s an annual, 246 km race (153 mi) in Greece started in 1983, famously retracing the footsteps of Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger sent to Sparta in 490 BC to seek help against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides, according to an account by Greek historian Herodotus in The Persian Wars, arrived in Sparta the day after he departed. Herodotus wrote: "On the occasion of which we spoke when Pheidippides was sent by the Athenian generals, and, according to his account, saw Pan on his journey, he reached Sparta on the very next day after quitting the city of Athens." Based on this account, British RAF Wing Commander John Foden MBE and four other RAF officers travelled to Greece in 1982 on an official expedition to test whether it was possible to cover the nearly 250 kilometres in a day and a half. Three runners were successful in completing the distance: John Foden, John Scholtens and John McCarthy. The following year a team of enthusiastic supporters (British, Greek and other nationalities) based at the British Hellenic Chamber of Commerce in Athens and led by Philhellene Michael Callaghan organised the running of the first Open International Spartathlon Race. The event was run under the auspices of SEGAS, the Hellenic Amateur Athletics Association.

The moral from this story is, never believe an ultra-runner at the end of a race.  It is 2018, and I am at the base of the Acropolis, and in a few minutes, I will attempt once again the long journey to Sparta. The forecast is for a ‘Medicane’ also known as Mediterranean tropical hurricane. The race starts, and the weather is perfect, slightly cool with a drizzle, and my guess is that by the time the Medicane reaches Athens the runners would be long gone, in fact, I already think that this may be the kindest Spartathlon to date weather-wise, and if I do well then everybody will remember it as the ‘easiest year’ in the history of the race. How wrong would my prediction prove to be!

I am running with Martin Bacon. I first met Martin on the flight to Athens back in 2016; we got on straight away, it must have been something to do with our love for running and cold lager. Since then, we have raced together on numerous occasions and been on a few interesting recces too. With a bit more experience than me and a great ultra CV, Martin took me under his wing. He didn’t prescribe me any training or tell me what to eat or wear in races, but he has been unconsciously working on my psychology and giving me the belief that I can be better than I think I am. Over the past two years, I’ve become a bit more ambitious with my goals and have found a new level of confidence, thanks to Martin.

The first few hours as we make our way out of Athens are perfect, with a slight mizzle that doesn’t get you wet but keeps you fresh. Martin and I arrive at the marathon distance in precisely four hours which is just right, and then make it to 50k in 4h37min at which point I switch off my watch, as I want to run by feel and to start introducing some walking, especially going on the uphills. The afternoon felt a bit muggy for me, but I couldn’t really complain, my legs were moving ok, no pains or aches and I was drinking and eating well and enjoying the views of the sea. It was a sad sight though to see so many burned down houses and trees after the terrible fires Greece had suffered this summer.

It wasn’t long before we passed the Corinth Canal and made it to the 50-mile checkpoint. Our goal was to be there in 8h30, but we made it there in 8h15. It was time to have a quick breather and try to eat something more substantial. My teammate’s girlfriend was there, and she got me a bowl of rice which I downed with juice and a little pot of yoghurt. We left in less than 10min and decided to walk for a little while to let the food settle. Martin then suggested I should go on my own as he wanted to slow the pace down a little. We got to the next checkpoint together, and as he stopped for a call of nature, I continued on my own.

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Leaving Athens.

Nothing inspiring happened over the next few miles, I ran lots, I walked a little, and I ate and drank as I felt the need. I managed to make it to 100k in roughly 10h30. The checkpoint cutoffs weren’t worrying me as they did in 2016 as I’d now built a significant buffer.

As it started getting dark, the weather started changing dramatically, the wind was picking up, the rain was getting heavy, and it was getting colder. Big puddles were forming along the roads, and I tried in vain to keep my feet dry. By now I had my jacket and headtorch on. My tummy was also feeling funny, and my legs now knew they’d been moving for over 11hrs. Bad patches are a vital part of ultrarunning, and you have to be resilient enough to endure them and try to remain positive, knowing that if you keep putting one leg in front of the other, your luck may change.

I was still running ok but my tummy was getting worse, I passed a few checkpoints without eating or drinking with the fear of making things worse; I know I’m good fat burner so the fact I wasn’t eating didn’t worry me. After deciding that enough was enough I made myself to be sick on the side of the road, aren’t we ultrarunners a classy breed? It improved things a little, to be honest.

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Still feeling great during the early stages of the race.

I started getting frustrated by the lack of food I fancied eating at the checkpoints. There were little options that appealed, so I was eager to make it to checkpoint 33 at 112km where I had my first drop bag with a base layer and some Snickers bars. The Snickers were a godsend; I had half a bar with a cup of tea, and things improved. I had a few sugary cups of tea in the next few checkpoints and bits of cut up an apple and the odd bit of snickers, these were settling nicely in my tummy and my lousy patch slowly disappeared. The rain and wind were now relentless; it had been raining for hours, my warning that it was going to be the ‘easiest’ Spartathlon to date must have had the Greek Gods laughing hard at us. The puddles along the road were now rivers, and the gusty wind would rock you from side to side, and you had to make sure you kept moving to stay warm.

I couldn’t make my mind up whether I felt cold or not. All I was wearing was a t-shirt and a waterproof jacket, both of which were soaked through. I got the first hint that I was cold was when I stopped at the next aid station under a road bridge to put my base layer on, it was such a faff and so frustrating. I removed both my top and jacket and squeezed as much water from them as possible. It must have been hilarious for any onlooker to see me attempt put on my base layer, with damp skin it just wasn’t going on. An American lady took pity on me and came over to help, amen to that. I downed a cup of soup and carried on.

I started running again, but now I felt too hot despite the rain and wind and all that faffing at the checkpoint, for fuck sake. I made it to the next checkpoint and again more faffing trying to strip the base layer off. It was more comfortable to feel a bit cold than too hot. I was now making my way to the mountain which marks the 100-mile mark of the race, and once I made it to the last big checkpoint before the mountain, I had a strong desire for pot noodles, which is odd as I never eat them but that was what my taste buds begged for. I looked at the food table, and nothing caught my eye or ‘stomach’, and as I’m about to leave I spotted a Japanese runner with a bowl of rice with some sauce. I asked where he got it from, and his support crew said it was their food but kindly offered me some. Yes, please! That proved to be the best food I had during the whole race; it was Japanese rice with a very salty curry sauce that had a slight spice to it. He wished me good luck and said that everybody that had his curry the previous year went on to finish the race.

I felt great and ran down to the village in high spirits, that meal hit the spot. Have I mentioned it hadn’t stopped raining yet? As you left this village on top of the hill, you saw a long line of orange lights from the nearby motorway, and I remembered from 2016 that at the end of the orange lights was the mountain base. With curry and rice in my tummy, I made good progress through the reasonably flat country roads until the bottom of the mountain. Once you make it there, it is a very long winding and steep road, hairpin after hairpin, until you make it to the actual mountain base. I started the long winding road walking, and it seemed that the curry-infused energy I had been enjoying was quickly disappearing and I had no desire to run. I walked and walked and tried to ignore the fact that everyone was walking faster than me, but to be honest, I was about to make it to the mountain base nearly two hours quicker than in 2016, so I couldn’t complain. I eventually made it to the mountain base in just under 20hrs which felt pretty special. I sat down and found a turkey and cheese bap which I enjoyed with a cup of soup. I also spent 5min with the physiotherapist which released a bit of the tension on my trapezius. Going up the Parthenio Mountain didn’t feel too bad; it was foggy so you couldn’t see anything below. Going down the mountain was a bit trickier though as the fog got thicker and it became slippery underfoot, and you had to pay attention and find the little red lights in the distance to make sure you didn’t fall down a ditch.

Now there were less than two marathons to go, and if things didn’t derail too sharply, then I was in for a respectable personal best at Spartathlon. Once you pass the village on the other side of the mountain, then there are at least 20 miles that are reasonably flat, this is great as you can run faster but shit as you have no excuse to walk. It was past 5 am now, and I was looking forward to a bit of daylight. My tummy was ok, my diet now consisted of tea, soup, chocolate wafer biscuits, cut up apple and snickers bars, and I was still running well, with no real complaints. The weather was ever changing, some drizzle, followed by heavy rain, gusting winds, with no sunshine in sight.

Once daylight arrived, I was eager to find anyone that could take some weight from my shoulders. To my delight, I met David Barker’s crew in the Tegea checkpoint who took my base layer, gloves and head torches. Thanks, Sarah, Jo and Mark! Once you leave these last few quiet and flat country roads, you do a left into a bigger main road and start the last 50k or so of the race.

Just before the last big climb, there was a little checkpoint, and I heard someone talking to me in Portuguese, it was Panagiotis, who is married to a Brazilian lady, who works as a volunteer. The wind was howling, and the rain was hitting you from every side. The volunteers were taking shelter under a petrol station canopy. Panagiotis made me some soup and gave some bread to dip in it then sent me on my way to Sparta. You have to applaud all the volunteers, even more so at this year’s race struggling with the Medicane. The massive hill seems to go on forever, and I had flashbacks from 2016 where I pretty much walked the entire thing. I wanted to get up there a bit quicker this time, so I started running 20 steps and walked 20 steps, and my legs seemed to enjoy that. I noticed two runners not far away, and I was eager to catch them, by then I was running 40 steps and walking 20. Once I overtook them I just ran the rest of the hill, it didn’t take long before I made it to the summit. I knew that there would be more downhill than uphill and having done lots of downhill running in the last few months I was curious to find out how my quads would cope with the downhills this time around.

I could sense my legs re-energising despite the strong winds and the non-stop rain, and with a marathon left to go, I decided to turn on my GPS watch to check how fast or slow my pace would be after 127 miles on my legs. Martin predicted that I’d be two hours quicker than 2016 and unless something horrible happened his predictions seemed spot on, which made me very happy. And as the miles went by I felt stronger and stronger, I was overtaking runner after runner, running the uphills and flying down the downhills. I wasted no time at checkpoints, some of which I didn’t even stop it.

Emotions were running high, and I looked up at the sky and shouted ‘Fuck you weather’. Martin’s two-hour quicker prediction was being crushed with every mile. I must have overtaken over 30 runners in the last marathon, it was exhilarating, and to add more drama, with 20kms to go I figured out that if I ran a fraction faster than 10km per hour then I’d have a finishing time starting with 30hrs something, which would have been way beyond my expectations. Mission impossible began, I put any negative thoughts to one side and just ran even faster: ‘the fullness of life lies in dreaming and manifesting the impossible dreams’.

The opportunity was right in front of me, and I would give 110% to make it a reality. I ran hard; I cried, I shouted at the skies, the adrenaline was incredible. The last 11 miles were the fastest I ran in the entire race, totally unreal. These were the splits (8:11, 8:57, 9:09, 10:13, 8:38, 8:33, 8:24; 8:07; 8:08; 8:43; 9:10). That was mind-blowing for me. I ran hard into Sparta, got my Brazilian flag from the last checkpoint. Unlike 2016, because of the horrendous weather, there were no boys on pushbikes egging me to the finish and only a very few people out on their balconies flying the Greek flag.

That didn’t make it any less special though, as I turned right and saw the King Leonidas statue in the distance I relaxed, as tears ran down my cheeks, I waved my flag and enjoyed that special moment. I kissed the statue in 30h54min, 3h25min faster than 2016, then rang my wife and blubbed like a baby again. I ran my first marathon in New York in 2008 in 4h22, and I had just run 4h21 in the last marathon of a 153-mile race in horrendous weather.

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Mission accomplished!

What has been the secret of my success for this race? Well, I moved to Cornwall, and I now run more hills and downhills than ever before, living on top of a 16% incline hill means every single run has a hill. To be honest, I think running downhills hard has been key to my training; my quads were really strong in Sparta. I also thank Martin Bacon for his support; ultrarunning is mostly mental, and his wise words have had a very positive effect on me over the last two years.

In more general terms, I use the Maffetone method to train and follow a diet based on the metabolic efficiency concept allowing me to be very good at using body fat to train and race. I try to maintain a healthy work/family/training balance, and I love my 8-hour sleep at night. If I can give any advice to wannabe ultrarunners, it is that endurance comes with time, there is no fast track, so be patient!

My season is over now, so I’m looking forward to more time with my girls, less training and a few more beers (in fact I’m drinking one as I write this blog). My next race is not until February, where I will take part in the Arc of Attrition here in Cornwall, a 100-miles of horrible weather along the sometimes hairy Coastal Path!

Many thanks to all the volunteers, race organisers, my Brazilian teammates and family, my adopted British team and support crew and a big thank you to Martin Bacon and of course my girls who put up with my training, absence and grumpy beardy face when I do these races.

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Team Photo

Special congratulations go out to Ishikawa Yoshihiko winning the race in 22h55 and also to Maraz Zsuzsanna, the first lady in at 27h05. The course record remains at 20h25 set in 1984 by the Greek Running God, otherwise known as Yiannis Kouros: “Like a tree that grows stronger with more branches and roots, you need to find more and more ways to be inspired.”

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