Race Report 2016: British Spartathlon Team
We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has helped, supported or contributed to the British Spartathlon Team in 2016 in whatever capacity. We hope you’ve enjoyed the journey! Runners had adopted various strategies in their build up to Spartathlon, with the ultimate goal of course of reaching Sparta. Some runners also opted to head out to Athens earlier in order to combine some pre-race relaxation and acclimatisation.
The team bonded superbly well, with everyone in buoyant mood as the big day approached. Following registration the team assembled for the obligatory team photos courtesy of our very own Sarah Dryden, who has selflessly supported the team for the last two years.On the eve of the race most of the team enjoyed an evening meal in Glyfada and were joined by special guests Dave Ireland and his wife Tina. Dave was a teacher at an international school in Athens called Campion and helped plan the route for John Foden using some of his 6th form students. Dave was also instrumental in giving our friend Nick Papageorge the opportunity to run with John. Alas the world sadly lost John recently of course and he will be dearly missed by so many. What a legacy John has left us!
Athens to Corinth (CP 0-22, 81km)
The excitement was tangible, as the team congregated at the foot of the Acropolis. The drone hovered overhead, 370 athletes were prompted to the start line and the countdown had begun.
A year of tough training all geared to making the start line of the most iconic race in the world. Now there was no time for self doubt as the famous quote by John Foden echoes through the minds of those about to embark on the journey of a lifetime.
“I shan’t wish you luck because if you have trained properly, you won’t need luck, and if you haven’t trained properly, then luck will be of no use.”
The weather was fine and dry and the forecast was good. Dry throughout, not too hot and no storms forecast as experienced last year.
A year in the waiting (much longer for some) 7 a.m. finally arrived and the thirty fourth Spartathlon was underway. Descending the cobbled stone path of Apostolou Pavlou Street and entering the Platea Ag.Asomaton before turning left on to Ermou Street, 370 runners were met with cheering crowds on both sides of the street.
Given the momentous occasion, the excitement and the enthusiastic crowds, it was understandable to witness some runners descending with reckless abandon it seemed. How many would pay dearly for such recklessness? Only time would tell.
From here runners entered the Sacred Way (Iera Odos) and stayed on this historic route until they reached the Daphni Monastery where they would cross the Athens-Corinth highway and continue on through Aspropirgos to Elefsis (24.2 km)
During the exit from Athens, life seemed to be on hold for Athenians as the race captivated their attention as it does on the last Friday in September of every year in celebration of this historic deed in their history.
Shouts of ‘Bravo’ from onlookers, the sound of horns by motorists and ‘High Fives’ from passers by and business owners all salute the runners on their way out of Athens. The police were superb once again, ensuring all runners enjoyed a safe and trouble free exit from the city.
Temperatures had risen significantly by the time runners had reached the last of a number of oil refineries along the route, so cooling of the core was now paramount.
Although this part of the route is far from picturesque, at around the fifteen mile point runners veer left on to the coast road to be met by a staggering contrast in scenery. Here they’ll enjoy stunning views of the Aegean’s Saronic Gulf, which helps to compensate for the punishing heat they will now be forced to endure from all sides.
From here they would follow 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.
Suitably cooled via dousing of hats and buffs runners head out to the next major CP (CP22) which comes just after crossing the spectacular Corinth Canal (78.5 kilometres). This is an absolutely breath taking sight for runners.
This is the CP most runners do stress over reaching within the 9.5 hour cut-off, so many will have sighed in relief at reaching this point safely. The job is far, far from done of course, but cut-offs do gradually begin to ease after Corinth.
The temperature at Corinth is hitting high numbers on day one, but should start to ease in a few hours. For now though everyone has a hot transition through the sun trapped olive groves to negotiate, so cooling is vital to keep the core temperature down.
Corinth to Nemea (CP 22-35, 124km, 43km for section)
From here the road continues on to Examilia and then to ancient Corinth. As runners pass through the centre of Ancient Corinth, they then veer right at the Temple of Apollo, continuing on through citrus orchards to Assos (100.5 km) and CP28.
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)
Depending on the pace of runners, Nemea can be an important CP for many as they collect their head torch and don warmer gear for the imminent night section rapidly approaching. Timing is critical. Collect night gear too early, and there’s the burden of carrying kit that’s not needed and potentially overheating. Collect night gear to late and there’s a potential risk that the cold may undo their race.
Nemea to Lyrkia Section (CP 35-43, 148.4 km, 24.5km for section)
Pushing on out of Nemea light soon begins to fade for the runners, which requires more focus along roads that are now rougher with potholes and loose stones. Temperatures are starting to fall now which brings some relief.
Runners press on to 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, 23.5km for section)
Lyrkia is where the race really begins to test the runners resolve. With around ninety miles in their legs and the toll taken on the body by the heat of day one, runners now face the challenge of a long relentless climb to mountain base. This is a real test of the resolve for many and some may yield to the mountain.
However, Lyrkia is very lively, overflowing with visitors and supporters who are in party mood as they encourage runners into and through the CP. This no doubt helps raise the spirits for many. The runners are also acknowledged on a large screen as their profiles are displayed, itself a timely motivator for the task that now lay ahead.
Upon leaving Lyrkia the tough, relentless winding road rises 960 meters over 13km to reach the Sangas Pass and once through Kaperelli village the runners reach mountain base (CP 47) 159.5km to be greeted by the Anglo-Greek volunteers who do a commendable job of raising the spirits, updating twitter on each runners progress and encouraging them for the challenge that awaits.
This is a gnarly, goat trail, interspersed with switchbacks on a loose, stoney surface requiring absolute focus. Not easy when runners have already banked a hundred miles, are tired and likely lacking some coordination. The trail is pretty steep but certainly not hand over foot.
For those who hadn’t yet noticed the stunning galaxy of stars evident that night, they would surely have noticed now as they traversed Mount Parthenio. For those who also took a moment to look back they’d have been treated to a wonderful light display as runners’ head torches lit up the mountain trail below and villages illuminated the blackest skies ever witnessed by many.
For anyone that had made it this far safely within the cut offs, the prospects looked good, as generally it’s believed that if you can make the mountain with time in hand, there is a decent chance you will reach Sparta.
This is easier said than done though, as many find the descent to Sangas in Arcadia below even more difficult than the ascent. Some will be compelled to shuffle with some trepidation, whilst others who still have sufficient energy and coordination will dare to run it, albeit cautiously.
Psychologically it’s an enormous boost to the runners to have made it over the mountain knowing that only fifty miles now separates them from Sparta and King Leonidas.
As they hit terra firma and begin to find their legs again, some will press on with greater urgency to Nestani (CP52) at (172 km) whilst others will take longer to regain the strength and co-ordination to even manage a shuffle.
Those who have underestimated how cold the night could get, or settled on the wrong drop bag strategy may well pay, or have already paid, a heavy price if they now find themselves without appropriate clothing.
The weather here can take many by surprise and does so every year! However, although it was surprisingly cold on the other side of the mountain, runners were spared the usual rain and storms experienced last year.
Nestani to Tegea Section, (CP 52-60, 195km, 23km for section)
Those who have made it to Nestani within the 24.5 hour cut-off have hit another major milestone and will prepare themselves before heading out on to the plains of Tripolis via a number of small hamlets until reaching the village of Zevgolatio of Arcadia.
The terrain is largely flat farmland and although temperatures were surprisingly cool, this was an ideal time to make potential gains assuming runners could manage energy levels OK and still had command of a weary mind and body. This was key, especially with a relentless tough slog still awaiting them between Tegea and Sparta (50Km)
Tegea to Sparta, (CP 60-75, 245.3km, 50.3km for section)
Upon reaching CP60 Tegea, with now only 50k (31m) left to go and the sunrise of a brand new day to lift the spirits, the resolve and self belief of many runners will have been strengthened.
They will need this as a long relentless climb awaits them. Add the intense heat of a new day and the accrued tiredness in legs that have already covered 121 miles and it soon becomes clear that this is the final sting in the tail for many.
This is the time to really dig deep as all the gains made thus far can so easily be eroded, taking runners from cautious optimism to the depths of despondency. The threat of not making the cut-offs can suddenly become a frightening possibility for some when perhaps it was of little concern before.
Pushing on from Tegea runners begin the final ascent 640 m (2,100 ft) to 975 meters (3,200 ft) over a distance of 22 km. This is the main highway to Sparta, which is busy, dangerous and requiring extra vigilance, No easy task for some runners who are now so weary, they can barely maintain a straight line.
Tired and weary as they are, the closer runners get to Sparta now, the more they are buoyed by the sound of car horns and shouts of 'Bravo' from almost every car, motorcycle and truck on the highway. Every toot, shout and light flash will help ease the pain and help them reach that elusive foot in Sparta.
The intense heat of the new day takes an increasing toll on runners now and the descent into Sparta yet to come will prove hotter still. Many will be forced to walk sections of the final ascent due to the relentless heat and muscles that now simply refuse to function, but keeping the mind in check now is vital! The goal is so close but yet so far.
The last 28Km to Sparta are mostly downhill but many runners can’t capitalise on this welcome opportunity to make up valuable time, as their quads and hamstrings are seemingly refusing to obey their master. Upon reaching the Evrotas Valley and the village of Voutiani (236.2 kilometres) their goal is finally in to sight.
As they eventually cross the Evrotas river (243.5Km) to be met by their own personal entourage of children, emotions will fire up their weary legs, hearts and minds. These children are to be their escort into the heart of Sparta and ultimately to their goal, King Leonidas.
Now the weariest of souls will be stirred by the ever growing reception of children, shouts of ‘Bravo’ from every cafe, bar, hotel and business in Sparta, and then as they turn right into the homeward straight and search out that elusive statue, Leonidas finally comes into view.
Emotions can be raw, fragile and uncontrolled for some as excited Spartans, team mates, family and friends welcome the runners home with high-fives, shouts of appreciation, respect and warm embraces.
Some of these team mates were successful this year and some were not, but little did it matter as everyone selflessly celebrated or supported each other. The camaraderie at the finish and throughout the event had been truly special and heart-warming to witness.
It should come as no surprise that not every member of the team were successful this year due to the nature and difficulty of this race, so we are sorry to report that on this occasion Jon Steele, Nick Turner, Rob Pinnington, Duncan Cornish, Darren Strachan, Paul Rowlinson, Tarique Shakir-Khalil and Terrence Zengerink were unsuccessful, but all have vowed to return.
It should be noted that the overall finishing percentage for the race was high this year at 62% compared to a recent average of 45%. Given that temperatures weren’t too dissimilar to last year (a little less hot in parts) it’s believed that the increase is likely attributable to the tougher qualifying criteria.
In addition, although it was cold as expected on the other side of the mountain, the runners were spared the usual rain and the storms experienced last year.
Nevertheless, the overall performance of the British Team was a staggering 76% with nineteen runners reaching Sparta. This is a phenomenal achievement and likely the best overall British performance in Spartathlon history!
In terms of individual results, the first Brit home was Ian Thomas, who at the age of 57 and the oldest member of the British team, managed to hit his sub 30 target finishing in a time of 29:14:36. This was an improvement on last years result of over 2 ¼ hours and means that Ian becomes this years winner of the Michael Graham Callaghan Trophy for best British performance.
Ian had taken great confidence from last years debut and had enjoyed a successful year to date, finishing third in the GUCR and first in the Liverpool to Leeds Canal Race (LLC130)
Second to arrive at the statue was Barry Miller who had also enjoyed success in the GUCR back in May (finishing 2nd) and Thames Trot (finishing 4th). Barry ran superbly on this his Spartathlon debut, to finish in a stunning 31:31:17
Third to arrive was James Pool who is no stranger to mountains or hundred mile races, but we believe this may have been his first venture over one hundred miles. James has enjoyed a fantastic year to date finishing 6th at La Montagn’Hard 60k, 1st in Endure 12hr and 2nd in the North Downs Way 100. James reached Sparta in a great debut time of 32:29:54.
Fourth to arrive was Jim Rogers who was another debutant. Jim is an extremely experienced runner with thirty years of running under his belt and a 2:30 marathoner in his day. Having completed Tarawera 100k earlier in the year, Jim came home in a very impressive 33:21:26)
Martin Bacon – 7th place finisher of the Viking Way Ultra in 2016 and returning Spar athlete (2014) was 5th to arrive in Sparta 33:37:08, sharing the glory with debutant and 6th placed finisher Paul Beechey 33:37:27. Paul was the winner of this years T100 endurance run back in August and 8th placed finisher in the ‘Oner’.
Tremayne Cowdry was back for redemption following his debut in 2015 and had no problem on this occasion after a very solid year of training and build up races, TP100, Northern Traverse (190 miles) and the Stour Valley Path 100k. Tremayne made sure he kissed that foot this year, arriving at Sparta with time to spare in 33:57:35
Debutant Carl Howells shared the finishing straight with Tremayne to come home for an impressive debut in 33:57:36. Carl had earlier completed the Hardmoors 55, the Viking Way Ultra, TP100 and the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS).
Dan Mayers – After finishing an impressive 5th in the SPINE Challenger earlier this year also ran a measured race to come home very comfortably in a time of 34:05:05 for a successful debut!
John Volanthen was back for redemption and did just that, reaching Sparta with plenty of time in hand 34:34:00. John had earlier completed Olympia (Nemea- Olympia), Green Man Ultra, SDW50, Coastal Series Pembrokeshire and the Eiger Ultra Trail 51k as part of his build up.
David Barker – had earlier completed the Hardmoors 110 and SDW100 as part of his year and on this his debut Dave finished with time to spare in 35:00:09, even managing an impressive dash for the statue.
Martin Ilot, the most experienced Spartathlete in the British team had earlier completed the Thames Trot, Le Eco Trail de Paris 80k, Olympian Nemea-Olympia and GUCR as part of his build up and then proceeded to come home for an impressive sixth Spartathlon finish in 35:00:34. Good to see that the Sands of Time certainly haven’t run out as you stated in error in last years report Martin!
James Ellis returned after a successful debut in 2015, reaching the statue in an improved time of 35:03:59. This was an improvement of over thirty five minutes on his finishing time last year.
Sophie Power had completed Country to Capital, Transgrancanaria 125k, SDW50, NDW50 and SDW100 as part of her build up year and rounded a great year off by finishing Spartathlon on her debut in 35:21:09.
Marcel McKinley had completed Western States and Transgrancanaria as part of his build up year and rounded this off with a successful debut at Spartathlon, finishing in 35:23:00. Upon completion Marcel made it clear he would never be back, but funnily enough after a few weeks of reflection, that’s now ‘I must go back!’
Stuart Wilkie banked a solid year of training and completed the TP100 and GUCR as part of his build up, finishing an impressive 4th in the GUCR. This must have instilled great confidence as Stu came home to finish in 35:31:19 on this his Spartathlon debut.
Russell Gardham (aka Rusty Rusk) completed a very solid year of preparation, completing the Thames Trot, SDW50, TP100 and NDW100 before adding a successful Spartathlon debut of 35:36:38
Mich Hardie had earlier completed the SDW100 as part of his build up year to Spartathlon and showed immense grit and determination to finish on his debut in 36:25:02
Well the iconic Spartathlon is over for another year but its effects will live long in the minds and hearts of all those lucky enough to have lined up at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens.
Great memories will keep the fire burning for those yearning to return, either because their dreams weren’t realised or simply because this epic has left them with an insatiable appetite for more. Spartathlon is a truly life changing experience and really does get under the skin.
The team spirit this year was once again simply fantastic and is best summed up by the very apt words of Paul Beechey, when he commented in his race report...
“I have never seen a group of strangers so closely united and together, ever in my life”
Despite mixed fortunes everyone enjoyed a superb few days in Greece. We would like to thank all of the runners, the supporters (home and abroad) and the crew’s who, in addition to supporting their individual runners, also did a great job of encouraging the entire team.
Thanks of course to Sarah Dryden and Sparta Photography Club for capturing so many emotive moments, to Rob Pinnington for his hard work securing sponsors to kit the team out superbly once again, to Paul Ali for managing the team website, James Ellis for his media expertise and contribution to site updates, and last but not least the ISA for staging the greatest race on earth!
So that concludes a wonderfully successful year for the British Spartathlon Team. Congratulations once again to all those runners who were able to realise their dreams and commiserations to those that didn’t on this occasion. You will be back!
In a year where we’ve recently learned of the sad passing of the father of Spartathlon ‘John Foden’ it seems appropriate that the team were able to do John justice by achieving what must surely be the best overall British performance in Spartathlon history. We’re sure John would be very proud.
Ian Thomas on behalf of the British Spartathlon Team