Race Report 2018: Alastair Higgins

Race Report 2018: Alastair Higgins

My journey to Spartathlon 2018 started in the summer of 2017. I was planning on taking part in the Belfast 24 Hour Open Race which coincided with the World Championships when I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease. 

My journey to Spartathlon 2018 started in the summer of 2017. I was planning on taking part in the Belfast 24 Hour Open Race which coincided with the World Championships when I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease. A quick two week course of antibiotics was prescribed and fortunately this treatment came to an end the same weekend of the race. Forever the optimist I told myself that everything would be fine and it nearly was. The race went ok and I managed to clock up 130 miles despite lots of cramping which sidelined me for over two hours. Not quite a Spartathlon auto-qualifier but pretty close. 

The next few months were far less satisfying. It turned out I had been prescribed the wrong antibiotics by my GP and the Lyme Disease came back with a vengeance. My energy levels dropped drastically and I had horrible headaches. Eventually I managed to skip the queue to see a specialist and I was given more antibiotics but told to take a few months off from running. Yeah right! I did take it a lot more easy and by the end of September I was given a tentative ‘all clear’ and training resumed as normal.

 In my head at this point I was more determined than ever to make the most of my running. I told myself that from that day onwards I would be more focused and that I would try to get an auto-qualifier for Spartathlon 2018.

Fast forward to January 2018 and I toed the line at the Flitch Way 100k race in Essex. It was cold and damp and not at all glamorous but after 7hrs 55mins I eventually had my AQ and I was ecstatic. Sparta 2018 was on. Now it was time to really knuckle down and log some serious miles.

For the remainder of the year I ran consistently and frequently, averaging close to 100 miles per week. That was despite having more races than normal and having to include the odd taper and recovery week. I was feeling good about Sparta.

In June I was back in Belfast for the 24 Hour Irish Championships. This was my test run for Spartathlon where I was going to try out a few new nutritional and hydration methods. I also had hopes of getting on to the British 24 Hours Team. A late night gig with my band the night before meant I only got two hours sleep and the race was a bit of a disaster. It could have been the sleep, maybe the nutrition or maybe just a blip but I was puzzled and despondent. Back to the drawing board I suppose.

Leading up to Spartathlon I was able to include some race specific training. This included some treadmill sessions in a new facility called Altipeak, where the gym was heated to 35c and the 02 levels reduced to around 10-15%. I was confident that I was prepared for the inevitable hot temperatures in Greece! A final high volume week of 195 miles gave me an extra boost and then it was just a case of trying not to get injured and trying not to eat too much in the last 3 weeks before the race.

I arrived in Athens on the same flight as four of the other Irish based athletes. Anto, Thomas, Rex and Rolando. Two from the Irish team and two from the Filipino team. We were quietly confident that we could get a 5/5 finish success rate. Fingers crossed! But wait, what about the weather? Was it going to be hot like we’d been told a month or so before the race. Not at all. Instead we had cyclone Zorba which was shortly later classified as a category 1 hurricane, or rather ‘Medicane’. No worries, we’re used to wind, rain and colder temperatures. This could get interesting!

A few very enjoyable days spent in the company of the British Spartathlon team gave me a little more confidence. Chatting with veterans such as Ian Thomas, and Nathan Flear gave me some useful insights. I’d mentioned to Nathan that I planned on starting at about 6 mins/Km and Nathan suggested that I might have difficulty running that slow at that stage of the race! I’d read a few race reports and Eoin Keith’s blog had provided some in depth knowledge. Particularly about pacing this race and trying to save something for the final 80km. Eoin had set out at 6mins/km so I took that as a good yardstick, but do I ever stick to a race plan? Hmmm, mostly never.

So, at 7am on Friday 28th we were lined up at a chilly start line below the Acropolis. The time had finally come and I still couldn’t believe I was rubbing shoulders with so many elite runners from around the world. Let’s do this!

Without much of a fanfare we were off. I was relaxed and laid back about going over the start line. In my head the first 80km were merely a warm up so there was no hurry. The road out through Athens was not hugely inspiring. No ancient monuments. More like the city’s twilight zone with strip malls, concrete factories and car repair workshops. One highlight was a large industrial bakery with the most amazing smells of chocolate pastries being prepared for the coming day. I remarked to one of the US Team runners on the smell and he agreed that it was almost too good for this time in the morning. Other smells were less appealing as we went further down the road. Oil refineries, sewage plants and gas terminals harassed our nostrils and at those points I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about with this race.

The predicted rain had begun not long after the start and this set the tone for the rest of the race. Although at this stage it was just a bit of drizzle that kept our body temperatures comfortable.

So what about that race plan? Well I was doing alright but I just felt too good. Part of my strategy was to race according to heart rate. I was pleased to see it  staying at around 110-115bpm at a pace of between 5mins-5.30mins/km. A faster pace than I had planned but hardly reckless. I figured that my HR was pivotal and if at any point it was to go over 135bpm on the flat then I was definitely over cooking it. I had no idea of my position leading up to Corinth but I was probably somewhere between 50th and 100th- nothing really worth thinking about at this stage. Corinth came and went at around 93km and that was my first mental milestone ticked off. I felt good although the first niggles were hitting my legs. A tightness on my right knee was bothering me. I attributed this to some ITB pain that had worried me before the race. I also had a tight abductor on my left thigh which was probably connected to the ITB issue. Argghh, I could really do without this at such an early stage.

Different challenges lay ahead in the form of the first real hills. I’d prepared myself to get a bit more racy in this section of the race before the mountaintop. I didn’t so much ‘up the pace’, more keep it the same. I knew at this point there would be a lot of runners who had tried to bank time on the flat stages up to Corinth and some of them would start paying for it. Right enough I was able to catch and pass dozens of them. My plan of spending the least time possible at aid stations was also paying off meaning I was able to leapfrog a handful just by being efficient with my drinks and nutrition.

Shortly before 8pm the weather took another turn for the worse and the rain started to get very heavy. I was still in my t-shirt from the start and at this point I counted my blessings that I was 50 minutes ahead of schedule. The next checkpoint had one of my jackets for the race and it was only 500m away. A stroke of luck, but not my last.

 The section through Nemea and the surrounding countryside was the making of my race. I’d enquired at around CP 36 of my position and was told I was in 41st place. What? That’s rubbish. Time to get a move on. The problem was that it was getting a bit more hilly. No sweat. Fortunately I seemed to be coping better than everyone else. I was getting cold, close to hyperthermic, and decided I had no option but to up my pace to stay warm. Another stroke of luck maybe?

 The next time I checked my position I was 20-something and we were heading towards the tough 6km climb up to mountainbase. This could be my opportunity to make up a few more places if I could keep up the same form. I was still feeling strong despite my knee and groin niggles coming back, my energy levels were also good. Bring on the mountain!

 A few more quick check point stops and I passed one of the top women runners wrapped in a blanket but still running. I asked how she was and she replied ‘very cold!’. To be honest I thought she was finished but it turned out she was eventual 2nd placed woman Katarina Kasparova. The following steep kilometres were surprisingly easy for me and I think I passed another four runners before reaching to mountain base. They were all walking and I was able to keep a slow run/fast jog all the way with one runner near the top asking despondently if I’d ran the whole ascent? Why yes, of course! I arrived at Mountainbase fresh but cold. Another stroke of luck, or maybe good planning was having a second jacket in my drop bag here. I’d been told by the Irish runners that I might need it for the section after the mountain. There was a freezing fog over the mountain and visibility was down to a few metres so it was a good call. I later found out that mountainbase was the point of no return for a lot of Spartans and hypothermia had become a big factor in these retirements.

 That was my longest stop of the race but I was still careful not to hang around too much. Getting cold and risking my legs seizing up was a big concern. I eventually got going after less than 10 minutes and went straight up to the top of the mountain. I say straight because this final kilometre is very steep, off road and pretty hairy. That was fun, probably my highlight of the race because I still felt good! The summit (100 miles done) came at nearly bang on 16hrs, not too shabby but maybe a bit too racy considering there were another 53 miles to go. Still, I was optimistic.

 By this point I was up to 16th and I had my sights set on top ten. It’s not unusual for you to start talking to yourself after 16 hours of running and I kept repeating the words ‘top ten!’ out loud and telling myself ‘you’ve done the training’, ‘push, push, push’. My eyes were also starting to play tricks on me. Probably not great timing considering the tricky descent coming down the mountain. In stark contrast to the final climb this was probably the most frustrating point of the race for me. The surface on the track was made up of rocks the size of large marbles and combined with the steepness it was just too tricky to run properly on. Fortunately it was over in a flash and I think I passed another runner coming down so I couldn’t have been doing that bad.

The next 20 miles or so were relatively flat over the plateau towards Tegea. ‘Top Ten’, ‘Top Ten’ was the mantra again and that was exactly were I ended up after a few hiccups. At one point my leg problems worsened and this coincided with my lowest energy levels of the race. For the only point in the entire 153 miles I was reduced to a walk. Time to reset and re-evaluate. There was no option of giving up but how could I get back on pace? I’d been walking about 100 metres when I went into an underpass and saw the welcome oasis of check point 55. Time to recharge with some soup, coke, crisps and whatever else I could get. This was my second longest stop of the race but still under ten minutes. I was happy to get going again and felt a bit more positive. However the reality of the hard slog ahead was starting to form in my mind. This was going to take a lot of effort just to get to the end. Nevermind maintaining a top ten place.

 At Tegea Square I was surprised to find Nathan Flear with his wife Tori. Nathan had been struggling with calf and shin problems and wasn’t sure how to proceed. A quick discussion and he joined me for the next few kilometers. I knew he would be able to finish. He’s a tough cookie but I felt for him having to run through the pain. Kudos to him for toughing it out.

 I was faster on the uphill sections so it was farewell to Nathan and time to set my sights on another place or two. Eighth place came relatively quickly and I was soon looking at the time ahead to seventh- around 25 minutes. However at that point I decided it was time to count my blessings and make sure I made the finish in good time.

The weather was becoming worse by the minute and it felt like the rain hadn’t stopped since 8pm the night before. Now it was approaching 4am and I had less than a marathon left to run. Just a wee marathon, no problem!

 Ηow wrong I was. That last section is made up of long climbs, short climbs and long descents. Overall it is downhill but to me it felt like it was all uphill! My legs were gone, and despite my energy levels being good and my heart rate being at the lowest bpm of the race I just wasn’t able to get the pace up. This was a real slog, miserable, wet, cold, sore and sleepy. Two runners passed me and one of them looked like he was sprinting! Oh well, back down to tenth. Hopefully I could maintain that.

 ‘Top Ten’, ‘Top Ten’. Somehow I managed to get through the final section of the race and as dawn broke I was making my way down towards Sparta. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I spotted ninth place runner Dan Valitalo from Sweden on one of the final hairpin bends before checkpoint 73. Just over 5km remaining. Before I could close the gap he spotted me and got a new lease of life, flying off into the distance like a rabbit being pursued by an old and arthritic fox!.

 Those last 5km were the longest of my life. I’d been told the run into Sparta is amazing with great support from the locals and kids running with you in the final stretch to the finish line. Not in this weather they don’t. To be fair there were dozens of locals out to show their support on every street corner. Each shop doorway and cafe had a gathering of Spartans encouraging me on with shouts of ‘bravo, bravo!” but it was nothing like the videos I’d seen from previous years. I don’t blame them, the weather was getting worse by the minute and the roads were beginning to flood in places.

 Finally I turned to the right onto the finishing straight and up in the distance I could see King Leonidas himself. I had a tv car and some photographers following my progress at this point. Embarrassingly my pace was terrible. In my head I was putting in the effort required for a sprint or a tempo run but in reality I looked very much like someone who had just ran 153 miles. I couldn’t believe it was coming to an end. Those final 20 miles required my biggest ever effort in an ultra race but it was all worth it. What a feeling to climb those steps up to the statue, to receive the best tasting water in the world and to get my olive wreath crown. I reached over to touch the king’s foot and gave it a kiss. This is Sparta and I’d made it in 26 hours 9 mins.

 Hugely proud and amazed. I discovered that this made me the fourth fastest British runner of all time. Back home in Ireland it was also being claimed as a new Irish record but I had to point out that I was racing for the British team! I was very flattered by the amount of support that had gathered online and on social media during the race. For everyone who stayed up all night and for those who sent me congratulations messages I’d like to send my gratitude and love. Your support really means so much to me. A special message should also go to the British Team for making me feel so welcome. Big ups to Nathan, Tori, Ian Thomas and his crew, to Chris Mills for taking all the great photos in terrible conditions, and to Paul Rowlinson for capturing some excellent footage at the finish line. Thanks also to Paul Ali, James Ellis, Rob Pinington and everyone who put in so much effort towards the organisation of the team. To the team runners who tried so hard, hold your heads up high you all did amazingly well. To the ones who failed to finish and who encountered some really bad luck, I really feel for you. Take the experience and come back next year. You are all great runners and deserve another crack at it.

 Finally to my partner and soulmate Sorcha who followed the tacker all night from home in Ireland- Thank you so much for your undying support through the good times and the failures. I am so lucky to have you by my side. Love you babe!

 Αfter the race I was whisked off to the medical tent for the usual check-up and to get my feet sorted. Ten minutes passed and cyclone Zorba came back to strike full-on. What I witnessed was some of the worst weather ever: hurricane force winds, driving rain and flash floods. To anyone who was still out there at this time I salute you. The conditions were unbelievable right up to the cutoff time of 7pm. If you ran through those final hours then I have nothing but respect for you. I can count those ten minutes in the medical tent as my final stroke of luck!

 ‘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.’

John Foden, Founder of the Spartathlon Race.

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Described as the world's most grueling race, the Spartathlon runs over rough tracks and muddy paths (often it rains during the race), crosses vineyards and olive groves, climbs steep hillsides and, most challenging of all, takes the runners on the 1,200 meter ascent and descent of Mount Parthenio in the dead of night.
This is the mountain, covered with rocks and bushes, on which it is said Pheidippides met the god Pan.

Spartathlon is the event that brings this deed to attention today by drawing a legend out of the depths of history. The idea for its creation is belongs to John Foden, a British RAF Wing Commander. As a lover of Greece and student of ancient Greek history, Foden stopped his reading of Herodotus' narration regarding Pheidippides, puzzled and wondering if a modern man could cover the distance from Athens to Sparta, i.e. 250 kms, within 36 hours.