Race Report 2018: Stuart Shipley
Spartathlete at last. The sweetest finish. I have learned a new word in the last year or so. Patience. More importantly I have learned what it means. If you are reading this then you may have to be patient too.
It’s no secret that I have a long and unsuccessful history with the Spartathlon, going right back to 2004 but at times, 2007 in particular when I attempted it within a month of doing UTMB, I have been impatient.
You see, I have been worried about getting too old to achieve a finish for over 10years now, the more so recently since I turned 60 this June. There are runners who do finish Spartathlon at 60+ but they are usually grizzled veterans who have been knocking out finishes on a regular basis for years. There are a lot fewer who manage it for the 1st time at that age and I was distinctly worried that any prospects I did have of ever finishing were growing smaller and smaller every year.
I had basically retired in 2012. That year I was part of the 77% who failed to finish and the following year I had a back injury that threatened to stop me running altogether. It put me out effectively for the whole of 2013 whilst I recovered from the operation. In 2014 I was able to return to running of a sort and very glad to be able to do so, but it wasn’t stirring stuff and I was fat and slow.
Somehow though, in 2015 I started to lose weight and started to get faster again. I have no idea why really, since I wasn’t doing a lot different but just recall being glad about it. It was the first time I started to consider the possibility of a rematch. I looked for something that would push me and found the Spine. Although the race itself is the polar opposite of Spartathlon they do share the requirement of needing a near perfect mental state to get anywhere near to a finish. And I did finish. The finish rates were on a par with Spartathlon but this time I was on the good side.
2016 went from good to marvellous and I decided to enter Spartathlon again … But didn’t get in. I got to the very top of the wait list but there I remained. No.1 in the world not to get to do it. The fact that I had been able to knock 1¼hrs off my 2007 GUCR PB was tainted by the fact that the new, harder entry requirements for 2017 meant that it was still ½hr too slow. It’s a shame since in 2016 I was the fastest I had been for a good 10-15years over all distances and I would for the 1st time have been able to go into the race with some confidence of a finish. Patience.
In looking for a qualifier for 2017 I ran at Tooting in 2016. I hadn’t thought that running round a track for 24hrs was likely to be too interesting but I really enjoyed the experience, getting my qualifier and knocking 3¾hrs off my 100mile PB in the process. It confirmed my feeling that 2016 really could have been my year.
Then my knee went. Running downhill on a session down at my running club towards the end of the year I heard as much as felt a loud ‘pop’. ‘That was the end of your femur collapsing’ the consultant told me when diagnosing an osteonecrotic condition known as SONK. There was a lot of bone oedema but he told me that if I was patient (that word again) took regular Vitamin D and offloaded the joint whilst it healed, it is usually a self-limiting condition and should heal 100%. So followed 4months on crutches, 2 months in a brace and much of 2017. I didn’t get in again anyway and was a lot further down the waitlist this time. I couldn’t help but compare the popularity of the race now with what it had been in 2004 when there were only 5 Brits, I had left it until May to enter, there were nearly half as many entrants and the race didn’t fill up anyway.
I was able to return to running again in about June/July 2017 on the condition I built up gradually. I was patient and my only Ultra of a sort that year was a few laps of the Equinox 24 with a team from work. It was good though and I dared to harbour thoughts of building things up again until whilst just walking down the hall at home in October, I caught my left leg against the dogs cover. As innocuously as that, I tore my Left meniscus. This time the consultant didn’t have good news. He told me that basically the meniscus was shot. It was hard and crumbling, the tear was inoperable and degenerate - stitching it would be like stitching frayed cotton and the stitch would just pull through. Moreover, it was unlikely to heal given the poor blood supply to the meniscus. He would review it again in 3 months but considered that the pain would stop me from running on it again. In the meantime it was back to the brace. Patience.
I wasn’t expecting much in January but against the odds the consultant told me he could see some evidence of repair. He said this was unusual but put it down to the fact that the tear was right at the end of the meniscus in the only place where it has any real blood supply. A cyclist himself he’d heard of Kouros and knew of my desire to compete in Spartathlon again. He didn’t rule it out but told me that the clock was ticking in respect of the meniscus’ degeneration, that my cycling career was likely to be longer than my running one in the long term but I would in any event be guided by the pain. He did however tell me I could ditch the brace and if I gave it another couple of months of patience I could try light running on it, 1K at a time. Time was very definitely ticking but in a fit of optimism I entered Spartathlon again. I didn’t have any option really. If I harboured any hope at all I had to. This year I would have 4 names in the lottery hat but if I didn’t enter and left it another year, I would be back to zero.
So, in January 2018 I walked a 50K with my brother… the consultant had told me I could walk, he didn’t say how far. My physio daughter had her spies out and they were all instructed, as they passed me running, to make sure I was behaving and just walking. In February I was allowed to jog/walk on a 15mile cake eating cross-country run with my wife and in March I increased to the 4 Inns, a 40mile run/walk across the moors with my son. It was my 1st Ultra at 17 and also now his at the same age. It was a proud moment and I remember thinking that if my running career had to end here and now I would be happy enough. But my knee seemed ok, it grumbled a bit on some of the downhills and hated Grindsbrook but seemed fine on tarmac where I could be more confident of my foot placing. I then progressed to running the Grand Union Canal Race again in May. I knew that it would be hard given the lack of training and continuously had to remind myself that it was the beginning, not the end of my training and that it would be mainly training of the head – to see if I still had it.
GUCR was painfully slow. I had to keep permanently reminding myself of the fact that it was the beginning of my training and not a yardstick of progress. Overnight we had a torrential thunderstorm. I thought at the time that this sort of training was not at all representative of what I would be facing in Greece – how little I knew! I felt my knee at about 120miles and so exercised patience, telling myself that I was in it for the long game and deathmarched the rest in, missing my train and having to kip out at Little Venice (fortunately dry by then) overnight. The beginning of my training was however nearly the end of it too since I contracted cellulitis in my left ankle over the course of the run. A day or so after the race I noticed my ankle stiffening up which I though was odd since I didn’t remember going over on it. Fortunately when the shivers started I recalled all those GUCR pre-race notes I’d studiously read over the years and knew straight away what it was. It put me out of running for another 6 weeks altogether. Even when my ankle went down, every time I started to try to run on it, it would swell up again. Patience.
Eventually however I was able to run, starting from scratch yet again, but the clock was ticking and I had another issue now. Since it had been my 60th birthday in June I’d been treated to my choice of a holiday of a lifetime by the family and I had chosen to walk the Inca Trail in Peru, something I’d always wanted to do. A year previously when we’d decided on it, Spartathlon had sounded like just a pipe dream and I’d felt that I couldn’t just put my life on hold on the off-chance I’d be able to run again, but now they were perilously close to each other. Because I couldn’t risk my ankle wrecking the holiday I’d had to drop out of LLCR and my training was now limited to about 6weeks running, 3 weeks in Peru not running, a week back to running when we got home and then another 2weeks, mostly tapering. It was getting to feel very much last minute and the ‘wing and a prayer’ preparation that I’d promised myself I’d never allow to happen again.
I put myself into running again trying to build up incrementally but I knew there wasn’t a lot of time. I wasn’t sure there’d be enough time but I had to try. It was my last chance. I managed to increase my mileage from a very lowly 20mile week, to 30, then 40, then 50, then 60 and this time I was helped by the weather. Running a couple of 50K training runs in what I considered was likely to be a much more representative 28-31c in our most atypical extended British summer I was able gradually to get to the pace I knew I’d need out in Greece, in the heat too and without wrecking my ankle or more importantly my knee. My knee had been a star. When I’d started out earlier in the year it had felt distinctly weird. For a mile or so from cold I’d have to limp before something would almost just click into place and it would feel fine, with no need to limp or run off balance. Eventually I was able to shorten this distance down to ½ a mile, then ¼ mile but I was having to break the habit of a lifetime and actually warm up to get my knee into the groove. Its still like it even now. When I start a run, for the 1st few hundred yards it still feel like something is not quite in place and until I’ve been able to hammer it back, I do have to be very careful. I guess sooner or later its going to give up the ghost again, after all the degeneration is a one-way street but I was beginning to hope that I might just be able to eke out its running career for perhaps just a few weeks longer. I did fear that it was just waiting for me to commit and then just grind me to a painful and unrewarding halt on a hot and dusty road next to an oil refinery just outside of Athens but my head, still strong after all it had been though even just this year, was getting more and more determined to say ‘what the hell, lets just do it’.
I’d been training my head patiently too. 6 prior DNFs when I was younger and faster is not the best way to get some confidence but I knew that to finish this race you can’t have an off day. If you can’t be confident that this time you will finish, then you are immediately at a mental disadvantage. I was never going to manage that but I had to strengthen my determination and I had been very singleminded all year. I had survived all that could be thrown at me and come out of it stronger. I knew my head was as good as it ever had been. Deathmarching GUCR had shown me I still had it despite the time it took me and I’d been using lots of little things to constantly hone the edge. On my phone I had the most atmospheric photo I’ve ever seen of Spartathlon (thanks Mark W) so I’d know what I needed to do every time I used it. I also bought a BST Spartathlon mug – only a little thing for sure but little things stack up. I’m not sure if Louise ever noticed but whilst I often made her a cup of tea in it, I never drank out of it myself. I hadn’t earned the right yet. Little things like that stack up and I knew my determination was stronger than it had ever been. Just let me get out there.
There’d also handily been a showing of Barneys ‘Road to Sparta’ in Derby only a few weeks before the race. It was an excellent mental preparation for what I would be going back to but I’d felt a bit of a fraud responding to the Q and A’s. I’d not been to see the showing at the BST do at the beginning of the year. I’d felt I need to withhold from that do since I wasn’t a Spartathlete ... yet. It was part of an exercise in catharsis and I certainly didn’t want or need the ‘so how many times have you finished …’ conversation. I could go once I was a finisher and not until.
Anyway, my knee survived all that Peru could throw at it. It managed 3 weeks of no running, a 17,100’ acclimatisation peak, 4 days of the Inca Trail, a further 2 days climbing in/out of a canyon twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, white water rafting and even sandboarding. It had told me to be careful a couple of times but I had come back as light as I can recall ever being before and certainly as light as I have ever been since the age of 18 before I found beer. I might not have been as fast as I’d been in 2016 but I was certainly as fit as I’ve ever been since 2016 and a lot lighter than on any previous Spartathlon attempt. Things were looking good at long last … apart from the weather forecast.
I’d been keeping an eye on the weather pointlessly, for weeks. As if the BBC can accurately forecast the weather a day in advance in the UK let alone 3 weeks, the other side of Europe. At first the forecast seemed to be the same furnace in Europe it’d been all summer but as Spartathlon got nearer the forecast looked a bit wet. One day it looked very wet and the next it was back to a bit wet. Thunder was even forecast a few times but the forecast varied so much that I knew I couldn’t rely on it, but it did worry me. Not that I feared running in the wet. Having spent most of my life running in wet weather in the UK I was more than used to it but it introduced yet another variable into the mix. I would have no crew out in Greece and in addition to figuring where I’d put what in the way of hydration, food, warm clothing and wondering whether I’d ever need it, I now needed to factor in what I’d do to protect myself from rain, chafing and from cooling down from being wet for long periods at a time. As the day approached I found it hard to work and hard to think of anything else but I figured that this race was still going to try and find something I hadn’t thought of or hadn’t prepared for to throw at me, just to tell me ‘I told you so, it’s not for you’.
Oh dear, I’ve just noticed I’m getting a bit carried away. 5 pages already and I’m not even out in Greece yet. I hope some of you are still here at any rate. I wanted to set the scene and show just how much a finish in this race would mean to me and how much an ever present part of my life being intent on one day getting a finish out of this race it has been, even if it’s a race that really doesn’t play to what remaining strengths an old mountain runner still has. I hope it also shows just what a fixation this race can become, eating its way into every part of your life if you let it … and you just do. One of my remaining strengths though apart from the new one of patience has always been stubbornness. Louise tells me it’s not always a positive character trait but it is necessary for an Ultra runner. I just needed to know whether the race would ultimately and eventually reward that persistence/stubbornness with a finish or if it would just ridicule another pathetic attempt and tell me I should really have given up, got on with my life and stopped wasting what time I had left well before now and what did I really hope or expect to achieve at 60 that I couldn’t achieve at 46.
Fast forward now to Athens and it’s all comfortingly familiar and close to becoming a 2nd home. Last time I was here at the beginning of 2017 was on crutches having had to drop out of the Athens 48 but having paid for the flights Louise was much happier doing the tourist thing. I was up at Herod Atticus to remind myself what the start looked like and could have posted my 2017 entry by hand.
Nerves were mounting by the time I arrived at the Fenix. I met Laurence, with whom I have shared many a GUCR hour and Spartathlon failure in the past, virtually straight away. Laurences persistence and ultimate success in 2017 was one of the major spurs for me to get my act together and I looked forward to reminiscing and planning this new adventure with him. For me though this year the planning was going to be as simple as possible, no crew just Hokas, Tailwind and S-caps, topped up with pinole/blue corn Ultrabites and strategic Weetabix drink placement. The Ultrabites had been pre-prepared by opening them up and retaping closed (and fortunately bore no taste resemblance to the blue corn chicha morada that had been everywhere in Peru) but the Weetabix drink was a problem. I hadn’t been able to bring it over with me in hand luggage and scouring Glyfadas shops found very little in the way of breakfast cereals or drink. The 1st part of the plan was already awry and chocolate milk would have to do instead. Nerves carried on getting the better of me at one of the race briefing too. Blimey, this race was a big thing these days.
The race start at Herod Atticus below the Acropolis just before dawn is the most amazing start you could imagine. This year there were no stars above and this was good. It meant no sun to burn into me from dawn onwards. There were even toilets so that meant no hunting for a vacant bush in the pre-dawn.
I hung around at the back and sat down with Sam from Ireland. Sam has been one of my major inspirations over the years. He’s a couple of months older than me so whilst he carries on, I have no excuse not to either. This year Sam has done Badwater and a couple of weeks later did a 100miler to Sparta qualifying standards. I am in awe. Sam in his early days here had problems similar to me and it took him 2-3 times to get a finish. He even got over the mountain one year only to succumb to hypothermia. It’s a warning that this race never gives up but he seems to have the knack now and is a regular finisher. We are relaxed and chat until a few seconds before the start until I take up my place and try to hide in the midst of other runners towards the rear. Sam is even more relaxed and stays sat down for a while longer. No hurry, it’s going to be a long day.
And then we are off downill on wet cobbles as dawn arrives. I haven’t warmed up my knee but I figure I’m not going to be pushing it so I am not worried. I take time to cast my eye behind me a couple of times to catch sight of the Acropolis, all lit up and dominating the skyline still, after all those thousands of years. It’s a reminder of what this race is all about. We are all Pheidippedes in a last ditch attempt to get the Spartans help in saving us from Persian hordes. I need to be with Leonidas in Sparta by sunset tomorrow. This race has history.
Things quickly become a blur only hours after the race so I really ought to have got this down sooner but in truth the first few miles did disappear very quickly. The route seemed all too familiar even though it had been 6 years since I was last here and I ran from the back up the hill to Dafni Monastery and down the dual carriageway on the other side, all in a low drizzle, not enough to put on waterproofs but enough to keep me cool, meeting up occasionally with a few Brits now and then until differing pace and each running their own race forced the necessary separation. I ran with Russ for a while but spent most of the 1st few miles with Paul Ali since we appeared to have synchronised our wee stops.
I’d noticed right from the start that I was having to wee more than I usually do. After a while I noticed an occasional pink tinge. I was momentarily concerned but I knew it wasn’t going to stop me so closed my eyes. Potentially foolish perhaps but I decided I would pay the penalty. I was drinking enough and taking my S-caps so I knew there was no more I could do.
I missed the schoolkids with the wall of high fives at Elefsina. I found out afterwards that the kids had all been given the day off school in view of the approaching storm. It was perhaps a good job I didn’t know this at the time but in my determined state I would have run no differently.
As it was I was running what to me was a perfect race. I got to Megara at the first marathon point in 4.07, maybe a little faster than my planned 4.15, but right on the money.
I knew after that that I next faced ‘the hill’ my nemesis and least favourite point on the route. It’s not that its particularly steep, it’s just very long. In the past when I’ve had a maximum of 10-15 minutes buffer and been forced to walk in the heat, my buffer has evaporated in a matter of a couple of miles. I knew this early on that to walk the hill would be fatal and was prepared to give it my all. As it happened it wasn’t the beast it usually is, partly because it wasn’t as hot as it had been in 2012 and partly since I was ready for it. I ran the hill apart from the odd step and was rewarded at the 50K point, my drop point in 2012, with the loss of only a minute or two buffer. So far, so good and confidence not dinted.
So far this was feeling too good to be true. I had ticked off the drop points in 2012, 20010 and 2007 and was feeling good, apart from a niggle in my R hip that I had felt in the weeks before I left. Last time my R hip had troubled me was when I had flattened off my orthotics and on commissioning a new pair, it had gone. Maybe I was due for some new ones but too late to worry about that now. My quads were making themselves known too but nowhere near as much as they had in 2007 when I’d tried to run within a month of UTMB and died about here as a result. The trekking in Peru was certainly paying off in my ability to move up the hills but maybe my quads weren’t fully recovered from it.
The 2nd marathon is where I’ve always found it hard. My lack of pace has always pout me too close to the cut-offs and left me with no margin for error but today I was building on my buffer and not seeing it drip slowly away. As a consequence I really was enjoying myself. It’s hard to explain just how much easier it is not to have the mental burden of worrying about whether you will actually reach the next CP in time, places upon you. This race over 152miles has 75 CPs all with their individual cut-offs and if you fail to make just one of them, that’s it, that’s your race over. That the hard bit for me has always usually been between 25 and 50 miles has on occasion made my race much shorter than a trip out to Greece really warranted.
The next issue I faced was with my nipples. I had remembered to tape them before the start but the rain had washed it off. I had replaced it at a CP but it wouldn’t stick. Eventually I was offered some Vaseline at another CP and used it profusely. It removed the issue but not the signs of it and my BST race T shirt made it look more heroic than it actually was. I did have to decline more Vaseline at every subsequent CP until I covered up at dark since I didn’t have the luxury of having packed a spare this early on.
Again the curtains dropped down protecting me from too much worry. When you are feeling good the miles seem to go much quicker but as a result you remember less about them. If alternatively you are in anguish over an evaporating buffer you can do nothing about, every step seems to take about 5 minutes and miles turn over so slowly. I vaguely remember looking out over the gulf, passing ships and refineries and through dusty little towns, generally enjoying myself really. Even if some of the photos show an old man grimacing, I was smiling inside.
The Hellas Canneries 50mile cut is 9½hours and before you get there there’s a tough ascent up to the bridge. When I’ve made it this far in the past I’ve often found that I’m better off walking – something I can do quite fast and that proved to be the case today too. I was catching and even overtaking runners just by walking but encouragingly I’d found that I didn’t want or even need to walk all of it. It was also at the point that I’d started toing and froing with Dean Karnazes. He’d said that he’d been clipped by the wing mirror of a car in one of the preceding towns. He was ok but it had alarmed him a bit and he had slowed down. It certainly doesn’t take much. The roads are narrow through these towns and the cars do come alarmingly close at times. There’s not a lot you can do about it and so you just tend to carry on in a blinkered jog whenever you can. In Greec e I’d found that in the main pavements are for parking cars on and so you do have to run a lot on the road even where there is a pavement.
Corinth canal is one of those places that make it to your head as a major ‘tick’ point. It’s a great sight and a milestone on the route. In the past I’ve always been guilty of thinking that when you get here your right at Hellas Cans, but you are not. In reality it’s a good couple of miles away along a busy road. Today my head was ready for this and took it all in its stride. I really was having a good day. My day got even better when I eventually arrived at the CP in 8.40, 50minutes up on the cut. In the past even on a good day I’ve never had 5minutes here, let alone 50minutes and I’ve always had to just run in and out like a frightened rabbit, with my chest doing cartwheels and no time to refuel – the start of an ever downwards spiral until you just run out of fuel entirely, slow down even more and eventually time out. In 2004 my day and 1st attempt had ended here grinding to a halt with a seized hip.
But that day was not today. Today I had a buffer to be proud of. I had hoped to get here in around 9 hours and as a consequence worried that I was going too fast. But I had time to eat, drink and be merry. Rob came up as my de facto crew until Russ arrived, got me some food and my drop bag … but I wasn’t allowed to sit in Russ’ chair (in no uncertain terms) since he was almost here too! Anyway, I knew that buffer or not once I’d took in some fuel I might as well get on my way since the hard earned minutes evaporate much quicker than you can build them up, if you are not careful. I took with me the canisters of Tailwind prepped for a quick mix at future CPs, stowed them in my utility belt and opened up my 1st chocolate milk. Yuk it was strong. Now, I am a great fan of both chocolate and milk but together I now found I am not. It was however calories in the bank so I necked it nonetheless but wishing as it went down that they ate Weetabix in Greece.
After Hellas Can the route gets more rural and nicer as a result. The weather also seemed better too and it had even stopped raining and I managed to get back into the zone again to-ing and fro-ing with Russ and DK, with both of them passing me each time I stopped for a wee.
Ancient Corinth came and went. It was good to see the ruins but it was really a stop for those with teams so I just filled my bottle and cracked on to Zevgolatio, the 100K point. Zevgolatio is one of my favourite CP’s. A lot of CP’s, especially those in the villages have their own character and tradition. Elefsina has the schoolkids and their wall of high fives and Zevgolatio has the kids all looking for autographs. It’s been the same since I first got there in 2006 and for me it’s part of the race so I didn’t mind at all sparing the time to write my name and number in their books along with a little Union Jack flag. I must have done 6 or 7 and must admit to being a little disappointed on seeing some runners just waving the kids away. Zevgolatio is also the place where I stow some warmer kit and my headtorch, although today it was far from dark. I picked up my drop bag and spied a ‘vacant’ chair to open it up on, only to be told in no uncertain terms by a crew member rushing up to me, that the chair had been ‘reserved for Mr Karnazes’.
He arrived shortly after, most apologetic for his crews over zealousness but I assured him that I didn’t need a sit down, just somewhere to open up my bag and sort the kit out and that the pile of bricks next to the chair would do fine for that. We’d had a couple of chats already over the miles, the main one being in respect of his advice what to do to protect the nips (for some reason he seemed to think I needed advice here, can’t think why). I even got to see his and his nip- guards. Quite a nice chap I thought but a lot slower today than he normally is, which he put down to being put out of his stride by the wing mirror incident. It had been a while ago now and many miles in the past, but it doesn’t take much to knock you back. I picked up my torch but decided I didn’t need a dry T shirt since it hadn’t been raining for a while now and I was dry again. I jogged off with a chocolate milk – still yuk, but easier to get down this time.
I was well out of Zevgolatio and heading up into the hills when it started to get dark. It’s a shame that probably the prettiest part of the route is done in the dark, but at least I was seeing some of it this time since I was now over an hour up on the cut-offs and over an hour up on the fastest I have ever been at this point. I was looking forward to getting my head down and pushing on past my 2006 failure point, the next in the little ticks that would give me a further mental boost.
But I guess it was too much to hope for that it would be all plain sailing from here on in. Up until now I had run a perfect race but it was about to start getting tough. As I got closer to the hills in Halkion where my race had ended in 2006 it started to rain again, lightly at first. It seemed innocuous enough and I thought (and hoped) it might just be one of the sometimes heavy but shortlived squalls you can get at this time of year, but it got gradually heavier and heavier – and the wind got up too. I cracked out the plastic poncho I’d been carrying from the start and wondered how long it would last.
It was only a few minutes after that that I realised it was no squall. The wind was now whipping my poncho around and in minutes the road was running with water. My Hokas helped me stay out of a lot of it at first but it wasn’t long before we were running though ankle deep puddles the width of the road and into a fierce wind. As I approached the hills at Halkion that had seen me off in the past, the water was running down the road like a stream. I barely noticed the hills though. What had ended my race in 2006 barely registered this time and I found I was much stronger on the hills than most. I had slowed to a fast march up the twists and turns but was still able to march past some of those who were trying to run.
It got no better. Soon the rain was washing down streams of mud into the road, making my road soled Hokas slip and skid around. I was close many times to falling over but I learned that the deeper the water, the less mud there was likely to be, so gave up trying to avoid the puddles. After all we were all soaked from head to foot so it mattered very little.
It was like that all the way to Nemea, the half way point. I’d caught up with Russ again on this bit and we pushed into the CP pretty much together. Russ went to his crew and I tried to find somewhere where I could sort stuff out. There wasn’t a lot of room inside. It was full of wet runners, trying to eat and change, and the odd one trying to convince the CP staff that they were too unfit to go on. One guy next to me was getting a bit of an earbashing to get him out there again in it, but he was having none of it. He seemed ok to me and was well over an hour up on the cut-offs but had clearly decided that was it for him.
I dried off as much as I could and put on a showerproof jacket I had in my drop. It wouldn’t keep me dry but with the poncho would hopefully keep me warm. I ate some real food, filled up my handheld and got out there again. It had taken me much longer than it would have done if it had been dry but it was very necessary to use some of my buffer to get sorted for the next section – to the mountain, still over 20miles away.
It felt very lonely back out on the road. There didn’t seem to be many runners around and I was finding it hard to see the markings on the road because of all the water. I knew the route, but not well and a couple of times wasn’t 100% sure I was on the right road. There then followed a long downhill section which helped me to get warm again. My hip seemed ok now but my quads were still hurting and I had to be careful with them. The next section was uphill and off-road. Again I found I was stronger than those around me when walking and quickly left the couple of runners I caught up with behind me. The only annoying thing on this section was the continual crew cars coming up the road and forcing me off the centre of the track, the only bit mud and water free and into the mud at the side of the road, splashing me as they passed. Had I not been so chuffed about getting this far into the race, that could have easily turned into a Mr Grump moment.
Eventually the hill relented and started to go downhill towards Malandreni. It was at this point that one of the most bizarre episodes happened to me that I have ever encountered whilst running and I am still not 100% it wasn’t a dream or a hallucination. I had just waded through one of the deepest and longest puddles, about 25 metres (I know I am old but I am in Europe so metres will do, as long as its metres and not meters) and over ankle deep when I came across a Japanese lady stumbling across the road. As I got nearer she staggered up to me saying ‘sleepy, sleepy’ and gestured that she wanted me to slap her across the face. I recognised her as the Japanese lady who has the back of her head shaved and a face painted on the back so that she looks like she is running in two directions … apart from the fact that at present she was actually looking in only one direction with a hood over the other face. Anyway, she wouldn’t let me go and kept urging me to slap her. I held up my hands and said ‘look duck, I’m not going to hit you’ at which point she grabbed one of my arms and proceeded to whack herself about the face with it. After a couple of whacks she let go and I chaperoned her to the next CP, which was fortunately only a short distance away handing her over to their care before blasting away as quick as I could. I was convinced she was a goner at that point and no-one was more surprised than me when I actually saw finish photos of her, having beaten me by about 30minutes. Either the whack about the chops had done its stuff or someone else had given her a few more. Either way this episode certainly woke me up.
I am not keen on the route into Malandreni. It is steeply downhill but the cut-offs recognise that and so you have to run it all, and quite fast too, or lose time against the cut-offs. Today it was painful on my quads and I was also worried about going too fast since I was still having to run through streams of mud and worried about slipping over. In Malandreni itself, there is often a party going but tonight was so wet there were fewer people around. I got some young lads to make me a quick coffee and since it had about 6 teaspoons of coffee in it I thought it would do me some good. It was very strong but I’m pretty sure it helped. The route out of Malandreni was equally steep downhill and by the time I got down to the valley bottom, my quads were shot.
It was about this point that I hit my darkest hour. My quads were so painful that even though the route was now flat I just couldn’t run and runners were coming past me. I could see my buffer slipping away and knew that I had to speed up. I took some Paracetomol and just hoped for the best but I seemed only to be able to run for a few yards before pulling up in pain. It was also still raining.
The valley bottom was a dark place and I was losing ground on those who overtook me. The only relief came as we approached Lyrkia and started to go uphill again. The change of angle seemed to help and I made up some ground, even though it was mainly fast walking. In Lyrkia itself I stopped for some soup and this, or the Paracetoml finally kicking in, seemed to make a difference and I was able to jog towards Kaparelli, the CP before the switch backs a lot more easily.
It was around here I caught up with Russ again too. He seemed inordinately worried about the cut-offs and that we didn’t have enough time to make it over the mountain. Now I’d been worried about this myself just a few miles previously but now I knew I was going better again and knew we still had over an hour on the cut. I tried to reassure him but I’m not sure he was convinced. Anyway, as we approached the notorious switchbacks at the base of the mountain I was feeling a lot better and my pain and frustration of only a few miles previously were a thing of the past. It’s strange how things can change so much in such a short space of time. One minute you can be as low as low can get, harbouring all sorts of black thoughts and the next can be as high as a kite again. If I hadn’t been experienced enough to know that these dark moments can be so transitory it could have done for my race. Even so, and even though you are half expecting one of these moments to arrive at some point it’s difficult to prepare yourself for just how low you can actually feel. At the time it really does feel like the end of the world with no resolution in sight.
At this point I was walking with a German guy who lived in Miami. He’d had a go before and had failed but was feeling better this year too. He asked me how far was the furthest I’d got in any of my attempts. I answered by pointing to the CP about 100yards away – there, I said. And it was true. My best race so, far back in 2009 had ended in a mess of puke and diarrhoea about 50metres after this CP. I’d been the last person allowed through about 10minutes down but only yards afterwards my race had ended in ignominy in a drainage ditch at the side of the road, a result of having had to rush through the last half dozen checkpoints without the time to refuel.
But this time I was halfway up the switchbacks already and feeling strong on them, probably as a result of my hill training in Peru. I carried on through and onto new ground for the first time in the race. Head down I powered up the rest of the switchbacks and up to the mountain base CP. It was great to be on new ground and finally meet the mountain, after all these years.
I hadn’t wanted to spend much time here. It was wet and there wasn’t a lot of shelter. The tent was full and I had to lean into a wooden gazebo out of the rain to change the batteries in my headtorch. I managed some bread and soup and just headed off. Although I had dry kit here and a waterproof, it wasn’t really the best place to strip off and although wet, I was still warm.
Immediately onto the mountain path I found it hard to see where I was going. Visibility was poor and light from my headtorch was just bouncing back. I had to turn it down to its lowest setting and just put up with the gloom it produced. The path did get steeper but I must admit I was wondering what all the fuss was about. Sure it was steep, wet and slippery in my road shoes but it wasn’t the hand over hand stuff I’d been led to believe it was. I was overtaking runners on it too and on the way to the top caught up with DK again. From the rather gentle but insistent and repeated ‘oh dearing’ and slipping around, he was clearly having a torrid time. I was impatient to get past but the path was too narrow to try. At one point he slipped and waved an arm out which hit me over the head behind him, but I’m sure it wasn’t deliberate and at another turn he allowed the group of us to pass. I powered away again and although the top was a bit further away than I thought, I wasn’t unduly troubled. In fact the only issue came when I reached the top and found I no longer had a race number … or race belt either come to that. I do remember the wind whipping at my poncho at one point and it must have ripped away at the Velcro fastening and sent my belt complete with two sets of numbers, wheeling off somewhere into the mist and wind. I had to explain to the staff what had happened. It surprisingly perhaps didn’t seem a big deal to them, they said they would look out for it and I was ok to go on. I did have to explain however at 20 odd more CP’s why I didn’t have a number though. So, anxious not too cool down I did carry on, without a break at the summit.
It was harder work down the other side. My knee is still good for climbing but doesn’t like steep downhill anymore and I was anxious not to tax it. One slip or twist and it could be game over. The route was rocky, slippery and treacherous and the visibility less than the distance between light sticks. This meant that you had to set off in a direction you hoped would be correct and then vary it when the next light stick came into view. If it didn’t you were going wrong and needed to look around. As a result I was slow going down the hill, cold and soaked by the time I reached Sangas village and also down to about an hour over the buffer. I had just done 100miles in exactly 21hours though. My only faster time over this distance was round a track in Tooting in 2016 and today was far from being the picnic that day had been. There was also a long way left to run. 50miles in fact.
And then it started to get hard. It was still dark and I was running painfully downhill towards Nestani. I was cold, my quads hurt and I was struggling to run on them. I’d heard this was usually a nice, easy stretch in fine weather. Easily downhill and so a recovery run into the breakfast CP. I had lost some time down the mountain but was struggling to get it back again in the 5miles to Nestani. The route was a little convoluted too and I ended up getting momentarily lost in Nestani itself. I couldn’t see any road markings due to the shiny, wet tarmac and ended up coming into the CP from 180 degrees out.
Rob told me to get in and get out, and that Russ was not far behind me but I knew I needed to do something drastic or I ran the risk of just tailing off as it is easy to do on the next section even in good weather. I still had an hour over the cut-offs but I needed to do some drastic running repairs so I went to toilet to prevent me from having to do this in a less hospitable spot, stripped off all my wet gear and put on new kit. I also ate properly and picked up a new batch of Ultrabites and Tailwind canisters. It’s never good to waste time at CP’s since after all, there are 75 of them and a minute in each is an hour and 15mins. It was a hard decision to use up so much of my heard earned buffer but if I had just raced in and out I ran the risk of running out of energy and even succumbing to the cold. I hoped therefore the pit stop was a sound idea even if it did mean I was now only 35minutes up and with not now a great deal of leeway.
In fine weather I reckon I would be confident in building my time back up over the next section but I confess I didn’t really enjoy it today. I was able to run again after my break but I felt like the route was bitty and unnecessarily twisty and turny and the more open nature of the course mean that the wind was harder to cope with. The route to Tegea really dragged and several times I stopped a run in despair of ever getting out of that wind/rain and in pain with my quads. I was convinced my pace was slowing off so much that I would inevitably lose my buffer. The CP boards however, comfortingly said otherwise. On other occasions these boards have confused an addled brain and converting kilometres to miles had proved just too awesome a task. Today I was trying to simplify it and just look how far ahead of the closing time I was and that told me that whilst I wasn’t gaining any time, I wasn’t losing any either and consistently over the next 10-15miles or so, I remained 35minutes up.
Eventually the country road turned into the main one and the big, long hill that had looked so intimidating on the route profile. I recall John Foden telling Glyn Marston on this hill back in 2004 that he couldn’t walk it or he would gradually erode his buffer. I also recall other runners talking of just fading on it being out the race before they knew it.
Again the wind made it hard but once again I found my walking pace better than those around me and to be almost as fast as others running pace. As a result I was able to just power it and not lose much to those who tried to run it all. I was able to jog more of it than I thought I would too and again the buffer remained constant and as I reached 130 and then 135 miles I dared to start believing that it would be enough to get me to the end, but the more negative side told me that that road into the wind, which was getting stronger and stronger was surely going to have another go at spoiling the party.
My last drop was at the Monument at about 138miles. As I got to this CP the wind was now showing just how strong it was. I felt guilty at asking for my drop bag since the physio tent was in tatters and open to the elements and the majority of the CP staff were just trying to hold the main gazebo down on the ground. In some of the previous CPs the mood of the staff was unfailingly encouraging despite the wet adversity that everyone faced including them and I simply cannot thank them enough for their sterling efforts to keep us runners on the road despite the conditions. Eventually however, one of the staff emptied a box full of water to find my drop bag at the bottom. I had spent too long here but needed the fuel to stand any chance of getting me to the end and it had to be done.
I couldn’t believe it would get any worse, but it did. Not long after Monument the wind turned up the dial big time and the rain was slashing at me like knives in my face. My poncho was now shredded and I was having to pull it together tight over me to keep any protection. I had held onto my headtorch after leaving Nestani since it wasn’t quit light and now that paid off since I was able to use it to keep my cap and poncho hood battened down over my head. The noise of my poncho hood blatting around was so loud but it did provide some helpful respite from the elements, if I could only hang onto it.
By now I could barely stand up in the wind let alone walk or run in it. I knew now my pace was really slowing off. It must be, I was barely moving. At this point it seemed almost funny to think that I had tried to foresee what adversities this race would throw at me and prepare for them. It seemed just so comical that this race had done it again to me and after letting me get so far, it had turned out to be something so bizzarely unexpected as a hurricane that at 140miles into a 152mile race was going to end my day, just like the snow in the Cheviots only 10miles or so from the end of the Spine in 2016 had been so close to doing. There it had taken us close to 24hours to do what usually takes no more than 10 or so, because of the deep snow and wind.
I was cold and wet and thought that I was only going to get colder. Surely I’ve no chance of finishing now. In the UK this race would probably have been stopped by now but as time went by no-one came to collect me. There was no death bus picking up drowned rats so I began to think, what would Rocky do if he had been knocked down – well, he would get back up again. And what would Leonidas have said at Thermopylae if the Persians had told him to lay down his arms and surrender – well, he would have said ‘molon labe’ or ‘come and get them’. I just had to stop feeling sorry for myself. I kept looking ahead out into the wide open landscape of the mountain road sweeping round. I could see a sparse line of competitors all with their heads tucked down into the wind. I had no option but to just do the same and just try to march into it as strongly as I could. I would not give up.
It carried on like that for I know not how long in a seeming alternate reality where time just seemed to stand still, until I was dragged out of my trance with the route turning off the main road. Having to do something else other than trudge into the wind brought me back into the real world and I trotted off down to another CP. A lady ran out of the CP towards me telling me that because of the weather everyone who got to this CP would be allowed a finish, even if it was outside the 36hr limit. I was pleased at that news. I didn’t see the CP time board so I wasn’t sure how long I had but I knew now that one way or another I would finish the run. Would I be happy with a finish outside 36hrs? Well, I told myself I was and that I was never coming back although I’m not sure I would have been, 10minutes after I’d finished, but by now my brain was a bit fried and I had no real idea how long I had left or how far I had to go.
I carried on anyway, now downhill. Now that I was off the wide open mountain road and going past houses I could see just what the storm had been doing. It was still windy and raining hard but not as exposed, but I could see tree branches across the road, roof tiles all over the road and one house even had the whole of its rendered front sat in a pile on the pavement. I had only seen stuff like this on the news before.
The next CP arrived quickly and I was met by a British support crew. Darren was still there and we jogged off down the road together. I told him I was worried that we might have to finish outside the36hr limit since I had worked out from my watch that we had about 9 miles left to do. Darren assured me however that in fact it was only about 6 and he knew we would do it because he had done this final section before and knew how far it was. It looked like my watch was a bit out. I had put it on the lowest GPS setting so that the battery would last 36hrs and as such, over 140+miles had lost about 3 of them. It wasn’t much over that distance but this far into the race meant about ¾hr of time. Enough to get there in under 36hrs.
When I realised that and started to see signs to Sparta which confirmed the distance a huge weight lifted form me. I could have run faster down that last long hill if I’d had to but I knew now that I would make it. As a result I started to take it a little easier and just trogged happily down that final road into the outskirts of Sparta. We crossed the Evrotas which was swollen, fast, full of debris and very brown and looking more like something Wildebeest would go through, through an ankle deep puddle on the bridge and whilst being splashed by cars. I didn’t care and just ran through it all like I was on a cross-country race.
We passed the final CP on an island, but it had been effectively abandoned and there was nothing there but debris strewn all over the island. It looked like … well I suppose it looked like it had been hit by a hurricane.
After that we came into Sparta proper. I knew the route was a bit circuitous but there were no kids on bikes to guide us. Instead the locals were all out on their balconies cheering and waving. I dumped the tatters of my poncho into a skip and turned the final corner. There he was right in the distance, Leonidas, waiting for me. The last strait is a long one and half way down Darren told me to crack on ahead and ‘milk it’. I was all for waiting for him and running in together but he was insistent that it was my moment. And that moment will live with me forever.
So will I do it again? I certainly don’t need to do it again. Had the weather on the Saturday been as favourable as it had been to me on the Friday then I reckon I could have retained or even built on my 1¼hr buffer, but this race to has never in the slightest been about time to me. Instead it has been just about survival and just somehow grinding out a finish. Now I’ve done that I really don’t think I could ever replicate the feelings I had on that final stretch into Sparta, or indeed and more to the point I don’t think I would ever want to water down that unique feeling by another finish, maybe a bit easier next time or worse, another failure. So, I think it was probably a one-off rematch. One time in 7 the variables might just be right for me to finish but I’m not sure my knees have it in them or I can stave off old age and inevitable decrepitude long enough for that to all come together again. I have often thought that I might in fact have become a better runner over my advancing years for not having finished this race till now, with constant training for a possible race finish as the carrot to keep my ‘Eye of the Tiger’. A finish earlier in my running career might just have allowed me to take up retirement much more easily, and sooner.
But that run (ok, run might have a bit of artistic licence here) down that final road to Leonidas was just indescribable, just something otherworldly. It certainly wasn’t the finish I’d had in my minds eye. No adoring crowds drinking beer and lining the roads, cheering me on. No kids on bikes escorting me to the finish, but it was still the best race finish by far that you could ever imagine and I never want to better it. The road to Leonidas has been a very long one, so much more than 152miles but it now has an ending and is not the Greek tragedy I feared it might be.
There was I confess, some trouble holding it together as we tramped through puddles below the cheering balconies into Sparta and some dampness of the cheeks not cause d by the rain as I arrived at the statue after Darren had kindly urged me on ahead. I will treasure the memory forever but my time at the statue was all too brief. The Evrotas water I drank had certainly not been pulled from the river recently but was the sweetest reward, before I was tenderly escorted away. That this was for my feet to be washed would make Louise cringe (my feet, like every ultra runners are not a pretty sight at the best of times let alone after having been immersed in water for 36hrs) and brought me back into the real world, one where I could sit down without feeling guilty and think about life again.
Finally, my thanks to the BST - I never started with a crew, but I felt like I ended with one. To the ISA for organising such a great race and holding it together in such demanding conditions. To Darren for calmly reassuring me at CP72 that we would make it in time and for sharing those last few miles with me. To Mark for all these years believing I could do it but mostly to Louise who, whilst she could never understand why I wanted to keep going back to this race with only a 23%-50% chance of a finish, allowed me to chase and ultimately realise that dream.
Oh, and finally thanks too to Pheidippedes, without whom we would have no such race at all.