In 2007 whilst working full time and attending Uni in the evenings I put on a bit of weight; there just wasn’t time to exercise, or so I thought. I got the shock of my life when my favourite pair of jeans no longer fitted and I decided to do something about it. Ryan Spencer sold me my first pair of running shoes and he was also responsible for planting the seed of ultra-running in my brain even before I had set foot on the store’s treadmill…
Spartathlon 2016 Race Report. End of Season.
So I lost the extra weight with the running and I was awarded a degree and since then I have completed a lot of endurance challenges. I can’t quite remember when I first heard about the Spartathlon but it goes without saying that it is an iconic race because of its history and difficulty. Last year I was lucky enough to meet their qualifying criteria and I felt even luckier to be successful in the ballot for a place this year and have a chance to represent Brazil.
So what is the Spartathlon? It’s an annual, 246 km race (153 mi) in Greece since 1983, retracing the footsteps of Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger sent to Sparta in 490 BC to seek help against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides, according to an account by Greek historian Herodotus in The Persian Wars, arrived in Sparta the day after he departed. Herodotus wrote: “On the occasion of which we speak when Pheidippides was sent by the Athenian generals, and, according to his own account, saw Pan on his journey, he reached Sparta on the very next day after quitting the city of Athens.” Based on this account, British RAF Wing Commander John Foden MBE and four other RAF officers travelled to Greece in 1982 on an official expedition to test whether it was possible to cover the nearly 250 kilometres in a day and a half. Three runners were successful in completing the distance: John Foden , John Scholtens and John McCarthy. The following year a team of enthusiastic supporters (British, Greek and other nationalities) based at the British Hellenic Chamber of Commerce in Athens and led by Philhellene Michael Callaghan organised the running of the first Open International Spartathlon Race. The event was run under the auspices of SEGAS, the Hellenic Amateur Athletics Association.
Following my success this summer at the double Ironman in Slovenia, I had 7 weeks before the Spartathlon to recover and get ready for the race. I was careful with my training, as there was no point in training excessively as the risk of injury was high. What I did do was to include more undulating road running to try mimicking the Greek course and since we lack the sunshine in the UK I used the sauna a lot, as I’ve read it can help you acclimatise to warmer weather. Whether that is true or not I am still not sure but it did boost my confidence that I would be able to cope in the Greek sun.
Things went smoothly and with two weeks left I began to taper for the race and start packing for the trip. Unfortunately, it was then that I realised that with my eagerness to have everything ready months in advance, my medical certificate had now expired! Panic set in when my local doctor was fully booked. I emailed the organisers to explain my situation and got a lovely reassuring reply that I was not to worry-phew!
Before I knew it I was in the Acropolis, with only a few minutes left before my long journey to Sparta. I wasn’t worried about the distance, the undulation or the 36 hours cut off. What worried me the most was the heat and the pressure of having to stay ahead of the death bus. For an athlete of my ability there wasn’t a lot of room for error in the first 100k of the race.
As the race started I let my legs dictate my pace, I didn’t have to put in any effort to run at 6 miles per hour. Leaving Athens was chaotic, with lots of cars and fumes and it was probably the part I enjoyed the least. I was glad to leave the capital and to start running along the coastline, the temperature rose and I remember looking at the water and wishing I could dive in. Once it warmed up I started with my strategy of soaking my hat in cold water and immersing my wrists/buffs in the ice at every check point I went through. I made it to the marathon in roughly 4:10 with 30min to spare. Next goal would be the fifty mile mark then 100k. I made it to those with 40min to spare and I was already looking forward to the cooler night ahead.
As it got darker and the temperature dropped I started to feel more comfortable despite my fatigued legs and with each check point my spare time increased which naturally boosted my confidence. Nutrition was going really well and during the day I only consumed the Generation UCAN which I was carrying, some peach juice mixed with water and the odd cup of coke. It was late at night when I had my first solid food, half a cheese and ham sandwich.
I noticed that pretty much everyone else were wearing a warmer layer and hat and gloves, however I felt really comfortable just wearing the short sleeve top I started in. The sky was clear and simply stunning, filled up with stars and I’m not sure I was hallucinating but I swear I saw a shooting star. At around mile 99 the race takes you up a winding road which goes up nearly 1000m, this was the first time I walked lots and it seemed to go on forever. Once at the top you have simply arrived at the mountain base check point. I wasted little time here, just refilling my bottle before I began the treacherous and narrow loose shingle path to the very top. I really didn’t like looking down and seeing the light dots in the distance, one wrong step here and it could all go very wrong for a tired runner. When you reach the top, you still need to go down a zig zag path and care must be taken before you joined the paved road again.
Passing the 100-mile mark with around 100min from the cut off was great, in my head I now ‘only’ had over two marathons to reach Sparta; I had done that in the double Ironman so surely I could do it again. I was tired but there wasn’t anything wrong with my body, I just needed to keep one leg in front of the other.
As the sun came up my hands felt cold and I wore my gloves for 30min and grabbed a cup of soup in one of the aid stations. The terrain seemed flat for a while and the miles ticked along nicely, I was making the most of it before the temperature went up again. I remember arriving at one aid station thinking I had only 30min left before the death bus reached me. I was fucking livid, how did I drop down from 100min in such a short space? I ran really well to the next aid station to find that I had 100min once again. I can only assume that my tired brain misread the previous board!
As the heat started to rise so did the roads, to be honest I was mostly power walking uphill at this stage and it felt like a rest, running downhill had started to hurt. I was again soaking my hat and buffs in cold water at each check point to try and stay cool. I didn’t fancy solid food anymore and was once again drinking peach juice mixed with water and coke, and watermelon tasted amazing whenever I found some. I really wanted grapes, aka “nature’s little gels” as another runner called them, but I couldn’t see any.
By the time I had a marathon left, I started to sense that I would conquer Sparta, I had maintained my spare 100 mins and I was moving fairly well, overtaking more runners than the other way round. Before the race I had told everyone I would be a happy man to be the last person the touch the statue in Sparta but my calculations were now indicating I could do better than that.
With each checkpoint gained there was a small victory, another step towards Sparta, just repeat this routine each time- fill the bottle, soak the hat and buff and don’t stop! It was mostly downhill by now and my quads were screaming at me. From time to time they would lock and that started to worry me: ‘what if I fall so close to the finish?”. Emotions were running high as I thought about my girls back home, the imminent desire to quit ultra-running as soon as the race was over, I also felt sad I couldn’t ring my mum to tell her about the race and with less than half a marathon to go it could still take me hours if I was reduced to walking the rest. Too much time to think!
People often ask me why I enjoy running these silly distances. There are many reasons, but the emotional rollercoaster you go through are food for your soul, and without a doubt it makes me a much better person. It has the ability to make you appreciate the simple things in life like a hot shower, a cold drink, etc.
With Sparta on the horizon I caught up with an Italian runner, by now we were both running downhill like a couple of penguins. I said that to him and we had a good laugh and he said it was his second and last Spartathlon, we shook hands and smiled and made our way together down towards Sparta.
With 6 miles to go I had worked out that if I only managed 20min/per mile there would only be 2 hours left of this torture. I turned my watch back on and started the countdown; with a mixture of power walking and penguin style running I logged 13min/mile for the next four miles, woohoo I was ‘flying’. We had arrived in Sparta and my competitive spirit returned, I approached a group of athletes who were walking so I increased my pace and beat them to the last check point before the finish line. I quickly removed my Brazilian flag and wrapped around my shoulders and a small boy on his bike guided me towards the statue; it felt like it went on forever and I kept asking him ‘are we there yet? Much to my annoyance I glanced over my shoulder and the guy I had overtaken was now running well and catching me up. Knowing I wanted this moment all to myself, I pushed on harder, wishing I hadn’t wrapped myself in a swathe of boiling hot polyester flag.
Finally I could now hear the announcements over the microphone and I started seeing all the flags and glimpsed the statue of King Leonidas. I had made it to Sparta from Athens and my eyes filled up with tears. What an absolute dream to conquer the Spartathlon in 34h and 23 gruelling and unforgettable minutes, without a doubt my hardest and proudest athletic achievement. After kissing the foot of Leonidas and posing for a photograph I was led to the local infirmary where my feet was cleaned, my blister was popped and I was so overwhelmed with relief and happiness that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was desperate to ring my wife and share the moment with her and my girls. One thing I do regret from that call is telling her that I wouldn’t do the Spartathlon again as I’m now desperate to enter the ballot for 2017.
A super thank you to all my Brazilian teammates, who provided great company and banter during those days in Greece. Also thanks to the British team, seeing some familiar faces and all their words of encouragement during the race was appreciated. The people of Greece were wonderful, thank you and I will be back for more (permission from my wife is yet to be confirmed).
Huge thanks to Skechers Performance UK for supplying me with my favourite shoes this season. I wore the Skechers Go Run 4 for Spartathlon, and only one blister after 153 miles is truly amazing. I just love those shoes!
This is now the end of season for me, I’m now a double Ironman triathlete and a Spartathlon finisher, how cool is that? I did have a hiccup not finishing the Grand Union Canal due to a stomach virus in May but there wasn’t much I could do about that at the time. Another year injury free, a lot more experience accumulated and still happily married.
For 2017 my goals are: to improve my 100-mile time at the Thames Path 100 at the end of April and to finish the Thames Ring 250-miler at the end of June, eeek! I now just need to work on my wife so she can let me return to Greece in September.