Legendary, a classic. Descriptions often used about events, but literally true in the case of the Spartathlon. It has a fantastic ancient and modern history. That, and its prestige lead to it being a race that is on most ultra-runner’s bucket list as a result.
The race originates in the ancient 2500 year old legend of Pheidippides, an Athenian courier who was tasked with running to Sparta to request help when the Persian armies landed at Marathon to March on Athens. He was reputed to have made the journey in a little over a day.
The modern history began when John Foden, and several of his fellow RAF officers decided to see if they could recreate the journey by running from Athens to Sparta in under a day and a half, which they successfully completed. From this the race began.
The first official running of the race was won by a then unknown Greek runner called Yiannis Kouros. However his race time was so fast that the organisers had serious doubts about its validity. Kouros came back the following year and was watched like a hawk as he ran an even faster time. Thus began the career of perhaps the greatest ultra-runner of all time. Kouros won the race 4 times in total, in the 4 fastest times ever run over the course.
So running this race is literally and metaphorically running in the footsteps of legends! It has a suitably high level of prestige. It’s also known for its great difficulty. The dropout rate can be huge (normally greatly exceeding 50% of entrants). The hot weather that the race is normally run in definitely accounts for a lot of difficulties. It also is quite undulating, with a 1000 meter mountain to climb in the later half of the race.
Spartathlon Elevation Chart
So last year I decided that it was as good a time as any to give it a go. I’d heard tons about the race. My friends and Irish teammates John O’Regan and Eddie Gallen had both entered and finished the race. Eddie loves the race so much that he has made at least 4 trips. I had also followed the Irish (and Irish resident) gang who raced in 2015. It sounded epic.
The race has a very high entry standard to be allowed compete. My 24 hour distance from the Irish championships in 2015 was good enough both to allow me to enter, and to put me in the “guaranteed” list, so that I wouldn’t need to go into the a draw for entry places. A lot of people make a big fuss about the whole process of entering and leading up to the race. I kept things a bit more low-key, just quietly getting things organised. With a whole series of “A” races entered this year (The Spine, The Northern Traverse, The Irish 24 hour championships, Iterra adventure race and the UTMB) meant that I mentally parked it away until returning home from the UTMB.
Helen, my wife, agreed to come out to Greece as well. I booked her in the supporters’ package so that we would be assured of sharing hotel rooms and race transport. I wasn’t too worried about actually needing her to act as a support crew in the race itself. My main priority was that we would get a shared experience, and hopefully a bit of a holiday in sunny historic Greece.
I watched as the draws were made and the entry list filled up. There would be a few other Irish making the trip, including Billy Holden and Anthony Lee who I knew from the Irish ultra running scene. Don Hannon got a place in the draw, but had to decline his place (He was donating part of his kidney to help save someone’s life. That puts the trivialities of running races in context). Eddie Gallen (and Austrian international Kerry resident Thomas Bubendorfer) skipped the race this year as they were prioritising the European 24 hour running championships taking place 3 weeks later.
The most interesting Irishman from my perspective on the list though was Keith Whyte, another fellow Irish international who is the Irish 100km record holder. Keith was prioritising the Spartathlon this year, and had entered The Varty 100 mile race and the Belfast 24 hour race as practice for the spartathlon. Keith has super speed over 100km but hadn’t run much longer than that until this year, so this would be very interesting step up for him. It also set up a nice Tortoise and Hare scenario between the 2 of us.
Gear preparation for this race was relatively straightforward. Bring mostly hot weather gear! Luckily I had received a batch of new trail running Columbia/Montrail gear before the UTMB, which turned out to be a perfect for this race! Really light, and cooling. I still made sure to pack a bit of everything, just in case, to cover every possible likely eventuality.
I had managed to pick up an injury at the end of the Iterra race (shin splints /tendonitis or something), which destroyed my attempt at the UTMB (I had to pull out after the first big hill). With less than a month to Spartathlon after that I had to be very careful in how I managed the injury (I was less worried about maintaining training). But rest did the trick and I was even able to complete a few weeks of unhindered training in the lead up to the race without a trace of the injury.
The journey to Greece was enjoyable for an aviation nerd (which I am!), passing through Heathrow. The views over Athens were spectacular from the plane as we made our way into the airport.
Having never been to Greece before I wondered how chaotic it would be. I certainly wasn’t expecting swiss efficiency. As it happened one of the main airport bus routes passed right by our race hotel, so we were able to use public transport to make our way in. Luckily and somewhat randomly there was another Irish couple on the bus going to the same hotel, and between us all we managed to eventually work out which stop to get off and find the hotel (across a 3 lane dual carriageway). Greece seemed to be pretty Irish in terms of organised chaos!
Athletes, and supporters on the official packages, are allocated hotel space by the race before and after the race. The hotels in Athens were in the (apparently very posh) suburb of Glyfada. Athletes were grouped together by nationality. We (the Irish) would be grouped with our fellow Anglophones the British and the Americans, along with a few others such as the Poles. Despite the poshness of the area, our hotel was definitely no more than 2 star. Luckily we got a room with a view out over the ocean, which looked spectacular (and as much quieter than room looking out over 6 lanes of traffic).
Wen met Phil McCarthy, the American 48 hour record holder on the hotel stairs, along with his helper Shannon. Helen had met Phil at the 6 day race in New York (Which he won the year before I did), and we had a good long chat. Helen and myself were trying to figure out what support the race would provide to supporters who didn’t have their own car (most crew had hired cars). They reckoned there was no race bus for supporters. There was little or no information on the website to clue us in.
The following morning we went over to the main race hotel where registration was due to start at 10. When we got there we found lots of people milling around and signs saying registration would start at 10:30. All slightly disorganised. Sod that…we headed back and diverted to have a walk on the beach, where we met Anto and had a good long chat. Then back to the hotel, where I would finalise my small collection of drop bags before heading back to the race hotel to try to get both the registration and drop bags done in one go. (There are about 75 aid station on the race, and athletes can have drop bags brought to as many of the stations as they desire).
Helen came into the hotel room as I was packing gear into small bags and dropped an enormous bombshell. Richie Byrne, my good friend, had died overnight. He had been battling cancer for the last year, posting a series of inspirational blogs on his fight. That’s what made the news so shocking to me…He had continued to be active and had a hugely positive attitude. The man was a born fighter. The news hit me like a punch to the stomach. Now I was particularly grateful to have Helen here. We talked about Richie a lot over the next few days. It was an emotional roller-coaster at times. Every so often I would quietly well up thinking about so many good memories, and how much he’d be missed.
Richie Byrne – Friend, nspiration.
I finished off my drop bag packing on auto-pilot. I packed 3 main bags, guessing that I’d need my headtorch at about 120km. I made sure to put a lightweight windstopper jacket at the “bottom of the mountain” aid station, along with a second headtorch. I also put some warmer long-sleeved tops in these and one or two others mid-course aid stations. Finally I put a few small bags with a few jelly beans and some Aldi coconut chocolate bars scattered in 4 or 5 other aid stations scattered in the 2nd half of the course.
I stopped by Billy and Anto’s room on the way out of the hotel, as I knew they were going to be heading over to leave their drop bags as well. I “borrowed” some labels for my bags and marked them up with the appropriate aid stations, drawing on Anto’s experience.
The registration was now nice and quiet, and the whole process was surprisingly quick (and surprisingly manual and old-school… not a trace of a computer). We confirmed that there would be a race supporters bus that would at least ensure that Helen would get to her hotel in Sparta for Friday night. We then went and placed our drop bags in the drop bag collection bins (each labelled with its aid station number). Helen pointed out that I had put them all in the boxes without taking note of where which ones I had placed them in… oops… so I went around and called them out as I found them so that we could list them (I wrote the station numbers on my hand before the race morning).
Huge numbers turned up for the English language race briefing (3 or 4 different briefings in a range of languages were arranged in sequence), which was mandatory to attend. I don’t think we learned much new that wasn’t already documented on the website. There were lots of warnings about where and when crew could assist their runners. Interestingly they said there would be no more than 20 people on the race support bus, as all the other crew had their own cars. Jeeze… quite a contrast to the UTMB’s efforts to be as environmentally friendly as possible. We finally met Keith here (He had rented a large apartment in the city centre for his 3 support crew rather than use the race hotel, but unfortunately 2 had pulled out the week before the race). His partner Eada would was now his solo support crew. It sounded like they were having fun adjusting to Athens driving in their rental car.
The pre-race dinner at the hotel initially looked like a nightmare scenario for me. They were dishing out huge amounts of junk pasta. Old school rubbish food. I asked was there any vegetables, meat or fish, and they said there wasn’t. Truly pathetic. Luckily I spotted there was some very chunky soup which actually worked out fine (if unspectacular). A good dollop of creamed rice followed that up.
We had been told we would be picked up from our hotels at 5:30 in the morning to get to the race start. I didn’t need to leave too much time for breakfast (which was basically a coffee and a bit of yoghurt) so had a pretty good nights sleep and was well enough rested. We left our main luggage in the hotel lobby (they’d keep it for our return on Sunday), and dropped my “Sparta” bag, containing a few bits and pieces for the post-race hotel in Sparta, in the luggage van. We were on the bus pretty much bang on time. Eventually the bus left and we made our way up the coast towards the centre of Athens.
I was quite excited to arrive at the Acropolis and the Parthenon. It’s such an iconic location, and one I had envisaged visiting since a very early age (Learning about ancient history way back in first year of primary school). There was a definite buzz of pre-race excitement around the place. I got to chat with most of the Irish contingent, including Jan Uzik who had retired from the race last year having made it as high as 6th at one point, and was unable to race this year due to illness. He gave me plenty of tips, in particular on avoiding the hazards at the start. Plenty more chats with Bridget Brady and her crew, Vilnis, and finally Keith and Eada.
Lining up preparing to start
As the time for the race approached I kissed Helen goodbye, and lined up well behind the front with Bridget and Keith. The sky was starting to turn blue as the day dawned, with the atmosphere getting more charged by the second.
About to unleash the pack!
And then we were off. As expected a mass of runners charged off from the front. I wasn’t expecting too many of these to be running that well this time tomorrow! I was happy to relax and walk off, moving up gradually to a steady run as the space became available. I wasn’t at all worried about position or places here. I would run my own pace. Keith seemed to have the same idea and we stuck together. Quite a few deep drains and poles had to be avoided in the first couple of hundred meters. We were then running steadily downhill along a nice pedestrian avenue with great views of the ancient city down towards the morning traffic of the modern city.
With Keith heading down from the Start
I could see Phil McCarthy in a distinctive green top heading off at good speed creating a gap ahead of us. Indeed there were plenty of people ahead of us, with a continuous stream of runners heading down our coned off area of the streets ahead.
There were plenty of police and marshals in place to ensure that the entire field would make it safely through the city without obstruction. There were plenty of beeps from the traffic, with Keith and myself agreeing that they sounded like “well done” beeps rather than “get out of my way” beeps! We kept our own steady pace and had a good conversation as we made our way out through the suburbs. There was great support from people on the streets, whether walking, watching, or waiting to catch their bus.
Running in Athenian Suburbs with Keith
Temperatures were still nice and comfortable at this early stage, and we were mostly in shadow rather than direct sunshine. After some steady shallow climbing through outer suburbs we turned onto a 3 lane highway, and headed downhill towards the coast, with massive amounts of traffic building on the opposite (Athens bound) side of the road. Keith and myself were still running together comfortably.
It was good to hit the coast after about 13km or running, as I knew we would be generally following the coastline all the way to Corinth. Unfortunately it wasn’t exactly scenic at this point, being dominated by port industries and infrastructure. We were also still running along the side of a multi-lane dual carriageway. I had seen footage of the race before and was expecting this though, so just got on with things.
On the Coast with Keith
After an aid station in this flat industrial coastal area Keith began to slowly pull away from me. I was happy to let him go. I knew that as a fast 100km runner he was likely to find my pace a little pedestrian. I was a bit unsure of how well my own pacing was going. My broad strategy was to treat this race like a 24 hour race and try to set a steady pace of roughly 10 Km/H (I knew that would be impossible over the course of the entire race due to the hills, but it seemed like a reasonable target for the flatter parts).
Keith opens a gap
An American runner came up beside me and said hello, saying he recognised my name as a good runner (We all had our names printed on our race numbers). I checked out his name, and recognised Bob Hearn as being an excellent 24 hour runner. We had a good chat for a while, in particular talking about next year’s 24 hour world champs in Belfast and the fascinating competitive process to get on the American team (Bob is currently 4th on the list, which gets him to Belfast right now, but there’s a lot of time left in the qualifying window). I let Bob plough ahead after a few minutes and wished him well.
Local kids out in force
About 20km in I reached the town of Elifsina, which took us off the main road, thankfully. Exiting the town at about 23km there was another aid station with a large bunch of supporters. I recognised some of them as being Taiwanese supporters who were on the supporters bus with Helen. Sure enough, the lovely site of Helen cheering from the sideline greeted me around the corner. This wasn’t an aid station were external support was allowed though, so it was just a matter of exchanging greetings and, and quick verbal checks that all was good.
Exiting town – Right turn Clyde
More industrial areas followed for the next few kilometers, although with a lot less traffic than the earlier sections closer to Athens itself. About 26km in we started leaving the industry behind, and the road began a little incline to get over some coastal cliffs. I ran steadily up the shallow climb. I was surprised at how I was speeding past other runners (including Bob) who were climbing a lot more slowly. Clearly my hill training was working to my advantage even on the easy climbs at this early stage. On the corresponding downslope on the other side I found I as also slowly reeling people in. Things were boding well from a competitive point of view if I could keep that pattern up.
I had no idea what position I was in, but was happy enough with my pacing. Some of the aid stations had cut off times for the station and the next station (along with the distance to the next aid station, and elapsed distance or distance remaining) written on a board. I didn’t want to get so close to the cut-offs that I’d have to sprint from one aid station to the next. I had quick check on cut-off times against my watch, and concluded that I had nothing to worry about there. I was happily running along in my own head space. The sun was well up at this stage, with no shadows to hide in. I was hiding under my desert hat though, and it was doing a good job of keeping my head relatively cool.
I was taking something to drink at each of the aid stations. Given that there are 75 aid stations on the route there is potential for calamity here. Even spending a minute at each one would be an hour and a quarter lost. So I had a plan of get-in-get-out as fast as possible. Generally I’d grab a cup or two of my chosen liquid (mostly whatever juice was available, sometimes coke, occasionally water, all available at each station) and quickly down it trying to actually drink it and not spill it all over myself! Given the heat, which was forecast to get to about 30 degrees centigrade, I was erring on the side of not getting too dehydrated.
The route headed inland for a bit through some towns, with plenty of locals looking on and cheering. It the wound its way past the outer edge of the large town of Megara (where a glimpse of low flying aircraft had me guessing there was an airfield nearby). At the edge of the town at pretty much the marathon distance there was a major aid station. By the crowds milling around I guessed that support was allowed here. (Looking back at my splits I can see I hit the marathon distance here in about 3:50, which was very much the top edge of the pace I was targeting, possibly a little too fast). I wasted no time in the aid station, but did stop at the portaloo on the way out for my longest break of the race so far (grabbing the opportunity as it arose).
Shortly after leaving the aid station the route went via a motorway underpass. There must have been 50 or 60 kids gather here cheering on the running and high-5ing any of us they could. That was great. The route returned back to the coast, with magnificent views out across the sea to the hills of the Peloponnese beyond. Both the sky and the sea were beautiful shades of blue.
Another bit of steady climbing for a kilometer or two followed. Again I reeled in and overtook runner after runner without doing any more than running steadily up the hill. The route took us onto what seemed to be a rarely used road that had once been a main road and was now bypassed. This was a nice contrast to the busy highways earlier. The course now followed a tight coastal, hemmed in by lovely white cliffs on one side and the clear waters of the mediterranean on the other. It also undulated quite a bit, which suited me nicely as I over took runners in sequence.
Hunting down the next target
Once past the cliffs the route went through another small town. At an aid station there I recognised the Taiwanese supporters, but didn’t see any sign of Helen. I hoped I hadn’t missed her somehow. I was to learn afterwards that she and wife of Joao Oliviera (A former winner of the race) had decided to get on a bus leaving quicker, as we (Joao and myself) were moving quicker through the course than the runners the others were supporting.
At about 63km in I reached the town of Agioi Theodori. At this stage I knew I was in the hottest part of the day (between 12 and 2pm). Running through the town I could see a pharmacist sign which displayed the temperature, which was showing 29 degrees. Definitely hot. I briefly lost my confidence that I was on the correct route as I exited the town, since I didn’t see any yellow arrow painted on the ground, which I had become accustomed to seeing. This was also one of the first times that I didn’t have sight of any runners ahead. I couldn’t remember missing any obvious alternative, so carried on, and was reassured to find an aid station a few hundred meters further on.
The kilometer or two after the 66km distance was probably the nastiest section of the course. The road was single carriageway with no margins. Unfortunately it was also being used by large numbers of HGVs. Luckily the HGV drivers were being cautious, but it was not a very pleasant experience at all. luckily this didn’t last too long, and things were calmer after the next road junction.
At about 69 km the route was back inland, and passing through the most bizarre section. The road essentially bisected a large oil refinery, with an aid station right in the middle. It was still better than dealing with close passing HGVs. Exiting the area of the refinery I could see we were running out of bay, so that Corinth couldn’t be too far ahead (I wasn’t really paying much attention to mileage, just running away at a comfortable but reasonably fast cruisy pace).
At 75km the bay was left behind and the route switched onto a motorway access route that climbed steadily upwards. As was now the pattern a few more runners were overtaken on the climb. The route crossed over the Athens to Corinth motorway, and then swung around to cross over the Corinth Canal. This was a truly spectacular feature. The canal was cut sharply and deeply into what seemed to me to be about 100 meters of vertical rock. What a great feat of engineering from a past era.
Crossing over the Corinth Canal
The route then continued along a very busy multi-lane road through the ugly outer suburbs of modern Corinth, but luckily we were well isolated from the traffic. A sharp left turn took us onto a much quieter road. I could see supporters buses parked at the turn. Not long afterwards there was an aid station where crew support was allowed. Helen’s bus had got her here in time to see me, so she was there to greet me as I crossed the timing mat to arrive into the station.
As it happened I didn’t need any physical help, and was able to just take my normal quick drink of juice from the aid station. She was able to fill me in with some useful pieces of race information though, which is always great for motivation. Keith must have been speeding, as he was about 25 minutes ahead of me. Helen reckoned I was about 30th or so in the race (in reality I’d guess it was more like 50th). Given that we were 80km in, which is early enough in a 246km race, I was happy enough with that. We both reckoned that would be the last we would see each other before the finish tomorrow, so we kissed goodbye, and I hoofed myself forward to get back into steady running.
I did some calculations on my pacing. Target pacing would have me at 80km in 8 hours (nice simple maths). I was about 25 minutes ahead of that target at that moment. That’s probably in 24 hour PB territory as regards pacing. Even though I knew I was moving with good purpose I didn’t feel that I was running too hard. I reckon that must be the psychological gain of running a fixed distance from A to B as opposed to a fixed time like a hamster around and around the same small circuit.
As it happened this was a real cross-over point in the race. The roads from here were far far quieter and more rural than the coastal route to Corinth. This made for a more pleasant running environment. With a small hill up and down out of the aid station I was still catching and passing runners. After passing under a highway we were out into real country roads a proper greek farmlands. A little later we turned sharply right, and headed down some great dusty roads with wonderful views of the hills of the Peloponnese ahead, along with the sea in the distance to our right.
I was still running strongly, but comfortably. And still I continued to pick off runners one by one over time as the kilometers drifted by. I was still keeping my stop time at aid stations to an absolute minimum, which was also helping shorten gaps ahead. No runner I had overtaken had come back to get back in front of me, which was good. It was still early days in the race, not yet even at 100km, which I reckoned would be a point at which the “Speed Ultra” runners would start to slow a bit as we moved beyond marathon training territory and into “endurance ultra” distances.
Heading for Ancient Corinth
One of the aid stations along this section had the normal choices at its first table, but then a gigantic pile of grapes on a nearby table. I went to grab a few grapes, but one of the aid station staff told me that it wasn’t for athletes (which was fine), but then explained that that was because it would upset our stomachs, which was a bit odd… very little is as easy to eat in the middle of an ultra as grapes! All very friendly nonetheless.
Descending into Ancient Corinth
At 95km in I had reached Ancient Corinth. The route went through the town, and then wound its way down into a really touristy area, with an aid station set up in the middle of a restaurant and gift shop lined pedestrian only street. Leaving the station the route took us right past the ruins of ancient Corinth, which I tried to take in as much of as I could without losing any speed or time.
Passing Ancient Corinth
The same pattern of steady running and occasional overtaking continued on. Sometimes a runner would try to hold me off for a while, or stick on to my heels for a while. Usually I would drop any of those runners at the next aid station, and once the “elastic band” was broken that was generally that! Obviously I knew I was moving up the field, but I still hadn’t come across any familiar runners in a while, so I knew the likes of Keith, Phil, and the top female athletes were still all ahead somewhere. Plenty of work to be done, but this was still the first half of the race… too early for racing per se. Just continue to run efficiently.
We hit the 100km roughly in the town of Assos. I had moved up to 29th at that point, but I was still not really aware of my position, but would have guessed it was something like that. The next checkpoint was quite a busy one in the town of Zevgolateio. I overtook a runner there with my minimal stopping strategy. Not long afterwards I could hear the rapid footsteps of the same runner speeding after me, and flying past. I let him at it… I wasn’t gonna race at this point. A minute or two later he slowed to a walk, and I jogged past him. A minute or two later he was back running fast again, overtaking me. This pattern repeated itself all the way to the next aid station. I noted he was an English runner from his name (Ian Thomas), and presumed from his tactics at this point that he must be a good 100km runner without too much experience of going longer (I was completely wrong about that).
At the next aid station I finally broke the pattern with another rapid exit. At this point the route was getting more notably mountainy! It was very slowly climbing, but we were running in lovely valleys with hills all around. As it was now the late afternoon the hills were usefully increasingly throwing shadows across the roads and reducing the feeling of the radiated heat.
A km or 2 later I caught sight of 2 more runners ahead. Both seemed to have green tops. It took a minute or two to close in on the first of them, and I figured out that it was Keith. He wasn’t moving very fast at all. I shouted a greeting at him once I was close enough, and we had a quick conversation. His I.T. band was playing up on him, and as a result he was reduced to pretty much walking pace. He had had a similar issue at the Belfast 24 hour race earlier in the year which eventually led him to retire from that race. There wasn’t anything I could do to help, so I carried on and told him I’d see him later, no doubt.
I soon caught sight of the next green topped runner ahead, but only on long straights. I reckoned it looked like Phil. The next aid station was another kilometer or two down the road at a lovely tavern on road turn in a small village at the top of a short incline. The kind of place it would lovely to stop for a nice lazy drink in the evening sunshine. If only! As I approached within 50 meters of the station I saw Phil run out. I continued in and did my quick drink and go routine, leaving behind another runner taking a short sitting break.
Phil was running well, so I wasn’t really closing in on him that much at all on the flat sections that followed. About two kilometers later we hit quite a steep hill though. Phil immediately reduced to walking pace. I chugged away at as efficient a climbing pace as I could muster. It didn’t take long to catch Phil, and we had short conversation as I went by. All seemed good with him. I was certainly happy to catch a runner of such known pedigree at this point.
I soon caught and passed two more competitors walking up the hill side by side. As the hill became more shallow approaching the aid station at its apex they both came back up on me again. Clearly they didn’t like being overtaken and had become motivated to run uphill. Eada, Keith’s partner, was at the aid station and checked if I needed anything. She asked about Keith, so I let her know that he was probably a kilometer or two behind and walking, but should be arriving soon enough.
There was a downhill out from this station, and sticking to the pattern I was quickest out. The two runners I overtook on the climb weren’t long coming out and chased me down. They both overtook me over the course of the downhill. As the road started a very shallow climb again one of them slowed to walking, and he was re-overtaken easily. At the next aid station I arrived in just behind the other, but as per usual left before him. The journey to the following aid station was a long chase-down by him, with my climbing making it hard for him to get in front and stay there. He eventually managed it on a long flat.
I was occupied by two things in my own head at this point. The next aid station was #34, where I had left my first headtorch. And I was also thinking another portaloo would be kind of handy! There were no obvious facilities around though, apart from farmland! #34 was at around the 120km mark. Because I has been running well I arrived here in plenty of light, but it was better to be safe than sorry with the torch. At this point I was starting to feel very fatigued. I got my bag from the aid station staff and flopped down onto a stool there to get out my torch. I was feeling a little too tired at this point, which was a little worrying. But there are downs in every ultra, so maybe this was just the usual mid-race horrors. I just took the headtorch and a reflective armband with red LED lights, leaving the warm top behind. There was still plenty of heat in the evening.
We had caught one other runner at this aid station, so when I dragged myself up to leave I had 2 runners just ahead to chase. I was happy enough to let them out in front. I was paying as much attention to potential pit stops in easy reach as anything at this point. The exhaustion had killed off the edge from my chase and catch games. I could feel a few hints of cramping in my feet and calves, but they came and went quickly enough. The other two dangled about 100 meters in front all the way to the next aid station, which was a busy major station in the town of Ancient Nemea.
I arrived in 24th position as it happened (not that I knew), crossed the timing mat, spotted the portaloos behind the station and went straight there. I needed that! My legs were not in great shape though, and I was having cramping issues managing things in the portaloo. The tiredness at this point meant I had to concentrate to get back out as fast as possible. Arriving back outside I met Eada again, and she again asked if there was anything she could help with. I was grand, but took an offered painkiller, as it might help with the occasional cramping. I made sure to take plenty of isotonic drink,, and some salty crisps. And then I was off again, Not too much time wasted, all things considered.
It was an uphill run out of the aid station through the town, and I overtook one of my target runners walking up the hill. On reaching the top of the hills the cramps in my legs started become more intense, and within a few seconds it seemed like every muscle in my legs had gone into spasm. I was in absolute agony, and had no control over the situation. Any move I made seemed to increase the pain, and I wobble about on the spot moaning in agony. This was bad. This was very very bad. I’d never experienced this intensity of cramping before, and I simple couldn’t figure out how to stop it.
As well as the physical pain, my mind was starting to fill with negative thoughts. Was I done for. Is this the end of my race. I was paying the penalty for exceeding my early target pace… I was paying for my own lapse of racing intelligence. I thought of the fact that I was out here disintegrating in the middle the evening before Richie’s funeral. I think that if Riche was standing here looking on he’d tell me the harden the f–k up and get moving. To miss his funeral and not finish the race would be disgraceful.
Phil ran passed and I told him I was cramping like a MFer! He told me I’d soon run it out. I knew that sounded right, but this was so bad I couldn’t even walk a step. In fact it was so bad that I thought the best thing to do was walk the 5 minutes back down to the aid station and try to get some help there. Between Eada and the race staff someone would hopefully be work some magic. I managed to very carefully and gingerly get myself walking, but I was on the edge of cramping with every motion. After about 20 or 30 meters (and passing another runner going in the opposite direction) I changed my mind and reversed back on myself. If I was going to burn time walking, then I might as well be walking in the right direction, and give myself some chance of salvaging the situation.
About 100 meters further on the cramps returned again with the same intensity, and I was again stuck on the spot moaning in agony. I could see a spot where I could sit down on the other side of the road. After a minute or two I was able to make my way over and try to sit down. The family from the house nearby were watching all this concerned. They brought out a chair, and I tried to sit down. This only made matters worse. Bad idea! don’t try that again. I was still stuck for ideas of how to dig myself out of this. By now several runners had passed by. The family was offering me a lift in their car, but I declined that (even if I wanted to get to the aid station, cramping in the car would have been horrendous). It was extremely good of them to offer though (even without a common language… but “Taxi” is universal). I took a little water from them which they kindly gave to me, and walked on extremely slowly and gingerly again, wondering would they be watching my pathetic effort to progress 246 meters, never mind 246km.
By now it had gotten dark, and I had my LED lights on. I didn’t need the headtorch yet, as I was still in Nemea. Very gradually I managed to increase my pace to moderate walking pace. I was still on the edge of cramping with every movement though. But at least I was heading in the right direction, even if the speed was pathetic. After about a kilometer the town ended, and the road began to climb in a zigzag pattern. There was a bit of traffic on the road, so I definitely had to fire up the head torch, both to see and to be seen. I could see runners rapidly closing on me from behind as I walked up the zigzag.
On the hairpin bend of the last zigzag I recognised one of the overtaking runners as being Keith. He was back running well again. We had a quick conversation as he passed, giving each other updates on our states of disrepair and repair. As Keith got to about 20 meters ahead he turned around and asked if I’d like his isotonic drink. I gratefully accepted that. As it happened I had done something similar for Keith many years ago at the world ultra trail running championships in Connemara. Karma works! It’s great the way we can race each other, but still look after each other. That’s the true spirit of ultra-running. Keith powered off up the hill, and I finished off his isotonic drink.
A few minutes later I reached the top of the hill and could see a long downhill run ahead. This was make or break. If I couldn’t pick up running again from here I would fall rapidly back down the field. I still wanted to be competitive. I wanted to race this thing, not just run it. So with a huge amount of trepidation I started slowly trotting down the hill. All was OK. I gradually picked up the pace until I was running down at Long-slow-run speed. Not as fast as I was moving earlier, but good enough for now, and a hell of a lot better than walking pace. I could see one runner ahead, but I wasn’t closing him, just tracking him. Keith had disappeared out of sight.
I reckoned I had lost at least half an hour of time with the whole cramping episode, as well as 10 or 20 places. The one upside was that the walking had been an effective rest and I was no longer feeling fatigued.
The next aid station was at the bottom of the hill. I took a little longer than usual here, getting plenty to drink, more crisps, and some pure salt (which the staff about 2 minutes to free from its container!). It was definitely more important to get this recovery as right as possibly than worry about a few more minutes lost.
Exiting that aid station I was more confident that I was going to be able to stay running without cramping up again, so I carefully upped my speed until I was back running at a steady cruising speed. I was now on a very wide generally flat main road, but there wasn’t too much traffic. On straighter sections I could see at least one runner ahead. The next aid station was just before a turn off this big road. I asked if they had isotonic drink, and they dug a bottle out of a box for me. I set off with the bottle planning to drink it gradually all the way to the next aid station.
Onto the minor road, which turned out to be unpaved… great! A bit of slight pseudo trail running for a while. I wouldn’t be bothered,.but it might cause issues for some of the more specialist road runners. I had been preserving my headtorch batteries on the main road since I could see more than adequately under the streetlights. We were into proper darkness on rough ground here though, so I fired it back up again immediately.
I could definitely see a runner ahead now, and I was reeling him in. I was definitely back “on-line” and back in business. I had asked at one of the previous aid stations roughly what position I was in, and had been given a position in the low thirties. I wanted to try to undo the damage of the cramp stop/walk. I didn’t know exactly how many places I had lost, but I did know that Phil had been the first to pass me, so I wanted to at least try to catch Phil again.
Within a kilometer or so I was right behind the runner I had been watching ahead, and as the dirt road went gently upwards over a small climb I cruised past. My hill climbing ability was still my best racing weapon in this race. It was a nice psychological boost to get a place back. Even better was that I felt fine. I felt like I was back to a cruising speed that was close enough to the pace I had been doing in the pre-Corinth section of the race. If the unwinding of all the places I lost was to happen in reverse order then Keith would be the next runner ahead. There was no sign of him though. There was no real sign of anyone ahead for that matter.
The trail passed under a motorway and turned into a tarmaced country road. It was still empty of traffic though, with the exception of the occasional supporters car going by. All the supporters car had a big A4 sized spartathlon info sheet on their windows, identifying them as supporter cars along with their runner’s number. Whilst I wasn’t able to read the runner number, I was starting to become familiar with the car colours and makes, and the intervals at which they were passing. It was a very rough indication of who my running near neighbours were.
The road twisted and winded its way slowly up the hills, climbing slowly above the motorway below in the valley. It was very nice running territory, but I would have liked to have seen this in daylight. In the distance I could see a pattern of lights which looked like an aid station. I thought I might be able to see a small head torch pool of light nearby as well, but it was hard to tell. It took longer to reach the aid station than I thought it would, as the road twisted its way through all the small gullies and valleys.
I was back in the pattern of moving quickly through the aid stations. There seemed to plenty of supporters cars hanging around this one which was nicely positioned high in the hills. From here the corresponding gradual descent began. My legs were in good condition now, so I was able to apply some concentration and real focus on pushing the speed onwards down the hill, keeping things as fast as possible whilst still being sustainable. The road was still quite twisty. Below me ahead I could see some flashing red light. I wasn’t sure if it was a runner’s safety lights, a road sign, or a car in the very far distance.
The view of the valley ahead was really starting to open up from this high perspective now. Way off in the distance the lights of the motorway could be seen ascending a hill. I guessed from information I had been told by other runners before the race that this was roughly where our big mid-race mountain traverse was. If it was then this route was clearly going to take an arc around to get there. Nothing for it but to take full advantage of the downhill slope and push on at speed…
Soon I caught a closer glimpse of the flashing red lights ahead, and was now pretty sure it was another runner. I had closed in on him quite rapidly. Good… this is good stuff at this stage of the race. The descent became steeper, and I started closing the gap more rapidly . He then pulled in for a short pit-stop and I passed by at speed. He was wearing an Argentinian top…. definitely not Keith! One more catch though. Making progress. I could see the lights of the motorway out to my right, as the route continued its descent down into the valley, eventually reaching a small village. The road continued to twist steeply through this. Any locals that were up and about shouted encouragement.
The dropped into what seemed like the main square in the village, where an aid station was located. It was actually had to pick out the aid station, as it was in a section of a very busy tavern/restaurant. Another spot which seemed to have a great atmosphere where it would have been lovely to hang out. There were one or two other runners here who had arrived before me. I had a small food bag dropped here, from which I grabbed an Aldi coconut bar to eat heading out. A quick drink and I was off again. One other runner left before me, but he was walking out and I soon ran past him. He followed me down the hill for a kilometer or so. But as the road flattened a bit I was fully concentrated on sustaining as high a cruise speed as I could, and I slowly eased away from him.
I was definitely back in full racing mode now. We were beyond half way so I was happy enough to be using racing as my motivation as much as pacing. There was still plenty of damage to be undone, but things were going well again now, and progress was good. I was nicely motivated and driven, whilst still feeling totally in control of my overall pacing. Exiting the next aid station there was no sign of anyone behind me, even after my usual quick drink.
The motorway which I had been looking down on from above 20 minutes or so ago was now above me to my right. The road ahead looked like it would run along through a valley for a while. The motorway street lights were a huge clue as to where the route was likely to be generally heading. The road I was running was pleasantly quiet and unlit.
Another couple of kilometers later I rapidly caught and passed another runner, this time with a ridiculous degree of ease. He was obviously a runner who had gone out too hard and was now paying for it (I know the feeling!). Every overtake was a good positive feedback. Considering I was about 145km into the race I was feeling ridiculously buoyant.
I caught sight of another 2 runners ahead and again closed in rapidly. After exiting an aid station I floated past them in sequence. They were sticking to one side of the road, whereas I was trying to hold the racing line, so I was on the opposite side of the road going past. I recognised the second runner as being the runner I had had the long back-and-forth with on the approach to Nemea. In contrast to earlier there was a huge differential between our paces on the flat now, and I was soon running along on my own again. I was starting to wonder about Keith, and was a bit worried that he might have pulled out. I had overtaken quite a few runners now without any sign of him. He was either doing very well or very badly.
Before the town of Lyrekeia there was a short but very sharp hill, which I concentrated on running all the way, overtaking another runner walking up. I guessed this climb might mark the start of the long approach to the mountain climb. In the town itself there was a large aid station. Another lively place with a great atmosphere. They hard some fresh watermelon slices here. I grabbed two or three of these and along with a bottle of isotonic drink and walked out of the station to continue with my forward progress.
After a little downhill zig zagging through narrow village streets I was back out into the darkness of the country road, now very slowly climbing. I could still see the motorway out to my right high above me, and knew there was a bit to go before reaching the area where it disappeared into a tunnel through the mountains at its highest point. There was no sign of any runners ahead, so it was back to trying to churn out a good fast cruise pace to change that!
One aid station later at about 153km the road turned a bit, and the view ahead opened a bit more. i could see lights moving above the motorway tunnel entrance. At first I thought that could be leading runners, but then realised it was probably cars making their way into the “Mountain Base” aid station for me to be able to see from here. I reckoned I could see a zig zag pattern of either trail or road lower down the hill face on the near side of the motorway… that could be the route up. It could be interestingly steep!
Another kilometer of steady road climbing and the features ahead were more clear. About a kilometer away uphill there was a village, which a prominent blue neon cross on a church. There was likely to be an aid station here. Beyond that the zig zag climb was more clear. I could now pick out a headtorch here and there along it. Plenty of runners ahead. Plenty of potential targets to chase down later.
The road started to head much more steeply uphill. This finally felt like the start of the notorious climb up the mountain. As ever, I made sure to stay running. I knew that every running step was probably closing down runners ahead and dropping runners behind. This was very steep though! Probably at the limits of where running was preferable to walking. I stayed steep up into and through the village. Just as the route veered right I heard a call from my left, to see an aid station.
There was a runner standing there, filling up with liquids. He started walking out as I arrived in. I gave in to the temptation to have a sugary jelly sweet here, as well as my usual quick drink. And then I headed back out again. There were still a few lol people enjoying the spectacle and cheering us runners on.
Exiting the village downhill (I knew this would be very temporary) with a few lefts and rights on minor roads I soon caught and passed the runner I had seen at the aid station. And then it was back to climbing again. The route ahead was very obvious now. It was a back-road taking huge zig zags up the side of the hill. Ahead I could see a number of head torches at various points above me. They didn’t seem to be moving too fast. I reckoned there was 6 or 7 runners visible in all. Targets! There’s enough race distance left to consider catching them all.
Of course the road quickly began to rise again. This was the big hill after all. I soon dropped the runner behind me. The initial zig zag didn’t seem to far ahead at first, but I soon realised it went a long way “in” to the valley before climbing back out on the opposite where I could see a runner or two above. I knew that as long as I could keep running I would probably gain on at least a few people ahead to some extent, and drop pretty much everyone behind. So I made sure not to give in to any temptation to “just walk for a bit” when it got a little steeper.
On this first long “in” section I soon caught sight of a head torch ahead, probably about 200-300 meters. I was definitely closing with each step. Just before the “V” of the switchback he stopped for some relief, allowing me to fly by. Back “out” on the next section and I soon closed down another runner. I made sure to overtake with speed, and keep the power on as the road steepened immediately afterwards. Soon I was dropping him well behind as well.
Another big “V” switched me back steeply again to a steady climb. Now I could see the road ahead climbing in arc around the valley heading up towards the motorway above. I could see bright lights in the far-most Switchback… probably and aid station. As I climbed steadily upwards toward the aid station I kept an eye on the road coming out from it. I counted about 5 head torches exciting as I was approaching. They were at least 5 or 10 minutes ahead, at a guess.
I had checked my race position at an earlier aid station and had been in the mid-30s. I’d been trying to count off my position with each runner I was passing. There was also the chance of getting a “freebie” position if someone ahead retired from the race. With all these runners ahead and “targetable” a top 20 place was definitely possible.
After a long hard-working climb I reached the aid station and did my usual rapid in-quick-drink-out routine. Switching back I could see the road I had climbed zig zagging down the valley below. I had put in some good distance to the runners behind, with only the most recent being within threatening distance. It was starting to feel more airy and mountainy now! Plenty of height gained to here, all relatively straightforward road climbing. More of the same to follow. I kept up the effort and pushed on up the climb, through a few smaller zig-zags, all the while getting closer and closer to the motorway above.
There was a brief respite from the climbing as the road crossed under the motorway, but then climbed even more steeply on the other side. I knew it was likely the “Base of the mountain” aid station was pretty close. Coming up to the crossing under the motorway I thought I caught site of a runner ahead. And sure enough, as I ran up the steep section I was rapidly closing on a racer walking ahead. I recognised the green top of Phil. That was good for me from the point of view of my own race psychology. Phil was the first runner to go past me when I had my cramping meltdown, so this was like closing the loop and getting myself back to my “proper” position (All mind games, but it was working effectively as motivation).
The road turned sharply right, leaving the motorway behind, with plenty of cars parked… definitely the aid station. I passed Phil as we made our way in. I knew I had left a bag for this station with a lightweight jacket for the mountain section. The aid station staff initially told me there was no bag for me here, but I assured them there was, and I found it a second or two later. I picked the jacket out of the bag and tied it around my waist… it was still warm enough that I didn’t need it. I also had a spare head torch, so I did a like for like swap so I had totally fresh batteries.
Shannon was here, and vocally encouraging Phil as he arrived. He was ensuring that Phil got the full pit-stop treatment with lots of food options being produced. There was one other runner also still in the aid station. Again, I was trying to minimise my time here, so I just had another drink, tied my bag back up and checked with the aid station staff where to leave it, and then set off. I knew Phil was at least a minute or two from setting off, but the other runner set off pretty much at the same time.
So finally… the notorious mountain. I’d heard so much about this. How steep it was. How treacherous the terrain was. How exposed it was. How much of a barrier it was. Well, I’m a milt-terrain runner, and this race seems to be mostly road runners. Time to make some ground. Again, the simple plan… run as much as I can to really gain time, but not run so hard as to blow the rest of the race (or induce the dreaded cramps again).
The terrain didn’t seem too bad. It was definitely off-road, bt 100% runnable from a trail-runner’s point of view. A few sharp rocky outcrops here and there, but mostly loose gravel and rock. It launched into being pretty steep almost immediately, but still just about runnable. Within a few seconds I was out of the light spillover from the aid station, and for the first time in the race truly needed the head torch. I switched it to full power, as I knew I had more than enough battery power left, and even in the worst case scenario I’d probably be able to run road section without it. Might as well use the full power whilst off-road to gain any advantage. I was dropping the runner behind slowly but surely.
Surprisingly, there was some “tourist” traffic on the trail descending down the trail, giving support as they passed. A few minutes in the trail became so steep that I had to walk 30 or 40 meters. It then turned right and started zigzagging across the mountain rather than going straight up it. The trail was runnable again (just), and I hooshed myself forward into a trot again. There were lots of tape barriers and lights set up along the path, making it pretty hard to get lost! I could see several cluster of lights above me. I reckoned one was some kind of race station (rescue or aid) and another was a pair of runners.
On quite a few of the “V” turns on the zig zags there were people stationed, presumably as safety. I passed by a photographer, but he didn’t bother raising his camera. Must be getting bored of runners! I was setting a good steady pace and happy with the progress I was making, keeping up a slow enough but steady uphill running pace (And a slow running pace would be the pants off a walking pace, so that was good). I was psyched up for a big alpine style climb to get me up to the full 1000 meters.
I came in to the big race station, which looked awfully like an aid station. There was a runner standing there drinking. I tentatively asked if this was the top (it wasn’t the top of the mountain, but it could be the top of our climb), and the staff said it was. Jeeze… that was a lot easier than I thought it would be. The run up the road to the “mountain base” was longer and harder than the off-road climb. That had flown by pretty easily.
The runner finished his drink and started to head out. I grabbed a quick gulp of one cup, and ran past him about 5 meters out from the aid station. I didn’t want to take any chances of someone blocking me on a narrow descent.
Again, I heard lots about the descent and just how treacherous it was. Lots of people had said that they would have planned to run down this quickly to make up for the slow climb, but the big loose rocks made it impossible. From their description I had visualised “babies heads” rock fields. When I looked ahead down the hill I could see what looked like a big wide fireroad zig-zagging down the hill. This looked quite runnable from here. It actually looked not just runnable, but cyclable and driveable for that matter.
So I headed down, feeling out the terrain and seeing how much I could push up the speed. I soon realised that if this was a descent on a short hill race I’d be going down this at full pelt. Really the only thing making this difficult was the fact that I had 150km of running in my legs today, and had about another 100km to go, so needed to look after myself.
In the 2 or 3 kilometers that this off-road track lasted I passed another 3 runners. They were cautiously picking their way down, and I was effectively floating past them. My hill running background ensured that this was fairly comfortable and almost effortless descending for me, which was in obvious contrast to the nervousness and hesitancy of the runners I was passing.
Because of this, I was disappointed when the trail turned to tarmac road again. The mountain section has proved to be very straightforward, and hugely advantageous for me from a competitive point of view. At this point I reckoned I was about to head into the top twenty of the race. I was definitely feeling good, and was energised and motivated to keep trying to catch and overtake.
I hadn’t recognised the runners I overtook on the descent, which was good. I was probably now back ahead of where I had been before my cramping meltdown. Still not a trace of Keith though. Either I had somehow not seen him, he had pulled out, or he was having a flyer ahead.
There was another runner in the aid station in the next village, Sagkas, and I was so quick through that he was still there as I left. The road was still heading downhill as it left the village, and I saw and soon caught yet another runner ahead. The runner behind had made an effort coming out of the aid station though and was back on my heels. Not long afterwards we were back on flat ground. The other two were now running at my pace, so we ran along as a group of 3 for a kilometer or two. There was a very slight incline into the next aid station. That slowed the other two down without having any impact on my pace, and with my usual quick drink stop I had them dropped by the time I was exiting the aid station.
I was running with great confidence and purpose. I really felt that I had this pace nailed, and that I was probably moving faster than most people in the race at the moment. It felt like I would be able to keep this going until the morning at the least.
After what felt like another 5 or 10 minutes I thought I could see another runner a few hundred meters ahead, but wasn’t sure. A minute or two later a passing car cast his shadow, confirming that there was another runner ahead. I caught and passed him in no time. Considering how far up the field this was, he was moving very slowly. It’d be a long long way home for him.
Another 10 or 15 minutes flat running later I saw another runner ahead, but lost sight of him as the road turned into a hill ahead. When I reached the short hill I soon started closing in on him very rapidly. As had been the pattern all race, my climbing speed was a lot stronger. At this point I wanted as many hills as possible for the rest of the race.
The climb took us into the village of Nestani. In the middle there was a surprisingly lively aid station. There were at least 2 if not 3 runners there as I arrived. I decided to lose the surplus weight of the jacket I had carried up and down the mountain without using. The temperature was likely to be stable for the rest of the night, and I didn’t feel like I needed another layer. I had a bag here with spare clothes, but ended up leaving more behind than I picked up!
I was out again pretty quickly. One of the other runners seemed to rush out after me. I reckoned he was determined not to lose a place. Since I had caught him at this point I my thinking was he could latch on all he liked, but I was overall moving faster and this was likely to tell over time. Running out through the gentle descent out of the village I thought another runner might have also joined us, but I wasn’t going to bother looking behind to check.
A kilometer later we were running down an empty wide flat road. My chaser has stuck right on my tail. I relaxed my pace slightly, and he overtook and started creating an immediate gap. I kept to my own pace, which I felt was as fast I should be going, and let him out. I closed the gap down to about 10 meters at the next aid station, but he soon stretched it out to about 100 meters by the next aid station, where we took a very sharp turn and headed down a more minor country road. 2 or 3 kilometers later we passed under a main road and turned right at an immediately following aid station to head parallel with the main road.
If there had been another runner behind, he was dropped by now. The other runner was still sitting about 100 meters ahead, but didn’t seem to be pushing out any gap. A few kilometers later I realised that there were 2 headtorches ahead when I thought I might have narrowed the gap. He had caught and passed another runner who I was no closing down. This poor lad was walking. As I got closer I recognised Keith’s Irish singlet and distinctive compression socks.
I called out greetings once I got close enough and asked how he was. His I.T. band was giving him problems again. I congratulated him on his fantastic running to be this far up the field at this point. He had clearly put in a massive push since I last saw him. I wished him well, but ran on and kept my eye on the unchanging gap on the runner ahead. Soon I heard a runner approaching from behind. Keith had obviously been motivated by being passed by me, and he soon caught up and joined me.
We were back running together again, in a similar style to earlier in the race. We picked up the conversation again, although given the time of night it wasn’t too surprising that there were longer gaps! Keith was running well now, and our combined pace was slowly hauling in the runner ahead. I’m not sure if Keith was paying attention to that, but I certainly was. One major point of conversation we had at this stage was the temperature. We were both noticing the cold, which was unexpected. Neither of us were carrying extra layers with us. Keith reckoned the next aid station was a supported one, and he would be able to source extra layers for both of us from Eada there if needed. Neither of us were in any danger, but both of us were at the lower end of comfortable.
There seemed to be a huge gap to the next aid station. After what seemed like an age we got there. Approaching it, I could see that it wasn’t supported, so we’d have to plough on and deal with the cool temperatures as we were. Target runner was still there as Keith and myself arrived, but he ran out pretty much as we came in. Keith whizzed through the aid station. I took a little longer to purposefully make sure that I drank a full cup of liquid, given the large gap between stations. Keith really started moving off at speed, but after a few seconds he started hopping and pulled up to walk, clearly in pain. he had twanged his I.T. band again. I set off after him at my standard pace and told him I’d run on at normal speed, saying he’d probably catch me once he got going again. I set off with target runner about 40 meters or so ahead.
Surprisingly I found that over the course of this stretch I was beginning to reel in the runner ahead again, particularly when there were slight undulations in the road. Once there was even a small incline I would wind up right behind him. He’d then press on a little so as not to be overtaken. So by the time we arrived at the next aid station he was only about 10 meters ahead. This aid station was supported, and Eada was there waiting for Keith. I quickly filled her in on how Keith was doing, and that I expected him to arrive in at any point now.
I had left a drop bag for this aid station, and it happened to have a long-sleeved running top. Even after the conversation with Keith I was a little unsure about whether I really truly needed it. I made a quick decision that the temperature was unlikely to fall much more, and that since I was still coping with the cool temperatures I’d avoid the faff and time-wasting and just run on as I was. There was one more runner in the aid station when we arrived in. He seemed to be a friend of my back-and-forth target runner. As I left, they both left immediately after me. By my count I was around 15th at this point, but barely ahead of being 17th. Still very much racing.
I was running along at my maximum cruise speed. The other 2 were running on the other side of the road, matching my speed and occasionally poking in front. The road turned left towards a small village, Neochori, and is it went through the village it became a gradual incline. I kept my solid running pace on the shallow climb. One of the other 2 sounded like he immediately slowed to a walk on first contact with the climb. I could hear the other (my original target) working hard, but slowly loosing ground on me. I pushed on.
A right turn in the middle of the village signalled the end of the small climb, followed by a gradual descent. I reckoned if I pushed the pace here and used to descent to generate some speed I could “break the elastic band”. About 5 or 10 minutes later I reached the next aid station, and looking back when taking a quick drink I could see I had created over 100 meters of a gap. Out again rapidly, and there were one or two more undulations along the next winding section of road. I hoped this, combined with the now large visual gap should be enough end the chase. Out of site, out of mind.
I was warmly greeted into the next aid station, who confirmed my position and congratulated me on doing so well… I just wished I was at the finish, but there was still a good 60km to go. No sign of any chasers here though, so it looked like I had done the job and secured another overtake. I was feeling tired of course, but still running well, and still very competitive. It was nice to be running alone again, but I’d still be happier to see someone ahead to chase down.
More flat running took me through the ruins of ancient Tegea and then on into an aid station at the modern village a kilometer further on. I was hoping to get some isotonic drink here, but they didn’t have any, so took some fruit juice as well. I also took a little bit of very tasty rice pudding, in case it might add a little kick! Some arrows on the ground beyond the village worried me that I might be gone off course, but a few meters later I ran over a spartathlon arrow pointing where I expected.
About 2 kilometers later the nice flat country road reached a junction with a bigger main road, and the route took the left down this, with a slight decline ahead. About one kilometer later after another aid station I could see the road ahead slowly climb and climb and climb. This must be the second big climb. The sting in the tail after the main mountain climb.
As usual I focused on holding a good steady running pace up the hill. I knew that with each step it was becoming less likely that anyone behind would catch me. I reckoned in my current form then holding this mid-teens position would be the worst case result, which would be a very satisfactory outcome.
After about 5 minutes of climbing I started wondering was I seeing a trace of a head torch ahead. The road was making small turns which made it hard to see too far ahead with any consistency. Another 5 minutes later and I was now sure that I was chasing down another runner ahead. The road made one or two sharper turns and emerged into a village. I expected it to flatten out, but it didn’t at all. More steady climbing appeared after each turn. The runner ahead was marching rather than running, so I reeled him in steadily and passed him in the middle of this village.
To my surprise I could now see another runner ahead, or more accurately another competitor walking up the hill. If they’re all walking this far up the field I must be doing some real damage with my consistent running. Again, I wasn’t long reeling in this next runner. I caught her as we reached a small aid station. She sat down in the aid station. I reckoned from our position in the field that she was more than likely Pam Smith, one of the two top American females who were likely to contest the win.
The other runner I had just passed pretty much went though the aid station without stopping and was off and away before I finished drinking. Once I set off running again it took very little time to pass him again since he was still walking. I could see there was plenty of climb left. The road arced up rightwards climbing up towards a gap in the hills ahead. The more the better as far as I was concerned! The climb topped out 10 or 15 minutes later. I couldn’t see a trace of anyone around.
Onwards and downwards. I had to concentrate a little to force myself to make the effort to actively keep my speed up on the descent rather than just relaxing and let gravity pull me down easily. As the road swept its way down it was doing lots of arcing turns. I was trying to take the racing line through these, and generally succeeding. Just the occasional traffic forcing me to stay on an outer bend a little too long every now and again. Oddly enough I got it into my head at this point that I was descending towards the sea, especially as the road flattened out a bit, and I’d have water on my right soon enough. This was all in my head, as the road was still several hundred meters above sea level at this point!
Another little hill brought me up to another aid station, with the first sign of life in a while. I was out again quickly and back out solo running into the darkness. Soon things started becoming “active” again. I caught something reflecting in my headtorch in the distance. It took me a while to work it all out in my tired state in the darkness. I knew it was a runner, but from a distance it looked like he was walking and swinging his arms above his head. As I closed him down I realised that I had scaled him all wrong, and he was walking along normally. He wasn’t making great speed for a flat section, particularly given we were in the low teens position-wise, and I swept past him easily, particularly as I passed him on a small incline.
Minutes later I spotted two more runners ahead. This was getting really interesting now, as a top ten finish was starting to become a possibility. There was still at least 30 kilometers of running left, so lots of potential for both more overtaking, or getting it all wrong and having a crash and burn. The two ahead were running well enough on the flat, but I was still closing them. Another small incline meant I hugely increased my rate of gain. The incline was topped by a busy looking aid station, with lots of parked cars. There were enough people around that I lost track a bit of the two runners, and whether they stopped for help.
I did my usual quick pit-stop. One of them was only about 20 meters ahead as I left, so I closed him down and overtook him almost immediately. A few hundred meters further on I was closing in on another runner. The road did a few bends, before settling into a very long straight shallow climb. I overtook the other runner just at the start of this. I wasn’t entirely sure of my position now, but reckoned I was either 10th or 9th. Either way this was great. This was definitely the upper end of my pre-race ambitions.
Even though I ran the long shallow climb at my usual steady pace I had that nagging feeling that I hadn’t fully dropped one of the runners behind. Another aid station at the top. Sure enough, as I exited this station after my usual quick drink I could see a runner approaching the aid station. Another sticker!
There was a corresponding descent not long after this aid station. I concentrated on keeping my pace up to keep the pressure on. Once again I thought I caught the trace of a headtorch ahead. Another few minutes of descending confirmed it was another runner. I was switching sides of the road to hold the racing line, and eventually ended up just behind him. He was running pretty well, so it took a relatively long time to catch him and ease away.
The light was starting to increase at this stage. I wouldn’t need my headtorch for too much longer. As it happened at the next aid station I had a drop bag placed, and this turned out to be another aid station where I left more behind in the drop bag than had been there before I arrived. I still had a close enough “tail” leaving this aid station. He wasn’t directly behind, but I was definitely being tracked.
Cars passing on the road would sometime beep as they passed runners. I would listen for gaps from “my” beep to any subsequent beep to try to judge the distance behind. I certainly wasn’t going to look, for many reasons. My energy levels were rising a little in parallel with the level of light. It was definitely nice to be able to look at the landscape again.
The long steady descent flattened out to a wide right turning arc winding between hills, with another aid station visible at the end of the arc. Arriving into the aid station I could see that I had created a small gap to my tailing runner. I checked with the aid station staff who confirmed that I was 8th at that point. Great… even if my tail was to catch me I could still hang in for a top 10 finish. But the good thing here is I could see a two or 3 hundred meters down the road. I could here my tail being cheered in as I was 50 or 60 meters out of the aid station.
In the daylight I could see the road arc back around and climb around to the left. It looked like it could be a long enough climb. I concentrated and ensured that I kept up my usual solid running pace. A few times on the climb cars passed and gave me a beep (always returned with a wave). I couldn’t hear any following beeps though, which was a good sign. After about 2 or 3 km of steady climbing it topped out. The road rounded through a gap in a hill and emerged to a huge view of the mountains of the Peloponnese in the morning sunlight ahead. I could tell there was a big valley between my position and those hills, and knew that Sparta was in there somewhere… now it was starting to feel like it was the beginning of the end!
Another kilometer of shallow descending took me into another aid station and another big friendly greeting. I had left my hat behind with Eada a long way back, just after sunset and my cramping meltdown. At this point I would like to have it back…lesson learned… need to position another hat at an aid station where I would be in the morning. There was a visor on the table where the drinks were. I asked the aid station staff if by any chance anyone had a spare hat similar to that. One of the guys kindly gave me the cap on his head. I said I’d try to return it to him at the prizegiving, but he insisted this was a gift from Greece. I looked back as I left, and could see my tail tearing down the road in the distance.
The road down from here was a classic mountain road, with cliffs on one side and drops on the other. Definitely enjoyable to run, but it would have been much more enjoyable not to have to run at this point. I noticed that one of the supporters cars was paying me a lot of attention at this point. They stopped at the side of the road and watched me go by. I reckoned they were working for my “tail” and were calculating the gap and relaying the information to him.
Eventually another small aid station appeared at a flat section. I grabbed a quick drink and looked back up the hill. My tail was still tearing down the hill, but was now only two or three hundred meters ahead. This was definitely a race! The red supporters car was parked opposite the aid station still keeping an eye on things. Not long after exiting the station the route came off the main road and onto a nice quiet side road. It had the feel of an old main road. It soon started descending enough to enable quite rapid running. A few minutes later there was another aid station. This was very soon after the last one. I made a very quick stop. The red supporters car was just a hundred meters ahead parked up.
There was now only about 15km left, and this had the look of being the last long descent down into the valley to Sparta. Time to let go of the brakes! I had no reason to try to preserve my legs now. I could really tear at this descent. I upped my pace out of the aid station and increased it up to what I felt my “10K” speed was in my current state.
The route down was enjoyable running terrain (for road). Nice winding roads, with plenty of trees and vegetation. Every now and then I would catch the view of Sparta in the distance. Reassuringly there was still plenty of height to burn off, so I kept the speed to the maximum I could to use the descent as fully as possible. I knew that any runners who had pushed too hard earlier would find this descent brutally tough on trashed legs, and would have difficulty running it. I had definitely done well with my pacing.
I reached another aid station in a lovely small village in the middle of the winding descent.I was in such a hurry that I poured my own drink and got in and out loosing as few seconds as possible. I was aware I had to ditch my tail, so no quarter would be given now. I tore off out and accelerated back to flank speed, still thundering down the hill in the bright morning sunshine. At this time the sun was rising rapidly. I knew that after 10a.m. or so the temperatures would rise rapidly with it. It was comfortable now, but the quicker I could get this over with the better, before a virtuous circle turned into a viscous one.
15 or 20 minutes of high-speed running later (and after a nice conversation with a motorcycling supporter at speed) I rounded the last few bends of the descent to arrive at an aid station on the outskirts of the urban conurbation of Sparta. I asked how long was officially left and was told 5.5km. Another quick drink and I was off out again, determined not to give anyone a chance of catching me this close to the finish. The hill shallowed out and soon enough I was running on the flat. I picked up my “escort” for the journey in to Sparta, as a gang of 5 or 6 kids on bikes spotted me and cycled along. They had enough English to exchange greetings and find out where I was from. They were a cool bunch! Even though I wasn’t making any conversation I enjoyed their enthusiasm.
Keeping the speed up was hard work, and I had to really concentrate so as not to relax, and to remember that 5km wasn’t going to pass that quickly. I could feel the heat starting to build. It wasn’t uncomfortable yet, but I knew it was rapidly heading that way. I was glad that I was going to be finished before the heat of the middle of the day.
It was taking even more concentration to run fast now, but I was determined to keep the pace up to try to ensure that there would be as little chance as possible of being overtaken. I mentally envisioned being chased to keep myself on my toes, but didn’t look behind to check the reality. Occasionally other bands of young cyclists would pass by on the other side of the road, and would occasionally join in. The town seemed to be full of kids on bikes, which was great.
Eventually the final aid station appeared at a large roundabout and I grabbed one final cup of water. Only 1.5km to go now. I powered out. I still kept my concentration on maintaining as fast a speed as I could manage, trying to pace this flat section like a 5km race. It wasn’t dead flat, and approaching the centre of Sparta itself there were one or two small drags which I powered up. People shouted encouragement as I passed them going about their normal daily routines, whether from the balconies of their apartments, or from the cafes at the side of the road.
Finally a right turn took me off the road I had been following for the last 5km, and went slowly uphill into the centre of the town. I wasn’t sure where the finish was, but was sure it was close now. A couple of hundred meters on and a marshall in a large crowd turned me right again, and onto the final street of the race.
Somewhere here I lost my unofficial bicycle escort, but gained my official running escort. Two local schoolgirls run in either side of every athlete. By now I was starting to take in the fact that I was now on the final run in. I was going to finish this epic race. So I made sure to take it all in and enjoy this experience as much as possible. The race commentary and music was pouring out of speakers all along this avenue. I was still keeping a good pace, and I could sense that my escort runners were under a little pressure!
Finally I could see the statue of King Leonidas ahead at the end of the avenue. I had a sudden surge of emotion. Then Helen appeared out on the road in front of me, and the emotional charge surged to the point where I was on the verge of bursting into tears of joy. Ironically Helen had been explaining to other supporters waiting at the finish line witnessing the blubbering of the athletes finishing ahead of me that I was too grounded to cry just for finishing a race… the irony… it was the site of Helen that very nearly set me off!
Approaching the finish (fast!)
Helen ran in beside me for the last few meters, up the steps and the traditional finish of touching the foot of Leonidas. A very unique finish line! I had my finisher’s laurel crown placed on my head, and was presented with the various finishing certs and trophies. After getting finishing photos taken with Helen the race medics grabbed me by both arms and escorted me into the medical tent… I wasn’t getting a choice about that!
Being crowned with Laurel
I was actually fine now. Tired, but elated and fine. In another nice tradition of the race, the medics removed my shoes and socks, made sure my feet were fine and washed my feet. Now that’s a great great treat at the end of 246km of running!
A nice cup of water!
To my surprise the next runner to arrive into the tent wasn’t the greek runner who I had been battling with in the closing stages of the race (I reckon he must have cracked trying to chase me down), but was Joao Oliviera. He must have had a flying finish as well. Ten minutes later my greek chaser arrived in. I had managed to hold on to my 8th place position all the way to finish. I hadn’t been overtaken by anyone since my cramping episode.
To the Victor – the spoils!
My final time turned out to be around 26 hours, 37 minutes. As I was running in from about 40km out I had been estimating a 26:45 finish, so I was happy to beat that with my final surge. If I had been offered a top 10 place in under 27 hours before the race I would have grabbed it with both hands. That was at the very upper limits of my ambitions. To achieve a result like that, even with the half an hour of mid-race cramping was extremely satisfying. It definitely counts as one of my best all time results, given the prestige of the race and the quality of the field. This also smashed the previous best Irish finishing time and positions for the Spartathlon.
Keith finished a few hours later in a time of 28:54. He had an excellent race despite his IT band problems, finishing in 27th position and the 2nd best all time Irish finish. That was great running for a runner more used to speeding through 100km races. In fact it was his longest ever run. I was delighted to see Bob Hearn’s intelligent race tactics pay dividends as he finished top American male runner in 16th position. Great pacing from Bob.
Unfortunately both Anto and Billy were pulled off the course agonisingly close the finish. They had both been doing well, looking good to make it through the cut-offs. However the conditions on the second day seem to have a big impact and both of them suffered. No doubt they’ll both be back!