Updated: Dec 20, 2021
It's about 3 days since I finished the 2021 edition of my beloved Spartathlon and I have the most potent mix of ecstasy and nausea.
That said I don't think I have felt this good after any big (100+ mile) run. I'm walking fine (thinking of running tomorrow) and most things are in tact.
So how did it go so well?
I've always considered Spartathlon "3 races in 1".
Race 1 - "Start to Corinth" - 50 miles. Before I dig into the journey I must kindly remind newbie blog readers that there is an infinite amount of expert information on Spartathlon. Much of it was written by the legend Paul Ali and resides on the British Spartathlon website You can also read all of the Spartathlons that Darren and I crewed or ran - here on the Camino Blog. So I am going to leave certain things out. What was genius about the 2021 start was that there were no portaloos - which meant a quite unique way to prepare for the race in full sight of the Acropolis - I can only apologise from the bottom of my British tank. After the obligatory team photos I did something new and I am going to number them in this blog for you and for me x
New Thing One:
As a coach I strongly believe in having a strategy and having sensible pacing for the start of big ultramarathons. Data and history will show that a high percentage of runners (even talented/experienced ones) just can never get this right. I had planned for a best case scenario of a sub 30 hour Spartathlon and wanted to avoid going quicker than 8 hours for my self penned Race 1.
But....that said my new thing was that I wanted to be on the front of this start line. It felt right. I wanted to look into the eyes of the potential winners (legend Radek was there - nice fist-pump) plus Spartathlon legends - Bob Hearn (hugs) and newbie talent Simen Holvik (Hi-5s) and see how I compared. I also wanted to see which of my fellow British Team felt the same - there was Sam Heward and Andy Day (both no surprise to me) there has the young lad Danny Hawkins (I hoped this wasn't a mistake from the buck) and of course there was the highly-rated and possible Podium/Winner himself legend - Al Higgins.
When the race started my plan kicked in - I just let the speedsters over take me - ten, twenty, 50 - no doubt over half this year's (290 Covid hit) field in no time at all. The tsunami calmed and I found myself run-chatting with Sam (clearly a smart paced guy) and Captain and lifelong friend James Ellis. Mile after mile coursing our way through the traffic-halted streets of Athens to be joined by legend Anto Lee and Anne Jennings.
At 13mile/20KM I found myself running with Danny. It didn't take long to realise that he was running a really smart race at that point. Our pace was super calm - we weren't chasing anything - barely overtaking or being over taken. We shared thoughts about the race but neither of us had too much to over-commit at this early stage. After the race Danny kindly shared that these were some of his favourite miles - for me too it was a real joy to get to know you properly buddy x
As Danny and I entered the marathon CP Danny pulled aside and said it was time for a proper walk break for him. I cracked on and met my crew ( expert Spartathlon crew Jeff (Strachan - Darren's brother) - a super-fast grab of drink/gels and off. I had run first marathon in 4 hrs 5 mins - I felt that was a little slow and I intended on running the next one marginally quicker (although it didn't feel like that would be something to do without an injection of effort)
The second marathon up to Corinth takes you along some beautiful but also some brutalist sections
Above Jeff catches me in the flow. Just observing the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea. This followed a several mile stretch of the infamous Hellas Can factory and industrial sized smells to match the ever-increasing Greek heat. At some point Danny came by me in a pack of three and I realised that an attempt to match their pace would have meant me forcing the Race 1 pace - something I wasn't prepared to nor felt able to easily do.
New Thing Two:
In my last few years of racing ultramarathons I really got into the science of Dave Brailsford-esque marginal gains. If you are going to do a track 24 hour race - then stay in Lane 1. In this case my thing was "no change of gear" - I mean I was prepared to change everything if it was needed but I was also going to resist being drawn into changing stuff that felt more out of boredom or irritation. One of my key items and recommendations for Spartathlon is to wear "arm-sleeves" - put simply when it is hot you can fill them with ice and let them slowly regulate your arm temperature and if it cools you don't need to be adding layers
Above it's another super quick change at Corinth - drink of lime/soda - refill fuel in belt and then a slow walk out with an apple. Race 1 completed in approx 8 hours. Success rating 7/10 - why? Well longs parts felt laboured - However the success of my race ultimately came from this regulated 50 miles.
Race 2 "Corinth to Mountain"
When I retire from ultramarathons (which I hope is never) I may look back at Race 2!! as being the best race of my entire life. Possibly the most elastic I've ever felt, the most enthralled at the power at which I overtook other great athletes and a flow just like non other.
It all started badly. I sort of shuffled out of Corinth - a pattern was forming whereby I would see and be congratulated by other Brit crews (I cannot thank you all enough x) and I remember having a funk feeling as you follow a steady climb into the unknown. At this point I think I was telling myself that I was very "mid-pack" and there was no obvious energy source to change much.
Time for a RESET and to be grateful for even being here in the sumptuous countryside of Greece - just keep it simple - it is about forward progression - the most simple act of one foot in front of the other.
New Thing 3: Someone has got to fuel you - and that person is you. No fuel and the tank begins to run on vapour. If Race 2 was going to happen I needed to fuel like a God. I picked out one of the "random" items that had been kindly gifted to me by friend and brand partner KOMFuel - a Tropical Mountain Fuel - Holy Bejazzle - this thing was like drinking a Mojito in Havana - the taste was glorious and it just felt fresh and importantly "it felt" like it packed a decent punch. I had the biggest cheesy smile on the Moon and I started running - I mean running - not jogging - shifting. I flew past Sam and Andy (who was having too much fun with Sir Ian Thomas) and I ran and I ran and I Ran.
For 30 miles I had the time of my life. No pictures exist of this but I felt like red Sparta figure brilliantly spray painted on all the roads - alive + electric - on fire.
I hadn't asked anyone for 80 miles where I was in the race, which runner was anywhere at this point. I glided into a check-point and a volunteer said "Where are you from?" and after sharing that I was from London he smiled and said "Well Londoner you are in 43rd place".
OMG! I was in 43rd place in the the best race in the world - with some of the most talented ultramarathon runners on this planet. All I could think of for the next period was "I wonder how many places I am going to drop over the next 70 miles"!!!
For context it was now dark. In the previous few hours I had made phenomenal progress. Having spoken to friends and family back home they all said just how much fun it had been to see me move up from 150th to 43rd.
One of these overtakes was the legendary Bob Hearn x I came behind Bob and my headtorch light picked up it was indeed the King. I whispered "Hey Bob How you doing its Davy" and he turned his head - acknowledged who it was and said those immortal words "Wow what are you doing here"!!!! A truly brief conversation in which Bob encouraged me to take off and then another long period of night-run isolation contemplating that I was indeed properly "in this race"
We were heading to the "Climb" up to MountainBase.
On the Thursday evening before the race Darren had suggested that we go for a beer up at the Emmantina rooftop. This was clearly an awful idea. I had just been on the most wonderful 4 week beer free and sugar free and shit food free streak and Daz was "pushing" the beer!!! Powerless I found myself with Sir Ian Thomas and his majestic other half Gill plus Sparta Crew Legends Colette and Kelvin. Ian is a 7 time finishers (yes I include the "missing" year of 2020 when he ran the route with James Ellis to pay homage to Spartathlon) and I heard him saying "So many runners walk the 10 mile climb up to mountain base BUT so much of it is runnable".
So here I was running the "mountain" - picking off a few more walkers - spotting a few more legends - I was the Dyson of Ultrarunning - feeding - fuelling - hoovering up anything on the road.
At mountain base I clearly remember having what felt like the first "serious" conversation with Jeff about the tactics of the "race". He shared that Danny was running well but not that far ahead but more exciting than that was that second placed Brit the legendary Al Higgins (4th overall in Sparta 2019) was only just in front (having spent over 45 minutes sat motionless at the Mountain base previously)
The mountain climb was beautiful. I took it super easy and ate some more food - Jeff was laughing but all I took was a cup of hot water and some bread to dip! The volunteers were sensational and I took the time to Hi-5 and thank them. Top of the mountain and one glance to the CP tent and there he was - Senor Higgins. With no words coming out I legged it down the mountain. The descent is not great fun - its a dust bowl with plenty of loose rocks. A few sketchy moments - a reminder that I was in a race and racing and looking out into the night I could not see one headtorch light. For a rare moment I stopped to look back up the mountain and there was the yellow light of Higgins (I assumed) literally coming for me like a wild Greek dog. Boy that light was flying!!!
In no time Al was by my side and set about running about 5km together - Al sharing some of the things that were causing him difficulty and me smiling internally at just how difficult I was finding it to keep up with him.
Race 3 - "Off the Mountain and all the way to Sparta"
With all the best planning in the world the final act of any ultramarathon often centres on "survival". First thing that me and the chimp did was to make Race 3 into two races!!!! Part 2 was always going to be the final half marathon (which for those that don't know is almost all downhill and was once conquered by Sir Bob in under 1hr 30 - please check out the podcast we did with him - Episode 1 of course). What my chimp was doing was making me believe that I could be like Bob and therefore was encouraging me to "save myself" in Part 1.