Updated: Oct 25, 2021
Well how to start? It has to be with Thank Yous. But I always miss someone and I feel dreadful for doing so. To Rosie, Sam, Luke, Jeff, Jane, Amanda, AJ, Mum, Sue, Hels, David, James, Jamie, all my Highbury friends and running buds, Big Andy, Laura, Nikki, Auds, Eric, Chevs, Tim, Alex, Kate, Pats, Alan, Gazza, Nath, John M, Hammy, Anto, Anne, Debs MC, Sophie, Sarah, Mimi, Gilles, Andras, Hubert K, Bob H for the inspiration; everyone in BST over the years especially Rob, Paul A, Russ, Adrian B, Barney, the old guard James A, James E, Mark Woolley, everyone at ISA especially Kostis, Panagiotis, the wonderful Dora P and her teams, all the ISA volunteers, physios, medics, I cannot thank you enough for the support on this journey, not just this year but every year. You have all inspired me in so many different ways and I am forever in your debt. Efharisto, my friends.
It's been nearly 3 weeks since Spartathlon and I think I am still in a sort of elated form of shock. It's the same format every year, but the race never fails to surprise, and it feels the same same but oh so different each time. This was to be my fourth attempt, with 2 previous finishes and one extremely painful DNF. An important one then, would it be an extra time winner to make it 3-1 to Strachan? Or a horrifying away goal from Sparta to equalise at 2-2? I desperately wanted to join the likes of legends Paul Ali and James Adams on a 3-1 scoreline, but maybe I should not have re-read Mr Adams' blog about his single DNF!
Now I'm Ready to Start
Yep, been here before. Acropolis at 7am on the last Friday of September. It's our wedding anniversary, i'm sorry Rosie!! Been training pretty good, mood is high in the British camp. It's been a great day and a half greeting old friends and making new ones. But it's always just a little bit different each time here at the start line. I feel reasonably relaxed, but whether that's a good thing or not I just don't know. Do i have the same utmost determination to finish I had in '17 and '18, where absolutely nothing was going to get in my way (Zorba!!!)? Or am I taking it all a little bit for granted. Complacency at this race could easily be the single biggest error I could make. But also you can't just muster up something other than what you're feeling at the time. I tell myself i'll deal with whatever comes up, that a bit of experience will see me through. How close that was to get I currently have no clue. Wonderful vibes with Jeff, Jane, AJ, Amanda, Davie Boy and Jim Lad and all the BST at the start. We do the Jimmy huddle, he manages not to head-butt me this time! Let's Get This F***ing Done Boys. Photos with the BST banner. I stand at the back of the field, give my customary Good Luck to Bala from Hungary (I think now 8 attempts and so far no finishes, but one day I know it is going to happen and I want to be there to see it my friend. You are a warrior.) , a mighty roar of "Spartaaaa" and we are off.
The Kids are Alright
Early miles, just tick along, but the theme is set. I am slow. Why, I do not know, maybe I should have worn a watch. I'd decided to try to not let individual check point times get in my head, but as a result I was just a bit off the pace. Lots of leap-froggy dove-tailing back and forth with wonderful people. Mr Jason Skirrow, one of our coaching clients, provides great company for many of the early miles. Also Dominic Osman-Allu, who has had a very tough year with injury and is glad to be here. I feel obliged to try to impart words of wisdom, and as ever feel like a total twat. What do I know, if it feels this different for me how can I expect to advise anyone else? The big hill out of Athens comes and goes, as does a drop bag with some sugary stuff at CP4, and before too long we are getting the most wonderful boost from the high fiving kids of Elefsina. Sometimes I despair of the world, but honestly if we just gave it all to the kids right now they'd probably fix it within 10 years.
Engineering the Can Factory
Day One temps were not really all that high, but damn it still felt pretty hot. Every single checkpoint dunking arm sleeves and getting ice down them where I could. I run with Anne and Anto for a wee while. The big man has to stop to take care of business, and Anne and I continue on for a bit before separating at a checkpoint. Anne is such a strong runner, so determined, I know I won't be ahead for long. Up we go to Megara, this time the crew checkpoint is one further than usual, CP12. I'm utterly delighted to see my gang, I honestly think they have no idea how much of a boost they give me..... they are ON IT and I'm in there being cooled down, fed and watered like someone who deserves it. 4:18 for the opening marathon. Slow slow but ok, we're in the game and i'll take it.
The beautiful ocean road. I'd never noticed before and it's a Spartathlon cliche to say, but sometimes it really is just a step down onto the sand and then one more into the sea. It looks so bloody tempting. What on earth are we doing, running along this road. Was that Yiannis Kouros buzzing back and forth on a Honda Goldwing giving us encouragement?! He keeps us going anyway. I run a fair bit with Laurence, who's got a lot more Greece experience than me. There are other ultra races in Greece i've got a serious craving for, among them the Dolihos and there is something to do with Ancient Olympia which sounds fantastic. Martin Illott is a calm and encouraging presence along this section, and also the next day closer to Sparta, thank you Martin.
Well it's not great but it'll do, getting up towards Corinth a bit under 9 hours. I'd told plenty of people that "nine is fine" to the Can Factory, so I really shouldn't complain. But part of me is a touch worried. I've never been as slow to here, even when I DNF'ed in 2016. I get the usual huge boost crossing the bridge at the Canal, what a special place it is.
Into the Can and my wonderful crew sort me out again, they are just amazing. On the way out I take a moment to just have a look at the Can Factory for a few seconds. It's incredible to have a connection to it, the father of my great friend Jamie Holmes (Sparta finisher 2015 and 2017), a wonderful engineer by the name of Alan Holmes, actually built this place back in the 1970s. Back in the days when Greece was under the rule of "The Generals". When "The Four Musketeers" had run together in 2017, Alan had been busy being feted by the Can staff and workers, quite right too. I'm not sure he saw the race until next day in Sparta. Alan passed away a few days before the race this year. This time, and i'm not religious, I felt he was watching and willing us on.
So now one of the most crucial parts of the race, the very runnable 30k up to just below Halkion villlage. I was just about getting it going, making some headway on cutoffs, but still struggling in the heat a fair bit. It's better now because of seeing crew a lot more often, and the milestones you can tick off get a lot closer together. Ancient Corinth around 94k, always a huge boost. Assos the 100k mark, maybe got an hour on the cutoffs there. Zevgolatio, the first one, the pizza stop, I think I took a headtorch here. By now it was clear that Mr Bone was having an absolute stormer, and our back-up crew arrangement of Jeff cracking on ahead to help David, whilst Jane looked after me, was coming into effect. I'm delighted for David, always knew this was gonna happen! I'd caught up with James somewhere in this section, and we dovetailed back and forth for a long while. Chatting, sometimes together, sometimes doing our own thing. Two ancient Spartathletes just trying to get it done. It was starting to get in my head just how little room I was making on the cutoffs, it really should be way up closer to 2 hours by now, but it just wasn't happening.
James and the Giant Puke
So yeah, Halkion, and some hiking up hills. By now this was a welcome break from the relentless pretty flat tarmac running of the first 110k. Basically begging for a hill to give a different rhythym and the legs a change of angle. James and I get together properly before Ancient Nemea and we stick together for a long while into the halfway point and then beyond. James spots Paul Wiggins at CP36 which I missed because i jogged past that one. I'd wanted to give James his moment of redemption as this is the place he agonisingly bailed in 2019. James thinks Paul is out, he tells me when he catches up shortly down the hill. Turns out later he was still in, we maybe could have tried to help and get him going, but neither of us knew, and whether we could have actually been much help is pretty unlikely. I'm sorry, Paul, i know you'll be back to finish this one very soon.
Hiking up the long dirt track. But we're both having our problems, and whether we're helping each other or not is debatable. I'm certainly not helping James when I start puking badly at the side of the road, and James immediately follows suit. It's like the blueberry pie eating contest in Stand By Me. Not good - although you might feel better after such an episode of course you now have no energy going through the system and the small problem of trying to get food down on a stomach that just doesn't want anything. At about 80 miles into a 153 mile race, oh dear.
If You Want to Find Me, I'll Make a New Friend
And yep, here comes Anne, like I knew would happen. The three of us team up for a nanosecond, but James and Anne are too strong for me and rustle on ahead. By now we are round about the downhill to Malandreni, although the amount of runnable flat stuff before that downhill is way way more than I rememeber. And I am utterly crap at it, there is way too much walking for my liking. But, some good things, it's like my body and subconscious knows what I have to do here. When I hit the big downhill i'm able to pelt down it pretty well, even with the severe lack of energy from the puking. At Malandreni I catch James again, and he is having, urm, the most massive plate of chips i've ever seen, plus a zero-alcohol beer! Kudos, my friend. But I am still feeling dreadful, and want to get through the next big downhill section before trying to fuel on the road up to Mountain Base. Jane tries desperately to get me to take some food with me, but I think I am really not too keen on it, and probably a bit of a dick to my crew. I'm sorry, Jane.
Ok so here we go, the journey to the mountain. And this is just wrong, wrong, wrong..... again there is way more runnable flat, so much more than I recall. And again I am slow, and i feel so weak, and I am leaking time left and right, and more than anything I just want to sleeeeeeeeeeeep. Maybe that wouldn't be a problem in some races, like a track race you can kind of almost nap whilst you are running. But at Spartathlon that's probably a bad idea. There's still traffic on these roads, and runners are pretty vulnerable. I'm not gonna die out here just because of a little sleepiness. At CP43 Lyrkia I succumb to a massage and a 10 minute nap on a table. I remember actually hearing myself snore and I really don't care. I think Jeff has doubled back at this point, maybe even he is a bit rattled, and I think Jane is pretty worried at this stage. James and Anne are long gone up the road.
Out of Lyrkia and i've woken up a bit, but things are still pretty dreadful. I'm hiking up the hill, cursing myself for not being able to run the bits I really should be running. The negative thought spiral has really kicked in now..... Bob calls it the slippery slope of rationalisation, and oh boy do i have it bad. There are many many strands to this. You're not strong enough any more. You're too old. You didn't train well enough. You're a f***ing loser. The other times you finished were just luck. There's still 57 miles to go, you've got no chance pal, why don't you just quit now. Yeah, yeah yeah, way to help yourself out monkey, why not. But the particular thread that got me was that James Adams once decided to just stop when he got to Mountain Base, for almost no reason at all. James Adams is a hero of mine. Well if it's good enough for James it's good enough for me. But wait a sec, when James stopped that made it 3-1 to him. And if i stop it's 2-2 right? Right. And I want the same score as James right? Right.
Through all this utter bulls**t I was pretty much alone from a human point of view. Maybe a runner or two passed, I really don't know. But what I did have was the company of the most fantastic Greek dog. It looked a little bit collie (favourite breed) mixed with something bigger, and it was just the most chilled. He/she would circle round behind me, then come past, give a tiny glance over the shoulder to check on the follow, then crack on for a hundred yards or so. Then repeat. I felt like I was being shephered up to Mountain Base, and eventually I was able to put most of the negative thoughts aside. It was just hobo me and hobo dog, on a walk up a mountain. What would be would be. What else was I gonna do on a beautiful starlit night like tonight? I'd still kind of decided to stop, but with the caveat that if I had over 30 minutes at Mountain Base I had to try getting up and over.
Can't Stay for Long Just Turn Around and I'm Gone Again
Finally it's here, Mountain Base. Hey guys, how much am I up on the cutoff? You're fine mate, about 45 minutes. Well right, ok, in 2016 I was round the same, maybe a touch less. In the years i've finished i've been around 2 hours up at this point, maybe 1:50 or so. So this was fairly dismal. Still feels almost impossible. But hey it beat the 30 minute limit i'd set, so I can't bail here now right. What excuse do I have really? Again - what the hell else am I gonna do tonight? Get on a bus? F*ck that. You have to try. Quickly, some chicken soup from Adrian, food of the gods, and onto the mountain trail we go. And you know what, it felt like everything just changed in an instant. From the depths of despair to feeling like I was just HOME. Somehow it was in my bones, striding up it, going past a few others like they were statues. 15 minutes gained on cutoffs from Base to Summit. But then, the best bit, one thing i learnt about this path is you just have to pile down the other side. Treacherous though it may be. First time I did this I had an absolute shocker, took me ages to get down. Grizzled Spartathletes came past me left and right. Now, I was that grizzled Spartathlete, going past multiple other runners and absolutely loving it. Sorry to sound like a total tool, but it was a lot of fun. Another 10 minutes gained getting down to Sangas I think. And now bomb it down the hill towards Nestani, an absolute gift of a running stretch. Turn on the afterburners like Jamie Holmes. Into CP52 and it's back up to well over an hour ahead. Ok, I got no excuses left now.
I'll Stay Up All Night, and Crash On a Plain
A decent feed at Nestani, always the salty spuds. Maybe a little change of gear. Now it's time to face The Plains of Tegea, possibly the most soul destroying stretch of the course. Hour upon hour of night black as ink, still miles from anywhere called Sparta.... hardly any other runners in sight and the checkpoints feel far apart. You are praying for the sun to come up, but you know you also have to make it as far across to CP60 Tegea as you can before that sun gets hot.
Which is almost instantly.
I do ok-ish over the Plains. Forcing a run as much as I can. Leaking a little bit of time but not too much. Crew at 57 and 60 giving me a massive help again.
I'm Really (Not) Cut Out for This
And so here we are, Spartathlon's final big test, for those of us who are just trying to finish. The second mountain, Heartbreak Hill. Possibly the most frustrating gradient - should be runnable, but somehow after so many miles (about 125) it's hard enough just walking up it. All 4 miles of the f***er. With the sun now absolutely pounding directly from above, bouncing off the stone walls of the road channel we are going through, it's a full on Greek no mercy oven. Or one of those Japanese torture shows. On my Spartathlon debut this place simply laughed at me.... ate me up, a disdainful little chew and then coughed me up on the side of the road a weeping mess. Not good enough. How dare you come here and try to finish this race.
Try or Try Not, there is Only Do
But yeah, i'm ready for it this time. I know what to do. Mr Grizzled, that's me. Ain't no way i'm stopping here, up to CP63 - scene of the denouement a long time ago. Still gets a bit emotional reaching here. I think of Cam digging it out from here in 2017, and Matty in 2019, and get my inspiration. Now just two more checkpoints until the crew. Every one in between I am in the cooling routine.... arm sleeves in the water, ice in the sleeves, water over the head and thighs, basically soaking myself. But it's a shock to realise that barely 15 minutes later all the ice has melted, clothing is bone dry, and i'm starting to feel like maybe heatstroke is on the cards. It truly is a suffer-fest out here, and survival and getting to the end is the only way out. That or collapsing at the side of the road and hoping someone will pick you up. Nope, not gonna happen.
Along this stretch i'm dovetailing with Brits Tim Young, and sometimes Andrew McKillop, I think, although maybe Andrew is well ahead by then. Congratulations on your finishes gents! Gilles comes past, heading for The Dix Huitieme finish. Yep, honestly. 18 finishes. I'm super happy for him, but the legend is suffering hard and i'm not sure he recognises Le Scottish on this occasion! Well done Gilles, you god of a man. Martin Illott is out supporting again, as is Laurence, thank you guys.
There's another runner, number 213, he's an Italian I think. He has a crew car basically stalking him, chucking whatever he wants out of the passenger window. Even has someone walking with him. Clearly he's in trouble but this is just blatant cheating. I tell myself to not let it get to me. But ok, it has really, really got to me. For the first time ever at Spartathlon, I make a complaint to a race referee at CP64. I simply cannot stand seeing people abuse the integrity of this great race, and diminish the fight of the other competitors. The worthy thing for him to do is to stop, not to cheat his way to a finish.
The Bossman Cometh
I suppose it does provide some diversion though, and maybe the anger helps me on a little bit. Up to CP65, a serious working over by Jane and Jeff - full cooling, force feeding, re-stocking, the works, and now it's just a case of getting a jog on wherever possible.... some really long downhills now and just keeping on moving. Once you get past CP68 with over 30 minutes in hand, the chances of a finish are getting up close to 100%. In previous years i'd started allowing myself to think it was in the bag round about now. But incredibly there is still work to do here this time. At CP72 I am celebrating a little, and Jeff and Jane are a bit confused, although they don't say until after. I think it's easy from here, only 11k down into Sparta. I get out of Voutiani, and it totally hits me. Jesus, still 11k, in this heat, in this state. This is not over. I'm still going to have to work. And now here comes Gabe! Gabe Flores, who'd been basically on the cut line after the mountain, had completely ground his way through the last 50 miles with an absolutely epic performance. I'm so happy for him. Although he looks utterly shell-shocked by the whole experience! I nudge him on ahead for his finish down in Sparta, because just behind is the main man Anto himself. Absolutely brilliant, I thought he'd dropped, but he'd cranked out another epic to make the score 3-3. We chat a little, and Anto drops back shouting something about the Mayor of Sparta at the finish.
It is absolutely epic coming down into town. Tears start welling up just before CP74, where I pick up two giant Scotland flags and hoping to get the kids on bikes escort. But they must have all gone home for tea. Either that or Gabe has a flock. Not to worry. The people of Sparta are out in force tonight, on the streets and from balconies, the welcome into town is immense. Turn, go, turn, go, ok there he is, Leonidas himself. Leave a bit of a gap for other runners to get their glorious finish. There's Jeff and Jane! Flag up Daz, flag up. There's Bone, a huge hug and the biggest of Bone grins. And Rob, a handshake with the Cap'n. I wait for 30 seconds whilst Kostis welcomes the two runners in front. And then he calls me for my turn. It's other-worldly. I snog the Foot. 3 - 1 !! It's a life goal, concluded, right here and right now. Get right in the back of the Spartathlon net, ya dancer ye.