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Spartathlon 2017

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Been reading books of old, the legends and the myths

After DNF'ing last year, I wanted personal salvation in this race. And, if i'm honest, I wanted it really badly. I tried to hide it from everyone, but last year had hurt, a lot. It still wasn't perfect by any means but this year's preparation had been stronger, including specific downhill training, many more long training runs of 40 to 60 miles and two long ultras in July, one of which went pretty badly in the Belfast 24 hour Worlds, and one which went a lot better on the Kennet and Avon Canal. Despite the usual worrying niggles during taper, I felt pretty strong physically. All year i'd been trying to train my brain to not quit when things got tough. It hadn't worked at all in Belfast, but in general mentally I felt stronger too. I really believed I could finish, but I knew I still needed to burn some anti-quit thoughts into my brain. I'd recently read Dean Karnazes "Road to Sparta" and been inspired once again by the story of Pheidippides, the hemerodrome who ran from Athens to Sparta to request Spartan help against the invading Persian army: "Honour The Messenger". This year was the 35th anniversary of the race and last year the race founder John Foden sadly passed away. In 1982 John and 3 of his RAF colleagues successfully re-created Pheidippides' run, with no aid stations and barely navigable maps. Truly the men are legends. A few days before the race there was an online post of the most wonderful interview from last year with John which showed just the kind of man he was. Just a pure steel core wrapped in the most wonderful voice and character. This year our British team kit was in-memoriam to John and included his famous "I shan't wish you luck...." quote. "Honour the Airmen". Last year, the day after the race, I sat and stared at the statue of Leonidas in Sparti. Probably cried my eyes out. Of course I wouldn't go near it for a photograph. Back then, I swore to myself that I would be back having earned the right to touch it.

"Is there a bronze foot to kiss yet? No? Keep running then".

Come and Take Them - Achilles and his gold, Hercules and his gifts

No pressure then, no pressure at all. Just to pile it a bit more, this year i'd be running in a team with my three best running buds David, James and Jamie. David is a 2:51 marathon runner, an irrepressible force of nature who'd run 130+ miles in Belfast in the summer and been banging out 100 mile training weeks all summer. David, aka Achilles (my branding, not his), had sworn to be by my side for this race, I think the DNF last year had hurt him too. Thank you my friend, you were truly magnificent. James is just the hardest, most stubborn runner in the world. He has two previous Spartathlon finishes in 2015 and 2016 and this year was going for the magic hat-trick. Ultra running in general and Spartathlon in particular has transformed James over the past few years, and he is a very different runner from when we first ran together on the BB2LL challenge. James I am so proud of you my friend, thank you for everything. Jamie, aka Jamie Duracell, is a man I am very proud to call a friend. His sense of humor and banter is second to none and he keeps us all going with a well timed word or joke. He also has a terrifying ability to run long distances (Spartathlon finisher in 2015) and never seem to slow down. In fact just about the only thing that annoys Jamie is running a mile split that doesn't start with a 6, 7, 8 or 9. Sorry for all those times we went over 10m/mile Jamie! (And clearly I don't see myself upon that list)

British Team rocking the Acropolis, L-R Kirsty, Nath, Rich, me, Achilles, James, Duracell, Ali

Just someone I can turn to, somebody I can kiss This year we were supported by our brilliant crew of Brother Jeff, Gaby Ellis-Bone, Mum Linda, Sister Jane, Laura Ellis, Nikki Robbins Who She, Eric Lumley, Chevs Holmes, Tim Maynard, Alex Maynard, Sister Kate, Pats and Al, Audrey and Maria back in Athens; Rosie, Sam and Luke back home in Highbury, big Garry and big Andy Joyce crewing from afar in Copenhagen and London. Everyone on Twitter and WhatsApp giving us messages of support. Thanks so much everyone, you were all ace. We had done the training, we had all the support, all the gear and some idea. Now we just needed to get the job done.

Best crew in the world. L-R: Jeff, Chevs, Tim, Laura, Nikki, Gaby & Eric - LOVE YA x

Before we know it we're off and down the hill into Athens. It's impossible to run all together at this early stage but that's all cool. We know things will string out in a few miles and we can get our pacing going. James and Jamie are a bit ahead, David is behind. I love this early part of the race, chatting to other runners, trying to find a nice groove. I spend time chatting with Paul Katsiva-Corderoy, Jay MacDonald and Paul Beechey from the British Team. Paul K is back for a second time after a painful drop in 2015. First time for Jay, he is a strong runner and I have no doubts he will do well. Beechey is a monster of a runner, winner of two Canal Races this year and a 33:xx Spartathlon last year, he is back to see how much of a PB he can hit. Our good friend Nathan Flear is already miles up the road, he has been training like a beast and it's going to be fascinating to see how well he can do. I've been helping him with some pacing spreadsheets and really hoping I haven't told him anything that might mess up his race. In fact, pretty much all the rest of the 26 strong British Team are ahead of us, it's a really strong team this year.

So where'd you wanna go, how much you wanna risk? James gets the four of us in a huddle and says a few words. We're all fairly pumped up for this, and keen to get going. Our crew and supporters give us a final hug and word of encouragement and head off down the hill to find a view point. Now, it's just us runners. Show time

C'mon lads, let's get this done

Atmosphere? Tension? History? Nope, move along, nothing to see here. David and I get together pretty early on, the beginning of a partnership that would see us be within a couple of hundred yards of each other for the better part of 153 miles. #boom indeed my friend. We meet up with James and Jamie, but there is a fair bit of drifting back and forth as loo stops and just mildly different paces cause some gaps. At CP4 we take a reload of nutrition. This year i'm mostly using Skratch Labs drinks and SiS Gels, with some Chia Charge flapjacks thrown in. At crew checkpoints we have told the crew to force us to sit down and eat some mouthfuls of solid food. Getting behind on calories was one of the reasons for my DNF last year, so i'm determined to take care of this better. In this section I also chat with Susann Lorinder-Petersen from Sweden, making her Spartathlon debut. Susann experienced bad nausea from quite early on in the race and ultimately timed out near the Mountain, but not without putting up a massive fight and even refusing to give the officials her numbers not wanting to stop. A truly gutsy performance and i'm sure Susann will be back for revenge. We passed an American and asked if he was ok, he said oh all good and i'm just doing a run/walk. I thought he looked like he was struggling and we cracked on..... what little I knew!! Up to Megara and it's probably the easiest marathon i've ever run....feeling great although the first signs of fatigue are starting to arrive. We reach the marathon mark in 4:10, a few minutes better than last year and just where we want to be. It's even a little fast if i'm honest but i'm relaxed about that as the temperature is very benign this year, meaning we can run a little faster without risking over-heating. Into the first crew checkpoint and our team are bang on the money. Everything is ready and I make sure to pause for a few minutes to eat and collect my thoughts. Rice pudding and bananas go down a treat as does soda and lime. I messed up here, as I thought David was being fed by Gaby I gave away some food to a young lad who was at the side of the road, rubbing his tummy and telling us in Greek he was hungry. Turns out David was in the loo dreaming of his rice pudding, ....sorry David!

Hungry lad Seeing this young boy brought home to me just how ridiculously privileged we are to be doing this race. We worry about not having the right gels or shoes or something, and there are kids wandering around without enough to eat. Honestly I felt ashamed. The smile on his face made me feel a bit better.

Onwards we go towards Hellas Can CP22 and the first major checkpoint just shy of 50 miles. This section is hillier and we power hike up the hills and keep our running going on the flats and downhills. By now we're pretty much solidly together as a four, occasionally drifting into our unplanned but beautifully dovetailing pairs of James/Jamie and David and I. In fact David and I have now become three, because the run/walk American has joined us and he is doing great. Dennis Gamroth is from Oregon in the north west of the US and is making his Sparta debut, actually his first trip to Europe. Dennis knows the US ultra scene really well and has done many of the classic ultras over there, something that i've always been interested in. Dennis only paced Pam Smith to her Western States win a few years ago, holy sh*t this is amazing, I am loving this chat..... Pam is ultra-running royalty and someone I really admire. Also Dennis knows Bob Hearn, who we all respect tremendously, so there is lots to chat about. As Dennis and David are making their Sparta debuts, I try to contribute by giving them a bit of course knowledge. Except I keep getting it wrong, my recollections of the course from last year prove to be all over the show. I did this for a long time, maybe I learnt to shut-up about it somewhere around mile 120.... sorry guys! Anyway, the chat keeps us going, and pretty soon we are up and over the hill at Corinth and down onto the canal, crossing the stunning footbridge and pausing for a few moments to take in the view. Somewhere between Megara and Corinth we had passed Kirsty Williams and asked how she was. Just a thumbs up came the answer, but no words at all. I was worried but we had no choice but to crack on. Kirsty would subsequently time out before Corinth. I'm sorry we couldn't help Kirsty, I hope you enjoyed Greece and will come back for another go. Up to CP22 Hellas Can and everything is still nicely on-track. We arrive here in 8:37 and 53 minutes up on cut-offs, I think around 10 or 15 minutes faster than last year. But with less effort because of the lack of heat. Not that i'm complaining about that! In fact with the benign weather a new thought has formed: "you're never going to get a better chance than this laddie". Again we are well fed and watered, this time I even treat myself to a 10 minute sit down in a deck chair whilst munching through a large bowl of salty rice and vegetables. It's delicious and i'm pleased that my stomach is behaving itself despite the torrent of sports drinks and gels etc it's been receiving. Can also tell that Jeff is happy with how i'm eating, he is not giving me any hassle at all which means we are all good. I could have sat there for a while to be honest, but David and the crew give us a bit of a nudge and we collect ourselves to get going again. The next section up to Ancient Corinth, to Assos at 100k and then on to Halkion at 113k is to my mind one of the most important of the race. Most of it is very runnable, and the cutoffs ease a bit, so you've really got to make the most of it, run as much as you can at a sensible pace and try to gain some time. This worked well for us, and the buffer kept on rising, although to be honest I wasn't keeping tabs too closely on it. The checkpoint signs have a lot of information on them, and I learnt to my cost last year that spending too long looking at them and trying to extrapolate paces and finishing times etc will not help you one iota. In fact it will just fry your brain way more than it is already. This time I pretty much ignored the checkpoint signs, preferring instead to rely on crew to tell us if we were getting into any danger. Every third or fourth checkpoint I would look at the sign but only at one bit of information - the closing time of that checkpoint. From there I could very quickly work out we were 1.5 hours up, 1.75 hours up, or whatever it was. One time I mistook the closing time of the next checkpoint as the closing time of the current one, and thought our buffer was much higher than it actually was. See, don't look at them ok, they will just mess you up. Fairly soon out of Corinth we passed Rich Pomeroy, and he looked proper wasted. His pupils had shrunk to pinpoints and he seemed dazed. Again we ask "all ok?", this time there is recognition and a few words, and Rich mentions in his race report that he recalls us passing at this point, so maybe it wasn't as bad as it looked to me. Again I am worried, but there is little we can do and we have to crack on. Rich would recover from that low and go on to gut out a finish in 35:36, a truly brave performance from where he was at that point. Hats off buddy, it was great to meet you out there. Into Ancient Corinth and I am boosted by support from my Mum and Jane. They've been following the race and will continue on to Zevgolatio before doubling back to stay the night in Ancient Corinth, re-joining the race on the second day. They've been making some pasta with chicken and I happily pour a tonne of salt on it and munch away, pleased at progress and looking forward to a bit of a stomp on the hills to come. But, before the hills, there's a lot more running still to do than I remember. We go through 100k in 11:08, and my recollection from last year is that this is where the stomping uphills started. But in fact a lot of it is runnable almost all the way to Halkion village, so that's what we do. David, Dennis and I are still together, with James and Jamie not too far back. James is suffering with some nausea and stomach upset... discussing it with David we thought about hanging back a little but quickly came to the correct conclusion that a) he is a hard bugger and will not back down b) he was with Jamie who was the right man to look after him c) we had to capitalise on feeling ok as it could be either of us having a big low later on. And so we continued, on into Halkion village where we picked up the first set of nightclothes and put on the headtorches.

Coffee stop with Jeff at Halkion

Now we get into some proper stomping, continuing on our way to the halfway point at Ancient Nemea, kilometre 123. I'd written in our race plan that to get here in 14 hours would be absolutely "wunderbar", and we make it in 14:23, over 1.5 hours ahead of cutoffs. I'm really happy, but things are getting tough with fatigue setting in and the knowledge of a long, long night ahead. Also the section after Nemea was the first one where I really struggled last year, and I am a touch apprehensive that the same thing is going to happen again. Jeff reminds me what I have written in the race plan and tells me "come on, you know what this bit means, let's get this done". After Nemea you go off road for a bit onto a dusty, stony track. It is mostly uphill, seems to go on forever, it was very much a case of head down and plough on to get it over and done with. Before too long we were back on the road and starting on the downhill to Malandreni, which is where i'd really struggled last year. But, this time it goes really well, running all the way down and feeling pretty good about it, no pain in the quads at all. My feet were getting a bit slammed and could probably feel a few blisters forming, but little did I care. I was just so pleased to get down that damn hill and into the safety of the checkpoint with the buffer still well intact and possibly increased. Somewhere around here we overtake Laurence Chownsmith, being crewed by his good friend Martin Illott, a man who has finished Spartathlon six times. Laurence is on his fourth atttempt and determined to finish after three previous DNFs, and seems in good spirits as we leapfrog for a while. Laurence would team up with Rich later and go on to finish, a fantastic result.

Get down that damn hill!

From Malandreni we plunge further downhill and there are a few fairly runnable bits and pieces before we eventually start the long slog up to the Mountain Base CP47. We're still running, although it is now heading a bit more towards "doing the ultra shuffle" and I notice my stride length is beginning to shorten. Still, nothing wrong with a good old shuffle, so that's what we do. Right then, now it's mountain switchback time, and there really isn't a lot to report here. We just ground our way up the switchbacks in a group of 6, as Dennis had brought another American runner J-Bob into our group. I think I was fairly quiet at this stage and happy to draw energy from the chat and banter of the others. The road up to Mountain Base dragged on for a lot longer than I remember, it just seemed to go on, and on, and on. But, eventually, we get there. I'd mentally marked getting to Mountain Base in 20 hours as "deliriously happy", so arriving there in 20:16 elapsed and with 1:54 on cutoffs I was very happy inside. Taking nothing for granted though, there is still a very long way to go. Jeff does a sterling job of getting me changed into dry clothes and we get some food down. Jeff and I are dovetailing nicely, I make sure I listen to him about clothing changes and he is just all over it with everything. Not sure if I was maybe a bit "in the zone" at MB and probably a bit directional and not chatty, sorry mate if I was. In any case, there is no need for a repeat of last year's worried exhortations from Jeff. We have plenty of time and more than anything we just need to make sure we don't do anything silly. He calmly gets me on my feet, makes sure the mountain rescue guy at the base on the trail has clocked in my number, and sends me on my way with "I'll see you in Nestani"...... ..... onto the mountain trail and the weather is by now pretty wild. We are, essentially, in a cloud. It's not really rain so much as like being in a very fine mist, which soaks you pretty much instantly. I'm plenty warm enough though, and I have on a jacket that's holding up pretty well, so i'm all good. It's hard enough going up, but I know from last year that this thing sounds worse than it really is. I'm on my own here, with Achilles floating up ahead and James and Duracell a bit behind. N