The roads from Athens to Sparta were even more punishing than I had imagined. In fact, by the double marathon mark, about 52 miles (83km) in, just after crossing the engineering marvel of the Corinth Canal, but with over 100 miles (160km) still to go, I began to realise that this was the start of the race and my legs were already in shreds. I reconciled this rather depressing outlook with thought that I was nearly at the first major checkpoint and that hopefully some decent food would be available. The cup of hot soup with noodles I was subsequently offered there was taken with immense gratitude – efcharistó (Thank you!)
I was competing in the 153 mile Spartathlon, which can legitimately claim to be the ‘original’ ultra-marathon, as it covers the route taken by the messenger Pheidippides from Athens to Greece, in his attempt to secure the services of the Spartans with the Athenians in the Battle of Marathon, against King Darius of Persia in 490 BC .
Clearly, Pheidippides would not have had to contend with any punishingly hard tarmac roads in 490 BC, but then I guess he would also not have had sleek trainers, advanced nutrition, water checkpoints every 3-4km on average, wicking technical tops and shorts, in fact the ‘buff’ he would have experienced would have been of an entirely different type to that I had on my wrists from the start of the race.
Anyway, I’m sure you get the point that Pheidippides, the father of the marathon, was a pretty awesome dude to have been commemorated in the writings of Herodotus by running the first ultra marathon. Fast forward 2500 years to the beginnings of the burgeoning ultra running scene and in 1982 five British RAF officers, Wing Commander John Foden and four others travelled to Greece on an official expedition to test whether it was possible to cover the nearly 250 kilometres in a day and a half. Three runners were successful in completing the distance: John Foden, John Scholtens and John McCarthy.
Since 1983, it has been an annual footrace from Athens to Sparta.
Back to the present day and I had entered the race as it had been on my bucket list for some years and yes, you’re not mistaken, you can sense the ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ coming hurtling down the trail at break neck speed.
I had arrived on the Wednesday and spent a couple of days going through the registration / drop-bag planning / briefing process, all the while getting to know my team mates on the British Spartathlon team. Although unofficial, the team is well supported and organised by individuals who have competed in past years (Rob Pinnington and Paul Ali) and James Ellis (#158) who was going for his third finish this year. I noted a certain ‘team envy’ from other competitors and this is due in no small part to the efforts from these three gents – many thanks!
The 360 or so starters were delivered from various hotels mostly in the coastal resort of Glyfada at the south of Athens, to the base of the Acropolis, where the race was due to start at 7am. All of the runners prepared in their own way’s, some excitedly, others pensively, most taking pictures to record the occasion marking the start of an event which would mark the culmination of many months of training, perhaps for many, as for me, it would be their ‘big’ event of the year. The time ticked away inexorably with many nervous glances towards watches and then suddenly the appointed hour was upon us.
Daytime / Friday 29th Sept 2017
I was located near the back when the starting gun set us off, but with several of the other British team members and after the obligatory 20 second walk to the starting mat, we were on our way. The sun was just rising, marking the start of our first 24 hours.
We now had until sunset tomorrow to reach Sparta. 36 hours.
I had been told the first section of the race, to Corinth, was largely flat and road based although there was a nice downhill section leaving Athens which Paul Beechey (#326) and I ran down now. This was the fastest part of the race, and we even put in a couple of sub-5 minute kilometres. I made a mental note to slow up a bit though as a didn’t want to overcook it quite so early.
The streets of Athens were busy, even at this early hour of the morning and many police motorcycles were out escorting the runners and stopping traffic at many major intersections on the way out of the city. Despite the obvious inconvenience to their daily lives, the Athenians were sounding horns, shouting cheers and applauding the runners as they ran past.
I stuck with Paul for a while, and we passed a number of the others in the British team including James Ellis (#158), David Bone (#226), Darren Strachan (#252), Jamie Holmes (#163) and Cameron Humphries (#335) but at this early stage I did not anticipate that the positions would be fixed by any means. With any long distance race, anything can happen, especially in a race where there are so many unknowns. Eventually I let Paul go on as his pace was too fast for me this early on and he was clearly on a mission to improve his time over his finish last year 🙂
We were out of the city within about 5 miles, and at the coastal region, the Gulf of Elfsina, after another couple of miles. The next 70km was on a secondary road skirting the coast to Corinth.
I saw a number of the other members of the British team who were running well, chatting briefly with three of the female runners Sarah Burns-Morwood (#219), Ali Young (#168) and Katherine Ganly (#195) who were all going well and at about the same pace at this early point in the race. We were at the first marathon point (only 5 more to go) within no time and this was the first major crew stop so I carried on my way and then had a long section towards Corinth on my own.
In the hotel in Athens prior to the race, I had shared with a Polish runner, Rafal Szymanski (#288), and as we were both newbies at this race we quickly struck up a friendship based mainly on fear and panic! The blind leading the blind is an appropriate metaphor. I caught up with Raf around this point, and we again chatted away to wend away the endless hours. He had completed the UTMB less than a month ago, and although his feet were suffering, he had planned to change his shoes on a regular basis to alleviate the pressure points on his feet. Nevertheless, he was already concerned about a knee problem and was adopting a run / walk strategy.
Although the heat was nowhere near as bad as it could have been, I was starting to get cramps in my quads after about 60km, and was thankful of some S-Caps (sodium tablets) to stave off the impending pain. Having experienced this before, I knew I had to slow down before I cramped up completely. As I approached the double marathon point, I began to wonder if I was going to start to pay for my early pace. The nature of the cut-offs was such that a fast pace was expected for the first third of the race as so I had little choice but to maintain the pace I had set. The hard tarmac was starting to tell as well, but making the Corinth Canal and then the first major checkpoint, C/P 22 at 80km, with the promise of the cut-offs subsequently easing was also a major milestone.
Getting going after my all too brief respite was a different matter. With seized muscles unresponsive to my desire to increase my speed, it was a struggle to loosen up and settled into a rhythm again, even a slow, shuffling rhythm. My next psychological milestone was the onset of darkness although having covered the first 50 miles in 8:30, I still had another 2-3 hours of light and wanted to cover as much ground during the first day as possible.
Although the route was all on road, I passed the time taking in as much as I could of the Greek countryside. During the earlier part of the day, up to the Isthmus of Corinth, the route had followed the coastal road around the Gulfs of Elefsina and Megara, but now a small group of no more than 5-6 others, running at a similar pace to me, were traversing mainly olive groves and vineyards, which at least was more pleasant and relaxing than the oil refineries and industrial areas scattered around the Isthmus. The route also passed through many ancient cities, with newer villages built up around the ruined remains of what were clearly, at the time, major settlements, such as Ancient Corinth and Ancient Nemea, and I was frequently reminded of the historical significance of the area I was travelling through.
Along this stretch, I was caught by the group of five British runners I had passed right at the start, James, Dave, Darren, Jamie and Cameron. I had a chat with James and David along the way for a couple of checkpoints, but they were going better than me at this stage, so again, I decided to let them go.
As I had no crew with me to assist at various checkpoints, I had made arrangements to drop items of equipment at various checkpoints along the way. This included items such as a torch for the night stages, battery charger for my watch and phone, and changes of clothes. I also had energy gels at checkpoints, sufficient to have one gloopy, gelatinous sachet every 10km.
Night / Friday 29th Sept – Morning / Saturday 30th Sept 2017
Hence I arrived at my first problem. In my inexperience, I had overestimated my pace and mistimed the point at which I had stashed my head torch for the impending darkness, and in my energy-deprived low blood-sugar state, it began to dawn on me that I was going to be, at best, 30 minutes into the night before I made C/P 32. One of the advantages of a road race became clear though, as the smooth surfaces had little impact on my ability to navigate with some semblance of forward motion, whereas running on trails, with jutting tree-roots, boulders, loose scree and shale, would have been a different matter altogether. Nevertheless, I soon had to befriend another runner, Juan-Carlos Pradas (#350), a French runner who was on his seventh race, having already finished 5 times. Respect! We chatted away, and soon arrived at the checkpoint of my salvation and wished each other farewell as he peeled off to meet his crew.
Armed with my head torch, more chicken soup and a change of socks, I left C/P 32 around the top of the first 1000ft hill, for the long haul through the night.
I had 10km to go to 123km – the halfway point.
With only 362 starters in the race and, as I later found out, many retirements even before this stage, the field had spread out quite considerably and I spent many hours during the race on my own. Far from sinking into the depths of loneliness though, I learnt long ago to enjoy these meditative periods of calm and peace and as a result the time passed quite rapidly.
Nevertheless, it is often great to run with someone, and the second half of a long race is generally the point at which the pace of your fellow runners is sufficiently synchronised for conversations to be started and bonds of friendship to be struck. In the hotel in Athens prior to the race, I had shared with a Polish runner, Rafal Szymanski (#288). We had been leap-frogging each other a few hours earlier, but he had stopped for some time at one of the previous checkpoints and I had lost touch with him. He now strode up behind me and we again had a few hours chatting and putting the world to rights on our way through the Greek countryside!
I left Raf some check points later as he was nursing a knee problem and I returned to practising my mindfulness with relentless forward progress. The route took what appeared in the dark to be a valley route parallel to the main highway which was no more than 200m away, but at a higher elevation and illuminated, so seemed somewhat surreal in the mist of the late evening / early morning which was starting to descend and transmute into an unfamiliar Greek drizzle. As I arrived at C/P 43, the village of Lyrkia, where I had my waterproof coat stashed, the heavens finally opened and I thanked God for the perfect timing. This was also the first checkpoint within 100km of the finish although there was still the small matter of a couple of hills to negotiate, and I still wondered if Pan might be putting in an appearance.
Snuggled in my light but windproof and dry jacket, I got a second wind and started to pass a few others again. Although the kilometres were counting down painfully slowly by this stage, I consoled myself that each step was one more behind me and closer to meeting Leonidas. We were also snaking our way uphill into the mist which I knew meant the 3000ft+ climb up Mount Parthenio was underway. I am relatively good at hills, but was still surprised at my ability to catch and pass others as we wended our way up the incline where at times I struggled to see a couple of metres ahead, and more than once had to stop myself at an edge as the switchback changed direction. Soon enough we hit the infamous ‘mountain base’ – the last checkpoint before the trail section which heads steeply over the mountain. We were now well and truly in the clouds with the Gods, but the wind and rain obviously deterred Pan somewhat and he never made an appearance that evening. The rain made the track very slippery, but the brief section was over quickly and I was up over the rise as fast as I could manage to avoid the exposed conditions in the saddle of the mountain.
The temperature became noticeably milder as I descended the beast and the blisters on the balls of my feet also started to mature noticeably on the uneven trail section, as my broken quads tried valiantly to slow my descent. The remaining hours until dawn were filled with little in the way of major stops and the monotony of the vineyard terrain in the dark, combined with my lost sleep deprivation battle meant a few dicey moments of sleep-running, and semi-conscious hallucinations – I stepped gingerly around several Labradors laying quietly in the road, was surprised by the intricacies of a miniature native American totem pole at one point, but also decided not to dwell on the shape coming towards me from the vineyard I was running through – Maybe Pan had arrived after all!
Day / Saturday 30th Sept 2017
In the final hour before the sun came up, I was caught by the last of the British contingent, Lawrence Chownsmith (#224), and we chatted together for a bit until reaching C/P 53 at 172km, the village of Nestani, where they had the best salted potato wedges I had ever tasted. We both hurried on, conscious that the cut-off times may not be so generous in the daytime as they had during the night and also that the heat of the Sun, from which we had been spared for the past few hours would also soon be returning to add to our challenge.
Laurence was feeling stronger at this stage, so I let him go on ahead, choosing rather to maintain the one-hour-to-cut-off strategy which seemed manageable and had served me well as a plan to gauge my time between stops during the evening hours. Laurence was ahead, but I frequently passed him at the checkpoints, as he recovered with his crew (Martin Ilott). At one point he was far ahead, but then the next he was feeling nauseous and stopped to recover – such is the nature of ultra running – full of highs and lows. We plodded on through the day, with the temperature rising to the next major checkpoint C/P 60 at 195km in Tegea, where more fallen stone columns faintly outlined the past glory of the area. It was just before midday, and I had over eight hours to do 50km. I started to allow myself the luxury of thinking this might be possible and for the first time I started to visualise an emotional finish, rather than merely the 3km to the next checkpoint.
I don’t remember exactly where it happened, but eventually Laurence and I were running together all the time and slowly counting down the milestones on the way – 50k, 30 miles, the final marathon, 20 miles, less than 1/2 marathon, 10 miles, 10km…
Then, almost suddenly, having crested the final hill, there was a first sight of Sparta and the goal for which we had been aiming for what seemed like days now, the images of the start and Athens already consigned to a distant memory. The final downhill into the town lasted longer than I would have liked and the frequent checkpoints with cut-off times did not let up even at this stage. We had slowed over the last few hours while nursing an injury to Laurence’s foot, but were still 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off times coming into Sparta. The final checkpoint, with only 1.5 miles to go, was a 5 second ‘grab-and-go’ which had become the norm in the last few hours as we strove to keep ahead of the death-bus, forever nipping at our heels and ignored a couple of times as we converged on our final destination.
Martin gave us a Greek flag which we proudly held aloft, much to the delight of the residents and spectators as we ran through the streets of Sparta, with seemingly the whole town shouting and cheering us along. The final corner turned, the street was a sea of faces and the everyday roadway was temporarily turned into a promenade of glory. With our British Spartathlon shirts proudly displaying our heritage, our sentiment of carrying the Greek flag was appreciated even more by the populous, shouts of ‘bravo’ from the sidewalks and cafés, the local children cycling and running along behind us – a magical and hard won moment.
Finally, we were there.
The statue of King Leonidas loomed large in front of the stadium, and an instant a wave of euphoria erupted over me. The effort of the last 36 hours, the nervous energy preparing for days before that and the prior months of training preparation suddenly culminated in this moment. We had both made it and could finally stop.
The tradition of the event is emphasised by presenting the finishers with a wreath and offering them water from a goblet (supposedly) filled from the Eurotas River, the life giving source of water within the fertile valley for thousands of years.
In total this year, there were 369 starters and 265 finishers, giving a 72% finish rate, which although the highest ever finish percentage, gives some idea of the challenge.
In the end it wasn’t pretty or pleasant, and it certainly wasn’t perfect, but as an event it was stupendous. To have completed such a distant is a testament to the human spirit and to have met and been part of the British Spartathlon team was an honour. To have been part of such a huge and traditional part of Greek culture, travelling through history with every step, was also astounding and a privilege and I count myself lucky to have been able to compete in this inspirational event.
Would I do it again? At halfway, definitely not, but now? Now the rose tinted spectacles of achievement have dropped into place and the pain has subsided? Well, never say never…
I would like to thank Laurence and Martin for their company during the second day, in the end, I think it made a huge difference. I would also like to thank Paul Ali, Rob Pinnington and James Ellis for all their efforts organising and coordinating the team, providing advice and making the British Spartathlon Team then envy of the world – It was a pleasure meeting you all and a privilege to be part of the team. To those of you who finished the race, many congratulations and to those who did not quite make it this time, don’t give up hope – there’s always next year. Finally, I’d like to thank my long suffering wife and family for all their support during my training and during the race, albeit from afar. I missed you on the road to Sparta.
If you have enjoyed the story of my challenge, please feel free to contribute to the charity ShelterBox for whom I was running. I have set up a JustGiving page to allow contributions. Shelterbox is more appropriate now than ever after natural disasters have shown once again how fragile life can be, with earthquakes in Mexico, multiple hurricanes wreaking devastation in the Caribbean Islands and flooding in Bangladesh, ShelterBox provides quality tools and materials to help people create quality shelters and start rebuilding their lives. This is a charity which my parents, who have both passed away over the last few years, were keen to support and we are keen to uphold that tradition in their memory.