Sunday, 22 January 2017

Spartathlon 2016

Our destination
My first attempt at this epic race in 2015 ended in failure, my build up and training had not been the best, my quads totally failed me on the day after a very short distance, the heat ruined me and I ended up a broken mess at 75 miles. That dnf knocked my confidence massively, I couldn't even speak about the race for a month afterwards. I was in the gym a week later working on my still sore quads, a regime I kept up for the whole year. I knew right away I needed to return, to restore my faith in my ability. I entered using a 20hr 100 miler as a qualifier luckily I got in, Spartathlon 2016 was on.
Team GB
My training coming up to this event was impeccable, I spent the whole year working on various things. Trialing kit, tarmac running and quad workouts were ongoing but I also had a specific training period of twelve weeks with a proper taper and heat acclimatization. Every aspect had been covered and by the end of September I was fitter than I'd ever been. My kit had been perfected, my drop bags calculated, every detail had been considered. I was ready.
I didn't sleep much on the night before the race, I had my eyes closed and let my brain rest. It felt like forever as I scrutinized every last detail of my race prep. I was going through the smallest things that given the enormity of the race shouldn't have even been in my head. This should be chill out time, not a chance my brain was doing over time. Before I knew it 4.50am came and my alarm was firing off in my ear. I donned my gear, ate my breakfast and headed for the start.
Probably the most exciting
start line in the world
The start was only a few hundred metres from my hotel and I arrived just before the wave of buses. I stood in the middle of the paved area directly in front of the Theatre of Herodes Atticus, My nerve endings tingled as I visualized the journey ahead. Runners were now streaming in and the place was buzzing. Cameras flashing, group hugs, everyone readying for the countdown. A rather muted megaphone was mumbling in the background and we could just pick out the countdown, we were off. We surged forward filtering down the cobbled pathway and onwards toward the city.
Eight and a half minute miles had been my default pace for months, we were a little fast to start with but I soon hit my pace. I felt so full of beans it felt sluggish almost too slow but it's pointless having a plan and not executing it. We ran through the city streets and all traffic had been halted while we passed through much to the drivers annoyance. I can't imagine London traffic being halted just before rush hour on a Friday morning just to let a load of runners through. As we left the city we hit the long steady first climb. Myself, Barry Miller and James Poole chatted away barely noticing the climb. I was however very conscious of running my own race and the pace was picking up slightly. James pulled away slightly and I had no problem in letting him go. I continued for a further mile or so with Barry along a rather unpleasant main road. I was moderately faster than my 8.30s and told Barry to pull away, he did and that was the last I saw of him.
Everyone settled into their respective paces and the passing seemed to stop. I reached CP 4 and my first drop bag I had eaten a pack of shot blocks up till this point. I  grabbed my bag containing more shot blocks, gu gel, high five gel and 500ml of Tailwind. I downed half the drink and half a mile later downed the other half. Immediately feeling bloated. The feeling passed but wasn't pleasant.
Soaking my sleeves at
the marathon point
I soon joined the coast road and the miles ticked by. The running was easy and I felt so strong. The sun was up but the heat hadn't hit me. Every aid station I dipped my arms in a bucket of water and the feeling through my arm cooling sleeves was great. They were working! I reached the marathon distance and my first crew stop. I felt great and was all smiles I decided five minutes wouldn't hurt here. I was 15 mins up on my plan and 3hrs 55 had passed but I wasn't stressing because I felt good. My right quad was showing the first signs of fatigue as it had at this point last year. I trusted my training and put it to the back of head. I got a massive slice of watermelon from my crew and stuffed it in my face, It was heaven. I loaded up with shot blocks and gels and moved off. I ran back to the main road and headed up the hill, I had felt rough here the previous year but not this year, I felt great. I drank my tailwind as I jogged up the busy road, my stomach wavered again and I felt bloated. Again it passed. I carried on jogging along passing through small villages on the coastal road. I was really enjoying myself although sometimes you turn a corner and can see half a mile of straight tarmac ahead a very common site in this race.
The heat was at its most angry during this section probably about 30 degrees but plenty hot enough. I really wasn't bothering me though the heat acclimatization had worked so had my idea of total body coverage. The only problem I was having was slightly burning cheeks, my face not my arse. The ice pocket on my hat was working a treat. There was enough fabric between my head and the ice so I didn't get brain freeze but still the cooling effect on my head was amazing and as the ice melted the water trickled down my back. The ice was lasting plenty long enough too. I was very conscious of not drinking too much fluid. I was having my 500ml of tailwind every couple of hours,at each aid station I was having one cup of coke and one of water whilst keeping my bottle topped up and just sipping it as and when needed.
I passed Terry Zengerink on this section. It was hard but I was sticking to my very strict game plan which involved not running with anyone else. I passed, said 'Hi' and carried on. My quads were quite sore and every 10 mile or so I was doing four squats to try and stay loose and it seems to work for me even though I get some funny looks. I was soon approaching the Corinth canal and the high bridge. I ran over keeping my eyes fixed forward, I bloody hate heights. On the other side I caught Martin Bacon and we ran up the busy road to the 51 mile checkpoint together, I broke my golden rule but I was happy to have a major stop coming up and was in a chatty mood.
Raring to go in the heat of the day.
Hat stuffed full of ice.
I reached the CP in around 7hrs 55min and slightly ahead of my time target but still I felt good and took it as a bonus so I decided on a good 10min stop. I ran straight in and my quads were sore so I got on the massage table. The guys did a fantastic job on my legs and I ate an ice cream supplied by my crew. All was good in my world and I moved over to a chair to get some calories in. The pasta wouldn't go down so I settled for my ice cream and coke. Martin was beckoning me to go with him but I was reminded of my race plan by my crew and told him to crack on. 5 minutes later I was on the road again. The previous year I had felt like death at this point this year I felt good, what a relief!
After the busy roads it was nice to run on some quieter roads for a while. My mind drifted as I jogged along, I had written some splits down but had no real plan for any more of the race. I was so wrapped up in getting the first 50 done that I hadn't put a lot of thought in to the next section. No dramas just keep going the way I am and everything would be fine. Crossing the magical 53 miles was great only 100 to go, yay!.  Around this time I bumped into Paul Beechey and James we all chatted and exchanged positions. James was having a rough time with his stomach as was I. It was no good the energy I was getting from my tailwind was great but I was being left with a dry mouth and a bloated stomach. I had just been putting up with it but I could no more so as I ran ahead of James I stuck my fingers down my throat and projectile vomited across the road barely breaking stride. I did so a further two times. The relief was amazing, right there and then I decided tailwind wasn't working and I'd be drinking no more during this race. I've been sick 4 times during ultras and three had been in that two minute period. I actually felt great but was well aware my hydration and nutrition for the race had just taken a major blow. I quickly forced a couple of Gu down with water and an Scap. Time to focus. Martin appeared again from an adjacent field he'd got stomach issues but his were from a different exit. As much as I didn't want to run with anyone Martin was exactly my pace so we ran 4 or 5 miles into Ancient Corinth.
As we entered the village there was a pack of dogs fighting in the main centre which was an unnerving distraction also my quads hurt and my butt was sore, ring of fire type thing. I chatted with Jacque (my wife/crew) and told her I was ditching the tailwind she in turn insisted that I didn't run with Martin. He is a lovely guy but I had a strict plan and if I was to complete this race I had to stick to my plan. Again I let him go ahead as I tried to find my sudocreme, I didn't though, all I found was Gurney Goo so I slapped that round the offending area. Soon after leaving the check point I realized that the Gurney Goo was having the opposite intended effect and I was on fire. It certainly took my mind off the pain in my legs.
That was a painful massage
I'd left my headtorch in my bag at CP29 this was too early and as I passed through I handed it to my crew it would be pointless carrying for another couple of hours. About this time I started feeling rough, I was 60 something mile in, my feeding plan had gone to pot and I was tired. Not good. I was getting paranoid of the cut offs even though I had a two hour buffer and I was slowing. I bumbled through the lanes to CP32 and collected my head torch I was trying to get the gels down but in hind sight I wasn't getting enough calories. I had puked everything up and not re energized I was paying for it now. This really was head down, arse up and get on with it. I passed CP33 without stopping, I dropped here last year and I was happy to pass through, pretty much half way. I jogged slowly into CP35 Ancient Nemea and decided to have another massage, the girl really kneeded my quads and was checking my reaction constantly I couldn't help feeling like she was checking if I was ok to continue. I got up shook off the pain in my legs and ran on.
I can't remember exactly where but it was about the 85 mile mark I told Jacque that she had better drive to Sparta and check in and get some sleep. Chris Mills who was crewing John Volanthen said he would take over and Jacque could meet me in the morning with some fresh kit. I grabbed some Red Bull off her, Sudocremed my butt and jogged my way into the warm night. I had picked up a long sleeve top but certainly didn't need it yet. I started moving up hill and this was actually the start of the mountain all be it 13 miles out. I was still struggling and John caught up to me, he certainly had a similar game plan and was not in a talking mood. We spoke for a matter of seconds before he ran off. This was a bit of a kick in the balls as I'd been so strong but now I felt so weak. I could see the mountains up ahead but couldn't work out what way we were heading, either way it was a long way up. I walked and ran as best I could at one point getting stopped by an official asking if I was ok. I smiled and said of course I am, I'm 100% fine. Inside I was broken though.
Not sure where this was taken
but one of my fave pics ever
We followed an age of dirt tracks and tarmac switchbacks heading for the mountain, all the time I was getting passed by other Brits and there was nothing I could do about it. I managed to remain constant though and some of the brits that passed me would be messing about at CPs where I would pass straight through so there was a lot of criss crossing. I reached the mountain base in about 20 hours so it was now 3am, my Red Bull hadn't been going down too well but I'd taken a couple of ProPlus which really took the edge off the mental tiredness. John was still in the mountain base as he'd had a 10 minute nap. I decided to have a seat and a cup of soup, a well earned break after all that climbing, John pressed on ahead. .
I put my jacket on and hiked on to the rough track up and over the mountain this bit made a nice change up from all that tarmac, the rocky switchbacks were more to my liking. I passed straight through the mountain top CP and started the decent the other side. I was expecting a treacherous downhill with life threatening drops on all sides. What I found was a scree type track that was level but steep. Not a real issue apart from the fact I was slipping, I had stiff legs and tarmac shoes on. Others were sprinting past but I just walked down the steep bits until I reached the runnable stuff.
The run into Nestani was very much a blur. I was dealing with the lack of sleep ok but energy levels were still low and I was dragging my feet but I was getting it done. I was getting increasingly paranoid of the cut offs even though I'd pretty much maintained a constant two hour buffer. Everything I'd read had told me that the cut offs get easier as the race gets into the second day also that if you cross the mountain it's done. Both statements were not ringing true with me and that was bugging me. I was expecting to gain time on the cut offs and that is most certainly not the norm. With these thoughts some serious doubt had entered my head about actually finishing. 50 miles to go, not gaining time, feeling knackered, being passed by so many Brits, I nearly cried at the thought of failing again. This was a real mental low. There is little rationale at this stage in a race I was pushing forward but belief had left me.
I couldn't stop smiling. John always looks like that. 
It was in Nestani that a minor miracle happened, an epiphany you might say. I was feeling like my race was almost dead and I asked Chris what my lead on the cut off was, expecting him to say 2 hours, he said 1hr 40. This was awful, the worst margin I'd had the whole race. I looked him in the eyes and thought to myself 'You don't think I'm going to finish!' for fuck sake I didn't even think I would finish. Right there and then I decided this was it, do or die! There was enough time I just needed to get the hell on with it. I got up out my chair and ran in fact I ran with conviction, like someone who wanted to finish. The first signs of light filled the sky, I was on a very flat section and it was bloody cold. I was glad I had my jacket and spare top, the misty morning felt just above freezing. It was around 6am and 23 hours in, 40 something miles to go. A perfect time to get some good miles under my belt. I felt energized by the light. I was actually running, I passed Stu Wilkie and asked if he was ok, he was fine but mentioned his tiredness, he didn't look fine but he was moving so that was a positive. I ran into CP55 and started drinking coke and water. "Hi Dill" came from behind the table. I couldn't compute or focus but after a few seconds I realized it was John Volanthen siting there drinking soup. John and I both failed the previous year and both vowed to come back stronger. If there was one other runner I wanted to finish it was John. He looked shit and like a man about to give up. I said come on, little point sitting here and started to run. This was Johns epiphany and he jumped up knowing he had to move on. He couldn't run, he was spent but he ran/walked keeping me in sight. Eventually he caught me and we discussed our realization that this could and would be done but we had to keep on. We passed Duncan Cornish and egged him on. We were on a mission.
I ran into CP57 it was 7.30 am and 115 miles in, 38 miles to go in 11 and half hours. Jacque had arrived with my day gear,  I ditched my head torch and coat. She complemented me on how well I was doing but I wasn't feeling fluffy. No I said now's the time to knuckle down and get this done. John left but I had a pot of porridge which I watered down to a drink and promptly downed. I soon caught John. About a mile up the road the call of nature came on all of a sudden and I had to sacrifice a GB buff because I'd used my toilet roll elsewhere. A little gift for the farmer.
Carl and I at the finish
After the long flat lanes we joined a main carriageway and the start of a long uphill section. The road was like a British A road and the cars were not hanging about. I started to have another rough patch and I really had to get my head down and just follow John, if he walked I walked if he ran, I ran. It was tough going. He would pull away then I would catch him up and repeat although we were determined to run our own races we bounced off each other very well. We were just going up and up and I was noticing how painful my feet were. Blisters had just decided to rear their heads and the bottom of my left foot was blistered and all between my toes on the right side was heavily blistered. This pain got horrendously bad very quickly and I decided I would have to stop to burst them. I stopped and flipped off my shoe but I couldn't bend down to sort them out. It took all my effort to get my shoe back on. I jogged into CP65 with about 23 miles to go decided unless I sorted my feet I was going to struggle to get this done. The officials would have no problems pulling me out had they known how troubled I was so I smiled, grabbed and drink and went to hide behind some cars. I summoned Jacque to sort my feet. Russ Tullett was there too and volunteered his services. They removed my shoes and socks and Russ quickly burst the massive blister between my toes which fired its contents into the air and did so for a good 10 seconds. The blister on my left foot had ripped and was raw, Russ suggested covering the raw flesh with a Compeed. We all knew this was a big no no, but it was an emergency repair. He glued it on with some Tincture of Benzoin and I was good to go. John had gone way ahead but I did what I'd done the whole race and clawed him back. The pain in my feet wasn't quite as mind bending just manageable so jogging was ok.
 We eventually crested the hill and I bumped into some Brit supporters at a CP who explained that it was down hill from here and roughly thirteen miles to go. I was pulling away from John slightly and feeling good so I decided to just roll with it and try and run it in. It was 1.45pm I had about 12 miles to go and 5hrs 15 mins to do it. It was hot but the heat wasn't troubling me. As I continued down the road every car was honking their horns and Sparta soon came into view it was at that moment I knew I was going to do it. My lip quivered and a tear came to my eye it was almost done.
I had managed to jog right the way to the outskirts of town, I was shuffling but sort of running. A car swerved to a halt in front of me and a race official jumped out. 'Are you ok?' she asked. I was busted, in pain, incoherent, seizing legs but I smiled and enthusiastically said 'Of course I am!' You are not pulling me now I thought. I continued to jog along and bumped into Carl Howells I stopped briefly and spoke, as I went to run off my body said no, it was revolting, there would be no more running today.
Yes I am.
We walked and chatted there was only a couple of miles to go and I walked into the last CP and picked up my flag and team shirt. I was enjoying the walk in, everyone was cheering from their windows and spuring us on. We walked into the main street and I could see the flags at the end. This was the moment I'd waited 2 years for, I was lapping it up. The closer we got the louder the crowds got, all the Brit supporters were great and made us feel on top of the world. A Greek runner came up behind us a we let him go first to the statue. We followed him and took turns in kissing the foot. I thought I would cry at this point but I just felt relieved. Massive relief. I drank the river water from the bowl and stood for our photos. I'd actually dreamt of this moment and it was gone in a flash. I was so happy. 33hrs 57minutes 35 seconds. As 90% of the field will tell you though, it isn't about the time.
I was ushered to the medical area and had my blisters drained and drank an ice cold water. At that moment I seized up totally and couldn't get out the chair. After much negotiation I managed to get a wheel chair and was pushed over to the British supporters by a rather drunk Rob Pinnington. As soon as I was there I felt ill and started shaking uncontrollably. I so wanted to sit with the guys and celebrate but I couldn't, I needed to lie down. I got helped to my hotel by John Steele and eventually reached my bed. I crashed out. In pain but happy.
Me and the foot!
Would I do it again? Firstly Spartathlon is really hard if anyone tells you otherwise don't let it fool you.  I trained for a year with this race in mind and had spent most of the previous year thinking about my first attempt. So two years of my running life dedicated to this finish. Apart from a few minor details my race went exactly to plan and I finished well within the 36 hour limit. James Ellis asked me at the end what I attributed my finish to this time. I replied 'My heat acclimatization and my kit' but actually it was so much more than that. It was the weeks and weeks of training six days a week mostly on tarmac, back to back long runs, trying loads of different kit and nutrition strategies, 15 consecutive days of saunas pre race, planning every minute detail and every situation. It wasn't luck it was bloody hard work. Part of me wants it again but what would I achieve? Can I beat that time? Can I recreate that perfect race? What if I go back a third time and fail? Then surely I'd need to go back a fourth time. Thing is this race gets hold of you, I'm writing this thinking about the whole experience and what a great thing it was. So would I do it again?

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