After four consecutive finishes, this year’s attempt at the toughest road race on earth didn’t go too well… Here’s the Spartathlon 2019 race report. It’s a pretty sh*tty story.
As I went to sit down, I had a slight wobble, instinctively put my hand down to steady myself and felt a squelch. With a start I jumped straight back up, hoping it was at the very worst a soggy tissue – but even in the dark I was pretty sure it wasn’t.
A shaft of streetlight leaked into the portaloo and I thrust my hand into it and immediately wretched. It was covered in excrement, oozing through my middle fingers and spreading right up to my nails.
There’s a mantra many use to keep them going through the darkest hours of an ultramarathon: DBS – don’t be shit. Yet here I was, 15 minutes before the start of Spartathlon 2019 (my ‘A’ race for the year and the race in which I hoped to move into a select group of British runners with five consecutive finishes) and I was covered in shit. And to make it worse, it wasn’t even mine.
Thankfully, someone – a less dirty runner than the one who had obviously hovered and missed the pot by a good six inches or more – had left a pack of wet wipes on the side. I hastily grabbed at a few with my clean left hand, scraped off what I could and headed to the start line under the Acropolis a few feet away.
Laura and Nicky – crewing me for a third year – grabbed some more wipes from mum Audrey and helped clean most of the remnants off, but the stench seemed ingrained, stuck in the back of my nose and clogging the back of my throat. More importantly, as it turned out, it was playing games with my mind.
I managed to wish a few of the Brits around me luck, a couple of people took pics and before I knew it, the countdown began. We set off down the cobbles that lead from the Acropolis down into the busy streets of Athens and I realised I’d not even managed to think straight enough to set the timer on my watch. I stabbed at a few buttons to get it going and tried to focus on the task ahead.
The first miles didn’t seem too bad. I settled into a nice pace alongside fellow Brit and all-round lovely bloke John Miskimmin and we chatted away, but my gut was starting to cramp – ‘poogate’ meant I missed the chance to go to the toilet myself and I was also desperate to wash my hands. As the sun and temperatures began to rise, the last thing I wanted for me (or any other runners) was for me to be sticking my hand into bags of ice, spreading germs into all of our drinks bottles.
On the outskirts of the city, a petrol station beckoned and the attendants kindly let me use the toilet. I lost 10-15 minutes in the facilities and scrubbing my hands clean as I could. When I re-joined the field, I ended up alongside US ultra legend Dean Karnazes and Brit runners Dean Oldfield and Mark Bissett, and the four of us chatted for a while.
Karnazes has a reputation as a self-publicist but I’ve always found him friendly, engaging and easy to chat to on the few occasions our paths have crossed. Even at this early stage, though he was saying how much the race scared him and what a mammoth task lie ahead. I decided to push on a bit quicker to try and avoid the negative chat and get some of the loo stop time back, but the temperatures were already beginning to rise … and the more I pushed, the hotter I got, which started to slow me down
Setting my watch off at the last minute, I’d also pressed a wrong button. My Suunto 9 offers different modes where it pings the GPS at different time intervals: 1 sec, 60secs or 120secs. The options mean the battery life can be extended, but at the cost of accuracy – though Suunto claims that its algorithms can fill in the blanks quite accurately. Well that proved to be somewhat untrue. The further I ran, the less accurate the watch became. Each checkpoint – there are 75 at Spartathlon, averaging one every two miles or so – has a sign with how far you’ve gone, how far you’ve still to go and when that and the following checkpoint close. The inaccuracy meant I never knew quite how far I’d run or how far the next CP was. Not a big deal but an annoyance.
My pre-race plan had been to arrive at Megara, the marathon point (26.2 miles) in 3hrs 45mins. Poo stop and the growing heat meant it was 4.05 by the time I got in but around 4.10 by the time I left. Just 35 minutes ahead of the cut offs rather than the hour I’d hoped for.
The second major checkpoint Hellas Can in Corinth is 24 miles later with a race time cut off of 9hrs and 30. I’d hope to make it there in 8hours, to give me a comfortable buffer of 90minutes – which was similar to what I’d managed in my previous four finishes.
As I said goodbye to the crew at Megara, I knew the next 24 miles were going to be tough – potentially the toughest of the race. Last year we faced driving rain, but this year the weather gods threw things in reverse with an unseasonable heat-wave. It was 11.15am and my watch was already showing 36C (97F) and the following section has far less shade. My good pal Matthew Blackburn later described running this it as like having an elephant on his back… It was an apt metaphor.
As the heat beat down and the running got harder, poogate began to annoy me more and more, the inaccuracy of the watch was really grating and the checkpoints were running low on supplies – particularly ice. Guess what. That was beginning to annoy me too. I’m not great in the heat at the best of times and with no way to cool down properly, I felt as though I was going to cook. I’d always factored in a few walking breaks here to try and keep the heat down and preserve some energy, but they became longer and longer – I eventually decided to start picking up my own cold drinks from shops where I could. But that just lost further time.
I’d got an automatic qualifier for this year’s race by running more than 216km in a 24-hour race in Athens in January – around a 1km course that didn’t change direction. Going round a sharp bend on the course again and again had caused my right glute medius to pinch and despite lots of physio and sports massage, I’ve never really ran free most of the year since but have been able to largely manage the pain.
Perhaps it’s accumulated fatigue from training for such a brutal race for five years in a row, or perhaps it was just bad luck on the day, but I could feel it tightening, and as a result my shin on the opposite leg also began to get tighter and tighter as the first sign of a shin splint started to show. As fellow Brit after fellow Brit passed me by, and the buffer on the checkpoints eroded further, I began to despair.
Normally I’m pretty good at talking myself out of the negative. I remember once reading that it’s all about changing the narrative that starts to construct in your head. Don’t create the story of why you dropped out, but create the story of how you surpassed those problems and went on to finish. I was finding that crucial re-write harder and harder.
The longer I ran, the more my shin pulled, the more walking breaks I took, the more time I lost. At one point I called Laura: “I’m struggling, it’s hot, my leg is in agony….. I think Hellas Can might be it for me.”
“Get here and let’s assess” came the reply. The fact I was in distress was obviously relayed. Calls came in: Jamie Holmes, Darren Strachan, Rob Pinnington. All-well meaning, all encouraging me to go on…. but also all slightly annoying as I had to slow to another walk to take them.
Hellas Can eventually came with 9hrs 5mins on the clock, still clinging onto 25 minutes over the buffer but a full hour slower than I hoped. Laura pulled me onto a chair and threw a freezing cold towel over me to cool me down. My pal Mimis Sas, one of the race physios, was there ready to help. I got onto the bed and he began to stretch out the shin. I knew the clock was ticking but I figured if I couldn’t sort the leg and begin to run again, my goose was cooked anyway.
I left Corinth 10 minutes ahead of the cut offs: my worst performance by far in five races. But crucially I could run again. On each of the next CPs, I managed to claw back some time and came into the next crew stop around seven miles later at Ancient Corinth with the buffer back up to 35 minutes and having passed a number of other runners on the way.
Zevgolateio was the next major stop and I was still around 30 minutes up but I could feel the leg getting tight again. I managed to stomp up to the following crew point Halkeion village. This long winding road up to 500 metres is followed by an equally long downhill and then another rise to the half-way point in Nemea. In addition to the shin, my quads were now tightening and I was starting to find it impossible to run down the hill. It was fast approaching a case of ‘when’ my race would end, not ‘if’.
At Nemea, I had 10mins on the cut off and wanted to pull out, but the guys asked me to take it CP by CP. They’d drive ahead of the CP and pull up where there was no obstruction so they’d be on hand if I was timed out. The following CP after Nemea is only 4km away. Another winding uphill with another long stretch down that I normally enjoy running as it gives the chance to make up a bit more time before the next 20mile largely uphill to Mountain Base at 100miles. I tried to run the downhill. I really did. But by now I was limping and each step felt like agony. I decided it was time to be kind to myself – I was beating myself up psychologically and physically. As I pulled in, I asked for the withdrawal paperwork, signing it and shedding a few tears as Laura, Nicky and Darren scooped me up into the car, the CP staff gave me what felt like an undeserved clap and we drove off into the night. Sparta five was simply not to be.
A little over 24 hours later as I stood on the finish line, attempting to be happy for every other runner that ran up to the statue of Leonidas, I saw some of the guys and girls who’d been around me when I pulled out. They’d somehow managed to pull their own races back from the brink … unfortunately I’ll never know if I could have done the same and have been pretty blue since for missing out.
The truth is, I can’t blame any one of the things that went wrong. Sure, I’ve struggled in heat and with injuries in races of the past, but managed to pull things back – and there was little wrong with my nutrition strategy. I wasn’t eating too much on the road in the heat, but I was staying hydrated, plus I was eating well at the crew checkpoints.
If anything, it was an accumulation of lots of little things: a long-term injury playing on my mind, the watch pissing me off, the absolutely insufferable heat, talking to the voices in my head instead of hooking up with another runner, the incessant pressure of dropping time against the cut offs, plus I’d been dealt a pretty shitty hand at the start…
Two people I have mega respect for, Spartathlon and BST doctor Dora Papadopoulou and US runner Bob Hearn, both said the same thing to me after the race: “sometimes you have to experience the lows to really appreciate the highs in sport.” It’s a good point. It’s time to stop wound licking, work out a plan and get back on the horse… there are still more highs to come.