This article was first published in Issue 8 of Ultra Tales
In my final pre-race article I will provide an update on my training progress and talk about my race plan and strategy. After that it’s the race itself followed by a fourth and !nal article analysing my performance (i.e. success or failure) on the day and telling you all how badly it went wrong!
The month of July was dominated by the Thames Ring event, a 248 mile non-stop race around the South of England to be completed within 100 hours. My race report has been detailed elsewhere so I won’t repeat it here.
THAMES RING | PHOTOGRAPH BY SUE ALBISTON
From a Spartathlon training perspective, this event did nothing for me and even put me back by a few weeks. The event itself was quite frankly a long slog which was reduced to a marching pace after the first day or so. Whilst I did manage to complete the event, I finished with sore and swollen knees, very sleep deprived (having only had 4 hours sleep in the 82-83 hours it took for me to finish the event)
and my feet were really sore with some blistering. It took me a good 2-3 weeks of little or no running to recovery from the event.
This event effectively wiped out most of the month of July for training so looking back on this now, it does raise the question over goal setting and priorities. Would this month of not training have an impact come September?
As I approached the last week in July, there were exactly 8 weeks to go until Spartathlon and the plan was to have 6 weeks of good solid training before a couple of weeks taper. It took a bit of an effort mentally to start running again (I had a slight case of “can’t be arsed”) at the end of July but I soon launched into my regular weekly runs.
From the last week in July to the first week of September I banked 65 miles, 100 miles, 88 miles, 100 miles, 88 miles, 74 miles and 75 miles. This phase was all about endurance building for me and probably lacked a variety of sessions but I like to bank a decent amount of miles as that gives me a bit of confidence. A little bit of banter with fellow Spartathlete Lindley Chambers about mileage also helped me grind out the miles.
Within this period, I ran a steady 3.33 marathon which felt pretty comfortable and a 4.14 50k which was a little quicker but after both events, I managed to run 12 – 15 miles the next day which I think shows I have a little more strength in my legs. If I had run a 3.30 marathon last year I wouldn’t be able to walk properly the next couple of days so those were both satisfying runs.
THAMES MEANDER MARATHON | PHOTOGRAPH JON ERRINGTON
As I write this report in September, the focus is now on tapering and reducing the mileage week on week (and trying not to overeat as you often feel lethargic when not running as much). However, I will also be focusing on completing regular sets of “easy” hill reps to build a little bit of strength. The plan is for these easy hill reps to feel so when I’m faced with undulating conditions in Greece then I want to be able to run the easier ones without too much thinking (at the moment the general Ultra approach is to walk everything which I can’t afford to do time-wise during the race).
My main concern in Greece will be the heat. During August when we had some good weather, I started to wear a sauna suit over the top of a baselayer and underneath a midlayer to experience some heavy sweating (I know it doesn’t sound great.. I didn’t look great afterwards either). I’m not sure of the scientific bene!t of this but it did help me sweat off a few extra pounds and gave a little bit of confidence that I could still run even when I was heavily sweating on a hot day. I did have one minor mishap when I over did it slightly after running a 10k lunchtime session, then a 10k evening race followed by a 10k morning session and then died on the 10k lunchtime session wearing the sauna suit during a warm period. Thankfully, I was running with a friend and they were carrying some water and I ended up walking back for the last couple of miles.
Fluid intake and fluid loss is something which I’ve generally gone on feel and experience (i.e. drink when your thirsty with the body demanding more when its hot and less when its cool). However, I was interested in getting a proper taste of the conditions in Greece and some more scientific advice on sweat rates and fluid loss and booked a taster session in a heat chamber in Kingston University.
I ran 10m/m pace for an hour at 38 C temperature (admittedly a little hotter than I expect it to be) with humidity ranging from 38-48%. My weight was measured before and after and core temperature checked at the start and every fifteen minutes.
In terms of how this felt, I can only describe it like stepping off an air conditioned plane in warmer climate and the heat hits you and is all around you. Running wise, the 10 m/m pace was comfortable in the legs but my chest felt like it was giving 20-25% more effort (it felt like I was running 8m/m pace). I drank 1200ml of water during the hour and still lost 0.5kg of weight. 2% body weight loss (1.38 Kg for me) was considered the point when this would start to seriously impact your performance. In addition my core temperature started at 36.4 C and rose every fifteen minutes to 37 C, 37.6 C, 37.9 C and 38.3 C. However within that short time it didn’t reach the 40 C area where you would be advised to ease off. At the temperature I ran I probably should have consumed more water but as I’m expecting Greece to not quite be as hot as these test conditions and I have a slightly clearer picture of suitable hydration levels.
SAUNA SUIT RUNNING AT LUNCH
It was a useful little taster session and I’m glad I did it but am not fooled into thinking surviving a 1 hour taster session means it will all be ok on the day and I will be utilising some heat management tips on the day.
I’ve had a few conversations with Lindley Chambers who took part in the event last year. I won’t go into the specifics here but general feedback was the pre-race organisation could have been a bit better. For your 400 euros fee, you do get 5 nights accommodation, meals, race support itself, goody bag and some activities (lunch, ceremony) so fantastic value for money.
However, the downside is the accommodation can be 4 people to a room (barracks style) and I was a little concerned over how much sleep and rest I would get the few nights before (i.e. have heard stories of loud snoring or people being unwell).
Being well rested before the race itself is of paramount importance, despite a half decent GUCR effort earlier in the year a poor nights sleep the night before meant the night leg was tough. Therefore, I decided to book all of my own accommodation before (Athens) during (Sparta – including the Friday just in case it all goes wrong) and after (Athens) the event. This gives me the opportunity to be well rested and not have to worry about who I’m sharing with, what time do they want to go to bed, will they rise early and disturb me. I booked my accommodation back in April and had a good choice of hotels. The hotel I booked in Sparta is literally a couple of minutes walk to the finish and runners will run past the hotel so somewhere I can stagger back to if I get that far.
PICTURED AFTER THE HEAT CHAMBER SESSION
Flights have been booked in advance. Again, rather than try and save a couple of quid I’ve booked flights through British Airways and gone for lunchtime flights so there’s no concerns about early morning or late night travel in rush hour, it should all hopefully be nice and relaxed.
In terms of the race itself, I’m a planner and an organiser and like to have a race plan and goals (Option A = Dream Goal, Option B = Target, Option C = Minimum requirement) and this works for me (and my personality type). This time, there’s just one goal.. to finish.
I have spent some time reading quite a few Spartathlon race reports (as you do) hoping to pick up small pieces of advice and information to help define my plan. For me, I quite enjoy this process of the planning and preparing as it gives me something to focus on and it’s always interesting to compare it to your real life experience on the day.
So what do I know about the race. The factual points are as follows:
* It’s 153 miles long
* It has to be completed in 36 hours
* There are 75 checkpoints en route
* There are cut offs at each checkpoint
* You can leave drop bags at each checkpoint
* Significant cut off points are; 26.2 miles, 4hrs 45mins; 50 miles, 9hrs 30mins; 100 miles, 23hrs ish (I think); 153 miles, 36 hours
* It’s going to be hot, it could be really hot
* There’s a nice mountain to climb at 100 miles
* The majority of the route is on roads
* Sun rise is at 7am and sun-set at 7pm
Having read various blogs and spoken to other runners, its apparent the route is not flat and is undulating the whole way. I have been warned against wasting time at check points (2 mins per checkpoint = 2.5 hrs). Heat will obviously be an issue and the checkpoint food may be a little less than desirable after being out in the sun for a period of time and being shared (grabbed) by the runners.
The cut off points are not even and do allow for a gradual slackening of the pace and !nally you have to be selfish and run your own race. There is a real danger of running at the slowest persons pace if you try and buddy up. So the advice is, don’t do it.
Having taken all of the above into consideration, I developed my race plan. This was based on what speed I think I can run, what speed I need to run to meet the cut-off’s and assumes a deteriorating pace over a period of time.
Essentially, the !rst 50 miles is purely about getting under the 9hrs 30mins cut off without overdoing it. Here the cut offs ease a little and the second 50 miles is about making steady progress and banking some time for the mountain at 100 miles. If you get to this point within the cut offs only a small percentage of people fail to complete the event and hopefully you will have enough time to finish the race.
I have also had to consider where I think I will be at certain times and factored in drop bags to ensure required equipment (head torch, extra layer etc) will be available in time for when I need it.
I’m not going to drill into too much detail over specific timings but there is a detailed excel spreadsheet where all this information is laid out. In terms of key objectives, I have a plan which I think is achievable based on my level of ability and planning to do the following:
* 26.2 miles, no quicker than 4 hours
* 50 miles, around 9 hours (but no quicker than 8hrs 30mins)
* 100 miles, around 22 hours
* That will leave me with 14 hours do complete 53 miles which is basically a fast walking pace.
* Drop bag every 5 checkpoints (5, 10, 15, 20 etc) so it’s easy to remember.
* I will leave some of my own foodstuffs in the checkpoint bags so I am not totally reliant on checkpoint supplies.
* I’ve planned to have certain kit available where required (i.e. head torch before its dark, mid-layers before the exposed mountain and planned a few spares in various drop bags in case I need to double up with extra layers for example)
* Practice good heat management at each checkpoint (i.e. use of suncream and heat and pace regulation)
The obvious challenge here is to maintain a running pace in the heat and hope I can tolerate all the food and drink en-route but my personal challenge is that 50-100 mile leg. Typically on a 100 mile run I would run the first 50 and power walk the second 50 and just scrape a sub 24hr hour time. I definitely need to make more of an effort to run at night to ensure I stay ahead of the cut-off’s.
British Spartathlon Team
Some of you may have seen the British Spartathlon Team (www.britishspartathlonteam.com) website setup by James Adams to act as a resource and provide a forum to unite the British runners as we all attempt to undertake this momentous challenge.
I am really looking forward to meeting up with the rest of the British runners and enjoying the race as part of a bigger social group. It’s going to be a fantastic weekend with a group of like minded people. We also have a really talented group of runners (except for me representing Mr Joe Average!) flying out this year so I fully expect the British runners to do well and have a really good year in terms of number of finishers.
Am I ready?
It’s fair to say I have been thinking, planning and obsessing over the race since I entered and its been a long 9 months to wait for my “A” race of the year. This race has caught my imagination through it’s background and history, favourable feedback from other runners about their experience and in particular the fact that the event is a real testing challenge and that it’s not a guaranteed finish. A little sense of fear adds to the challenge and will hopefully make a finish feel more special knowing you have had to work at it.
There’s a fair amount of pressure on me having committed to writing this blog and although I don’t really feel nervous about the race at this
point in time, the harsh reality is that a lot of good runners have not completed the race. I cannot contemplate not finishing the race and if this worst case scenario does occur, I am going to be a sulky, whining, miserable bastard who probably won’t venture outside his hotel room after the race or talk to other runners for months. After months of building up to this (and paying for everything) failure is simply unthinkable.
The actual difficulty of the race is something which I’m in all honesty a little ignorant off being a first time Spartathlete. You generally experience that harsh slap in the face during the race itself when you’re 30 miles into the race, your legs are sore and cramping, the sun is beating down on you and your stomach is lurching from side to side and you’ve got a massive hill to climb… that is the point when it finally hits home.
The training has virtually been completed and 2,500 miles have been run already this year. Could I have done more? Sure I could have, you always set out with this grand plan to train like a pro and try to complete an overly ambitious training schedule. However, I’ve banked more miles than before, dropped a bit of weight and seen some better race results during the course of the year. So I guess I’m as ready as I will ever be and I have got a real desire to finish this which is easy to say and more difficult to prove so I guess we will just see on the day.
So, this is it. It’s now all about the race itself and the performance on the day and the vision of a final heroic run down the last straight towards the finish to the kiss the foot of the Statue of Leonidas to the applause and cheers of the crowds and to be able to turn round and say I did it.
The Spartathlon race starts on Friday 27th September and finishes Saturday 28th September at 7pm local time. If you want to follow progress of the British runners in this race then this can be found at http://www.spartathlon.gr website or the British Spartathlon Team facebook page.