Another Ultramarathon Running Blog

2019 Spartathlon

It’s been fair to say I’ve lost my running motivation over the past couple of years and coupled with mediocre form, injuries and a bit of illness my interest in running ‘long’ ultramarathons has dwindled. This time last year after a poor 2018 I had contemplated (however serious you think I may have been) Spartathlon being my last long race. It didn’t go to plan and I was withdrawn from the race having collapsed at the Mountain Base checkpoint.. not the way I wanted to finish my ultra career at all.

I was unable to run post Sparta 2018 through illness (from the race) for a few weeks and then aggravated a long standing piriformis issue which meant I hardly ran the last few months of 2018. It go so bad I even had to go and buy a bike to do some form of exercise! Thankfully, I had a second chance with an auto-qualifier from my last (and only) decent race at the Liverpool Leeds Canal Race in 2017 and so I started 2019 with the same plan as 2018 to get fit and finish Spartathlon and then think about whether I wanted to run again after the race.

It’s fair to say my running in the first half of the year was below par. I was overweight (starting the year at 74kg) trying to nurse some niggles whilst trying to run after a couple of months absence and re-build my fitness. The piriformis issue was still a physical concern (and constrained my running to some degree) resulting in physio treatment, acupuncture and various stretching and strengthening exercises and mentally I was probably still going through the motions. I didn’t feel as if I was running comfortably until April time.

My racing in 2019 was nothing to speak of. I had planned and managed 50 miles at Samphire in March, had a poor Thames Path 100 when I got to 75 miles ran out of steam and then a similar thing happened at the GUCR when I reached 100 miles in and then mentally checked out of the race and ‘walked it in’ for the last 45 miles! A weeks holiday with the family to NYC immediately (the next day) after the GUCR was a welcome break and I knew I had to refocus. I elected not to run any races in June and put in my best months training (a consistent 75 mpw averaging 7.45m/m for the month but not many long runs) before adding some higher mileage weeks including an ultra event every couple of weeks from mid-July to end of August to get some long runs in the legs.

None of these results were anything to speak of aside from the local Reading Round Ultra 50k where I got within 5-10 mins of my PB with a sub 4 result. My last race on the bank holiday in August was at the new T50 test event which was an absolute disaster where I hit the wall after 25-30 miles and well you can guess what happened… I walked it in.

Despite, a mediocre years running I knew I had done enough running to finish Spartathlon but I knew I wasn’t in the best shape of my life. After the poor T50, I started to taper 3 weeks out and the piriformis issue had just about settled and the weight was in a good position (66kg, an 8kg loss since Jan) so I was well rested, reasonably fit and hopefully injury free. No excuses and no complaints pre-race.

2019 British Spartathlon Team.. a cool bunch of guys and girl

The build up to Spartathlon from a British Team perspective was good. There were a number of withdrawals and additions which meant we didn’t have a final view of the team members until quite late but thanks to the work of James Ellis, Cat Simpson, Darren Strachan and David Bone we were well prepared this year after the kit ordering/supplier woes from last year. Mark Burnell had updated the kit design for us and the runners and crew kit, buffs and banner all looked great. Once again, the British Team would be well represented. A huge thank you to all our sponsors; Ultramarathon Running Store, Runderwear, Rathbones, Indigo Fitness and service providers RaceDrone, Endure Nutrition and Daz n Bone Ultra Coaching.

It was also great to see the team bonding via Facebook or by attending the team training day and people (and crews) once again getting into the spirit of the event.

From a personal perspective, I was originally going to run this crew-less but Rob Pinnington was feeling home-sick for Sparta and offered to crew me and brought along his son Tom as the second crew member. Rob and I regularly exchange messages and ‘banter’ and his crewing style was going to be an amusing experience for us both.

I arrived in Sparta on the Tuesday with the desire to get another days acclimation to the heat and timings and ended up sharing a room with my new Latvian friend Vilnis Pleite (who resides in Ireland and spoke perfect English). The British contingent arrived over the next day or so and we met up and went through the usual pre-race routine of registering, organising shopping and drop bags etc.

Meeting our kind hosts

Part of the Spartathlon experience for me is enjoying the whole week bonding with fellow runners, crews, supporters and the organisers who all share a common interest in running and in particular this event. The weather was good this year with temperatures in the high 20’s/low 30’s predicted so about as good as you could expect pre-race.

My strategy for the race was to go easy and made sure I finished, no grand plan, no specific time goals (I did give the crew an expected window), no fuss.. just get the job done. I really didn’t want to go through the heart-ache of not finishing a second year. The couple of nights before the race saw the usual poor sleep in an unfamiliar hotel but I tried to relax during the day and have early night so not the best but not the worst sleep. I also organised my drop bags so I was self-sufficient and any meetings with Rob/Tom were going to be a bonus which meant no pressure on the crew if I missed them somewhere.

Babbling a few words to the TV crews

Rob, Myself, Alex and Tom

Fast forward to race day and once again I’m standing at the foot of the Acropolis in the dark with a few hundred other runners ready for the start of the race. Fellow Reading Jogger, Alex ‘Canal Slam Champion’ Whearity (I’m obligated to add that in reference each time I use his name) was also taking part for the first time and had subjected me to a 101 questions before the race as I took on the role as his ‘Sparta Dad’ for the event. It was all fine answering questions and trying to remove uncertainties to allow Alex ‘Canal Slam Champion’ Whearity to focus on the race. It was fortunate that he happened to be sharing with a room with Rob and Tom and so the four of us hung out together for race week. Just prior to the race, I babbled a few words to a camera crew on behalf of the British runners and we lined up for the start of the race.

The race started at 7am local time (5am UK time) and we set off down the cobbled streets out onto the main road heading out of Athens. I recall spending a few early miles with Tom, Carl, Richard and Sam before we all continued on at our own preferred pace.

We made our way out of Athens to the backdrop of blaring horns and the sound of traffic along the busy roads which were closed off by Police and officials to allow the runners to pass. The route seemed reasonably familiar to me by now and I looked forward to those odd parts of the route where you pass the schools and children out supporting and the streets lined with cafe’s and shops and people out on their day to day business greeting the runners as they passed by.

The route leads out from Athens onto the coastal road where there is little shade from the sun. The temperature was higher than predicted (mid 30’s) and I could feel the heat burning down on me which meant I took every opportunity to grab some ice, soak my hat and buff placing this around my neck and onto my chest as I could feel the heat on the skin of my chest. The coastal road offers some great views of the sea as the road climbs and descends but it’s a third of the race I like to get past as we headed towards Corinth.

Heading along the coastal road

The first crew meeting point is a marathon, I don’t recall spending much time here just grabbed a top up of tailwind a snack and moving on. I sometimes find that drinking Tailwind doesn’t quench my thirst and I have to have this alongside some plain water or something else but this was less of an issue when I was taking it with iced drinks as the cold water dominates the flavour. A regular intake of Tailwind and snacks meant I was getting enough energy into the body to continue running.

I had a low spell quite early on around the 30-40 mile part of the race where I felt very sleepy due to lack of decent hours sleep and a little bit sick (but not quite enough to vomit). Experience tells me these things will pass and I just did whatever I needed to to keep moving forward and try and make myself comfortable as best I could. This phase passed after we started to get near Corinth Canal and I caught up with Matt Blackburn who was also having a rough patch with sickness and we spent a few miles together before and after Corinth. Matt ultimately had a tough day at the office but gutted out a finish, he mentioned to me after the race that one piece of advice I gave him did drive him on.. the pearl of wisdom was something along the lines of “You do not want to be one of the few people who doesn’t finish the race, I did that and it felt rubbish (I may have used a different word here) last year. An ugly finish is a finish.”

Passing the iconic Corinth Canal

Cornith is a brilliant checkpoint marking the completion of the first third of the race and it was the first major control point with lots of crews and supporters around a bustling aid station. I arrived here in about 8.30 and an hour ahead of cut-offs, nothing too fancy just steady running. My sleepiness and sickness had passed although my quads were feeling quite sore already from the constant pounding on the roads. Rob hadn’t failed to deliver in the amusement stakes having a fold up chair ready for me covered in a bespoke T-shirt with the logo “No Sleep Til Sparti” emblazoned across the top and a picture of me in the Mountain Base CP on an IV drip DNFing the race across the chest as an incentive not to do it again. I couldn’t be too cutting in my responses to Rob as both him and Tom were doing me a huge favour by offering to crew so I was limited to gently mocking him when he took more than a few second to do something for me at a checkpoint.

The motivational T-Shirt

Pictured late afternoon

The next third of the race sees the runners head along quieter country lanes with a couple more hours of heat to endure before it begins to cool and darkness descends in the evening. I can’t recall spending too much time with many other runners but I do recall the state of my quads progressing from ‘sore’ to ‘hurty’ to ‘painful’ as we headed along roads, and dual carriageways and the ascent up towards the Mountain Base.

We had a simple system in place for drop bags and refreshments. I had drop bags every 5 CP’s which was essentially a few snacks and some tailwind and an extra top, head torch and batteries later on and so I was self sufficient but as I left each checkpoint before I met the crew, I would send a quick text with a couple of things I needed. This was pretty much freeze spray for my quads every time we met and some more tailwind. I don’t recall hanging around unnecessarily at checkpoints but these stops did get a little longer as we progressed into the race.

I must admit to two silly moments in the race. The first was my choice of shorts. Runderwear had kindly sponsored the team and provided some kit and as I have suffered chaffing in the groin area took advantage of the underwear but had put these underneath the wrong shorts (which has an inner lining) which then started to feel uncomfortable. At one point during the evening, I arrived at a Checkpoint and sat in my pants whilst Rob cut out the inner-lining for me. He also offered to put rub vaseline in any sore areas which resulted in the (mock) photo of me looking shocked as Rob offered a single finger covered in vaseline…

The second idiotic moment was a gem. My Garmin (an ageing 920XT) only offers 14-16 hours of battery life and I have a second similar watch which I switch to during the race. At the GUCR, the strap broke on my spare watch which I replaced. Prior to the race I also made sure the watch was fully charged swell. It was only when I took the watch out of my drop bag to actually use it did I realise I put the same strap piece (the bezel bit) on twice so I couldn’t do the watch up. How on earth I missed that heaven knows? It wasn’t an issue as I put the watch in my pocket but it was a silly moment to chuckle at.

A ‘WTF?’ moment

The Mountain Climb at night

I arrived at the Mountain Base checkpoint and posed for a photo with Rob and said hello to Adrian who runs this Checkpoint. I didn’t tarry here as I made a vomit mess at this Checkpoint last year and started the climb quite quickly. Going up was reasonably ok as I hiked up this section and held my own compared to other competitors but the downhill section was really uncomfortable on the quads (I even tried that walking backwards down the hill thing which looked and felt ridiculous) and I slipped over on the loose rocks and stones about 3 times landing on my posterior a couple of times as I jealously watched a few mountain goats skipping down without a care in the world. The jamming of my toes into the front of my shoe as I tried to brake going down hill did cause a blister on my right big toe.

However, this was the first blister I had felt in the race and I was 100 miles in so I’m going to say my anti-blister liner seemed to be doing a reasonably good job. Blisters were not the excuse today although ‘trashed’ quads (new status) were the major physical problem. I stopped to try the Moreton stretch a couple of times but as I held onto something and tried to lower myself down into a squat permission, my quads started to scream out in pain and I couldn’t go through with it.The mountain descent was a really slow section for me and one of the most frustrating parts of the race.

Thankful to get this section over, I continued through various villages and roads during the night. I had been taking pro-plus at permitted intervals and wasn’t actually feeling sleep deprived at all (for a change). I continued shuffling through the night and into the next day but it was fair to say my running at this point was limited.

The next day started fairly cool with a mist covering the landscape which was great from a temperature perspective but around 10am this disappeared and the temperature rose dramatically around the time I left the vineyards and country lanes and hit the major dual carriageway to Sparta. I was around 1-1.5 hours ahead of the cut off, the closest I’ve probably been to the cut offs in truth. I must admit I was starting to think about the time a little but wasn’t quite at panic stations yet. I tried to keep the buffer at the same time between each checkpoint. My quads (status now upgraded to ‘destroyed’) were constraining my running as I found it uncomfortable to run for periods and I resorted to chipping away each leg with a few hundred yards running on and off and marching hard on the off sections. I managed to keep the buffer over an hour which I was fairly comfortable with. The checkpoint timings also gave me a bit of an incentive to keep plugging away. There would be many other people running these times a lot closer in truth.

Into the hot second day

The long climb towards Sparta was the final frustrating part of the race. It was hot, there was no escape from the sun and by that time I had been on my feet over 24 hours so all the effects of physical tiredness were at play. I resorted to icing my buff and wearing it underneath my hat to keep my head cool and myself awake as I trudged as best I could along this section.

Approaching the descent into Sparti

I finally arrived at the descent to Sparta mid-afternoon. From where I was, with about 9-10 miles to the finish I only needed to manage 20 minute miles to finish ahead of the cut-offs and when walking I was closer to 15 minute miles so this was the first time where I first felt the job was pretty much done barring an unfortunate incident. An ugly finish is a finish I thought, recounting my words back to myself.

I started the ascent down to the final meeting point with the crew 6.5 miles out from the finish. There wasn’t much running now as my knees were starting to sympathise with the quads and were looking a bit swollen and feeling a bit uncomfortable. I met Rob and Tom for the last time and decided to divest myself of everything I was carrying aside from my tracker. My quad status had been upgraded to ‘f****d’ and I told Rob and Tom I was just going to walk it in at this point. There was a reason to this as I had been contemplating ultra running retirement (once again) throughout the race and I wanted to just think about this as I covered the last few miles towards the finish.

I asked myself lots of questions; Was this going to be the final race? Was I actually serious about it this time? Do I really want to go through a long ultra with the all the niggles and toll on the body again? Will I miss this? It’s at these points of the race when you are feeling your lowest physically that you sometimes have more honesty and clarity with yourself.

At that moment, the decision to retire felt right. Truth be told mentally I’ve been lacking motivation and physically I’ve been struggling with various niggles and it’s not felt enjoyable so why was I putting myself through a challenge like this again?

Approaching the finish with Rob

Approaching the finish

I ‘sauntered’ into Sparta, past the last checkpoint where I picked up my flag and picked up a ‘friendly’ local for a little while before he departed and I walked to the last turn and the road to the Statue of Leonidas. I could see a mass of people ahead and started to received the cheers, applause and shouts from the supporters. It was a great feeling and the fact that I wasn’t running meant I could savour every last moment. It was fantastic to see my fellow runners, crews and other supporters all out and about cheering and celebrating everyone’s finish. All I could keep thinking to myself was, ‘this could be it, this could be the end’ and the emotions started to overwhelm me a little as I took a few deep breaths to control myself and had a wistful last look back down the street to all the supporters, runners and flags adorning the road.

Spartathlon Finish (Video)

After the traditional kissing of the foot of the Statue of Leonidas to mark the finish of the race and the receiving of the wreath and water from the river Evrotas I headed into the medical area for the team to perform their checks. Alex had finished a couple of hours before and both he and Rob joined me as I took the weight of my knees and quads with a well deserved sit in a chair after being on my feet for over 35 hours. I had my first beer this year and a sandwich whilst the medical attendants cleansed my feet which aside from the one big toe blister looked remarkably ok (for a change) although my feet were swollen.

Overall, I was pleased to finish this race and felt like I had achieved my goal although it had felt like a really tough day at the office and harder than any of my previous finishes.

‘Kissing the foot’

First beer in 12 months..

My legs seized up quite quickly and Alex helped me into the taxi and hotel where after a shower, bite to eat and a hobble along the high street we headed to bed. I covered my legs in Voltarol gel that night and slept with my legs elevated and thankfully this seemed to help as I could actually hobble around the next day as we made our way to the Statue of Leonidas for some more photos. We did have a look in a small souvenir shop right near the finish where I bought a couple of items but slightly regret not buying one of the ‘Spartathlon’ branded marble ornaments which were hand-made by the shop owner and looked brilliant.

Alex, Rob and I at the finish

The day was not over and it was time for the Spartan Mile. This event involves runners taking part in a 400m and 1 mile race around the athletics track the next day. The idea (I believe) was originally established by the Swedish team (and termed the ‘Naked Mile’) although for decency reasons participants run the races in their underwear. The Belgium team were the current organisers but hotel logistics meant they were situated outside of Sparti this year and so I was approached to help organise the event on the day.. which meant my attendance (and then British runners attendance) was compulsory.

The British Runderwear Team

Lining up for the Spartan Mile

It was pretty warm that day and I was going to be content to just organise and watch the event as I could only just walk unaided but the sun must have got to me as a few minutes later I was stripped down to my pants (and feeling quite comfortable semi naked) hobbling around the track for both the 400m and 1 mile race with the rest of the British team. Admittedly, this was more of a procession than a race but it was all good fun and we did organise a couple of British Spartathlon Team shirts for the winners of each race so a nice fun way to finish our time in Sparti.

Celebration lap with Matt and Paul R

Celebration lap with Peter J and Mark B

The final events for the week included lunch hosted by the Mayor of Sparti, a relaxing Monday followed by the Awards Ceremony the next day in Athens when the team were awarded their medals. It was a great year for British runners with Al Higgins finishing 4th overall, Ian Hammet finishing 6th, Sarah Sawyer 4th lady and a number of other good times from our runners. The overall finish rate from British runners was 17/22 finishes (77% finish rate) which was way above the overall race average of 52% which meant that each of our runners had taken the race seriously and had represented ourselves well.

The 2019 British Finishers (with Dora and Panagiotis)

It would be great if we had more places available for British runners but that’s the nature of an event of this popularity. From a British perspective, it would also be great if we could persuade  more female runners to put their names into the hat. Despite some efforts from the organising team this year promoting our female talent we only usually get a couple of ladies running. Hopefully the performance of Sarah this year and other female runners in previous years inspires more female entrants. If anyone is worried about cut offs and timings.. if an ageing over the hill middle of the pack runner like me can finish…

Photo at the Statue of Leonidas the next day

From a team management perspective, the British runners, crews and supporters conducted themselves very well, the team looked amazing in their kit and once again stood out as one of the most organised teams so a job well done. A number of people were kind enough to pass on some positive feedback from their Spartathlon experience which was nice to hear and confirmation that we (the organising team) have once again done a good job.

Overall I had a thoroughly enjoyable week enjoying the Spartathlon experience. The race itself was a challenge for me this year but I was pleased to ‘get the job done’ and return home with my 3rd finishers medal.

Many thanks to the International Spartathlon Association, the volunteers and supporters for hosting a wonderful event. The level of organisation and effort to host this race was amazing and the British Team all felt privileged to be able to take part in this race.

I would also like to thank Rob and Tom Pinnington for their crewing effort and support during the race, much appreciated guys. As a side note, Tom was a little unwell due to sun-stroke after the race so a note to crews to look after themselves aswell during the event!

The “No Sleep Til Sparti” Team

Two Weeks Later

I’m writing this report two weeks later having managed to pick up a cold (from Tom/Alex) and being unwell for the past several days and have hardly run or even wanted to think about running at all. It’s also been very wet and miserable weather wise and a total contrast to the blazing hot weather in Greece.

Am I serious about retiring? Aside from a pre-arranged Thames Trot entry in a couple of weeks which I’ve not yet cancelled (and not sure if I will run or not) I have no commitments or races in the diary and I’m free from any running obligations.

I realise I’m in that post race ‘low’ phase and recovering from the race and illness so not feeling 100% at present. I really don’t know what I want to do or will do but I do know that I want a long break from races and events.

There are lots of options to just do a few different (shorter) distances, or different events for fun. If I’m going to run then I need to give my body some time to recover and I definitely need to recover my motivation. I do know that I don’t want to limp through (deathmarch) races like I have been for the past couple of years. I suppose running an average of 1 marathon/ultra every month for the last decade has probably taken a mental and physical toll on me and I want a break.

So let’s just call this ‘semi’ retirement and I will see how I feel in a few months time shall we?

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