Hotel Zorba - Spartathlon 2018
This is not your regular Spartathlon race report. There’s no history of the race or a chronological run through of what happened this time. Instead it’s a bit of a jumble, and jumps around all over the place time wise. Also quite a lot of things about my mental state, which despite the weather was probably the thing that gave me most trouble this year. So apologies for this - it could be the worst running blog entry you’ve ever read. It’s also likely to be very long. It’s just such a big experience, there’s a lot to offload. You’ve been double warned! TL;DR - it ends with a very wet foot kissing scene.
Thank You for the Days
First and most importantly I want to say thank you. Without the love and support of family and close buddies this kind of thing would not be possible. For me anyway - some people seem to be able to turn up and go by themselves, which is just incredible.
To Rosie and the kids - thank you so much for putting up with the training, the worry that I put you through, the time away and the great support from afar. I know it’s a lot. Maybe just shorter races for a while?!
To Jeff and Jane - thank you for the love and support you’ve given on this Sparta journey. It’s been such a pleasure and honour to share it with you. We’ve gone from wide-eyed novices in 2016 to a battle hardened team that is pretty much ready for anything. I’ve been so pleased that the race has encouraged you both with your own running and gym journeys!
To David - well I sure could have done with you alongside me this year buddy! Having you there as crew was magical and I drew inspiration from your 3rd place at Tooting to keep going when the tough times arrived. Thank you so much. Who got more rain?!?
To James, Laura, Nicky, Auds, Eric, Maria, all the Ellis clan - great to see you all again Team Ellis, thank you for the wonderful hospitality as ever.
To Jamie, Chevs, all of Team Holmes and everyone watching from afar and sending us support - missed you this year Mr and Mrs Holmes but thank you for all the support and i’m sure this Sparta story is not done for you all quite yet :)
To Doctor Dora and Team - thank you for looking after the Spartathletes and for your amazing care and concern at the end of the race. So glad not to cause so much alarm this time round!
To the ISA, Kostis, all the organisers, the mayor and people of Sparta, all the volunteers, Adrian at MB checkpoint, the mountain rescue team, all the supporters - thank you so much for all your efforts to put on this great race. We runners are the selfish ones, and you are all so selfless, thank you.
To the mystery lady (can anyone help me find out who she is?!) who seemed to take pity on me towards the end and seemed to be at each checkpoint from about 68 onwards, who looked me in the eye each time and said “i’ll see you in Sparta”. Thank you for renewing my belief with those words when it was ebbing away, and sorry that I was too scrambled to really take it in at the time, but it really did help. Sure enough she was there on the statue platform at the end. Whoever you are, thank you so much!
Well Do You, Do You Do You Wanna?
Truth be told, I didn’t really want to run this year. But this thing is like some ultra magnet, and it finds ways of drawing you back. I put in an entry hoping i’d be way down the waitlist with no chance of getting in. Then we’d all get a year off and a double ticket for 2019. When the draw came in March i was 50-something on the list. Perfect, right on the cusp of getting in or just missing out. Tenterhooks for 3 months. As the summer progressed the race wasn’t filling up as quickly as might be expected. Folks were either pulling out injured or not paying the entry fees. Gradually moving up the list to around 20th spot, then ISA took the waitlist off the site quite early on, but the race still wasn’t full. Huh? It filled up more, but it took weeks and weeks. Eventually around mid July it went over the magic 390 number, theoretically race full. But then, out of the blue, the classic Spartathlon email arrived. No fanfare, just “now you may enter”. Well ok, you’ve kind of sprung this one on me Sparta, usually i’d have about 6 months to prepare, this time less than 3. But fortunately i’d kept things going and had a good season. Working with Nathan Flear since November i’d set solid PBs for 10k, Half and Marathon. There was definitely a bit more speed in the legs. Kept the ultras going with a decent run at Nath’s St. Illtyds 100k in May and then a comedy smash a 50 grovel a 50 showing at the SDW100 in June, with Jamie Holmes banter and David and Bruce laughing at us for our ridiculous pacing. I had KACR coming up to get some mega miles in the legs. With interest levels in Spartathlon getting higher by the year and more and more places being taken up by elite “auto qualifiers”, who knew when i’d get another chance. The time seemed right for one more pop at the beast.
Where’s Your Head At?
I think i’d been a nightmare at home in the couple of weeks prior to the race. Probably went into my shell and didn’t communicate much. Sorry Rosie! It was such a strange feeling - I was simultaneously terrified and utterly placid about the whole thing. How is that even possible? The terror mostly came from the fact that I just couldn’t remember what it’s like to run more than about 5 miles. I especially couldn’t remember the pain of Spartathlon, despite running the last two years, or even KACR which i’d run just a few weeks prior. The calmer flip-side came from knowing that, somehow, i’d know what to do when we got started. I convinced myself that I could take the first step over the start line. After that, just deal with any problems that come up, keep moving forward, and let’s have an adventure.
Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Leonidas?
As per usual, the atmosphere in the British camp was brilliant. It really is like a big ultra family and these team-mates will do anything to help each other get to The Foot. Of course everyone has to run their own race but we really do all want the best for each other and all Brits out on the course are so supportive. We’d had problems with our team kit order this year and are indebted to Jeff and Jane for sorting out an emergency replacement order in Dubai turned around within 48 hours, thank you! Team Captain Paul Ali, James Ellis, David Bone and myself had gone through loads of stress with this in the days prior to the race. To be able to get most of the order fulfilled and hand it out on the day before the race to concerned runners was a weight off the collective minds. It also brought the team closer together. Not exactly Blitz spirit but perhaps the modern ultra equivalent.
There were lots of familiar faces and several new ones, sorry not to mention everyone but i’ll be here all day! Nathan was the obvious favourite to retain his First Brit trophy from last year, but David and I had a sneaking suspicion that a certain Scotsman by the name of Al Higgins might put in a strong challenge. Other very strong debutants included John Melbourne and Matt Blackburn. Lots of experience in the middle of the British pack with the likes of Paul Ali, John Volanthen, David Barker, Martin Bacon, Laurence Chownsmith etc going for multiple finishes. And of course the legends James Ellis and Ian Thomas going for #fourinarow. The sole Brit lady was Cat Simpson of the Centurion Running Team who is a fearsome runner and we knew Cat had trained very well for Sparta and was sure of a great performance. I know I speak for the whole team when I say everyone was really rooting for Stuart Shipley and Russ Tullett. Stu was back for his 7th attempt and so far had not made it over the infamous mountain. Russ is a Sparta crewing legend having been here multiple times helping other runners and this year finally getting his own shot.
Thank you to all the Brits for making this year such a great time. Special mention to Chris Mills for the fabulous pictures and to Paul Rowlinson for the finish videos and all round banter.
And of course our Irish friends - my mountain marching buddy Anto and the ever smiling Sammy. Congratulations on your finishes lads.
You Will Meet Heroes, Just For One Day
Ah well, this is turning into a name dropping session. Never mind. It’s one of my favourite things about the race, meeting people that i’ve read about on their blogs or watched on the couple of Sparta movies that are out there.
It was an honour to spend so much time with US legend (and honorary Brit) Bob Hearn this year. Bob brings such focused dedication to his ultra-running, and is still improving despite having such high standards to improve upon, that it’s hard not to try to learn from him and be inspired. We were delighted to be able to help Bob and his crew Scott with a bit of shared transport this year. Congrats on another great performance Bob!
I had lots of banter with 16 time finisher, French Sparta legend and all round good guy Gilles Pallaruelo this year. Also his son Angel and Gilles’ wife Francoise. They are portrayed in the Hungarian movie “Ultra”. Also from that movie I shook hands with Bela Szabo, wished him well and said I would see him in Sparta. Unfortunately he didn’t make it. Bela I would dearly love to see you pin a number on Leonidas one day. Gilles, of course, makes it to Sparta. He says he’s stopping at 20 finishes. Yeah right Gilles.
Crikey what kind of company am I keeping here…. out on the road I am running alongside and for long spells ahead of US legend and team captain Andrei Nana, going for his 6th finish in a row. This is a man who trains 200 miles a week, a lot of which is dragging a tire?!? Weirdly we didn’t see each other much in the second half of the race but were only a few minutes apart at the end with Andrei just ahead. Well done Andrei! More heroes - somewhere between Megara and Corinth I chat with a Danish guy that i’m sure I recognise - ah yes it’s Flatfoot Klaus , the Great Dane who ran a sub 30 Sparta a few years back wearing sandals. I love his approach to running and general laidback nature. This year he’s running in Vibram soles and doesn’t make it to Sparta. I’d hoped to chat with Dean Karnazes and maybe get some kind of attention grabbing social media pic that David could have whooped the hell out of. But Dean is always behind….. what the hell, I really didn’t expect to be ahead of Dean. Turns out he got clipped by a wing mirror and had a nightmare of a race, eventually dropping just after the mountain I think.
Yet more - I spend quite a long time running with John Volanthen (“JV”) - as well as being an ultra runner and all round good guy he spends his summers rescuing football teams from flooded Thai caves. A more fantastically British sense of humour you could never hope to find. JV is well prepped for today and pulls away from me somewhere around Corinth, but unfortunately drops after the mountain.
And still more - my other leapfrogging buddies this year were a pair of Americans - Elaine Stypula and John Fegyveresi. Elaine is a divorce attorney who tells me around mile 20 that first she’s here for herself and hope you don’t mind but don’t want to talk much! Well ok that’s fine, but we do chat briefly about her favourite English murder mysteries and her love of the word “mate” for a little, before I leave her behind for a bit of ultra solitude. John looks annoyingly familiar, but I can’t place him. Mile 99.5 and i’m crawling like a ghost over the mountain pass……. “maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate how the hell are you i’ve been looking for you for like, ever”. Oh now you want to talk Elaine?!? Ok that helps as i’m dying on my ass here….. “hey, know who that guy just ahead is?” (no) “that’s John Fegyveresi - Barkley finisher”. Oh wow, ok, so towards Nestani it is with some weird mangled mash-up chat about Midsomer Murders and the Race That Eats Its Young :)
O Brother Where Art Thou?
Talking of Nestani it was here that I finally caught up with James. James and I, well, we’ve got previous. A long, long time ago we started out together on this ultra lark with our amigos David and Jamie. Since then there’s been too many runs together to mention. Good times, bad times, we’ve been through it all together. In 2016 James and I ran about 70 miles of Sparta together before he pulled ahead for his second finish and I ultimately suffered a very painful drop. Last year all four of us had finished together, probably a once-in-a-lifetime kind of deal (right lads?!). This year we’d agreed to run our own races with a loose plan to stick with each other until Corinth, then see which way things were going. Unfortunately this plan had lasted all of 10 kilometres as I was spending a long time on loo stops and James had to crack on as he was getting too cold to wait. It’s so weird watching the race back on Strava Labs - it’s like the two of us are on a piece of short elastic, but we just can’t quite get it together. We were together in spirit. 10 minutes out of Nestani I am falling asleep and stumbling across the road. I have to break at a checkpoint for a 3 minute nap (a pattern I repeat as I make my ghostly way to Alea Tegea) and James pulls away, eventually finishing about 40 minutes ahead for his fourth consecutive finish. Congratulations big man, very proud of you!
Bring Out Your Jacket I’ll Give It a Home
So well it was supposed to be an attempt at a better time. Maybe 33 to 34 hours. This wasn’t really along the same lines of attempting a 10k or marathon PB, where there might be some kind of comparison or social kudos involved afterwards. I didn’t really care about a faster time per se. No, this was all about trying to minimise pain exposure. After last year’s experience of a hellish final few hours, I simply did not want to be out there longer than necessary. Ha! What a joke that turned out to be.
I guess there is a little bit of race chronology here. The first marathon, I kept it pretty calm, just trying to run a nice steady pace without getting over excited. Managed it pretty well, getting to Megara in 4:09. But I just felt a bit kind of, well, meh. My head was all over the place, it felt like I was unfocused, and I had a ridiculous amount of music playing in my head. My brain always does this, and usually I quite like it, but this time it was annoying me. The tune i’d had all race last year, Something Just Like This, which i’d loved, was on a loop, and this time I hated it, and I could not get rid of it. Oh well, try not to think of white bears.
Second marathon was pretty good. Made it to Corinth under 8:30 which was a good few minutes faster than previous years. Again I kept it nice and steady, the plan being to keep a steady run going beyond Corinth, where many people start to adopt walking breaks, and run pretty much all the way to Halkion village. Ducked under 11 hours for 100k at Assos, pleased with that. Made it to Halkion I think almost in daylight, again another first.
And then, the weather arrived. I’m not sure i’ve mentioned Cyclone Zorba so far. This once in 30 year weather system known as a Medicane had chosen this weekend to make landfall in Greece. Some of it was actually helpful, keeping temperatures down and boosting us along with a bit of tailwind. But from Friday night to race finish on Saturday evening, well, Zorba was a pretty special bit of weather. Zorba brought rain. And rain, rain and more rain. You probably get the idea. The roads got flooded, we were tramping through ankle deep puddles, we got very, very wet. I still don’t know how Jeff, Jane and David managed it, but they kept changing me, and somehow kept on drying clothes in the car. Without them, there is simply no way I would have finished. Even with their sterling efforts, I was on occasions whimperingly cold. Sometimes I was making some very strange noises…. I told myself it was singing but it was actually a cross between hammering teeth and the howl of a banshee.
I lost time with the clothes changes, but managed to hammer it pretty well down to Malandreni, a section i’ve come a cropper on before but now love. Flying past startled runners on the long downhill highway, probably sub 8 pace, was a lot of fun. Then the hike up to Mountain Base, just tough it out, you’ll get there, eventually. And then up and over, no fun at all.
By the time i’d left Nestani, I knew any shot of 34 hours was long gone. I still didn’t know just how much of a war of attrition things would become.
And You Will Suffer For The Prize
Get across to Alea-Tegea, battle fatigue, sleep deprivation, wrecked legs, vomiting, the rain, the wind, that goddamn song going round your head. Maybe you’d like to change it now brain? No. All of this I can handle. CP60, you are always so far far away. But ok, now we’re here, and Leonidas is only 50k away. A little over 9 hours to do 50k. That’s pretty much a walk and a bit of a shuffle, and the last 25 to 30k are downhill, with other runnable downhill sections too. How hard can it be? Oh how the Gods laughed.
Onto the big highway, and start the hike up the second mountain. The endless, endless road, bend after bend and false summits galore. But ok, I reach the top, and now there is some downhill, and there is still some energy left to run, so I do.
I don’t know exactly where it happens but somewhere around CP63 to CP65 - rip - I tear my right quad muscle. Not ok. Really not (excuse me) fucking ok.
Now this just becomes a game. I can’t run downhill. What speed can I hobble? Maybe 4.5km/hour. How much time do I have left against the cutoff? Is a tree going to whack me in the head from this wind? Can I actually stand-up or wait, am I actually being blown backwards up the hill? At this speed, am I going to become hypothermic? Should I just get in the crew car? This is just ridiculous.
There’s only one thing for it and i’m not ashamed to say it. Have a good cry, that’ll probably help. That and beg a Spartathlon physio for some treatment at CP68, and cry some more on your brother’s shoulder and really freak everyone out.
But somehow, underneath all this, there was still the calm. I know it. I know what to do. We’re going to Sparta, one way or another, this is going to happen. So hobble, hobble, hobble, just keep moving. Down to Voutiani gas station, god what a thing of neglected beauty. I love that place. CP72, just 10kms to go. We have time, we have time. And what’s this - i’d assumed I was last Brit standing - it’s only Mr Stuart Shipley!!! I am so happy. Brilliant to have some company but more than anything i’m just delighted for Stu. He’s attempted this race so many times before and never been past the mountain. This year he’s been very much underplaying the possibilities of him reaching Leonidas. And now here he is, striding down the road under leaden skies, big grin on his face.
We trundle down into Sparta together. Maybe some shots of adrenaline but there is even some running. So maybe I was somehow over-egging the quad thing 30k ago and I could have run more?! I don’t know. The brain and body are strange things sometimes.
CP74 has completely blown down. One official stands there looking very forlorn.
The River Evrotas is a raging torrent when we cross the bridge. I’ve never seen anything like it.
No kids on bikes today, fair enough kids!
The people of Sparta are out in force on their balconies, they give us a very warm welcome. It’s humbling. I feel like a rockstar, albeit a very very decrepit one.
We pass my mate Anto, somehow managing to go even slower than Stu and I. Just wanted the finish stretch all to himself I reckon. Nice one Anto!
I encourage Stu to go on for his moment of glory. He doesn’t know there’s a trophy for last Brit finisher, i’ll take anything I can get my hands on! (only joking, I didn’t actually realise this at the time)
And then he’s there. Leonidas. Oh my god I am so happy to have made it here one more time. Jeff, David and Jane are waiting. Hugs and a Scotland flag. Onto the statue platform and a hug from the mystery checkpoint lady. Kostis is too busy greeting Hubert Karl who’s just finished his 21st Spartathlon. Bloody Hell, I think he deserves the RD attention!
19 minutes to spare - 35:41. I can barely climb the steps to reach the big bronze foot. Everything is utterly soaked, but that doesn’t make it taste any less sweet.
Thanks for reading if you made it this far!
(with apologies to the White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, Coldplay, David Bowie, Daft Punk and Kirstie McColl for the stolen headers)