‘I’ve been hanging on for 26km…. I haven’t got another 34 in me’ I pleaded with Claire… ‘you don’t realise how horrible this is!’ she could see the turmoil that I was in but there was nothing she could do except try to encourage me to continue…
‘Walk if you have too but keep going.’ She said calmly… Paul thrust a can of sprite into my hand ‘Drink this, it’ll give you a boost’ I didn’t believe him but gulped it down.
Somehow I dragged myself off the bench and began to stumble up the road again. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this, I was broken and crying as I slowly put one foot in front of the other. I didn’t want to quit, but I didn’t want to go on either. There were 21 miles left to complete The Spartathlon and my dreams hung in the balance……….
The Spartathlon, one of the most iconic ultramarathon races in the world, and billed as the toughest non stop footrace in Europe is a 153 mile ultramarathon from the Acropolis in Athens to the statue of King Leonidas in Sparta. To add to the difficulty Mount Parthenion awaits the competitors at 100 miles, over 1000m of elevation which tests the mind as well as the body. Run mainly on tarmac the race starts at 0700 on Friday morning and allows runners 36 hours to complete it. There are 75 aid stations each with their own individual cut off time adding to the pressure put on the runners as they strive to avoid the dreaded death bus. You have to make the 26.2 mile mark at Megara by 4:45, you have to have reached 50 miles in 9:30 and 100 miles in 22:30, all difficult cut offs in their own right, let alone when you then have to add more miles on top. Usually conducted on blisteringly hot days, with temperatures plummeting at night this truly is a test of endurance for all that take part, and with dropout rates as high as 70% this is not for the feint hearted.
This year I was to be one of the 21 people chosen to represent the British Spartathlon Team. I say chosen, however I was one of the lucky (crazy) ones who had actually achieved an automatic qualifying time, so my place was guaranteed as soon as I entered the ballot. This ballot took place in March, and even though I doubted my name would be called (surely I had made a mistake), there it was on the final entrants list and so my year was set to be dominated by this epic race.
Roll forwards 6 month and now here I was on a coach to the start at 0600. Having eaten a basic breakfast of toast and jam, some cereal and a Banana I left Claire, Mark and Claire at the London Hotel, waving me off with the plan to meet me at the first crew stop in Megara. I sat next to my friend and fellow team member John Knapp on the way and we chatted idly trying to appear calm in the face of what was to come. As soon as the coach arrived I dashed to join the queue for the 4 portaloo’s (yes just 4 between 380) and luckily took care of business so I could relax in the knowledge that I wouldn’t have a repeat of the NDW tummy troubles.
The buzz at the base of the Acropolis was unlike anything that I have ever experienced before as competitors from around the world mingled and went through their pre race routines. Somehow I found myself at the front of the group holding onto a promotional banner alongside Nathan Flear, later on he told me that he had been really nervous at this point but me appearing alongside him and seeming calm had helped. Well that and the fact that some runner was really going through an extensive limbering up process right in front of us, had made us both chuckle. I’m not sure how I appeared calm as I was actually terrified by what lay ahead, however I was just eager to start running. I was done with training, preparing, and hanging around, now it was time to run, and I just wanted to get going. Let the countdown commence.
Then we were off, running down the hill towards Athens, where the police were waiting for us and stopping the rush hour traffic. It was an awesome feeling to finally be running and I felt like I glided down the hill. I had made myself a promise to reach that start line in the best shape of my life and thanks to the help and support of so many people I had managed to do so… the rest was up to me.
Nathan and I fell into an early rhythm together alongside fellow Brit Marco Consani, and the banter flying between us certainly settled any nerves that remained. Mr Spartathlon Ian Thomas joined us for a short while, but it wasn’t long before he sped off, implementing his usual tactic of going off way too fast. Ian was going for his third successful finish in a row so who were we to judge his tactics as he disappeared up the road.
Amongst the things that the three of us discussed were; Who was getting the beers in along the route?! Who had said this race was flat?! (We were currently climbing a hill out of Athens!), and how Marco had to beat the time that his wife Debbie had set when she completed Spartathlon, no pressure there my friend. We also wondered if the Greeks who were beeping their horns at us were actually supporting us or annoyed that the rush hour traffic was being stopped for us to leave the city safely. Can you imagine this sort of thing happening in London?! Chaos would no doubt reign.
We chatted to Marco about pacing and he casually glanced at his watch and said we were probably going about 30 seconds a mile too quick for a good 24hr race pace, and then promptly took off leaving both me and Nathan behind…. Rather than chase him down we decided to just maintain our own steady yet potentially suicidal pace even though it felt amazingly comfortable.
The first few checkpoints were coming thick and fast, and as we couldn’t see our crews until Megara both Nathan and I had left drop bags at several aid stations to replenish our fuel supplies. Both of us suffered the same fate when our first bags hadn’t seemed to have arrived at the check points, however it wasn’t too much of a problem as both of us were carrying plenty of fuel to tide us over.
Those initial miles are quite industrial as you leave Athens and head towards the coast alongside the port. As it was still early the traffic wasn’t too heavy, and it was good to have the company of a fellow Brit to pass the time. We laughed, joked, and chatted, and I am sure we looked anything but runners who were tackling 153 miles. At one point Nathan said to me ‘here you know that chap from Radio 2?! I just kept calling him Stavros, and didn’t realise his name was Vassos!’. ‘Did he correct you?’ I asked, ‘yep two or three times, but it just wasn’t sinking in! how bad is that?!’. We both laughed. ‘I’m sure Stavros is the guy who owns Easyjet isn’t he?’ I quipped…’I’ve no idea’ replied Nath ‘Just hope he didn’t mind too much!’
The miles were now flying by and we were alternating nicely, sometimes I would stop at an aid station and replenish and Nathan would trot off up the road (I say trot but we were sub 8 min miling) and then vice versa at the next aid stop. The conversation soon turned to tactics for the race, such as when we hoped to reach 26.2 miles, and 50 miles, as well as chatting about cut off’s. We didn’t need to worry about those whilst we were travelling at this pace, well not yet anyway.
We reached the marathon checkpoint at 3:24, so slightly quicker than planned, but neither of us could of run any slower. It was packed and there was an amazing atmosphere with all the crews present. We could see the red shirts of the British team and I looked for Claire, Mark and Claire. Ian Thomas was just leaving as we arrived as was Marco. We had gone off fast but those two had made us look like snails. It was great to see my crew, they quickly made sure I had everything I needed and then I headed off. It wouldn’t be until the 50 mile mark and the Corinth Canal that I would see them again.
The next few miles of the course were amazing. The course was now winding along the old coast road towards Corinth and the views were amazing. We even managed to get snapped by the official photographers for some amazing souvenir shots that were free to all runners. Couldn’t wait to see those when we finished. We quickly caught Ian Thomas, checked he was ok, and then headed off after Marco
This part of the route I could of run on all day, the views were amazing and you could see for miles and it was easy to lose yourself in the scenery and just run. At about 40 miles Nathan began to ease away from me, but I didn’t mind. I glanced at my watch and if anything realised that I had been going a lot quicker than planned. My initial aim had been to get to Corinth between 7:30 – 8hrs and it looked like I was due to arrive around 6:45. I was happy at this pace though so just stayed calm and kept ticking over. I even took a little walk up the bridge as we approached the Corinth Canal… this was my first walk for 48 miles. Crossing the man made canal was breathtaking, before cutting through a service area to the checkpoint which was once again really busy with crews. Mark made himself known by waving vigorously at me, I crossed the timing mat and then headed for him and Claire. I had arrived in 6:44 which was a new 50 mile PB, knocking over 5 minutes off my best without even really trying. I felt good, so good in fact that we forgot the mint leg rub as planned and I grabbed some snacks before navigating the traffic to try and leave the checkpoint.
The course now led us onto some quieter country lanes and the crew cars would pass us on route. I felt annoyed with myself that I had forgotten to get the leg rub. I am a bit OCD when it comes to planning and yelled at my support car as it passed ‘We forgot leg rub!!’ Hopefully they would have it ready at the next stop. I was now running on my own with no one in sight either in front or behind. I didn’t mind though as those early miles had passed so quickly. Each crew car that passed gave me a wave and a toot of encouragement. This really helped and made you feel part of something bigger as all nationalities supported each other throughout the event.
Arriving at Ancient Corinth, Mark and Claire had everything ready for me and worked like a well oiled machine. Claire immediately applied some leg rub, Mark grabbed me some supplies and made sure I ate some banana, whilst his wife Claire filmed the whole thing. They were doing a wonderful job already both crewing me and keeping the social media updates constant for my legions of adoring fans (ok I might have embellished this slightly, but there were one or two people who wondered how I was doing!). Mark asked how I was feeling, ‘like I’ve run 90km too fast’ was my response before I left checking how far it was until I saw them at the next checkpoint, which was around 100km.
Things were going well, maybe a little fast however it felt comfortable. The training that I had done in the heat chamber at Bedfordshire University was obviously paying off as I didn’t feel like I was pushing it at all and the legs felt strong. I had been training in 30-36 degree heat, and here it was nowhere near that. Maybe around 22 degrees which is unheard of for Greece and for the Spartathlon (Cue the comments of I need to come back and do it in proper weather!!), however it was quite humid, which I had trained for.
I reached 100km in a new PB as well, taking into account that my previous best of 9:32 was run on a very hilly, off road course where I got lost a couple of times nad had severe cramps this might not be a surprise. However to go through in 8:43 showed that I favoured the roads and the terrain of Spartathlon and was running well. Between Ancient Corinth and Zevlogatio I had a bit of a scare as I descended the path to an underpass. My left big toe suddenly felt like it had blistered under the nail, and for the next km or two it had felt a little uncomfortable. On the flat or uphill there was no pain, but on the downhill it felt like red hot poker. I considered changing my shoes at the next crew point, however it eased off so I didn’t bother.
Spartathlon is like no other race in the sense that several things happen that just don’t occur in any other event that I know of. During the early stages I had already experienced children waiting outside their schools, lining up for high fives from all the runners, and a group of boys had accompanied Nathan and I to the edge of their town running and shouting ‘you go to Sparti!!’ then cheering us ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ After 100km though I ran through a small village where 5 children ran up to me with autograph books and pencils, I couldn’t believe it. They were collecting athletes signatures from this epic event and it shows how much the Spartathlon means to the people of Greece. I signed all five including the #192 which was my race number so they knew who’s signature it was. I felt like a famous athlete and it gave me a real boost for the next few miles.
Fuelling had been going well throughout the event so far, but now the foods that I had were beginning to become problematic to eat. I usually supplement my race nutrition with bits from aid stations, however the stops as frequent as they were didn’t have anything that I fancied or would usually eat. I didn’t want biscuits, or raisins/sultana’s, so just settled for grabbing a cup of coke at each one, some of it appeared watered down but I didn’t care. When I next saw my crew at Halkion Village I asked if they had any chocolate. I knew that they wouldn’t, but maybe they could find some in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country for the next stop. I knew it was a big ask but hoped they could deliver.
One aid station did have some chocolate wafer biscuits and another had some sort of chocolate bar, although I don’t know what it was. It almost tasted like a tunnocks marshmallow and I enjoyed it, wishing I had taken a few more pieces with me. It was getting late in the day now and I was starting to slow a bit. Not surprisingly as I had hardly walked in about 125km. I kept plugging on knowing it soon would be time for the headtorch. I was passed by the three lead ladies as we made our way along the valley, and with each one I thought ‘I’ll stay with her’ but they were all super strong and just gradually eased away from me. It just shows the depth of the field that I was averaging around 5:30 mins per/km at 120 km and still people were catching me and pulling away. You had to remind yourself of that so that you didn’t get demoralised.
My crew didn’t let me down at Ancient Nemea and they had some chocolate waiting for me, as well as my headtorch. They asked if I wanted my night gear, and Gill Thomas (Ian Thomas’s wife and general crew ‘Mum’) suggested I take something. It was only 18:45 though and I wasn’t cold in the slightest. I declined and asked Claire for some chewing gum. She rushed up to the car and grabbed some, meeting me on the way out of the crew stop. An official car gave us a beep and shook a finger at us as Claire walked a few steps with me. It would have been a bit harsh for a DQ there but we didn’t take any chances as I gave her a kiss and then jogged up the road. The headtorch wasn’t needed just yet and I turned my focus to running a 100 mile PB. Stupid I know in a long race but these were the things that were keeping me occupied
The quiet undulating winding road continued, with the only traffic being the support cars of other runners and the occasional official vehicle taking photo’s and video. Some of the history took your breath away as ancient ruins appeared in fields and on hillsides, giving you the taste of the scenery that Pheidippides must have come across when he first made the journey. I wonder if he marvelled at it as I did now..
It was dark by the time I reached Malandrenii where the crew had more chocolate waiting for me and also some Chicken noodle soup. I had a couple of mouthfuls and then gave Claire a kiss before I had apparently finished eating said noodles. She didn’t appreciate that and hasn’t let me forget it since the race has finished. My only excuse was that I was a little tired! Mark and Claire had also been joined by a little girl who asked if she could massage the leg rub into my legs as her Mother was working as a masseuse at that stop. We declined politely, however little Maria wasn’t deterred. Her and a few local young lads followed me out of the village chanting my name and wishing me luck on my way to Sparti! It was another amazing moment in a mind blowing race.
I was now well on the way to Lyrkia and the start of the climb to Mountain Base. The dreaded Mount Parthenion that awaits all Spartahletes at 100 miles and the place were Pheidippides apparently encountered the god Pan on his way to Sparta. I hadn’t had any hallucinations yet and hoped not to suffer with any, however as my mind drifted to the task ahead I heard the pitter-patter of tiny feet. I looked around but couldn’t see any torch light so thought I must be imagining it. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being followed though and it got spookier and spookier until I turned and noticed a Japanese guy running without any torch light behind me. He then jogged past me and for a while seemed to hover at the edge of my head torch light. I asked him if he had a torch, but he just grunted back at me, maybe he didn’t understand.
Reaching Lyrkia there seemed to be a bit of a party atmosphere and Mark’s wife Claire (confusing I know) had some food in a wrapper. I initially thought it was fish and chips, however it turned out to be Hog Roast Pork. She offered me some and I had a few bits, not my usual race fuel but it was great to have something a bit different. I checked that Mountain Base would be the next time that I would see them, and said that I would have my waterproof then as apparently it was raining on the mountain.
As it turned out it started raining on the long climb out of the small village of Kapareli. I was at 153km and still moving well. I could see a couple of head-torches climbing the hairpin bends above me, and I wondered if Nathan was one of them. I had no concept of how far he was ahead of me, but I hoped he was still going well. That is the thing when you don’t see people for a long time you try to guess how they are getting on. ‘Are they pulling away? am I getting closer? Who is coming up behind me?’ are all questions that I mulled over as I started the climb. By the time I had reached mountain base I had caught one runner on the hill and the rain was now pouring down.
It still wasn’t that cold, but Claire helped me pull on my waterproof and then change my buff, which I now wore as a hat under my head torch. The British Team arm sleeves that had been provided by compression print were proving to be a godsend. I grabbed a sandwich from the mountain base checkpoint and then enthusiastically set about tackling the mountain path. As I left Claire told me not to forget my drop bag and to take it with me if I could. ‘I’m not going to carry it with me am I you silly cow!!’ I said laughing, she had forgotten that I didn’t have a pack and carrying a zip lock bag for 10km on a tricky descent might not be convenient. She was worried because they were running out of food for me.
Incidentally I had reached the mountain base in 15:44 which was a new 100 mile PB, although only by about 2 minutes. I was well under the cut offs, well under my predicted time, and it looked like I would comfortably reach Nestani (171km) in under 19:04 which would be an automatic qualifier for future Spartathlons. Don’t count your chickens though Ian I told myself anything could happen on that mountain.
The path was narrow but well marked however I didn’t like my chances of survival if I slipped or tripped. All that was stopping me from pretty serious injury was the hazard tape that Police use to cordone off a crime scene. Dotted up the path were glow sticks, red flashing lights and some orange ones showing the way, however visibility was getting poorer the higher I climbed. A couple of mountain rescue chaps appeared out of the darkness, waiting at corners in case anyone got into trouble. One such chap gave me the great news that there was only 300m to the top and I couldn’t help but think… already?! What was all the fuss about, compared to some climbs I have tackled in ultra’s this promised much and yet was over in a flash. When I reached the top I even checked with the aid station that it was the top, perhaps the lack of oxygen was affecting me. I remembered that Claire had told me about my drop bag and I grabbed a few bars out of it, and left some of my gels behind that I wasn’t using anymore. I sensed she was worried about the food situation so I wanted to ensure I had some with me if needed.
The descent was not as straight forward as the climb, well not for me anyway. For a fellow Spartathlete from Slovenia though it was nothing to be concerned about as he raced past me like a mountain goat. There were several hikers on the mountain and it proved tricky to negotiate them in the conditions. I wondered what on earth they were doing up there at this time of night. Surely people didn’t go up there by choice in this weather. It was very misty and you could hardly see the path for the first few hairpins which made for treacherous conditions.
I was relieved to finally reach the bottom intact and I hadn’t even fallen over which is a miracle for me. Even my quads didn’t feel too bad and as I had heard stories that if you get over the mountain and feel pretty good then your chance of success in this epic event is increased, I was pretty pleased with the state of play.
I headed for Nestani in good spirits and it had even stopped raining. Things were going so well that when I reached the checkpoint I gave the lady who offered me some potatoes a big hug. Finally a bit of savoury food, Claire then told me to celebrate as this was the furthest that I had ever run. ‘I’m too tired to celebrate, I can’t waste energy’, ‘I’ll celebrate for you then’ she said as she rubbed my legs. ‘How long until I see you guys again?’ I asked ’10-12km’ Mark responded. So I opted to just take water with me. I would be seeing the crew again soon and could then have a supplement.
I had left Nestani in 17:40 well under the auto qualifying time and was now even looking at my watch trying to work out pacing for the last 70km. ‘right 10km per hour for the next 7 hours’ I said to myself… ‘Feeling like this, that is manageable’. I also chastised myself for thinking too far ahead, ‘don’t be complacent’. Things could go wrong at any time, little did I know what was on the horizon.
180km came along and my legs were now starting to feel tired. I couldn’t help think that I needed some more leg rub to wake them up again, ‘oh well not long to go’ I thought. I don’t know what made me do it, but for the first time I got my pacing card out and checked where I was. To my horror I realised that I wouldn’t be seeing my crew until Arcadia which was 186km… they had accidentally told me wrong. I still had over 4km to go and the realism of this hit me like an absolute sledgehammer. I battled hard against the mental blow, but for some reason I started spiralling. I was tired, hungry, my legs hurt, I wanted to be asleep and I was in totally unknown territory for an ultra. Although I had run for 19hrs before at NDW100, I hadn’t run this far in a race and I think it was all catching up with me… With about 1.5km to go to the next aid station, I pretty much hit the wall, either that or someone picked up the wall and hit me with it.
Every time I breathed in I wanted to be sick, not because I felt sick but because the air I was taking in seemed to lodge in my throat. My legs were going rubbery and I was weaving about all over the road. I managed to keep moving forwards somehow. I could hardly breath and was hyperventilating. I was almost panicking that I wouldn’t reach the aid station. (These symptoms may have been contributed too by something that Dr Dora Papadopoulou told me at the end of the race regarding the changes in elevation after 100 miles of running).
I stumbled into the aid station feeling broken… ‘Where were you??’ I gasped at Claire and Mark ‘I needed you 4km ago…’ They rushed to my aid and tried to get me to eat something, not initially realising how in trouble I was. I just couldn’t process information though and couldn’t cope with them all speaking to me at once. I tried to be sick, but couldn’t and Mark just kept offering me food. I waved everyone away and made the stupid decision to try and stumble on… I just needed to get away from everybody.
I could hear Mark shouting after me up the road, but I wasn’t listening. I made it about 200m before I stumbled and almost fell into a ditch. I was sure my race was over, I didn’t want to quit, but I didn’t think I could go on either. An official car stopped by me as I was bent double. They asked if I was ok, and I am sure they considered pulling me out of the race. My only saving grace was I was so close to the crew stop. I told them that I would go back if I didn’t feel that I could go on and after they drove on I made the best decision of my life. I turned and stumbled back to the crew stop. Nathan’s partner Tori passed me in her car, and shouted some words of encouragement to me, but I can’t remember what they were. I reached the crew point and just collapsed in a chair. I was 60km from the finish but it may as well have been 600km, I had nothing left in the tank…. I was broken.
It felt like everyone dashed to be around me, but nobody was listening to me. They were forcing me to try and eat, they wanted me to get up and continue. Mark kept saying ‘rest and refresh’ but I just wanted to be quiet. I was in a world of trouble and I know none of my crew had ever seen me like this, hell I had never seen me like this. I couldn’t even muster a few words other than ‘I can’t do it’… ‘I’m empty’
I could hear people talking about me, saying I would get through it and that I just needed to keep moving, but I couldn’t even stand up. I just wanted to scream ‘SHUT UP!!!!!’ but I couldn’t. I started crying, my Spartathlon journey felt like it was in tatters. Paul Rowlinson and Duncan Cornish arrived as they were crewing Paul Beechey, and they tried to help. I felt Paul lift me out of the chair and try to get me moving, but I was pretty much slumped in his arms. He was saying ‘he’ll be ok, I’ve seen this before, we just need to get him going.’ He promptly let go of me in an attempt to kick start me and I just fell on the floor. It’s safe to say that they weren’t expecting that and I felt hands haul me back into the chair but I don’t know whose they were.
Now Mark was rubbing my legs and some American guy was trying to help as well. His name I later found out was Dwight. He was trying to massage me and wake me up. Mark was rubbing my legs, some people had put coats on me to keep me warm and my head was slumped against Claire again. She was asking me what I wanted to do; she was upset and annoyed at how powerless to help she was. ‘Well do you just want to get in the car and go then?? Or are you going to try and make the next checkpoint??’ In honesty I didn’t want to do either. I didn’t want to quit but felt like I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even reply to her other than just mumble.
Paul told her to try and get some fuel into me. They gave me some bread with honey on and shoved it in my mouth. I think I even accidentally bit Claire’s finger as she pushed it in. They were trying everything. Someone even gave me a bottle of hot water, but I just clutched it to my chest. I was in the darkest place I have ever been and I couldn’t see any way out. Finally everybody listened to Paul and Russ and they just left me alone. They left me with my own thoughts……. I was at the edge of the abyss and everything hung in the balance.
I sat for what seemed like an age (about an hour), draped in coats, clutching a water bottle and rocking back and forwards. Then all of a sudden I just stood up, shrugged off the coats, dropped the bottle of hot water and took some steps gingerly up the road. My crew fell silent almost in astonishment that I had moved. I didn’t say a word. I just started walking. I was so out of it that I left my head torch behind…
Mark walked up the road with me telling me again that I had so much time in the bank I could walk and still make the finish. I finally had the strength to muster a response. ‘you don’t know me at all and aren’t my friend if you think I am going to walk 40 miles to Sparta. I didn’t come here to walk to Sparta!’.
I can only imagine what Claire and Mark must have been feeling to see and hear me like this. After about 150m I said to Mark ‘I haven’t got my head torch.’ ‘what?’ he replied and then realised what I’d said. He turned and haired back to the checkpoint grabbed my torch and then gave it to me. I waved a hand in acknowledgement and then trudged on. To this day I have no idea what got me out of that chair, but something did.
I was freezing as I walked up the road. My teeth were chattering, but I had some clarity of thought. I realised that I had to try and shuffle to get warm. Luckily whilst I had been out of it, Claire had put some gloves on my hands so this really helped. I would shuffle as best I could, then I would walk, then I would shuffle, then I would walk. At one point I wasn’t even sure I had turned the right way at a junction until I saw a checkpoint at the gas station. I didn’t stop I just kept going. The crew would be at Tegea, which was just under 10km away and I’m not sure they thought that I would make it, I know that I certainly wasn’t.
The next few miles were a blur and I couldn’t tell you what happened, but arriving in Tegea I was buoyed by some beautiful monuments lit up against the night sky. They were breathtaking. I was managing to run a little bit more now, but was still struggling, as I came into the aid station across the timing mat I could hardly speak. I just pointed at things I needed. Mark shoved watermelon in my mouth, Claire gave me a leg rub. They gave me some coke and some grapes and I left eating some cake I think, or maybe some chocolate. Paul was there again, encouraging me to keep moving.
There was going to be a big gap until I saw everyone again and I was now moving very slowly but at least I was moving. The second biggest climb of the day awaited and it would go on for a fair few miles. There was now less than 50km to go, but I was hanging by a thread, trying to get some energy in and get the legs moving again, but in the darkness it was tough. I was now losing places and everybody who caught me made me feel even lower. Paul Beechey caught me and walked alongside me for a while, encouraging me to trot for 30 seconds and then walk. I tried my hardest, but at that point I was a lost cause…
‘I’m not leaving you until I am convinced you won’t quit’ he said to me… ‘I won’t sugar coat it for you, but this is f’ing massive hill and a long drag for 13 miles, but no one quits on this hill’ (way to boost the confidence my friend!!!). ‘So until you promise me you won’t quit I’m not running off!’ what a legend that guy is, and I appreciated the support however him passing me felt like a kick in the nuts. I wondered how many other Brits were closing in. I thought they’d all be thinking ‘what an idiot, why did he go off so fast? Serves him right for making a rookie error!’. I wanted to scream that isn’t what had happened but I just couldn’t. The inner turmoil I was in was out of control. I had completely lost my head.
‘Have you cried yet?’ Beechey asked… ‘yep!’, ‘good everyone cries in Spartathlon, so at least you’ve got that out of the way!!’ Finally I managed to convince him that I would do everything I could to get to the end and he trundled off saying he’d see me later. I didn’t believe him. If I had been thinking clearly though I would have seen that others were in the same boat as me, running and walking, shuffling and stumbling all in a desperate attempt to make the finish. I latched onto a guy called Pablo and we seemed to go back and forth for a few miles. Just before 212km and the next crew point I was caught by Jon Knapp who I had trained with in the Lake District. Claire had told him I was struggling and he pulled alongside me to give me some encouragement. He had run the perfect race and was still flying. This is down to his wonderful discipline and pacing strategy which he had stuck to rigidly.
I stumbled into the next checkpoint and fell into a seat. Claire and Mark dashed over to me. I was now 34km from the end, a mere 21 miles and once again I was in tears.
‘I’ve been hanging on for 26km…. I haven’t got another 34 in me’ I pleaded with Claire… ‘you don’t realise how horrible this is!’ she could see the turmoil that I was in but there was nothing she could do except try to encourage me to continue…
‘Walk if you have too but keep going.’ She said calmly… Paul thrust a can of sprite into my hand ‘Drink this.. it’ll give you a boost’ I didn’t believe him but gulped it down.
Somehow I dragged my sorry ass off the bench and began to stumble up the road again. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. I was still broken and crying as I slowly put one foot in front of the other. I didn’t want to quit, but I didn’t want to go on either. 21 miles lay between me and my dream. My targets lay in tatters, I didn’t want to walk 20 miles, I was here to run!
After about a mile of sulking, something switched in my head, and I remember talking to myself out loud… ‘Man up you whinging cry baby… You’ve got people out here who are supporting you and you owe it to them to finish! You owe it to Claire, Mark and Claire to go for your targets of sub 30, or at least die trying. Your Mum and Dad have helped you financially to get here, the guys at university of Bedfordshire put their time into getting you prepped, Kate has given you endless amounts of physio… You owe it to them and everyone watching at home and willing you on to get your sorry ass moving. Now man the hell up and get on with it!’…. ‘Run until your legs drop off and you have to crawl, or until you make the finish…..’
Now whether that was the sprite talking or some other fuel I don’t know, but I listened and started to run. I switched into full road race mode and just focused on the guy up ahead… running until I caught him, then I ran past Pablo who with another guy commented ‘oooh so fast!’ as I flew by, focusing on Jon in the distance to try and catch him.
I was not throwing away everything that I had worked so hard for and I owed it to everyone to give this my best shot. Claire had told me they would be at a crew point sooner than I thought, but I didn’t stop I just kept going… down the hill I ran, coming round the corner and going past Paul at the aid station apparently and I quote ‘like he was doing a Parkrun’. I pulled off my waterproof and chucked it to Claire, not saying anything, I wanted nothing to break my flow. I ignored Marks offer of food, and then overtook John on the hill leaving the checkpoint.
I didn’t say a word, I just looked straight ahead and ran. I ran until I couldn’t run anymore and then I power-walked. I caught up other runners and then zeroed in on Paul Beechey, catching him with 18.5km to go. He was pleased to see me. I walk/ran a little with him, but I had used an awful lot of energy during that 8-9 mile burst, and he gradually pulled away from me again as we came to the aid station with 10 miles left to go.
That meant 10 miles of downhill running to Sparta. My quads weren’t shredded yet, however I had to balance the sub 5 minute kilometres that I was throwing in with bursts of walking. Paul had already decided this was now a race to the finish between us and although he had been encouraging me, it was clear he now wanted that 2nd place Brit finish as badly as I did.
With Paul disappearing into the distance each time I took a little walk break I just wanted to keep my composure and tick off the miles. Sparta was now visible in the valley as the descent continued and I came into the last crew stop with 10km to go. Beechey wasn’t stopping anymore and just ploughing on, but I needed a little boost for that last stretch.
I couldn’t believe that I was now so close to achieving a Spartathlon finish and a sub 29hr time was on the cards. Unbelievable considering the dark place that I had been in only hours before when sub 30 seemed impossible. Claire applied the leg rub one last time, Mark grabbed me some coke and refilled my water and then I was off again shouting ‘I’ll see you in Sparta as soon as I can’.
Each step took me closer to glory and that statue of King Leonidas.
Catching people was now becoming a regular occurrence and I blazed past three within the next 3km. They all seemed shocked that I was running this fast and to be honest so was I. A sign saying ‘Sparti 5’ caught my eye and I thought ‘that is it only a Parkrun to go, I can do that.’ Along the road I could see two or three others ahead and I just kept ticking them off, making my way to Sparta as quickly as I could and hoping that I would catch Paul. He had built up quite a lead now though and was out of sight.
Entering the town I was greeted by lots of car horns blaring and people cheering Bravo! At one point I actually wanted them to stop as my arm got heavier and heavier with each wave! One lady thanked me for coming to Greece to run the race. With 2.4km I quickly filled my bottle at the last aid station and then headed for home. I was joined by a couple of kids on bikes who cycled along shouting Bravo! Shopkeepers yelled out from behind their counters, ladies clapped from balconies, car horns beeped, random pedestrians clapped and cheered. It was unlike anything that I have ever experienced before.
Turning towards the statue I asked the kids if it was far. ‘No’ they said pointing just ahead. However someone forgot to mention that you have to run up a hill before you get to the statue, not what you want after 245km. I couldn’t believe it, I was finally here in Sparta, Claire would be up ahead, I was desperate to see her for a hug. I could see the flags and the statues. People were cheering, clapping, yelling and I waved in appreciation. My entourage was stopped with 200m to go and I ran for the statue… high fiving Mark as I ran past, pointing at Paul to say thank you, and then skipping up the steps to the foot of the statue and the finish.
This was the greatest achievement of my life. I had been to hell and back to kiss this foot and I was going to make the most of it. The crown was placed on my head, I drank from the goblet I was offered, and then given my finishers trophy. Claire made her way through the crowd and up onto the steps. I gave her the biggest hug I could and sobbed into her shoulder. We had done it!!
I beckoned all my crew to come up and have a photo. I couldn’t of done it without them and I owe them a massive debt of gratitude, they were magnificent.
I was then ushered down the steps and into the medical tent where I was looked after magnificently by Dr Dora Papadopoulou and her wonderful team. They sorted out my blisters, gave me something to drink and then put me on a drip as my BP was about 75/40, however I felt absolutely fine. You don’t get this sort of service after a ultramarathon in the UK. Dora even organised two physio students to massage my legs whilst I lay there on the drip.
I had finished as the 3rd Brit in 28th Place overall and in an amazing time of 28:36:58, and I am not sure to this day how I managed that. Paul Beechey had finished in 27th place, 1 minute ahead of me and Nathan had run a wonderful race to come home in just over 27hrs. The calibre of the field was so high though that he finished in 19th place.
I owe thanks to so many people for their help and support throughout this race. Firstly to Claire who has supported me throughout all the training as well as the event itself, you are my rock and I wouldn’t have made the finish without you. I am sorry for the noodle kiss, biting your finger and the emotional rollercoaster I took you on, but I was glad to have you there with me every step of the way.
To Mark and his wife Claire, I can’t thank you enough for coming to Greece to support me and to drive (my) Claire around so she could support me. Having all three of you there as my crew made it all the more special finishing as I did and it wouldn’t have been possible without you. Thanks for the chocolate and the pork. You guys are the best.
To Paul Rowlinson, thank you for helping out my crew in my darkest hour, thanks for the sprite and thanks for the finishing video. You helped me more than you will ever know and I couldn’t of bounced back without you.
Thank you to all the British runners and their crews, you made it a fantastic experience and I was proud to be part of the British Team. I have made some friends for life and I hope to see you all at some races in the future. Thank you to all our sponsors as well, we wouldn’t of had such fantastic kit without you all.
I’d like to also thank my Mum and Dad for supporting throughout and tracking me as if they were at the race. Without their help I wouldn’t of been able to afford to go on such an epic journey and I am grateful to them for supporting my running endeavours.
Thanks must also go to the guys at the University of Bedfordshire, Prof Jeff Aldous and his team, Matthew Horner, Peter Macdonald, and Shaun Hickman helped me arrive in the best possible shape at the start line. As did my physiotherapist Kate Williams who has worked on me for last few years and allowed me to pursue my dreams by putting my body back together time and time again.
Finally a massive thank you to all of those who sent messages, made comments and generally supported from afar via social media and using race drone to track me. The thought of you all kept me going and I hope you had fun watching….
I now plan to put my feet up for a bit before deciding what I will do in 2018… Happy Running everybody!