‘I’m not sure what to do for the best…. it’s 153 miles you say?….. well?!?!’
These were the words of Mr Matt Fitzpatrick (Consultant Podiatrist) as I sat in his treatment room in Blackheath hospital on Thursday 5th September, three weeks before Spartathlon. Four weeks prior, he had diagnosed a peroneal tendon tear in my right foot and after realising that I intended to be on that start line at the Acropolis come hell or high water, had sent me away to train and rehabilitate for four weeks before deciding if a steroidal injection would benefit me.
His professional advice was total rest to let the tendon heal, but with Spartathlon just around the corner this was never going to be an option. Hence in an effort to improve my chances of finishing the grueling event that I had on the horizon we discussed the positive and negative consequences of having a pain killing injection so close to the race. It was a huge decision and one that I would not make lightly…
Now after a fantastic two weeks of training in the Heat Chamber at the University of Bedfordshire under the guidance of Dr Jeff Aldous, and a few days acclimation and relaxation in Greece it was the day before the race and my foot was sore… I told myself it was just a case of ‘ultra-maranoia’ and the injection would do its magic, however there was a nagging doubt in my mind. I just had to hope that the weak tendon didn’t rupture at any point during the race as that would prove to be a catastrophe that I wouldn’t be able to overcome.
Despite the injury I had been able to train hard, as long as I stayed on tarmac. Whilst running on the road gave me little issue, running on trails and uneven ground had proved very uncomfortable due to the instability that terrain caused. Luckily the Spartathlon route is mainly on the road/tarmac with only a couple of short trail sections. Both myself and Mat were concerned about the mountain section and how I would cope with the terrain as well as the descent, but I couldn’t dwell on this. What would be would be…. the hard work had been done and it was almost time for the fun.
Even with all this going on I was relatively relaxed in the build up to the event, and having experienced the swell of emotion in 2017 I was better prepared mentally for the challenge that lay ahead. Registration, race briefing and my crew meetings had all gone well and all that was left for me to was run. Having said that though as we stood at the start waiting to get going, fellow spartathlete Fabio Rizzo told me to smile…. my response ‘I’ll smile when I get to that statue!’… It was time to get down to business.
The tension in the air was palpable and nervous faces surrounded me as we lined up on the slopes of that historic location. I gave Sarah Sawyer a quick hug and told her to go be awesome (which she duly did) and I exchanged high fives with Alex Whearity and Matt Blackburn, then we were off, descending the hill from the Acropolis and into the streets of Athens. I was determined to not go off like a lunatic as I had done in 2017, I wanted to run a far more controlled race in an attempt to avoid the a repeat of the calamitous events that occurred two years ago when my race almost came to a premature end at 185km.
In all likelihood we were in for a real dose of Greek weather this year, so erring on the side of caution during the early miles was likely to be the key to a successful finish. This new found ‘sense’ was even a surprise to my great friend and fellow British Spartathlete Matthew Blackburn who I spent some of those early miles running alongside. Just before we reached 8 miles, he said to me… ‘you can go off and do your own thing if you like’.. meaning if you want to sprint off then don’t let me hold you back. I was however enjoying sharing this experience with Matt as it was down to him that I ran in 2017 and now finally we had the chance to run this iconic race together. In fact this was the first time that we had raced each other since the event were we first met ‘The Wall’ in 2015.
Alex Whearity, Paul Radford and Fabio Rizzo joined our little band for a while, but as we moved further and further away from Athens I gradually seemed to just ease away from everyone. This coincided with the increase in temperature as the sun began to beat down on us through the industrial area and oil refineries. I was still feeling comfortable though and enjoyed being surrounded by a variety of runners from other countries. It is amazing who you bump into during this races, as quite unexpectedly when I caught up to the two chaps in front of me, one of them said ‘I follow you on instagram’… his name was Sergei Ovchinnikov, a Russian athlete who was taking part in (and finished) his first Spartathlon.
After a brief chat I didn’t stay with Sergei for too long as I was beginning to find a rhythm and I wanted to get in the zone, so again I just gradually eased away from him and his running colleague. I was trying not to focus on the distance, just kept my eye out for the aid stations where my early drop bags were. Russ, Sandra and Mark were in a cafe, just past the half marathon point (like they said they would be) and I think I surprised them as I ran past. Paul Rowlinson who was crewing for fellow runner Sam Tomlinson was also a welcome spectator during those early stages as he would drive by in his little blue Fiat convertible and shout encouragement before stopping ahead to snap a few pics and give me a cheer.
I felt like I was cruising and once I had left the industrial area for the coastal road I just tried to appreciate the view. This is without doubt one of my favourite parts of the course and running along beside the azure blue sea brought back great memories from 2017 when I shared these miles with Nathan Flear. I felt strong and more importantly I felt in full control… I just needed to stay relaxed.
The first crew point is at Megara (42.2km) and as always the British Crews were resplendent in their red t-shirts. They were also vocal, cheering me through towards my crew who had parked further up the road away from the chaos. I don’t remember much about the stop other than I was babbling about what I had eaten and drank and Russell just told me to calm down. I think that the British support had spiked my adrenaline and I just needed a second to reset. Mark got to work with the minty leg rub, Russell refilled my bottles and gave me some food, we restocked my running belt and then he gave me some ice cubes, telling me to put a couple in my mouth before they melted…. what sweet relief they provided.
Then I was off heading out of the checkpoint and onwards. Shortly after leaving I passed under an underpass that was lined with children waiting for a high five!! What a feeling that was as they celebrated my arrival. The support that you get from the locals during Spartathlon is absolutely amazing and like nothing that I have experienced anywhere else. However it does provide one of the hidden challenges that other races do not, as you have to stay calm when those emotional moments take hold and not let the occasion get to you. With the children’s cheers of ‘Sparti’ ringing in my ears I settled back into a rhythm knowing I wouldn’t see my crew again until Corinth and the 50 mile mark.
The heat was building now and I was sure that it was well in excess of the 28/29 degrees we had been forecast. I later found out that it had reached 35/36 during the day and even heard some reports of it touching 39 degrees. Dr Jeff Aldous had stressed to me the importance of cooling and managing my thermal comfort so I began to stop at each checkpoint and stuff ice into my arm sleeves, as well as into my cap. It gave me something to look forward to every 5km and certainly helped to ensure that I kept cool. The training that I had completed in the heat chamber was now coming into it’s own. I was warm, but I was comfortable and I knew I could cope with these temperatures as long as I wasn’t silly.
After about 55km I caught and passed Russian athlete Irina Masanova who seemed to be struggling in the heat.. I wasn’t sure if she was the leading lady at the time, but she must have been given how the rest of the race unfolded. We chatted briefly, both agreeing that we didn’t get this type of weather in our respective countries before I gradually eased away from her and began reeling the next runners in. To my surprise the next group contained fellow Brit Peter Jackson, who was having a storming race and running very strongly. I was only surprised as I thought I was the leading Brit at the time, but it was great to see another team member running so well and looking in good shape. Peter was running the race of his life and would go on to record an excellent finish in his first Spartathlon.
It was around 69 km that I passed Peter, which then consequently led to a very lonely spell in the race and probably my toughest section. I realised as I neared the spectacular Corinth Canal that I hadn’t walked at all for almost 48 miles and decided to treat myself to a little stroll up the incline to the overpass you take before turning left and running across the canal bridge. This year I took the time to appreciate the view as I ran over, because in 2017 I had completely forgotten to look. Suffice to say it was spectacular.
The crew stop was another 2km up the road and this seemed to take forever, but it was well worth the wait as when I arrived the British crews chanted ‘we love you Ian, we do!!’ which gave me a huge boost. Sandra busily tried to direct me to where Russ and Mark were waiting and I slowed to a walk just to gather my thoughts and once again reset. From now on I would be seeing the crew every 10km or so, which meant we were entering a key stage in the race.
Mark got to work on my legs, whilst asking if there were any issues. Russell managed to get me to eat some spaghetti and cheese as well take some fluids on board… and from afar Sandra praised me for my pacing. I had arrived in around 7hrs 12 mins which was almost 30 minutes slower than 2017, I had drunk more fluids, taken on more food, and was generally in a far better place which although none of us said it, boded well for the rest of the race.
I mentioned earlier this becoming the toughest stage of my race and one that I really had to fight through. From 69 km onward’s I didn’t see another runner until well past the 100km mark. It was hot, it was lonely and although I felt comfortable there was nothing to distract me from the task that lay ahead. For over 20 miles I ticked off the aid stations, keen to reach the next point where my crew were just for some human contact. I also kept thinking that every time I crossed a timing mat everyone who was following me at home would be seeing my progress, and I hoped that my tracker was working so they knew I was okay.
I had completely forgotten about the live webcam feeds that were broadcast from various checkpoints, and I believe I played a staring role in the one at 100km as I helped myself to ice and grabbed a cold drink. This is how Russell and Mark found out that I had been drinking coke.. they had been keen for me to not use this until later in the race, but as a staple drink on most of my ultras I had been helping myself at most aid stations and apparently hadn’t told them!! oops… sorry guys!!! busted!!!!
Thankfully they hadn’t realised this as I arrived at CP29 Zevgolatio (Corinth) at 102km so I didn’t get told off. In fact Russell gave me an apple pie, that tasted delicious. My crew also revealed their secret weapon here which came in the form of Turkish Delight!! what a revelation that was!!! This year we had discussed during crew stops that we would take our time, so I didn’t rush through any of them but instead chose to use the time wisely. Whether it was for a pep talk, a refuel, a leg rub or just a chance to gather my thoughts whatever we were doing seemed to be working.
Russ had also suggested that we try using the Morton stretch, basically assisted squats to help with the quads. I had never used this before, but it really helped keep the legs from seizing up and allowed me to run well out of each stop.
There was a long climb up to the next crew stop at CP32 Halkion Village and the isolation was really beginning to get to me. I had now run a marathon on my own and was starting to wonder if anyone was actually out here on the course with me!! Then finally just after the crew stop at 113 km Alastair Higgins caught up to me. If the truth be told I had expected to see him a lot earlier however he was pacing his race to absolute perfection and glided up alongside me.
This was shortly after Suzsanna Maraz the leading lady from Hungary had gone past me and we settled into a comfortable pace together before catching her and passing her again. Alastair had caught me at the perfect time and I am genuinely happy that he did as we shared some of the best miles of the race together. Chatting away we began to make the most of temperature drop and before we knew it we had reached Ancient Nemea (123km) and grabbed our night gear. I had a quick toilet break and Al probably took his longest stop of the race as he kindly waited for me so we could continue together.
Suzsanna and the guy she was running with overtook us whilst we were faffing, but that didn’t matter as it gave us someone to chase again. My mind welcomed the distraction and I am sure that Al’s did too. We stuck together for the next 20 or so km’s, sharing a magical view as the sun set behind the mountains making them look like they were on fire. Just as it was getting dark we were joined by a Spanish runner who Al had passed some miles earlier. He really was having a resurgence and reeled us in quickly before joining us for a few miles as we headed for Malandrenii.
I started to find the pace a little hard to live with and didn’t want to jeopardise my race so as Alastair began to pull away I decided not to go with him. We were nearing the 90 mile mark and I was conscious of not burning myself out in an attempt to run with others. I was tired, and still felt pretty good all things considered, however I was starting to struggle to get food down. When I ate I began to get sharp pains across my stomach and intestines, and even had to stop on a few occasions, as I bent over double until the feeling passed. When I reached Malandrenii I told my crew there and then that I didn’t want anymore ‘proper food’ as I needed to give my stomach a rest and hope that GI distress passed. We switched to just water and salt tablets, however Russ did manage to convince to have some Turkish Delight.
By the time I reached Lirkia at 148 km I needed a second loo stop before tackling the mountain. I had started to feel a little better, but as Russ gave me a gel it almost made me sick. I wasn’t too worried though as I knew I would soon be hiking up the mountain and hoped that this lower intensity work coupled with the break from food would help.
Most people doing Spartathlon seem to worry about the mountain, however the climb out of Lirkia is tougher and the endless hairpin bends seem to go on forever. As I attempted to run/walk as much as I could, I kept checking behind me to see if I was being caught. I felt like I was slowing down considerably and it would only be a matter of time before I was hauled in. It’s funny how your perception is altered during these long races when no one is around you, as I neared the top I received a massive boost catching 3 runners including Suzsanna who had passed me in the Lirkia checkpoint and the Spanish guy who had joined Alastair and I earlier…. Maybe I wasn’t moving as slowly as I thought, which just goes to show it’s all a matter of perspective.
I had managed a gel on the climb and the stomach was starting to settle. I reached mountain base (CP47) in a 16:24 which was 40 minutes slower than 2 years ago, and once again I took my time before tackling the mountain. Russ and Mark looked after me well and ensured that I was fueled up as they wouldn’t see me again until Nestani. We even had time for a quick pic before I turned and began my ascent.
Just as in 2017 though I enjoyed the mountain path section. I hiked up it as fast as I could and tried to take a moment to appreciate the view before the mist descended. I reached mountain top in good time and had a wonderful welcome. I grabbed a cup of coke, took some supplies from my drop bag and had a little chat with the ladies running the aid station. Unbeknownst to me this was all caught on the live feed… I must have looked a right idiot as I thought I was posing for a photo!!! Luckily Dad sat at home just managed to catch me on the screen so he knew that I was doing ok!!
The descent was made tricky by the mist that had fallen and the ground was damp so I took my time, picking my way carefully without losing too much speed. A random group of teenagers were sat halfway down and they asked me where I was from… after telling them I was from England, I almost slipped and ended up on my ass.. which would have been embarrassing. One of the girls gasped and said be careful, whilst the rest giggled at my near miss… suffice to say I was even more careful for the next few steps.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that once the mountain is out of the way then the race is as good as done, and reaching Sparta is a mere formality. This means they end up underestimating the last 53 miles. I think maybe this had contributed to my issues in 2017. I had been so focused on traversing the mountain that I hadn’t prepared myself mentally for the final third of the race and I wasn’t about to make the same mistake again. I was fully focused on the job in hand and I managed to reach Nestani (171km) without any bonus miles this year, arriving in good spirits.
I had told Mark before the race that I wanted to take my time at this checkpoint to refuel and ensure that I was mentally ready to tackle the last 50 miles. I just kept saying ‘I don’t want to rush..’ because in 2017 I had dashed out of this checkpoint which cost me dearly. As an added bonus a familiar voice said hello to me shortly after I arrived… Darren Strachan (fellow spartathlete from 2017) had flown to Greece to support the team and the massive man hug he gave me provided a huge boost. I really can’t explain what a lift it was seeing him so unexpectedly. Thanks Buddy.
Mark gave me a pro plus to try and keep me awake, Russ gave me some potatoes to eat and I even had the energy to tell the doctor off for lighting up a cigarette, telling her it wasn’t healthy. Once again this was all on the live feed and being watched by lots of people at home.. luckily I had my back turned slightly to the camera throughout otherwise you all would of had a better view of me applying vaseline to my nether regions. This was to be a theme for the rest of the race as I had begun to get some serious chaffing which needed regular attention. The stop had been so relaxed that I even left without my water bottle… thankfully I realised before I had run too far and I was able to go back for it, otherwise that would have been a disaster.
I had just under 10 miles to go until I saw the crew again and I still had no concept of where I was in the race. I had been on my own since leaving mountain base and apart from the occasional crew car or official vehicle passing me I was isolated. The temperature had dropped but the humidity had increased so I was far from cold, yet I was moving well and enjoying making steady progress. It was at the next aid station that I found out that I was in 9th place…. I saw the list that the volunteer wrote on and was surprised to be in the top 10… no wonder I hadn’t seen many people.
I told myself not to get too excited, there was still a long way to go and I was about to reach the place of my epic breakdown in 2017. Before I reached Zevgolatio though I passed two people and moved into 7th place. One of those runners was sadly taken away in an ambulance and the other ended up withdrawing at the aid station I had seen him sat at. This shows how tough this event is, as even sitting in the top ten at 180km doesn’t guarantee you a finish.
As I arrived in Zevlagatio (186km), Sandra who had subbed in for Russ whilst he had a sleep said to me.. ‘look how deserted it is!!’ It was surreal.. there was no one around other than two guys sat at the checkpoint and another chap waiting for his runner. Sandra then asked if she could give me a hug, it was the best hug ever. Mark gave me the usual leg rub and Sandra told me I was about to take a massive chunk out of 2017’s time. I knew that….. I had sat in this very spot for almost an hour two years ago and cried as I hugged a water bottle. I had then left without my head-torch and trudged up the road. This time couldn’t have been more different, I walked out with my head held high and totally in control, having eaten some mug shot soup and had some sprite. My legs felt good and I knew that I was moving well. It was time to give it full beans and make some serious progress towards my target.
I hardly recognised the next 10km, it was like I was running it for the first time. In fact it shocked me how little I knew of the route and just goes to show how out of it I truly was in 2017. To this day I still don’t really know how I survived the night and made the finish. As I reached Alea-Tegea this year I was able to appreciate the historic monuments and actually enjoy the run into the checkpoint, where once again I was caught on the live feed. Here I was able to get some porridge and a cheese sandwich into me without any tummy trouble and then I was off and running again.
Leaving Tegea I thought my luck with regards to stray dogs had finally run out as I spotted a white dog roaming free as I was leaving the village. He started barking as I approached which made me very wary so I slowed to a walk, but it turned out he was more nervous of me than I was of him… When I got closer he sat down and started wiggling his bum (wagging his tail) obviously in the hope I would give him a treat. I still gave him a wide berth just in case he changed his mind, but it was one of the cutest things I had seen!! He watched me disappear into the darkness and out towards the main roads that would lead me to Sparta.
It was at this point in 2017 that Paul Beechey had caught me and told me that no one quits on this hill, before I had to watch him disappear into the darkness feeling deflated. 2019 was vastly different… I jogged most of the hill and caught up to the sixth placed runner who to my surprise was Irina Masanova, the Russian who had been struggling so badly at 30 miles. I didn’t even know that she had passed me however I guess she had when I was in the toilet at one of the aid stations. She was struggling with her breathing and I tried to help her although I’m not sure I did anything worthwhile. She was still hiking up the hill and told me to keep running. I fully expected her to catch me again later as she was obviously an awesome athlete.
I was now well past 200km and the fog was descending on the main road. This made for quite treacherous conditions and at times I really feared for my safety. Lorries and cars were appearing out of the fog, cutting corners and travelling at some speed and I worried that they wouldn’t notice little old me in my reflective gear and small headtorch. I was so concerned that upon reaching one aid station Russell asked me what I had eaten and I replied with ‘nothing, I’ve been too busy trying to stay alive!!!’
This road had been scary enough two years ago when I had traversed it in the morning sunlight, and now in the early hours of the morning I was willing the sun to rise again so that the fog would lift.
I had in my head that I wanted to reach CP 68 (223km) by 7am if I had not had to have an impromptu toilet stop in the bushes I may well of done. It seems that all the food I had been eating was contributing to some GI distress and my body decided it needed to deal with this. Added to that my chaffing was now really bad and the Vaseline wasn’t really doing it’s job, thankfully it was less painful to run than it was to walk so that motivated to keep moving forwards at pace.
I finally reached CP68 just after the sun came up and was able to ditch all of my night gear for the final 13 miles. It seems that I had arrived a little quicker than my crew were expecting as Russell hastily made me a jam roll to eat before I left the checkpoint, only appearing shortly after I arrived!
There was only one crew stop to go, at Voutianoui (CP72) and from there it would just be 10km to the finish. I had one more hill to climb and then I would see Sparta in the distance, what a magical feeling that would be. Well it would have been if all of a sudden with 11 miles to go I hadn’t needed the loo again. I had to dash into the bushes once more and I couldn’t believe it, usually I don’t need the loo once, let alone four times!! Thankfully that was to be the last time as I willed my legs to carry me to the last checkpoint.
I kept checking behind me, sure that someone would be catching me and at times running in disbelief that I was sixth. I also wondered if I could catch fifth place, but thought they would be miles ahead. I didn’t care either way, I knew I was on for a huge PB and thought that if I could just keep moving then a top 10 finish was a shoe in!! I wouldn’t take anything for granted though as even this close to the finish things can still go wrong and 10km is still a long way to walk.
It was all downhill now and although my quads were screaming at me I pushed on, reaching Check point 72 where Mark handed me the GB flag to put in my race belt and everyone made sure I had what I needed to make the finish…. This was the final push. Sandra checked with the guy at the CP and he said it was 9km to Sparta, but as I rounded the corner I doubled over in pain again as my tummy issues threatened to rear their head again…. thankfully I managed to get a grip and straighten up just before Russell drove past in the crew car with one last motivational message…
‘If you put the hammer down you’ll go sub 27!!’…’ I don’t F’in have a hammer!!’ I shouted back, as my legs were destroyed and I was running on empty. Mark shouted ‘shut up and run’…. and as they disappeared into the distance I’m pretty sure I told them to F’Off!!!
In my defence I was tired, in pain and working as hard as I could… I know they were just trying to motivate me, but I had run solo from 200km without seeing a soul and it was taking it’s toll on me. I just wanted the race to be over so that I could sit down. I needed to get to Sparta and added to that with each step I became more desperate to hang onto sixth place. I thought that Alastair might have made the podium, so I wanted it to be two Brits in the top ten and as high up the field as possible.
As I passed the second to last checkpoint (CP73) a Police motorbike joined me and offered me an escort. I still had 5.5km to go to reach the statue and now I had company I didn’t feel like I could walk even if I wanted too. Cars beeped, locals waved and children cheered as I neared the edge of Sparta. With 3km to go I had a little walk just to gather myself and the Police officer said to me.. ‘not far to go now, only 5 minutes!!’, knowing full well how far I had to go my response was ‘yeah maybe if I was on the bike!!’
His comment galvanised me to run though and shortly after the last checkpoint several children on bikes added to my entourage. One of the children was telling me where to go, and even though I had been there before I couldn’t remember exactly where to turn. I just knew there was a hill to climb before reaching the statue. With about 800m to go I was joined by six girls who ran with me which was something new and I struggled to keep up with them. I unfurled my flag and held it aloft as I approached the statue… In 2017 I didn’t have a flag so I was glad to have one this time and it was the proudest moment of my life carrying the union jack towards the finish line.
I spotted Mark and Sandra on the left, Alastair was waving and cheering, Russell was filming and taking pictures and Darren Strachan was saluting me… It was an incredible moment, hearing my name being called as I climbed the steps and kissed that foot!! I had done it, I had reached the statue… unbelievably finishing in 6th place in a time of 26:14:17.
Hugs were exchanged and I did my best not to break down into a blubbering mess as Dora Papadopoulou (British Team Doctor) rushed up the steps to congratulate me. There was just time for a few pics and for me to thank my crew before I was being escorted to the medical tent. This time there was to be no drip as Dora was happy with my condition but two lovely ladies took time to sort my feet out. Once again I was looked after superbly by Dora and her team and I will always remember the huge hug that she gave me at the statue when I finished.
My crew had been superb, and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. They made the race so simple for me… all I had to do was run. They took care of everything and I was pleased to have done them proud. Prior to the race Sandra had asked me if I could get to Sparta quickly so that she could watch the rest of the British Team finish, so I did my best arriving at 09:15 am on Saturday morning, with only Alastair finishing ahead of me. Thankfully though I was close enough to him that my crew were able to see him finish.
This however didn’t stop Sandra from telling me off for being ‘too quick’ as her and Russell hadn’t been able to get a coffee and a pastry at the bakery in Alea-Tegea because it had still been shut… oops… sorry guys!!! Guess this was really a case of can’t have your cake and eat it!!!
Spartathlon 2019 you were truly amazing, the race went better than I could ever of imagined and my time puts me 9th on the all time GB list with only 4 runners having run it faster. They include legends such at James Zarei, Patrick Macke and Dan Lawson as well as my superstar teammate and all round top bloke Al Higgins. He managed to finish fourth in an incredible time of 25:48:39… congratulations buddy.
I would like to finish by offering my congratulations to all the 2019 British Team 17/21 finished the race and commiserations to those who didn’t make it, I am sure you’ll be back. My apologies must go to those I missed finish whilst I was having a small nap, but I am glad I got to share so many amazing moments with a great bunch of people.
Finally I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who supported me back in the UK and around the world. The amount of messages I received before, during, and after the race has been truly overwhelming and I am humbled that so many people followed my progress and supported the British Team. I am truly blessed to have such great friends and family.
Maybe one day I will be back to do it all again!!! but for the time being all that is left to say is…… ‘This is Sparta!!!!!!!!!!!!’