1 Oct 12 by James Elson

Spartathlon Race Report 2012. The Ultimate Foot Race.

Finishing the Spartathlon is simple. All you have to do is run 153 miles in  under 36 hours. 

Nothing I had done could have prepared me for just how hard and how epic this race is. I am not usually one for making sweeping statements about races, but for me this was and this is the ultimate. For the first time coming away from a race, I feel like I have found that something I’ve been looking for. Mark Cockbain described it as a pure hard running race. I know now what he meant. Its purity & its difficulty are in its simplicity. It’s you vs 153 miles of road in a severely imposing time limit through the heat of the Greek sun. All other bets are off. 

Trying to sum up how hard this race is tricky but I’ll try because I just didn’t get it until the darkest hours just before dawn this past Saturday.

What does running the Spartathlon feel like?

You start at the Acropolis in the centre of Athens at first light, along roads choked with commuter traffic blaring horns and pumping exhaust fumes in to morning air thick with humidity. You make your way out of the city and on to a coast road, past oil refineries and eventually alongside beaches lapped by an azure blue sea. You are 50 yards away but that may as well be 1000 miles, because all you are concentrating on is running sufficiently fast enough to beat the cut offs. The temperatures climb fast until by mid morning you are being cooked by a sun at first from the side and then from above. The roadside garages tell you it’s 35 degrees but with the heat radiating off of the tarmac it feels so much hotter. You pass the marathon mark completely unawares because 26.2 miles is so massively insignificant vs what lies before you – 127 more miles of this. The heat intensifies as the rolling road stretches out before you. Every 2 – 3 miles you come to a checkpoint, pick up a sponge from a bucket of water, douse your shirt, head and hat so that you’re soaked through, re-filling your bottle with warm water and heading off to the next point. Half way between the two you are totally bone dry and the battle to keep your core temperature down whilst you cover that extra 15 – 20 minutes begins again. When you can’t, your stomach unloads in an instant and you’re throwing up food and water you’ve fought hard to keep down. You pass scores of people doing the same. As the sun reaches it’s zenith you climb a steep section of motorway up to the mighty Corinth canal and make your way to the 50 mile checkpoint, the first major stop. If you haven’t made it here in less than 9 hours 30, you’re out of the race. 50 miles in 35 degree+ heat on rolling roads is no mean feat. You have over 100 miles still to run.

As you leave Corinth behind, you turn immediately in to more rural Greece, through farms, olive groves and vineyards, greeted by the ever-regular but lightly stocked checkpoint tables. By this time the scraps of crisps, banana and diluted coke are starting to look less appealing and you are counting the hours down until darkness will finally fall and offer you respite from the oppressive heat. After Corinth, the undulations increase, but you can’t slow down. Running everything but the steepest grades you make up mere minutes on the cut off times that force you to go faster than you would normally dream of running for a race less than half this far. When night sets, the full moon lights your way and you click off the miles and kilometres one by one until finally, at long last, you reach Nemea. A haven in the city square where you emerge out of the dark in to the lights and throngs of people – massage tables, hot food, toilets, mattresses on the ground – all luxuries you simply can’t afford to stay and enjoy. You’ve run 76.5 miles by this point. Everything hurts, of course everything should hurt after just under three back to back marathons – but you are exactly half way. Many of those remaining won’t make it out of here.

From Nemea the road climbs before there is some relief in a long downhill section with regular checkpoints and long winding quiet rural roads. The only things that break your concentration are crew cars trundling past kicking the dust off of the road up so you have to cover your face with your t shirt. It starts to get cooler, the smart ones have left a long sleeve and a light in a drop bag which they’ve already put on. The rookies didn’t think they’d get cold so their first warm clothing is way up the road, many hours away.

The heat of the day past begins to take it’s toll, the pace slows down, more walking is thrown in but you can’t walk for long because the cut offs are always there. At mile 95 you are presented with a trail of bobbing lights disappearing high in to the sky ahead, on winding switchbacks and later on a mountain trail – the spot Pheidippides met the God Pan on his journey 2500 years ago. This is Sangras Pass. You have to climb a mountain 100 miles in to the race before you may continue back on the road to Sparta. You climb up and up before you finally reach the base of the mountain. You’ve lost more time to the climb and the pressure is higher than ever. You’ve run 99.5 miles and you have over two marathons left to run.

The trail climbs high up the mountain, passing over the top and down the other side on steep switchbacks bringing you back out on to the road. The sun starts to come up and the heat comes back. Those weary few who’ve made it this far are almost all in a death march against the clock, to eek out those final 50 miles to the city of Sparta. Yet more will fall by the way side as the road climbs and climbs on what the veterans will tell you is the hardest part of the course. Only the most worthy make it in to the city limits and through the final 2 checkpoints, 73 and 74 indicating that 150 miles have been run, with less than 5km to go. Left in shreds by what they have gone through, less than 1 in 4 of the starting field, just 25% of the runners eventually make the turn on the main road and can just about make out the statue of King Leonidas in the distance. The final drag up hill lasts a few hundred metres, before all that is left to do is climb the final few steps in front of throngs of incredulous spectators, friends and family, to kiss the foot of the statue, signifying the completion of the journey.

As many people have pointed out before, Sparta doesn’t claim to be the longest, hardest, hottest or most brutal foot race on the planet. Indeed it may not be any of those things on it’s own, but it’s the most epic race I’ve ever experienced.

I started the day running alongside James Adams, vet of 2 previous Spartas, both of which he completed. We chatted away running at a reasonable pace and smiling at the angry drivers who were stopped to make way for 305 runners attempting the impossible. The early miles were pretty rough because of the fumes but we made our way out of Athens pretty quickly. James stopped for a call of nature and I carried on ahead running with Peter Johnson, veteran of more ultras than you could count. Allan Rumbles came past at a good pace and Peter and I let him go on, still whiling away the time. Checkpoints came and went and in the rush to waste not a single second of precious time, we got split up and I was on my own making my way through the oil refineries and eventually out on to the coast road. I genuinely cannot remember much of the first 45 miles. I was concentrating 100% on how I was feeling. I was aware the heat was high, higher than normal I guessed (it was), and maintaining everything  as best I could whilst meeting the cut offs was my only aim. I wasn’t sure exactly where the marathon mark was by it slipped by in around 4 hours according to my Ambit. I didn’t have a plan but from what I’d read this sounded ok. At mile 40 my mental strength took a massive nose dive when the ‘Death Bus’ holding all of those who had dropped from the race already on it, rolled up and pulled to the side of the road. As I ran past I looked in and saw Drew, Allan Rumbles and David Miles all sat at the back of the bus. I couldn’t believe their days had ended so quickly. These are three of the most experienced, toughest ultrarunners in the UK, all out of the race before we’d made it a quarter of the way. I pushed on and tried not to think too much about their disappointment and what it signalled. Was this going to be an exceptionally hard year? I didn’t think this thing needed to be any harder.

As I got to mile 45 I caught Richard Webster. We latched on to one another’s pace, recognising that the heat was absolutely killing us and threw in some walking breaks for the first time. We rolled up a pretty horrible climb to Corinth, over the canal and in to the 50 mile aid station in 8:37. We had run almost the entire thing to this point in a decent pace and had just 53 minutes before the cut off. As we were leaving, James Adams rolled in behind us and we pushed on up the road shouting to him that we’d see him in a few miles. James caught us about 55 miles in and promptly informed us that with the exception of the three of us and Claire Shelley, all of the Brits were out. In fact it turned out that there were 3 other brits in the race who went on to finish but we weren’t aware of them at that stage. Lindley Chambers, Allan Rumbles, Peter Johnson, Drew Sheffield, Dave Miles, Paul Mott, Rob Pinnington, Phil Smith – all friends of ours, all with shattered dreams and so early on. Frankly it was pretty scary.

At mile 55 James started cramping so badly he had to lie on the road with his feet in the air. I gave him 2 S! caps and pushed on with Rich. We honestly weren’t sure if he was going to turn it around from there, shouting with the pain he was in, yet 5 miles later he had already caught us back up. Something should have twigged at that point….. James isn’t a normal human.

The night came and the heat finally dissipated. We ran along with James as much as we could before finally, about 10ks from half way we had to let him go. We were cooking along way too fast for Rich and I, although we were making up almost no time on the cut offs, scraping along at around an hour up all the way. We came upon an American runner at this point that turned out to be Glen Redpath. Glen has won countless 100s in the US, the Montrail Ultra Cup and finished in the top 10 at Western States, 5 times. If anything gives a clue as to just what sort of shape you need to be in to finish this race, it’s that Glen, a sub 17 hour Western States runner and Salomon athlete, finished with just 3 hours to spare.

We ran in to the half way mark together and found James sat eating a plate of rice. I didn’t want to sit so stood with him eating some plain pasta while Rich got a massage. After a few minutes I felt I didn’t want to stand still any longer and so began walking up the road with James. I told Rich I’d walk until he caught me. That was a mistake as I ended up walking almost 4 miles before finally deciding to get on with running. James was miles up the road by that stage and I was starting to get cold. Eventually I learned Rich dropped at mile 85 throwing up and devoid of energy.

I still felt ok, by pushing on through Nemea I’d bought another 30 mins vs the cut offs despite walking so I was doing ok. But I had packed my long sleeve in the drop bag for mile 99 and pretty quickly I was shivering uncontrollably. I had to force myself to run at least 500m in every km despite the grade, to stay warm enough. I knew my race was unravelling right in front of me for such tiny things as a long sleeve and having gone a bit too fast (maybe less than 30 secs per mile) in both the heat of the previous day and between miles 60 and 70 with James. That really was it, the difference between finishing and not. Sure I could have been more rested, not run UTMB, focused more on the roads but I was in good shape and had looked after myself pretty well. The margins for error here are minute. As Richard Felton of @ukrunrambles said, I might be able to walk out a bad day, but not with those cut offs.

When I got to the base of the climb at mile 95 I couldn’t hold anything down any longer and began puking pretty hard on the road. I quickly emptied my stomach, ate a Jet Blackberry Gu and threw that straight back up. I tried to rally and run some but now there was no fuel I was struggling. The pitch increased and my pace dropped further and further. At the next 3 CPs over a distance of 7 kms I lost 55 minutes against the cuts as I staggered up the road at 25 minute mile pace. Eventually I had to stop and sit on the road just to try and get my stomach to settle but I was too cold. I got to the base of the mountain, mile 99 in 21 hours and 35 minutes. The cut off there was 22 hours 10 so I had plenty of time still in the bank but the climb ahead was long and I couldn’t go any further without holding something down. I took a baguette off of the table at the checkpoint and couldn’t swallow any of it. In the end I repeatedly puked bile in to the bucket there and got all my clothes on to try and make what I could of the trail climb up and over the mountain. It took my 25 minutes to feel like I could even stand up out of there, by now I knew I had just 10 minutes left and the guy at the CP had already warned my I needed to get going. I simply had to keep food down at that checkpoint otherwise I just wasn’t going to be able to move at a pace sufficient enough to stay warm and in front of the cuts.

I left the checkpoint and went up the trail. On the first switchback I puked and sat on a rock. I thought about what I’d done and what lay ahead. Whether the pace I could go was going to be enough to get me to the cut at the mountain top, down at the bottom and whether I could sustain 4mph to the finish 53 miles further down the road and through the heat of another day. This was a bad call because at that moment there was no chance. There is of course, always a chance you can turn things around – and that’s the crux of this whole race. The cuts don’t allow you that glimmer of hope. Trying to rally to climb the hill the CP below me closed and the final runners were visible to me. That was the proverbial nail in the coffin. Puking shivering and climbing chronically slowly the cut offs erased hope and chance. Instead of dropping up the top by missing the cut, I turned around and made the few hundred metres back to the CP.

The Death bus was already in situ and there in the front seat was Rich. He looked awful, and immediately got off once I had got on to empty his stomach on to the road. We waited for a good number of people to come in to the CP who had missed the cut climbing the hill and headed on a 2 hour drive to Sparta. We stopped regularly letting people off to be sick and for the driver to splash water on his face as he was falling asleep at the wheel. It was 6am.

So that was it. I wasn’t actually that disappointed, because I gave everything I had to the road and the race – and I wasn’t good enough.

Around 10 hours later James kissed Leonidas’ foot for the third time. An astounding performance perhaps for anyone other than James.

Here are the lessons I learned. I needed to commit 100% to this race. Yes we had a hot year which led to the lowest finishing rate ever 20% or 70 out of 305, but you can’t focus your efforts on other ultras/ 100s in the lead up to this event and running UTMB was a factor for sure. You need to be at the top of your game, fresh, rested and totally totally focused on finishing. Rich like me had raced too much and we paid. We were good enough to finish this thing with better prep, that hurts a little but guess what, there is always next year.

Finishing is everything. The best athletes in the world come here to finish, not to race. Mike Arnstein – Vermont 100 winner, 4th place Leadville, sub 14 hour 100 miler & Oz Pearlman, 5:30 50 miler and multiple ultra winner DNF’d last year and came back this year to finish and ran a 33 hour. It’s that hard. The winning time this year was 25:30. Lizzy Hawker, the world record holder for 24 hrs, broke the 30 year course record with a 27 hour run. Way to do it for the UK. The Brits might have disappointed on the whole but nobody can hold a candle to Lizzy.

9:30 for 50 miles or 22:10 for 100 miles in the heat are tight cuts. It’s there in plain English and it looks do-able, but any one of those efforts would be respectable on their own merit. This isn’t a flat race. There were 6000feet of climb in the 100 miles I ran of it. But there is still a mountain pass and another huge road climb after that point.

So how to sum this up. If you are looking for the ultimate foot race this is it. Sure it doesn’t travel around a beautiful alpine mountain pass, you can’t float along a bed of pine needles down a North Californian wilderness trail, you won’t see any deeply interesting cultural, religious sites or get mobbed by roads lined with 1000s of spectators. But you will find out just what a hard running race really is.

I am so happy I found this now not some point later down the line. If you have the chance to start this race then do it. It’ll change your outlook on this wonderful sport forever.

I will be back next year and if I am good enough to finish, it’ll be the my greatest running achievement by a country mile.

Finally, for all those interested, who ask the question and who can’t believe the answer. Is this harder than Badwater? Badwater doesn’t even come close.