16 Sep 13 by James Elson

A very long road to a very long road: Photos over the last 8 years.

Running the Spartathlon for the first time last year, ignited a passion for a race that I hadn’t felt in a while. It’s been a long road to get back to that long road, and one that’s finally coming to an end. The below reads like a Brief History of Time, really it is just designed to be a short story of my ultrarunning to date, and where the Spartathlon fits in to that. I'm not sure what brought this on, perhaps reaching 100 official marathon finishes according to club rules (of course) gives pause for relflection. More likely it's the thought of what's to come and looking back over things for some confidence boosting memories. Racing is only a fraction of the process of course. The days out on the hills where time/ distance were of least importance form undoubtedly my fondest running experiences to date, but racing has always been a very important part of the journey too.

When I first started running in 2005, it was in preparation for the MdS, for which I'd signed up with no prior experience with my old friend Jimmy Corrigan. One of the first ultrarunning books I read, around the time I donned my old mans tennis shoes and injured myself doing my first 15 minute jog, was Dean Karnazes’ ultramarathon man. Races like Western States, Leadville and Badwater instantly sprung on to the radar, but they seemed worlds away, dreams that would take many years of preparation to reach. Looking back, I knew I had an apprenticeship to serve, before I would be ready to attempt those kind of events. Whilst ‘training’ one day by watching running videos, we stumbled across a documentary on the Spartathlon, featuring a now friend of mine, Peter Leslie Foxall. Peter (who has 9 Sparta finishes to his credit) was filmed throughout the event and was completely fried by the finish, he had the lean going on in a big way. Jimmy and I turned to each other and basically said ‘what the hell are these guys thinking, this is beyond insane’. It didn’t appeal to me at all, in fact it looked completely freakish.

The MdS turned out to be appallingly hard for 2 complete novices with all the wrong kit and legs like matchsticks. Mistakes like packing only one water bottle, which was a small black adidas number and reachable only by reaching right around the side of the pack (or asking someone else to get it), were commonplace. But we finished. 

Mds, 2006. Sand Dunes. First Desert Finish. Photo: Jimmy Corrigan.

That was always supposed to be the end of it, but after 6 months of sitting on my ass, an entry went in to the first of the 4deserts series, the Gobi March and in June 2007 we crossed the finish line of our second multi day event.

Finish Gobi March 2007. Kashgar, far western China. Photo: RTP. 

We were lucky enough to meet a band of brothers in our tent mates on those events and I trained harder than ever over the next 8 months, racing regular 50 milers and throwing in a 3 day/ 400 mile cycling event around Puerto Rico, my first experience of riding in a peleton.

 

Vuelta Los Nos Faros, 2008. Getting dropped, again. 

Eventually I ran out 5th in the Atacama Crossing in 2008, that was my first inkling that I could perhaps compete instead of just complete.

Atacama, 2008. 2nd of the 4Deserts Series. 5th Overall. Photo: Pete Bocquet.

6 months later and I found myself on a boat to Antarctica with none other than Dean himself. He had a horrible race there and faced with shocking conditions, the final stage was pulled completely leaving me in 2nd place overall, a couple of spots ahead of him! I’ll never forget riding the zodiac back to our ship from the end of a 5hr stage one day, Dean turned around and asked me how many 100 milers I’d run. When I replied none, he looked incredulously at me and said ‘NONE!!! My god!!!’. That only helped re-inforce to me where I should go from here. 

Antarctica 2008. 2nd overall. Photo c/o Alex/ RTP. 

I went home and did the research. What 100s were out there and more importantly, how quickly could I bag two, which at the time was the minimum requirement for entry in to Badwater. (when I first looked at it in 2005, you were required only to have completed 1 x 100km race in order to apply, it’s now considerably more difficult to qualify). I picked two ‘easy 100s’, first at Rocky Raccoon in Feb 2009, just 2 months after Antarctica, and Old Dominion 100 which was a short drive away from a US friend of mine on the east coast. I finished Rocky in 22:54, and I knew all the way around that I was going to be more proud of that finish than anything that had come before. 100 miles in One Day. That was it for me, that was where it was at. Old Dominion rolled around in June and it was a different beast, humid and with a lot more climb (14,000ft vs 5,500ft at Rocky). The cut offs were tighter and I crumbled amongst the flies and humidity, finishing in 24:58. At the end of ’09 I ticked off the final 4deserts event in the Sahara under the shadow of the pyramids. I had a bad race, tired and under prepared, but still managed a top 10 finish in a bigger field.

In February 2010 I filed my entry application for Badwater. Riding the bus to work one day the email landed, I’d gotten in. Another London based runner James Adams got in too, and we started to plan for the event. Death Valley was out of this world. I’d prepared like never before and was truly in the shape of my life. On route to the event I ran my first sub 3 hour marathon and clocked up 19 marathon/ ultra finishes in 5 months, working solidly and consistently up to the main target. I even managed to win something for the first time, the Three Forts Marathon.

Washington National Marathon. 2:58. March 2010. Photo: Official Race Images. 

Death Valley was something else. This was it for me, the pinnacle, the hardest race on earth, how could anything compare with 130 degrees and 135 miles of road, uphill? Well, my luggage was lost on the way to the race, I was forced to buy all my supplies for the event in Wal Mart the day before and suffered horrendous chaffing and nausea. That definitely didn’t help, but I finished in 39 hours and change.

Death Valley 2010. Being sick at Stovepipe Wells mile 42. Finish 39:19. Photo: Frank Fumich.

 

Badwater 2010. Owens Valley, mile 115, with Frank Fumich. Photo: Luis Escobar. 

When I got back I was out of it for three months. That race took more out of me than any event I'd done before or since. It's the only time I've been on my feet for over 30 hours, although I've run over 20hrs, another 11 times. I ate almost nothing the last 50 miles. All my best laid plans went out of the window, including UTMB where I started before they abandoned the race on us (before I had a chance to abandon it myself!) at St Gervais, just 3 hours in to the event.

Later that year I felt in shape enough to run Caesars Camp 100, but suffered again with my old nemesis, the chaffing and crawled to a 27hr finish, just ahead of one Robbie Britton, just starting to find his feet in ultra land.

Caesars Camp 100 2010. Finish 27:11. Photo: Caesars Camp Endurance Runs. 

In 2011 I went for it guns blazing. I’d done what I’d already waited 3 years to do, gain a place on the Western States start list. I decided that I would continue spending all my available time and money, every penny, on continuing to run the international events I’d dreamed about. Without hesitation I entered the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning made recently famous by Ian Sharman/ Nick Clark, and threw in another Rocky Raccoon 100 to boot. I blew out at Rocky at mile 76 and suffered knee and shin problems, that little did I know, were the start of some serious issues. On returning home I was diagnosed with stress fractures in both tibia, I didn’t run again consistently all year.

Scan and Boot. My life for almost three months. March - May 2011. 

With a place at Western and with my travel booked I trained for 2 months on a stationary bike, running less than 30 miles total. When I got to Western, I didn’t even know if I could crest the first climb, let alone make it to Auburn, but with the help of a pacer I’d never met before reaching Forest Hill, I puked and dragged my ruined quads all the way to an agonising 28:25 finish on the track.

Western States 100, 2011. View up the first climb. Finish 28:25. 

3 weeks later and in no fit state to travel again to the US, let alone start another 100, I attempted to run Vermont, the second race in the slam. With massive muscle damage left over from Western, I slowed badly after an initial half decent start. At mile 51 I went badly off course and spent 45 minutes in the woods alone. I made it back on course but was dehydrated and eventually passed out cold on route to one of the aid stations. I then passed some urine the colour of charcoal. I pulled out at the next CP and flew home with the issues, which eventually subsided 4 days later. Of a handful of DNFs in my time, this one hurt (still hurts) much more than any other. 

The Slam was over, but Leadville was booked and paid for and strangely enough despite the medical issues, as most slammers will tell you, I felt much better after Vermont than I did Western. Leadville was a different world to the previous two. The race went as well as could be expected with a total of 200ish miles running the preceding three months, 157 of them in two goes and I finished in 26:29. On reflection that was probably one of my better performances, all things considered.

Leadville 100, 2011. Coming in to Twin Lakes outbound mile 42. Finish 26:29. Photo: Michael Hull.

 

Leadville 100, 2011. Mayqueen Mile 87. Not doing so good. It was FREEZING. 

I took most of the rest of 2011 off, and felt very glad that I’d been able to fulfil my dreams of finishing Western and Leadville despite all the odds.

So where was next on the journey? I dragged out the bucket list and there were really only one or two events on there, Hardrock being the number 1, but with a tight lottery and one I had (and still have) consistently failed to get through, I needed a more tangible target. James Adams had been on at me for years about the Spartathlon, and spending a lot of time in the house with two other Brits at Leadville, Drew Sheffield and Tim Adams, I felt compelled to run some events which I’d previously put off as too long or too short! An entry went in for Comrades, The West Highland Way Race, a second UTMB and…..Sparta.

Injury free in the lead up to Comrades, I had a slow to start to the year, and did myself a fair bit of dis-service in South Africa thanks to running the entire 103 miles of the SDW in one go with Neil Bryant, two weeks before. Nevertheless I teamed up with British based Terrence Zengerink and we worked and worked all day for our 7:56 finish, outside of the silver medal time but still a respectable first attempt.

Comrades 2012, with Terrence Zengerink. Finish: 7:56. Photo: Terrence Zengerink. 

Two weeks later again I toed the start line of the WHW race with Drew on hand to crew me through it. Literally 100 yards after the start on Milngavie high street, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Illness had plagued by post Comrades recovery period and I was weak going in to the WHW. At the first crew point in Drymen I told Drew it was going awful. In the end I limped in to Rowardennen, mile 27, where I puked, let loose my bowels and dropped out of the race. Not a great performance! I trained the rest of the summer hiking as much as I could in preparation for UTMB. When the race was washed out on me for a second time in as many attempts, I almost didn’t start the rescheduled 105km version, but eventually decided not to waste that time and effort and enjoy what was left of the race. Let’s just say it was incomparable to the TDMB route itself. A scant few hours before the ‘easy’ UTMB I decided to book my flights to Sparta. I’d been putting it off as I didn’t see how a summer of hiking and a very hard mountain 100 would prepare me in any way for 153 miles of road in 36 hours. I wasn’t actually even that bothered but now I needed something else on which to end the year after that dissapointment.

Sparta was a life changing event. I can’t really say more than that without going in to another 10,000 words on an already way too long blog post, so if you want to know why you can always refer back to my post on last years race here. Short story, it was the hardest thing I’d ever attempted, the only time in my ultra running career where a cut off had played a part in my race day and the only time I’ve dropped out at a race (about 99 miles in, in this case) where I knew instantly that the next job would be to go back and do it again. It was the only race I was interested in.

I took 3 weeks completely off of running on returning to the UK, and from that day to this, almost 11 months later, every step I’ve run has been about Sparta. In that 11 months I’ve packed in a lot. I’ve raced plenty, with 28 more events of marathon or ultra distance (plus Ironman) in the bag. And I’ve pushed myself harder than ever before. I’ve actually only ‘raced’ three times, events which were important to me as stepping stones but valid events in their own right. I went back to Rocky Raccoon for the 4th time and came away with a 10th place 17:32 trail 100 PB. I ran the London Marathon for the first time and set a PB of 2:52. And after years of putting it off, I finally got around to running the Grand Union Canal Race, covering the 145 miles in 29hrs10 for 1st place overall.

Rocky Raccoon 100, 2013. 100 mile PB, 17:32. 

Ironman New Zealand, 2013. Getting shoulder barged by a tank. Photo c/o: Ironman. 

 

GUCR FInish line. Birmingham to London on foot. 145 miles in 29:10. Photo: Eddie Elson.

So where does that leave me? I feel confident about Sparta. With 5 multi day desert races and Badwater behind me, I like to think I am ok with the heat. The distance and the cut off, the two biggest single factors, are within reach after running 145 miles in under 30hrs. The climb at the 100 mile point is something I know I’ll be good with after some much more mountainous events over the years. And my training, whilst missing whole weeks at times, has nevertheless been injury free and consistent on a month by month level. I’ve enjoyed some of the incredible trails we have here in the UK like never before. The SWCP, Southern Upland Way, Lake District and of course the South Downs Way have all featured at times and I’ve fallen back in love with a lot of those places. Moving house, our own Centurion Races, Food poisoning have all thrown themselves in to the mix, but no lead up to an event is flawless, life gets in the way. All in all I’m right there where I wanted to be.

Blencathra, the Lake District. Bob Graham Round Leg 1. 2013. Photo: Neil Bryant.

But…… This is the Spartathlon. This is beyond difficult, where the start list is full of people who make my running CV look incredibly short. The road takes no prisoners and it will without doubt be the single biggest achievement of my running life, to cross the finish line. In 12 days time, the Acropolis will light up with the sounds of 350 runners, literally sh*tting themselves all over the Greek roadside in preparation for 36 hours of hell. I hope I get to meet Leonidas in person this time….. 

Spartathlon 2012. Running in to Korinth mile 50 with Richard Webster. Photo: Gemma Greenwood.