Monday, 9 October 2017

Spartathlon 2017 - Something Just Like This / Comfortably Numb

Edit notes:
* this is a long read, you might want to get a cup of tea Mum.  And some tissues.
** some of my memories are hazy and could be completely made up
*** hopefully i'm very unlikely to offend anybody.  If I do I apologise unreservedly.   I'm equally sorry for missing out mentions of anyone, this thing is turning into War and Peace!

Been reading books of old, the legends and the myths
After DNF'ing last year, I wanted personal salvation in this race. And, if i'm honest, I wanted it really  badly. I tried to hide it from everyone, but last year had hurt, a lot. It still wasn't perfect by any means but this year's preparation had been stronger, including specific downhill training, many more long training runs of 40 to 60 miles and two long ultras in July, one of which went pretty badly in the Belfast 24 hour Worlds, and one which went a lot better on the Kennet and Avon Canal.  Despite the usual worrying niggles during taper, I felt pretty strong physically. All year i'd been trying to train my brain to not quit when things got tough. It hadn't worked at all in Belfast, but in general mentally I felt stronger too. I really believed I could finish, but I knew I still needed to burn some anti-quit thoughts into my brain. I'd recently read Dean Karnazes "Road to Sparta" and been inspired once again by the story of Pheidippides, the hemerodrome who ran from Athens to Sparta to request Spartan help against the invading Persian army:  "Honour The Messenger".   This year was the 35th anniversary of the race and last year the race founder John Foden sadly passed away.   In 1982 John and 3 of his RAF colleagues successfully re-created Pheidippides' run, with no aid stations and barely navigable maps.  Truly the men are legends.  A few days before the race there was an online post of the most wonderful interview from last year with John which showed just the kind of man he was.  Just a pure steel core wrapped in the most wonderful voice and character.  This year our British team kit was in-memoriam to John and included his famous "I shan't wish you luck...." quote.   "Honour the Airmen"   Last year, the day after the race, I sat and stared at the statue of Leonidas in Sparti.  Probably cried my eyes out.  Of course I wouldn't go near it for a photograph.   Back then, I swore to myself that I would be back having earned the right to touch it.   "Is there a bronze foot to kiss yet? No? Keep running then".

Come and Take Them

Achilles and his gold, Hercules and his gifts

No pressure then, no pressure at all.  Just to pile it a bit more, this year i'd be running in a team with my three best running buds David, James and Jamie.  David is a 2:51 marathon runner, an irrepressible force of nature who'd run 130+ miles in Belfast in the summer and been banging out 100 mile training weeks all summer.  David, aka Achilles (my branding, not his), had sworn to be by my side for this race, I think the DNF last year had hurt him too.   Thank you my friend, you were truly magnificent.  James is just the hardest, most stubborn runner in the world.  He has two previous Spartathlon finishes in 2015 and 2016 and this year was going for the magic hat-trick.  Ultra running in general and Spartathlon in particular has transformed James over the past few years, and he is a very different runner from when we first ran together on the BB2LL challenge.  James I am so proud of you my friend, thank you for everything.   Jamie, aka Jamie Duracell, is a man I am very proud to call a friend.  His sense of humor and banter is second to none and he keeps us all going with a well timed word or joke. He also has a terrifying ability to run long distances (Spartathlon finisher in 2015) and never seem to slow down.  In fact just about the only thing that annoys Jamie is running a mile split that doesn't start with a 6, 7, 8 or 9.  Sorry for all those times we went over 10m/mile Jamie!  (And clearly I don't see myself upon that list)

British Team rocking the Acropolis, L-R Kirsty, Nath, Rich, me, Achilles, James, Duracell, Ali 

Just someone I can turn to, somebody I can kiss
This year we were supported by our brilliant crew of Brother Jeff, Gaby Ellis-Bone, Mum Linda, Sister Jane, Laura Ellis, Nikki Robbins Who She, Eric Lumley, Chevs Holmes, Tim Maynard, Alex Maynard, Sister Kate, Pats and Al, Audrey and Maria back in Athens; Rosie, Sam and Luke back home in Highbury, big Garry and big Andy Joyce crewing from afar in Copenhagen and London.  Everyone on Twitter and WhatsApp giving us messages of support. Thanks so much everyone, you were all ace.    We had done the training, we had all the support, all the gear and some idea.  Now we just needed to get the job done.

Best crew in the world. L-R: Jeff, Chevs, Tim, Laura, Nikki, Gabs, Eric

So where'd you wanna go, how much you wanna risk?
James gets the four of us in a huddle and says a few words.  We're all fairly pumped up for this, and keen to get going.  Our crew and supporters give us a final hug and word of encouragement and head off down the hill to find a view point.  Now, it's just us runners.  Show time.

C'mon lads, let's get this done
Before we know it we're off and down the hill into Athens.   It's impossible to run all together at this early stage but that's all cool.   We know things will string out in a few miles and we can get our pacing going.   James and Jamie are a bit ahead, David is behind.   I love this early part of the race, chatting to other runners, trying to find a nice groove.  I spend time chatting with Paul Katsiva-Corderoy, Jay MacDonald and Paul Beechey from the British Team.  Paul K is back for a second time after a painful drop in 2015.  First time for Jay, he is a strong runner and I have no doubts he will do well.  Beechey is a monster of a runner, winner of two Canal Races this year and a 33:xx Spartathlon last year, he is back to see how much of a PB he can hit.   Our good friend Nathan Flear is already miles up the road, he has been training like a beast and it's going to be fascinating to see how well he can do.  I've been helping him with some pacing spreadsheets and really hoping I haven't told him anything that might mess up his race.  In fact, pretty much all the rest of the 26 strong British Team are ahead of us, it's a really strong team this year.

Atmosphere?  Tension?  History?  Nope, move along, nothing to see here.
David and I get together pretty early on, the beginning of a partnership that would see us be within a couple of hundred yards of each other for the better part of 153 miles.  #boom indeed my friend.   We meet up with James and Jamie, but there is a fair bit of drifting back and forth as loo stops and just mildly different paces cause some gaps.  At CP4 we take a reload of nutrition.  This year i'm mostly using Skratch Labs drinks and SiS Gels, with some Chia Charge flapjacks thrown in. At crew checkpoints we have told the crew to force us to sit down and eat some mouthfuls of solid food.  Getting behind on calories was one of the reasons for my DNF last year, so i'm determined to take care of this better.

In this section I also chat with Susann Lorinder-Petersen from Sweden, making her Spartathlon debut.   Susann experienced bad nausea from quite early on in the race and ultimately timed out near the Mountain, but not without putting up a massive fight and even refusing to give the officials her numbers not wanting to stop.  A truly gutsy performance and i'm sure Susann will be back for revenge.     We passed an American and asked if he was ok, he said oh all good and i'm just doing a run/walk.  I thought he looked like he was struggling and we cracked on..... what little I knew!!

Up to Megara and it's probably the easiest marathon i've ever run....feeling great although the first signs of fatigue are starting to arrive.  We reach the marathon mark in 4:10, a few minutes better than last year and just where we want to be.  It's even a little fast if i'm honest but i'm relaxed about that as the temperature is very benign this year, meaning we can run a little faster without risking over-heating.  Into the first crew checkpoint and our team are bang on the money.  Everything is ready and I make sure to pause for a few minutes to eat and collect my thoughts.  Rice pudding and bananas go down a treat as does soda and lime.  I messed up here, as I thought David was being fed by Gaby I gave away some food to a young lad who was at the side of the road, rubbing his tummy and telling us in Greek he was hungry.   Turns out David was in the loo dreaming of his rice pudding, ....sorry David! 

Hungry lad
Seeing this young boy brought home to me just how ridiculously privileged we are to be doing this race.  We worry about not having the right gels or shoes or something, and there are kids wandering around without enough to eat.  Honestly I felt ashamed.  The smile on his face made me feel a bit better.

Onwards we go towards Hellas Can CP22 and the first major checkpoint just shy of 50 miles.  This section is hillier and we power hike up the hills and keep our running going on the flats and downhills. By now we're pretty much solidly together as a four, occasionally drifting into our unplanned but beautifully dovetailing pairs of James/Jamie and David and I.   In fact David and I have now become three, because the run/walk American has joined us and he is doing great.  Dennis Gamroth is from Oregon in the north west of the US and is making his Sparta debut, actually his first trip to Europe.   Dennis knows the US ultra scene really well and has done many of the classic ultras over there, something that i've always been interested in.   Dennis only paced Pam Smith to her Western States win a few years ago, holy sh*t this is amazing, I am loving this chat..... Pam is ultra-running royalty and someone I really admire.  Also Dennis knows Bob Hearn, who we all respect tremendously, so there is lots to chat about.     As Dennis and David are making their Sparta debuts, I try to contribute by giving them a bit of course knowledge. Except I keep getting it wrong, my recollections of the course from last year prove to be all over the show.  I did this for a long time, maybe I learnt to shut-up about it somewhere around mile 120.... sorry guys!  Anyway, the chat keeps us going, and pretty soon we are up and over the hill at Corinth and down onto the canal, crossing the stunning footbridge and pausing for a few moments to take in the view.

Somewhere between Megara and Corinth we had passed Kirsty Williams and asked how she was.  Just a thumbs up came the answer, but no words at all.  I was worried but we had no choice but to crack on.  Kirsty would subsequently time out before Corinth.  I'm sorry we couldn't help Kirsty, I hope you enjoyed Greece and will come back for another go.

Up to CP22 Hellas Can and everything is still nicely on-track.  We arrive here in 8:37 and 53 minutes up on cut-offs, I think around 10 or 15 minutes faster than last year.  But with less effort because of the lack of heat.  Not that i'm complaining about that!   In fact with the benign weather a new thought has formed: "you're never going to get a better chance than this laddie".   Again we are well fed and watered, this time I even treat myself to a 10 minute sit down in a deck chair whilst munching through a large bowl of salty rice and vegetables.  It's delicious and i'm pleased that my stomach is behaving itself despite the torrent of sports drinks and gels etc it's been receiving.  Can also tell that Jeff is happy with how i'm eating, he is not giving me any hassle at all which means we are all good.  I could have sat there for a while to be honest, but David and the crew give us a bit of a nudge and we collect ourselves to get going again.

The next section up to Ancient Corinth, to Assos at 100k and then on to Halkion at 113k is to my mind one of the most important of the race.  Most of it is very runnable, and the cutoffs ease a bit, so you've really got to make the most of it, run as much as you can at a sensible pace and try to gain some time.   This worked well for us, and the buffer kept on rising, although to be honest I wasn't keeping tabs too closely on it.   The checkpoint signs have a lot of information on them, and I learnt to my cost last year that spending too long looking at them and trying to extrapolate paces and finishing times etc will not help you one iota. In fact it will just fry your brain way more than it is already.   This time I pretty much ignored the checkpoint signs, preferring instead to rely on crew to tell us if we were getting into any danger.  Every third or fourth checkpoint I would look at the sign but only at one bit of information - the closing time of that checkpoint.  From there I could very quickly work out we were 1.5 hours up, 1.75 hours up, or whatever it was.  One time I mistook the closing time of the next checkpoint as the closing time of the current one, and thought our buffer was much higher than it actually was.  See, don't look at them ok, they will just mess you up.

Fairly soon out of Corinth we passed Rich Pomeroy, and he looked proper wasted.   His pupils had shrunk to pinpoints and he seemed dazed.  Again we ask "all ok?", this time there is recognition and a few words, and Rich mentions in his race report that he recalls us passing at this point, so maybe it wasn't as bad as it looked to me. Again I am worried, but there is little we can do and we have to crack on.  Rich would recover from that low and go on to gut out a finish in 35:36, a truly brave performance from where he was at that point. Hats off buddy, it was great to meet you out there.

Into Ancient Corinth and I am boosted by support from my Mum and Jane.  They've been following the race and will continue on to Zevgolatio before doubling back to stay the night in Ancient Corinth, re-joining the race on the second day. They've been making some pasta with chicken and I happily pour a tonne of salt on it and munch away, pleased at progress and looking forward to a bit of a stomp on the hills to come.

But, before the hills, there's a lot more running still to do than I remember.  We go through 100k in 11:08, and my recollection from last year is that this is where the stomping uphills started.  But in fact a lot of it is runnable almost all the way to Halkion village, so that's what we do.   David, Dennis and I are still together, with James and Jamie not too far back.  James is suffering with some nausea and stomach upset... discussing it with David we thought about hanging back a little but quickly came to the correct conclusion that a) he is a hard bugger and will not back down b) he was with Jamie who was the right man to look after him c) we had to capitalise on feeling ok as it could be either of us having a big low later on.   And so we continued, on into Halkion village where we picked up the first set of nightclothes and put on the headtorches. 

Coffee stop with Jeff at Halkion
Now we get into some proper stomping, continuing on our way to the halfway point at Ancient Nemea, kilometre 123.  I'd written in our race plan that to get here in 14 hours would be absolutely "wunderbar", and we make it in 14:23, over 1.5 hours ahead of cutoffs.   I'm really happy, but things are getting tough with fatigue setting in and the knowledge of a long, long night ahead.   Also the section after Nemea was the first one where I really struggled last year, and I am a touch apprehensive that the same thing is going to happen again.  Jeff reminds me what I have written in the race plan and tells me "come on, you know what this bit means, let's get this done". 

After Nemea you go off road for a bit onto a dusty, stony track.  It is mostly uphill, seems to go on forever, it was very much a case of head down and plough on to get it over and done with.   Before too long we were back on the road and starting on the downhill to Malandreni, which is where i'd really struggled last year. But, this time it goes really well, running all the way down and feeling pretty good about it, no pain in the quads at all.  My feet were getting a bit slammed and could probably feel a few blisters forming, but little did I care.   I was just so pleased to get down that damn hill and into the safety of the checkpoint with the buffer still well intact and possibly increased.  Somewhere around here we overtake Laurence Chownsmith, being crewed by his good friend Martin Illott, a man who has finished Spartathlon six times.  Laurence is on his fourth atttempt and determined to finish after three previous DNFs, and seems in good spirits as we leapfrog for a while.  Laurence would team up with Rich later and go on to finish, a fantastic result.

Get down that damn hill!
From Malandreni we plunge further downhill and there are a few fairly runnable bits and pieces before we eventually start the long slog up to the Mountain Base CP47.  We're still running, although it is now heading a bit more towards "doing the ultra shuffle" and I notice my stride length is beginning to shorten.  Still, nothing wrong with a good old shuffle, so that's what we do.

Right then, now it's mountain switchback time, and there really isn't a lot to report here.  We just ground our way up the switchbacks in a group of 6, as Dennis had brought another American runner J-Bob into our group.  I think I was fairly quiet at this stage and happy to draw energy from the chat and banter of the others.  The road up to Mountain Base dragged on for a lot longer than I remember, it just seemed to go on, and on, and on.  But, eventually, we get there.  I'd mentally marked getting to Mountain Base in 20 hours as "deliriously happy", so arriving there in 20:16 elapsed and with 1:54 on cutoffs I was very happy inside.

Taking nothing for granted though, there is still a very long way to go.  Jeff does a sterling job of getting me changed into dry clothes and we get some food down.  Jeff and I are dovetailing nicely, I make sure I listen to him about clothing changes and he is just all over it with everything.  Not sure if I was maybe a bit "in the zone" at MB and probably a bit directional and not chatty, sorry mate if I was.  In any case, there is no need for a repeat of last year's worried exhortations from Jeff.  We have plenty of time and more than anything we just need to make sure we don't do anything silly.  He calmly gets me on my feet, makes sure the mountain rescue guy at the base on the trail has clocked in my number, and sends me on my way with "I'll see you in Nestani"......

..... onto the mountain trail and the weather is by now pretty wild.  We are, essentially, in a cloud. It's not really rain so much as like being in a very fine mist, which soaks you pretty much instantly.  I'm plenty warm enough though, and I have on a jacket that's holding up pretty well, so i'm all good.   It's hard enough going up, but I know from last year that this thing sounds worse than it really is.  I'm on my own here, with Achilles floating up ahead and James and Duracell a bit behind.  Not too sure what has happened to Dennis and J-Bob.   Some other runners around me are groaning quite a bit going up here, there are some fairly strange noises I have to say.   I catch up to a Japanese runner, and he is virtually crawling on all fours, but won't move to let me past.  FFS man, move!!  Eventually I get round him and pop out at the top CP48.  No idea how long the climb took but it can't have been longer than 25 or 30 minutes.  Achilles is hanging casually in the tent at the top eating a biscuit, looking like he is out on a hike with his kids.  The wind is howling, and now the rain is really pissing it down.  We look at a runner sparked out in a chair, wrapped in blankets, we look at each other: "let's get the f*** out of Dodge......."

Down we go, onto the wider but still awkward trail. Again I am worried as I really struggled here last year but again it is better, some of it I can actually trot.  Still no quad pain!  Oh joy of joys.   Near the bottom James and Jamie catch us up, and we nurdle together into Sangas village and make a break for Nestani CP52 and the next major crewing point.  At some point here old Duracell turns on the afterburners and leaves us choking dust, gaining about 16 minutes on us in around 4 miles.  Told you he gets pissed off with +10 minute miles!  The remaining three get into Nestani in 22:33 elapsed and by now almost a 2 hour buffer on cut-offs.  Duracell is casually having a massage and looking like he's ready for a sub 30.  Happy days indeed, we all just qualified for Spartathlon for the next couple of years :) :) :)

On the downside, as we were leaving Nestani, Dennis came in and was looking like he was really struggling.  Again, worried, but nothing that could be done.  He lay down for a sleep and I didn't think we'd see him again.... should've known better!!

There is no pain, you are receding. A distant ship smoke on the horizon 
Ok, time for the next crunch section, across the plains of Tegea to CP60 Alea-Tegea where we will join the highway down to Sparta. Last year I struggled across here on my own, was very unfocused with way too much walking.  Again I am worried, and for sure it is tough, but with my trusty mates by my side and the ability still to shuffle it is way easier.   We basically just work our way through it by taking turns picking a target to run to, running as best we can, stomping for a bit, then someone picks another target.   I can't really be bothered to look at my watch too much, and just focus on the next little milestone.  It does feel at times as though the world is closing in on me though.... sometimes the sleep monsters appear, and I find myself almost asleep whilst running.  There's not much else to say apart from we stuck together religiously here, and we got to CP60 a full 1hr 20mins better off than I was last year.  Wow wow wow.  Starting to dream of actually finishing this thing.   Still not counting my chickens.

Day 2, still shuffling.  "Pick a target"
Out of CP60 and we start seeing some signs to Sparta and fairly soon we get out on to the highway.  The next major target for me is CP63, at the top of the "second mountain".    This is a long old climb over maybe 3 or 4 miles and it takes you back pretty much to the same elevation as CP48 mountain top.  This is where I had busted out last year a broken, gibbering wreck.   This time, no such problems, still marching hard up the hill and reached CP63 without too much trouble.   I'd expected some kind of emotional kick reaching here, but the reality was very different.  Last year this was a fairly lonely little checkpoint with no crew support allowed, this year they had changed the rules - crew was allowed and the checkpoint was thus bigger and a lot busier.   I'd envisioned a cosy little chat with the checkpoint captain from last year, who was so kind to me.  He wasn't there though, although I had seen him earlier in the race which was nice.   I sat down for a bit and ate something, contemplating the long road ahead.  I think Jeff was more pleased than me to see me depart this point.  Around here we had passed Cameron Humphries, the youngest member of the British Team.  Cam was clearly struggling and seemed close to dropping.  I subsequently heard that Jeff was able to help pull him out of this low at CP63, drawing on what we had experienced together last year.   Cam was able to continue on to finish, a fantastic performance and one that i'm very proud Jeff was able to be a part of.

CP63, no emotions, just logistics
Now just a marathon to go.  In context of the overall race it should feel like touching distance, and from a distance point of view it is.  But because you're so much slower, when you start thinking about the amount of time you have left it gets a bit much.  "WTF, i've still got 7 hours out here??!  You have got to be kidding me, this is just too cruel.....".     Yep, welcome to Spartathlon sucker.  Well, there is nothing else to do but get this job done.   Come too far to let this thing slip now.   But now the world is really closing in, and everything really hurts.  My energy is collapsing, and food is losing appeal rapidly.   Sometimes I sucked on a gel and had to spit it out because I felt like everything was going to come back up.  I was spraying water in my face desperately trying to stay awake. Slapping myself, trying anything.   Through it all, Achilles by my side hurting the same, James and Jamie by now easing on ahead, James having to capitalise on feeling better, because he was worried another real bad patch was coming for him.   Just one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other.  You CAN do this.  Honour the messenger, honour the airmen, you can't see the foot yet.  Get it done.

And so, we did.  It wasn't pretty and it wasn't fast, but step by precious step we made progress down the long descent into Sparta.  I'll tell you what, it is a long old road that highway, and not much fun with traffic whizzing past.  We saw a Japanese runner with a terrible "lean" veering into the middle of the road.  Dennis (yes, Dennis had caught us again!) tried to get him back onto the hard shoulder but he was a lost cause and I think he dropped.  Just goes to show that you can't take anything for granted in this race.  By this stage we were losing minutes here and there on cutoffs, but I was beyond caring.  I reckon the lads could have run sub 34 easy, maybe even sub 33, but all I could bring myself to care about was the finish.  Sorry lads!  By the time we reached Voutiani gas station CP72, just 10kms to go, I finally allowed myself to think we'd made it.   Just before here, David started waving, saying he saw the crew at the gas station round the corner.

Still smiling, still a God
Honestly I must have asked him 3 times where it was, and he pointed and waved, but I just couldn't see it.  Must have been really wasted.  Jeff and Gaby and the crew are really happy here, they know we've made it too and that all their hard work has paid off.  Jamie has waited for us here whilst James has cracked on down to CP74.   We spend a few minutes taking on some final fuel and drinks, and are able to shed some of the gels etc out of our waistbelts.  No more need for those.  Out of the gas station and all we had to do was keep on trucking down the hill to meet James at CP74.  He'd been parked there for about 20 minutes, casually chatting to some of the local kids (James speaks fluent Greek) who were waiting to escort us through Sparta on their bikes.   The four of us embrace and I have a good sob, it's been quite some journey and we are about to achieve our dream.  Probably Duracell tells me to stop being a sap.

Oh I Want Something Just Like This
And so here we are, the moment we'd all been focused on for so long.   There's no running through Sparta, we're all content to hobble behind the kids and soak up as much of it as we can.  Sure enough, the town cheers us in, pretty much everyone we see, up on balconies, in the street, give us a clap and shouts of "Bravo".  I can't help thinking it's a little quiet though.... i'd imagined thronged streets of sobbing locals welcoming their heroes?  We round a corner and I smell incense, then hear some chanting.....   aaaahhh, just our luck, everyone is in church!!  How far?  How far?  Still 1km.... but Leonidas is over there right?  Yes, but we're going round in some massive U shape.  No matter, before too long we are at the bottom of the finishing straight.  Just 500 metres away is Leonidas, although we can't see him yet.   James says c'mon lads, one more run.  We get a trot on and James and Jamie in front unfurl their flags.  I keep my Scotland flag wrapped round me as it feels like it is holding what's left of me together.   We are joined by an absolute gaggle of little kids, some on bikes and some running.  I could swear that one of them is going to hurt themselves as they dash in and out, but they are like little elves and come to no harm.  The first 300 metres or so is all locals, still cheering, but fairly relaxed.  But up at the end we can hear what sounds like a football crowd, it is our families, crew and supporters together with most of the British Team and their support.

Honestly, i'm just behind
We reach them, and now we can see him, that legendary King.  We soak it up as much as we can, it's really wonderful.   I would have stayed there 20 minutes just hugging everyone to be honest, but the lure of that statue is just too strong.  Kostis is on the microphone hailing us "This is a real team", and slowly we climb the steps up to Leonidas.  Just as we'd huddled at Acropolis, we huddle here and kiss the foot together.   It feels very special.  Come and Take Them.

It is a surreal moment, very hard to take in.  A moment I had dreamed about for years, a moment I wish could have lasted a lot longer, but fair enough there are other runners coming in and they need their moment too.  The organisers at the finish are pros, they've done this so many times before.  We are given the famous drink of water from the Evrotas river in a wooden cup and olive wreaths are placed on our heads.  I still had the wherewithal to think how big that would make my bald patch look.   I'm still gazing up at Leonidas and sort of stroking and patting the plinth, but we are turned round for a quick photo, and then it's time to move off to allow the next runner their glorious moment.   Spartathlon 2017, finished in 34:56.

Arriving at the magical place.  Photo Credit: Sparta Photography Club

This is a real team!

Can't stop hugging. Check the baldness, need to sort that out.

Watching the finish back home in Highbury - this one is for you R, S, L xxx

Ok, ok, it's just a little pinprick, there'll be no more aaaaaaaaahhhhhh
I'd planned on sitting down and enjoying a cold beer with my family and all the Brits, but it's mandatory to visit the medical centre and be checked over.   As i'd done some pre-race tests as part of a study back in Athens, they wanted a bit more time with me, and unfortunately once I lay down the world kind of collapsed on me.  Low blood pressure and dehydration the doctor reckoned.  Doctor Dora was looking after us Brits, and she was just amazing.   It was obviously worrying for my family but I think we all knew I just had to lie there for a while and let the doctors do what they needed to do.   They did their tests - heart etc all normal, they just had to deal with the blood pressure and dehydration.  They hooked me up to some drips, sorted my feet out and bandaged a knee.   2 hours later I woke up, it was dark and, erm, everyone apart from my family had gone.   Sorry Mum, Jeff and Jane!!

I have become, comfortably numb
I'd better try to wrap this up.  Have you finished that cup of tea yet Mum?

I felt amazing after the drip, and was on cloud nine for about the next week.   This year was a great finish rate at Spartathlon, really helped by the benign weather, and a fantastic one for the British team getting a record percentage across the line.   Congratulations to all finishers and commiserations to those who didn't make it.  Trust me I know how it feels.  Please come back and try again.

Well done to Nathan for winning the Michael Callaghan trophy for first Brit and special mention to Sir Ian Thomas for grinding out his 3rd consecutive Spartathlon finish after months of injury.  Ian still managed to run 33:32: you, Sir, are a marvel.  Also well done to big Paul Beechey for continuing his amazing progress in the world of ultra running.  Can you just get back to triathlons now mate please?  Congrats to Dennis for a storming run, it was great to share the road with you buddy.

One week on and life is slowly getting back to normal.  My sleep pattern is completely messed up, and my left leg is going to take a while to heal. Apparently a tight ITB band was pulling the patella out of line and caused a fair bit of knee and calf muscle damage.   I couldn't care less to be honest.  As usual, Rosie is way more in tune with my feelings than I am.  I honestly think i'd have been spending the next few months on the psychiatrist's couch if we hadn't got this one done, as I had had no idea how big a deal it had become to me to get this race finished.  Now that it's done, it's time to turn my eyes elsewhere, at least for a while.  This dream was a good one to follow, the best really, but I do feel like I skipped a stage or two in my ultra-running "education" along the way to try to get there.  I've never really learnt how to race 100 miles, and i'm going back to that for a while to gain more experience.

Part of me will forever remain on that road to Sparta though, and at that statue, with Achilles, James and Duracell and all our crews and families.  I wish Rosie and the kids could have been there.  No one could ask for better.  Guys, it's been emotional.


Every ultramarathon needs a tune or two.... I always have music on a loop in my head, can't help it. This year it was Something Just Like This by The Chainsmokers and Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd.   I made a cheesy photo video.  I'm not suggesting for a minute that we're superheroes.  Good night xx

Friday, 6 October 2017

Garmin and Strava Sparta craziness

Just recording this in case Garmin and/or Strava might want to have a test.

  • Watch (Forerunner 630) started 0700 Greece time on 29th September
  • GPS in Ultratrac mode
  • Spartathlon course run in 34:56 but watch not stopped until 23 mins after finish (~18:19 Greece time on 30th September)
  • Watch was charged using a mobile USB charger at around 20 hours.  Definitely not turned off or stopped/paused during the race.    Finished with good battery life.

Garmin Ultratrac goes long by around 26kms (understandable due to the sampling but worth noting):

On upload to Strava, I get a course record time of 16hrs 18mins:

Trying to edit the run to correct things.   The time and distance are actually uneditable:

But, pressing "Save" seems to smooth things out a bit, the elapsed time and the splits get closer to what I would expect.  Seems like the "Moving Time" is determined to stick at 16hrs 18mins though.

I have the Garmin ".FIT" file and a GPX generated by Strava if you're interested Garmin/Strava... seems to be no way to attach them here.


Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Spartathlon Preview: The Rollercoaster

Yep, it’s another Spartathlon blog.  Really sorry, I know all of the 3 people who read this blog are sick of me banging on about Spartathlon.    If you already know all about the race and my attempt last year, feel free to close your browser now, or hopefully skip to the end bit where I ask for your help. 

Spartathlon is a long distance foot race in Greece based on a legend of a messenger being sent from Athens to Sparti.  It’s 153 miles long and must be completed in a maximum of 36 hours.  It is a brutal beast of a race, due to the combination of hot temperatures, hills, and a strict set of 75 time “cutoffs”. The winner typically takes around 24 hours but the vast majority of finishers are much closer to the cutoffs.  It’s not the longest race in the world and doesn’t claim to be the toughest, but just completing it (never mind competing to win it) is considered a major achievement in the world of ultra-marathon running.  Typically, less than 50% of the runners who stand on the start line at the Acropolis will make it to the finish line at the foot of the statue of King Leonidas in Sparti.   

I’ve been dreaming about / planning / training for / having nightmares about this race for the better part of 5 years.  The long distance running caper started back in 2006 with a drunken pub bet that Jamie Holmes and I took up with a South African mate (@Jo_Fo, you’ve got a lot to answer for dude! J).  The bet was related to running the Comrades marathon, a double marathon and a bit from Durban to Pietermaritzburg which we all enjoyed immensely.  That ignited the search for other long distance challenges and we were soon joined by James Ellis and David Bone for many events and training runs.  We formed a great group, somehow puncturing (inflating?) the lows that long-distance running inevitably brings with the best possible antidote of completely mindless banter.  I think we first heard about Spartathlon in 2011 or 2012 when we were attempting, nay doing, a run from Brighton to London (Chevs, just think, if you hadn’t been reading that newspaper on that day then none of this would ever have happened J), and then spent the next couple of years trying to qualify.  We all entered for the 2015 event, but Dave and I missed out in the ballot whilst James and Jamie were both successful.  With us as crew alongside James’ brother-in-law Andy, running together, both James and Jamie finished that incarnation of the race, showing incredible grit in the face of many forms of adversity to finish 20 minutes inside the cutoff.  We all learnt a lot from that experience.  I think our shared passion for this race was well and truly cemented on that epic, epic weekend of no sleep, a lot of running, a soupcon of cursing about brands of head torch batteries (naming no names), and a 3rd night of no sleep blamed on Eric and Audrey and the espresso bean martinis (sorry, lost myself for a minute there).  Last year James and I toed the start line with Jamie crewing together with crewmates Laura, Rosie, Jeff and Garry (David was away raving somewhere) and James went on to make his 2nd consecutive finish in a time around 40 minutes better than the previous year.  My race ended some 25 miles short of “the foot”, taken out by a combination of heat, hills, physical breakdown, mental breakdown, panic, and perhaps most of all an underlying sense that I just wasn’t “worthy” enough.  I learnt a lot from that experience too, or at least I think I did.  I’m soon going to find out.   

So anyway, this year, incredibly, all 4 of us got in…. we reckoned the odds of that happening were less than 1 in 50, and we are all delighted to get a chance to run together and have completely mindless banter take us, together, all the way from the Acropolis to King Leonidas. 
Many say this can’t be done, that the difficulty of trying to sync 4 runners is just too much, that there are too many variables – pacing, nutrition, low points, high points, sickness, weather, kit, losing each other in the dark, perhaps a complete dearth of mindless banter? (not gonna happen).     If it happens by accident then fine, but actually trying to plan it out and do it…. Impossible!   Well we are going to attempt the impossible and by hook, crook, or by begging the nature God Pan, we are going to work our way steadily out of Athens, fly along the blazingly hot coastal road to Corinth,  turn on the burners up to the halfway point, inch our way to the Sagas Pass at mile 100, and then enjoy the most epic of suffer-fests across the plains of Tegea and down into Sparti.  In order to achieve the impossible, we could really do with your help.  All 3 of you, dear readers, can do this in many ways:
  •       Tune in to the race on the 29th and 30th September and send us some messages of support.  We’ll be carrying trackers that you’ll be able to find on  Follow my brother @jeffstrax on Twitter – there’ll be some updates and pictures if Jeff gets a chance in between his manic crewing duties.  Send us some messages through there, it really does help us massively to get little bits of words of encouragement from home, even if it is just the two tweets spread across 36 hours.

  •        Help us spread the word of this endeavour by mentioning it to anyone you think might be interested in hearing about it.  This is not to raise any kind of interest in us as a group but purely to raise awareness of this great event to a wider audience.  There is so much about the event that is fascinating including the ancient historical details and the fact that the modern race was pretty much invented by a group of British athletes funded by the Royal Air Force, led by John Foden.  John died recently and this year the British Team will be running "in memoriam" to John and inspired (or intimidated) by his famous expression "I shan't wish you luck because if you have trained properly you won't need luck, and if you haven't trained properly luck won't help you."  Gulp.

  •          Help us raise funds for our chosen charity, Hemihelp.    We’ve been privileged over the years to raise money for this great charity which helps children born with Hemiplegia, a brain condition which occurs at birth where one side of the brain is damaged.  Jamie’s eldest daughter Holly has this rare condition and she has inspired us many times with her infectious enthusiasm and motto “never give up”.   Like many charities at the moment Hemihelp are really struggling for funding and are relying heavily on volunteers and donations. So like Holly we are not going to give up in trying to help them and would really appreciate any support of whatever size.   Please be assured that absolutely all donations go direct to the charity and nothing will be used for our race costs.    You can find out more about Hemihelp here and if you wish to make a donation our page is here

Thanks so much for reading and for your support.  One more blog about how it all went and I promise you that’ll be it for Spartathlon, for a while anyway J

Pre Sparta days, oh dear how naive we were, and what on earth is that shorts and legging combo i'm wearing.  James still ribs me for saying "beyond the marathon distance it's all mind over matter anyway"

2015 Jamie Holmes 03
Jamie and Zeus qualifying for Spartathlon. I'm sure your quads don't look as big as that now lads?!
Our fantastic 2016 crew team and runners (L-R: Jeff,  Rosie, Darren, James, Laura, Jamie, Garry)
Success for the lads, a lesson for me.  National 100k champs.

Getting everyone across the Sparta qualifying line, Sussex 24 hour

Jamie and James' glorious 2015 finish.  

2016 start line at the Acropolis

High five kids, still felt good at this bit, only 10 miles in though!

Friday, 7 July 2017

24 Hour World Champs review

So, um, that didn't go to plan.  At least, not for me it didn't.  The wonder that is David Bone covered an amazing 130 miles, and James managed around 104.  I only reached 89 miles, i'll bore you with the ugly detail in a sec.  To start things off on a positive note though, here is David's press photo from the weekend (page 2 of the Irish Times).  This is after 23 hours of running:

The man is a god. Disco Specs Power

Hats off to you David you lovely lovely man.

So what went wrong for me?    I'd prepared well, i'd tapered well, i'd eaten really well, made sure I was really well hydrated.   I thought I was well prepared mentally, but looking back perhaps this is where I went badly wrong.  I'd anticipated being really fired up by being on the same course as the World Championships which of course has many of the worlds top ultra-runners competing in it. And, initially, it was really cool.  There are too many to mention them all, but just seeing top top runners like Dan Lawson, Pete Kostelnick, Andrzej Radzikowski, Radek Brunner, Katalin Nagy, Pam Smith, Yoshihiko Ishikawa, Patrycja Bereznowska etc etc etc was fantastic.   

Courtesy of

The first few hours went ok I guess.  Physically I felt a bit off, just kind of a bit meh.... flat, without much power or zip, but it didn't bother me that much.  There was great banter between the runners, I made some new friends and chatted with old ones.  The GB men's and ladies World Champs teams are a fantastic bunch of people and would give a friendly word of encouragement every time they came passed.  Thanks a lot to all of you.  Stuff like that is really appreciated.  Robbie Britton made me laugh:

Lapping 1: "what's your first name Strachan?".  "Darren".   "Ok, well done Darren"

Lapping 2: "Strachan i've forgotten your name... i'm just going to call you Gordon, is that alright?".  "It's fine Robbie i've been called worse things"

Lapping 3: "Hey Gordon, want to hear my favourite Gordon Strachan quote?" "Sure Robbie".... "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog".  

Love it.  Unfortunately the size of my fight turned out to be not so big!

I think I went through the marathon mark in around 4:20, maybe 4:30.  Not great but not a disaster either.  But I was finding the one mile concrete/stone loop tougher and tougher, and eventually I had to break it down into sections where I would run and sections where I would walk.  After a while, maybe 5 hours or so, the volume of people consistently overtaking really started to get to me. 

Of course I knew that I was going to be spending a lot of this race getting lapped by most of the field. I'd thought I was cool with that, but in fact I found it hard to deal with.  No matter how much I tried to tell myself it was ok, not to compare myself, not to judge myself against these runners, my internal critic got a right gob on it, and eventually it wore me down.  "You're a shit runner, what are you doing here, you've no right to be here, look at all these people who are so much better than you."  Just over and over and over, on a bloody loop.  I got so sick of it.   After about 13 hours, I needed a break.  I lay down in the treatment tent for a 15 minute rest, and 2 hours later I woke up with my teeth chattering and legs frozen.  It was 3am, any chance I had of a PB was long gone, and even reaching 100 miles looked a forlorn hope.  I stumbled out of the tent.  Very simple choice time: turn left, go to race control, hand in your chip, get a blanket round you and go back to sleep.  Turn right, face another 9 hours of torture round this unforgiving 1 mile loop being lapped not only by most of the field but also your best mates.  Probably also telling yourself what a f****** failure you are. Somehow, not sure quite how, I turned right.

I stumbled like a ghost round a lap, wearing pretty much everything I had brought with me.  God knows how long it took, but at least moving was starting to warm me up.  I picked up some coffee at the aid station, and carried on walking.  Eventually, things got better, I warmed up and woke up and was able to shed some layers and move a bit faster.  I was mostly resolved to walking and just staying out on the course for as long as I could, but I was also able to do the "ultra-shuffle" on occasions.  I need the practice for Spartathlon, i'm sure gonna need the shuffle there.    Around 8am the wheels came off again and I nearly keeled over on the track, I think maybe a complete blood sugar crash.  A very kind supporter got hold of me and helped me to the tent.  I got some food and drink down me and stopped for another "10 minute break".... yeah, yeah, that one turned into an hour.  Again I was close to handing in my chip, again I turn right and resolve to continue.  This time it was easier as it was daylight and warmer.  Also only 3 more hours of pain until the end.

And that's where the story gets better.  Not from the point of view of getting a respectable distance total, more like I remembered why I love this sport in the first place.  By now i'd completely given up on targets (the timing system was not showing us any info anyway, and my watch had gone, so I had no real clue where I stood), the internal critic had decided to shut the **** up and my mind was beautifully clear and peaceful.  Physically I was suffering but I was still able to march quite well, and break into the odd shuffle.  In fact the course was now full of walking wounded, and whilst there were still lots of runners storming round, there were also loads of people who I was now overtaking. Also there was now quite a lot of crowd support in the park, including a huge group of folk from various Irish running clubs who were going bananas for every single runner.  Feed off them and get them involved I thought - it worked a treat, making me want to do "one more lap" just to see them again.   On the last lap I go to high 5 them and hear a Scottish voice "oi, I was first!", it's Debbie Martin-Consani loving the occasion and still running strong... she jokingly shoves me out of the way, soaks up the high 5s and continues to run to clock up as many metres as possible.   See you out in Greece Debbie and Marco for Spartathlon!   Before I know it, hooters are going off and the race is over......  everyone collapses to the ground wherever they end up.  I admit I shed a tear or two, mostly out of pure relief that it was over.  

Looking back I think I just have to see this as miles in the bank for Spartathlon.  It wasn't the race I planned or wanted, but hey it's 89 miles more than I did this time last year, so I can't be too distraught about it.

As mentioned, David had a storming run, massive kudos to you my friend.

James was his usual battle hardened self, reaching over 100 miles in 21 hours despite suffering a shin injury.  James then took a couple of hours out but got back on the course to notch up a few more laps. Solid work my friend.

Our fellow Sparta devotee Paul Katsiva-Corderoy was his usual friendly and chilled self, reaching close to 100 miles and laying down some awesome Sparta preparation.  Look forward to seeing you out in Greece mate.

It was a joy to meet Nathan and Tori Flear.  Nathan only took up running fairly recently but has clearly poured heart and soul into his training and racing.  Nath didn't have the race he wanted here likely due to illness but watch out for this fella!  Tori, thanks so much for looking out for us and all your encouraging words over the weekend, it really meant a lot.  See you out in Athens you two.

Big thanks to Ed and his team for organising a great event, you did Belfast proud and I hope you can keep the Energia24 as an annual fixture.  Now I know what i'm up against, i'll come back sometime!

James, me, David, Dan Lawson, Nathan Flear

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

24 Hour World Championship Preview

I am, as my American friends would say, "stoked" to be heading to Belfast this weekend for the World 24 Hour Championships.   Whilst i'd obviously love to be running for Team GB, that standard is in another orbit. Fortunately though, this event has an Open Entry race mixed alongside the Worlds, meaning that David, James, myself and around 70 others get to mix it right alongside the best in the world as they compete for Gold.

A 24 hour race is a fixed time rather than fixed distance format.  You basically run, walk or hobble as far as you can in the allotted time and the winner is the person who covers the most distance.  These events are usually held on 400 metre tracks or fairly short and flat loops where you are never too far away from the support area and feeding stations.  You are allowed to stop and rest if you like, although that's to be avoided if you want to do well, and you can't "DNF" as if you stop you are just given your final mileage as your result.   The definition of "success" at a race like this varies a lot from person to person and across age ranges and genders.... the world records for men and women are an astonishing 188 and 159 miles respectively.  In fact that 188 mile record, set by the legendary Yiannis Kouros, is considered by many to be among the very top sporting performances by anyone, across all sports.  At the more mortal end of the spectrum, getting beyond 100 miles can generally be considered a decent result, but it's one that's by no means guaranteed given the number of things that can go wrong in a race like this.

We'll be using this as a training race for Spartathlon (yep, we got in again this year, whoop) but also want to try to set a new PB for this particular format of race, having only previously taken part in one.  That event was hilly and muddy, a very tough 2.5 mile loop, and we had to pull out all the stops to just scrape a Spartathlon qualifier of 113 miles.  In Belfast, we'll be on a one mile, flat concrete loop and theoretically will be able to set a new PB.  But like I say, things can and do go wrong so we'll just have to see.  Training has gone well I think.... there's always more you feel that could and should have been done but sometimes you just have to go with what you've got and do what you can. I'll be going into it looking to adopt a very steady pace of around 10 minute miles for the first 8 to 10 hours.  Beyond that, stay positive, keep moving for the duration and when things get tough adopt the mindset of "just one more lap".....

Training with the lads in the Yorkshire Dales
(L-R: James Ellis, David Bone, me, Jamie Holmes)

Part of the appeal of entering this race was the chance to share the track with the elites and see up close how they approach this format.  In a typical point to point ultra you basically see them for about a minute at the start line before they tear off up the road!   The same thing will happen in Belfast but this time we'll get to see them frequently as they come flying past lapping us.   From a British point of view i'm really looking forward to watching our deeply talented men's and ladies teams challenge for individual and team medals.  Robbie Britton won individual World and European bronze two years ago in the combined championship in Turin and the mens team took the team gold.  Meanwhile the mighty Dan Lawson is the current European Champion and recently obliterated the field at Ultrabalaton.  The GB ladies won team bronze in Turin and surely have great chances again.  No doubt they will face very strong challenges from athletes from all over the globe including defending World Champion Florian Reus of Germany and strong teams from USA and Japan amongst others. It's going to be great to watch.  In the Open Race, I can see Nathan Flear for the men's win (and I wouldn't be surprised if he is up there mixing it in the overall Worlds!) and Aoife Lyons of Dublin has been grinding out months of 100 miles a week in training so it would be great to see her do well. If you want to follow along you should be able to find updates on Facebook and Twitter:

And the organisers are currently scrambling to put some form of Live Tracking in place, links to which should be posted on Facebook and Twitter once it's sorted.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Dubai Marathon

I really didn't think I was going to make it to the start line of the Dubai Marathon after being a complete idiot and attempting to play football on New Years Day.  There's nothing like a muddy pitch, the wrong trainers, serious dehydration and 42 year old legs that really should know better to ruin a so called runner's body.  A badly strained adductor muscule meant I could barely walk for about 10 days afterwards, the first run I attempted around mid January left me with a quivering lip and doom laden thoughts of "i'll never run again....", so it was with very low expectations that Jeff and I turned up to the start line.   Common sense should probably have prevailed, but hey i'd travelled all the way over for this and a work conference, and Jeff is friends with Peter the RD, who had really kindly arranged a free entry, so I would have felt even worse pulling out.

Anyway, make it to the start we did, and with Jeff on his bike alongside providing excellent crewing support, things went just fine.  I didn't come into this with any time expectations... originally this was targeted as a PB race aiming for around 3:22... following relative success at the Owler Marathon back in November I felt I had good fitness, but the football injury and some laziness over the Christmas period put paid to that and I was just happy to be moving in Dubai.

Setting off at around 5:20 per KM, I felt ok.  My stride was pretty restricted from the injury, so it was more of a trot / hobble than a free flowing run.  The course is just two out and back loops, the first one 5km out / 5km back, the second one a giant 16km down the beach road to the UAE flag, and then straight back up the other side.  Mentally, this was pretty tough going, without much in the way of landmarks to break up the miles.
It's a very flat and fast course though, definitely PB material if you're looking for something.  The best part was that we got to see the elites fairly close up as they were coming against us on the loops.  Boy were they flying.... they are running a different race to us mortals.  

Going over the new canal was the only section of the course that wasn't flat, and it was actually a bit of a relief to have a change of gradient.  By the time I was coming back over this on the final leg, at around 35km, things were getting tough.
The race had started at 6:30am in nice cool temperatures, but the desert sun had now heated things up nicely.  Lots of people were looking seriously beaten up by it, and were reduced to a walk.  Whilst feeling the heat, fortunately i'd kept a bit of sauna training going since Spartathlon and was coping fine.  General fatigue and some cramping in the injured adductor slowed me down considerably for the last 10k, but fortunately not down to a walk.  For most of the race i'd been thinking just about finishing without doing further damage, but there was also a bit of me that wanted the finishing time to start with a 3 rather than a 4. So that's what I focused on... just do enough for sub 4, just get that sub 4.    And that's what we got.... 3:59:47.   Job done and it was then on to the golf tournament in Abu Dhabi for a bit of rest and relaxation with Jeff and his golfing buddies.

Thanks to Jeff and Jane for looking after me in Dubai, to Peter the Dubai Marathon race director for the entry and the really well organised event. And of course to Rosie for graciously allowing me the time away from home!