I have spent the last week trying to piece together my thoughts, hoping that the snippets I could remember would all be put into order and that the gaps between would be filled, leaving a wonderfully clear and complete memory of the whole experience from the mystical start at the foot of the Acropolis to the totally emotional finish at the statue of King Leonidas in Sparta. Alas, my memories are still just a series of jumbled snippets. It is as if my mind and body have shut out so much of the race for my own protection! I reckon that I have about 3 hours of memories from a race that took James and me 35 hours and 39 minutes to complete. Making us the 68th and 69th Brits to have completed the official race since it started in 1983.
So what can I say? It was the most incredible experience and one that I know will stay with me for life. I miss it already – not perhaps the race itself, but the feeling of camaraderie throughout the camp – the runners, the crew, the supporters and the locals – utterly incredible from Athens to Sparta. And added to that is the knowledge that so many people outside our little running bubble were watching from afar and cheering us on – thank you all.
I thought it may be best to sum this up in a series of dos and don’ts to help all of you that plan to do the Spartathlon in the future!
Do find the strongest minded friend to run with – most people state that you should “run your own race” and that running together is a bad move – but having James by my side was the single most important element of getting to the end. I say “by my side” but actually it was more like a dad and his son out for a brisk Sunday afternoon walk. James was having problems running from around 95 miles, so we worked out a strategy to march hard to the finish line. Fortunately James can march at over 4 mph which was what was needed to make the cut-off times (with the odd jog when we could). I can’t march at this pace, but I still had puff to run so he marched and I walked as fast as I could and every time the gap got too big I would scamper up behind him again and so the whole process would continue for the final 12 hours of the race. Not conducive for chatting, but the strategy worked and we made the end with a massive 21 minutes to spare.
Do bring with you the most supportive crew – I thought I was a nice man, but hearing what a sh*t I was at most checkpoints has surprised me a little. They just sucked up my scathing comments and tirelessly responded to my stroppy demands. I now acknowledge that a battery is a battery and there are no special ones just for me. I think I probably could have eaten a blackcurrant gel, in fact it may have been nice to have had one blackcurrant one instead of just the 40 orange ones. And perhaps David, I could have waited 2 seconds for you to take a photo before you topped up my water bottle for the 10th time. Although I won’t forgive you for telling us that it was “all pretty much downhill from now to Sparta”!
Do lift your head and enjoy the surroundings – This was a great piece of advice from a running buddy. From the streets of Athens, past the oil refineries, around the sun drenched roads along the sea, across the Corinth Canal, up into the start of the hills at Nemea – it was incredible. There was the odd bit of fly-tipping which was a shame and I must say there were a few sets of ruins that I missed completely! The head dropped a bit once sun set on day one and it never really got fully raised again so day two is definitely more of a blur – I do remember an awful lot of climbing.
Do have the most wonderfully vocal support along the way – I brought my mum, dad, sister and incredible wife with me and it made a huge difference having them at various points along the way and even more emotional at the end. And to have one of the major checkpoints (CP22) actually based in the car park of the can making factory built by my dad back in 1966 was a really special and significant part of the race for me (and I think him too).
Do tell everyone you know that you are running this bonkers race, bore them at every dinner and drinks party you attend for the prior two years and for added measure make sure they all sponsor you ludicrous amounts of money for completing it – Running in the knowledge that everyone is following your GPS signal on the RaceDrone website was tremendous but also carried a great deal of pressure to complete it. We have managed to raise over £10.8K for HemiHelp (the charity that supports our eldest daughter, Holly’s, condition) and for The Waterside Charitable Trust (the charity run by James’s father-in-law, Eric, which supports the amazing work people are doing in the slums of Kisumu in Kenya, where Eric suggested all our funds could go towards keeping an informal hospital they built operational for several months) – so thank you all and delighted we didn’t let you down. If you still want to donate then please visit uk.virginmoneygiving.com/longruninthesun.
Do believe in God or at least in something special looking out for you – On several occasions my conscious mind was telling me very clearly that there was nothing more to give and it was time to give up, but there was always something else giving me the nudge I needed to “just keep going”. There was one particular occasion when God was definitely shown in a physical manifestation. I am afraid to say I had to stop for an impromptu toilet stop in some woods – all I had with me was a lump of tissues James had handed me that were completely sodden from the rain. On completing the exercise I noticed that God himself had rested, next to me, a pile of dry toilet tissues – I could not believe my good fortune – what a guy!
Don’t use any toilet tissues you believe are a gift from God – think rationally about why they are likely to be there, tread carefully and especially don’t keep some of them for later to blow your nose! (For the record I did have a moment of rational thought later and jettisoned my miracle tissues before I needed a nose blow!)
Don’t underestimate the hills in this race – I am sure it is nothing compared to UTMB, but I was under the distinct impression that there was one mountain!!! When people talk about “The Mountain” what they are referring to is the one part of the race where you are off-road on the Sangas Pass, a mountain trail over the summit of Mount Parthenio, which at 1,100m is a smidgeon higher than Snowdon. Don’t get me wrong, this was epic at 100 miles and was tough, but the far tougher thing for me was then climbing nearly as high on several further occasions when I really wasn’t expecting it. It just shows how much research I did beforehand as the contour map shows very clearly that this is a race of two halves – one half flat and one half not!
Don’t set off too quickly – this is a really tough one to get right. We had a great first marathon which we did in 3:55. It was great to have this first milestone out of the way and pretty much all done before the 31 deg heat of day one had really set in. This gave us a good buffer between us and the “death bus” (which sweeps you up if you don’t reach each checkpoint by a certain time) and allowed us to ease into marathon two but I think it had taken its toll on the quads and so a lot of stretching and rolling was needed. The whole of marathon two was difficult and hard to tell if this was because of the fast start or the heat of the day but certainly cast the first doubts in our ability to complete the challenge. Marathon three was as expected – tough and long and saw the introduction of the hills towards the end. It was great to have some of our support team on hand at the start of the long night ahead. Which leads me to….
Don’t believe the woman at the 80 mile checkpoint who says that the hill ahead is “The Mountain” – that built our confidence so much when we believed how easy it was to get over and this confidence way well and truly crushed when the real mountain loomed 20 miles later.
Don’t think that check point 47 at 100 miles, referred to as the “Base of the Mountain” is actually at the base of the mountain – it is the most demoralising climb to get to that point and was nearly the end of our beautiful running partnership. To make matters worse, this is all done in the dead of night and from 10 miles away you can see the zig zagging path of head torches heading up to the heavens – really not good for the already crushed confidence but very pretty.
Don’t look at your feet when you are changing your socks – I made the big mistake of having a good look with Darren at what was causing so much pain at the 80 mile mark. We looked at each other, said “not good” and quickly put on some more socks to hide the evidence. From then on I could not stop thinking about what they would look like at the end. If there is a positive to be taken from this then I would say that given they had a further 73 miles of bashing by the end (281,184 steps in all according to my watch) then they really didn’t look significantly worse – although the toenail was a little yuckier!
Don’t run the last 500m too fast, enjoy every last nanosecond of it – the run up the final street in Sparta is a feeling that I suspect I will never feel again – I have never felt support like that. The tears were aching to flow, the crowds were going wild (especially with James shouting in fluent Greek to all the locals, whipping them up into a frenzy), the British team were there going crazy and then in the distance I could see my family with my wonderful wife doing star jumps behind another group – her face had kept me going through a lot of the dark times and now I knew I had done it. Climbing the steps to the statue of King Leonidas with James and then kissing his foot (Leonidas’ not James’ as that would have been very nasty) together was magical.
Using an old friend’s favourite phrase, “Job done!”
Thank you all again for all your amazing support.