2018 British Spartathlon Team Report

British Spartathlon Team 2018 Race Report – by Darren Strachan

The BST team race report follows for the 2018 edition of the event.   For the second year running the team faced unusually cool weather conditions in Greece, but whereas 2017 was highly favourable the arrival in 2018 of “Medicane Zorba” on the same weekend as the race presented multiple problems and somewhat dangerous conditions for all runners and the event organisers.

23 UK entrants toed the start line at the magnificent Acropolis in Athens, all laser focused on reaching the statue of King Leonidas in Sparti, 153 miles and a maximum of 36 hours away.

2018 British Spartathlon Team

A full complement of UK runners successfully reached the first major checkpoint at the Hellas Can factory just shy of 50 miles into the race, led in by Nathan Flear in 6:52 and followed by Pete Summers in 7:16 and Al Higgins in 7:20.     Conditions so far had been relatively benign with a bit of tailwind, full cloud cover and spells of rain. No need for the desert hats and suncream that are the norm at Spartathlon. The final Brit into Hellas Can, although still comfortably inside the cut-offs, was Steve Gordon in 8:54; Steve had been carrying a calf injury and was unsure of starting the race at all, so a great effort to reach here.  Unfortunately on the road between Hellas Can and halfway Ancient Nemea a re-occurrence of the injury took Steve out of the race.

Cat Simpson

Nemea was reached with Nathan still in the UK lead in 11:05 and in 16th overall around 1 hour behind the leader (and eventual winner) Ishikawa of Japan.    The gap to Al Higgins in UK 2nd had opened a little too, up to 34 minutes. Stealthily moving up the UK field with a very well paced run was our sole lady Cat Simpson, reaching the halfway point in a little over 12 hours.  Safely into Nemea towards the rear of the British field were Stu Shipley, running his 7th Spartathlon and determined to make it to Leonidas for the first time; Russ Tullett on his debut but with very strong race knowledge from multiple crewing years having a great run at it, and Riccardo Giussani pushing on well and feeling at home with the rainy conditions having forsaken his native Italy for Manchester the past few years.  So far so good for the Team with all remaining 22 runners successfully through the halfway point.

Dan Masters & Ian Thomas

This form continued on the difficult section between Nemea and the infamous “mountain” at mile 100 but things were about to change. Medicane Zorba was in full flight by now and had unleashed a serious amount of rain onto mainland Greece, turning roads into raging torrents and a muddy, hilly trail that is difficult enough in good conditions into a hellish quagmire.   The Brits still managed to have all 22 runners into Mountain Base checkpoint 47 but this is where our problems began as the climb to the mountain and the general conditions beforehand began to exact a toll on our runners. Team Captain Paul Ali was unfortunately taken ill at Mountain Base and had to be given urgent re-hydration and warming treatment.   A huge presence in the British Team with two previous Sparta finishes and a long history of successful ultras this was a massive blow for Paul and one we know he was absolutely gutted about. But safety is paramount and we are all glad the medics were on hand for Paul to assure his safety. Also taken out of the race at Mountain Base in similar circumstances was Matt Brand who’d had a great run up until now but the relentless climb took its toll and unfortunately Matt’s race was over.   Riccardo Giussani successfully reached the mountain but with minimal time left on the cutoff was timed or pulled from the race. Riccardo it was a great achievement to reach Mountain Base your first time out and you will have gained a huge amount of experience. At the front of the Brit pack Nathan was still showing the way with a fine time of 15:12 and now up to 12th overall although the ridiculous strength in depth of the field was now showing with the likes of Oliveira, Brunner and Reus making their presence felt.  Al Higgins was having a great run stealthily moving up to Brit 2nd with a well paced 15:41.

James Ellis

Over the rough mountain track and down to Sangas village with the storm still howling and conditions deteriorating further. 19 Brits made it to the next major checkpoint of Nestani with Al doing really well to close the gap on Nathan, now down to only 20 minutes.  Stu Shipley and Russ Tullett brought up the rear for the Brits both still going well and with approximately an hour on the 24:30 cutoff time.  

Make it over the mountain and some say “the race is all but done”.  Nothing could be further from the truth though with the next section between Nestani and Alea-Tegea being possibly one of the cruellest of the race.  It sounds innocuous – a 15 mile stretch and one of the flattest places on the course but being taken on in the dead of night, 110 tough miles already in the legs and the prospect of Leonidas still a long way off it has the potential to stifle dreams.  So it proved again with debutant Russ Tullett being timed out on this section and the experienced John Volanthen also becoming unable to continue. Russ we know you were gutted but you can be massively proud of your debut run and you will come back to the race all the stronger for the experience we are sure.   JV what can we say, nothing but pride for what you achieved in the summer in Thailand and perhaps the enormity of that effort had an impact on your run here. You’ll be back for certain.

17 Brits remained at CP60 Alea-Tegea, 50 kilometres away from Sparti.  Simon Pryterch, having had a really strong Spartathlon debut up until now, suffered major problems here with achilles and foot injuries which unfortunately saw his race come to an end.   Simon was understandably devastated by this but we’ve no doubts at all that Simon will be back to conquer this race, and in a very solid time judging by his splits this year.

The final 50 kilometres of the race were marked by an almost unbelievable increase in the intensity of our old friend Zorba.   The conditions were truly atrocious with relentless horizontal rain, very strong head and cross-winds and low temperatures. Runners, crew and volunteers faced multiple problems on the long highway down into Sparta, and at one point the race was held some 25k from the finish and the traditional cutoff time of 36 hours was abandoned.     Fortunately, none of the remaining Brits needed to use more time than that, all somehow sneaking down the hill and into a flooded Sparta for a finish that lost none of its sweetness for being such a washout. It’ll definitely be remembered as an “I was there” edition of the race!

Al Higgins

Leading the Brits home was Al Higgins in a magnificent 10th place overall with a time of 26:10.   Al had overtaken Nathan with around 45k still to go due in parts from a fantastically well paced run and an unfortunate recurrence of a shin injury suffered by Nathan.  Nathan still arrived home 2nd Brit and in 13th place overall in a time of 26:36. Big congratulations to Al for claiming the Michael Callaghan trophy for first placed Brit finisher, following in a line of worthy champs from Dan Lawson to Ian Thomas to Nathan Flear.

Nathan Flear

Next Brit home and 5th lady overall was Cat Simpson with a stunning Sparta debut finishing in 28:52. Cat had trained so well for this race and ran it to perfection, so well in fact that Cat brought home the second fastest time by a British lady ever at Spartathlon, behind only the legendary Lizzy Hawker.  Cat wins the Lizzy Hawker trophy for First British Lady following on from Sara Morwood’s triumph last year, well done Cat!!

Cat was followed in by John Melbourne with a fine run of 29:30 on his Spartathlon debut, capping off a fine season which contained wins in the US and UK and a podium at SDW100. Congratulations John.

Close behind John in a time of 29:49 was Matt Blackburn, bouncing back from his disappointment at KACR with a great performance here and one we hope will see Matt continue to go from strength to strength in the ultra world.  

Next home for the Brits also on a debut but bringing bags of experience from many big UK races was John Stocker in a time of 31:12.   Well done John, a fantastic performance!

Next was Dan Masters in 31:31 capping off a fine season which included a podium at the Ridgeway 86 mile Trail Championship and a win in the New Forest 50 mile race.  Well done Dan.

Never in doubt with typical Yorkshire grit and spirit, Carl Howells was next to Kiss the Foot in a time of 32:04, safely home for his second Spartathlon finish and breaking his previous best by close to 2 hours.   Epic effort Carl.

Carl Howells

Our final debutant finisher was Pete Summers in a time of 32:36, a great performance to end a fine year which included a tremendously gritty podum 3rd at KACR in July.   Well done Pete, hope you enjoyed the Spartathlon experience.

Fine performances from Sparta veterans David Barker (33:23) and Laurence Chownsmith (33:48) followed, both claiming their 2nd finishes and making solid improvements of close to 2 hours on their times to boot.   Well done chaps, great to share the road with you.

The word “legend” is overused these days I admit, but if it doesn’t apply to these two then shoot me now.  Ian Thomas (34:53) and James Ellis (35:07) were both going for their 4th consecutive finishes and both delivered as we knew they would.  Ian has had a tough time with injuries over the past couple of seasons and was glad to get this one done, whilst the finish was extra special for James being accompanied by his twin daughters and his nephews in an emotional walk to Leonidas.   Well done L.E.G.E.N.D.S!

Darren Strachan

Coming in for his 3rd Spartathlon finish was Martin Bacon in 35:38, a very tough runner from the South Coast who simply does not back down no matter the hardship he is suffering.  Martin had no crew at Sparta and faced multiple difficulties on the road down to the finish, but toughed it out, congratulations Martin!

And now the one we were all truly delighted about.   On his seventh attempt at the race and not having managed to get over the mountain before, suffering heartbreak after heartbreak, Stuart Shipley reached Leonidas and finally put his Spartathlon demons to bed.   To say this was a gutsy performance is the understatement of the year – Stu himself had virtually written off his chances beforehand, eschewing the normal logic of “you have to believe you will finish” – and we were all so pleased for him.    You can read more about Stu’s remarkable quest to reach Leonidas in his race report (https://www.spartathlon.gr/en/newsroom-en/web-news-en/107-race-report-2018-stuart-shipley.html)

Stuart Shipley

Last home for the Brits was Darren Strachan in a time of 35:40 for an epic second finish in trying conditions.

This concludes our race report, the year of Zorba and an edition of Spartathlon that will be remembered forever.  

On behalf of the British Team we would like to thank everyone involved in the race in 2018 especially:

The ISA and Kostis Papadimitriou for the tremendous organisation and hospitality;

Jeff and Jane Strachan for the emergency kit help;

All of our crews and supporters;

Doctor Dora Papadopolou and team for the amazing medical care;

Chris Mills for the outstanding race photography;

Rob Pinnington and Paul Rowlinson for the roving crew support and finish videos;

Adrian Bratty and the Mountain Base Team;

The people of Sparti;

Efharisto, see you in 2019!