2019 British Spartathlon Team Report

2019 British Spartathlon Team Report by Paul Ali

This year 22 British Runners were fortunate enough to participate in the 37th running of the Spartathlon event amongst a field of 377 athletes from around the world to in an attempt to complete the 153-mile non-stop run from the Acropolis in Athens to the statue of legendary King Leonidas in Sparta.

In the months leading up to the race the team had undergone a number of changes from the original names drawn in the ballot with some withdrawals and some late additions. No-one cut it as close as Mark Bisset, who had secured a place, then unfortunately withdrew through injury and then made a late recovery and managed to retrieve his (paid up for) place in the final few weeks before the race.

The 2019 British Spartathlon Team

Whilst many of the team were acquaintances from previous races, the British Spartathlon Facebook group acted as a great focal point for people to get to know one another whilst a team training day was also an opportunity for half the team to get together and get some running technique tips from coach Shane Benzie (who later claimed a 100% finish rate from attendees!). It was also great to see both new and returning runners and crews get into the spirit of the event by bonding with the group and runners from other countries. Despite our current political climate, it’s nice to see British people can represent ourselves well in Europe from time to time!

From a British Spartathlon team management perspective, I should thank my fellow organisers James Ellis, Darren Strachan, David Bone and Cat Simpson for all their work behind the scenes to promote the British runners, liaise with our sponsors, organise kit design, kit orders, deliver kit, answer runners questions, communicate updates via social media, manage the website, contribute articles and so on. I am pleased to report that the organisation was handled without issue this year and most importantly team kit was ready and available prior to the race (although for logistical reasons some was delivered in Greece). We also acquired a team banner this year which was a useful addition to our team assets and helped make the British team stand-out once again.

None of this would have been possible without the very kind support of our sponsors and I would like to take the opportunity of formally thanking the Ultramarathon Running Store, Runderwear, Rathbones and Indigo Fitness for their financial support and Endure Nutrition, Race Drone, Daz n Bone Ultra Coaching for their service support. The contributions from our sponsors once again helped fund the amazing British Spartathlon Team kit and it was a joy to see the white or red shirts out and about Athens and Sparta before, during and after the race. People didn’t have to look far to spot a British runner to crew member during the race.

As many regular readers will know the race follows in the footsteps of Athenian messenger Pheidippides, who ran the distance in advance of the 490BC Battle of Marathon to ask for Spartan help against invading Persian forces. The race itself pits runners against a number of hurdles including the blazing heat of late-Greek summer and an ascent to the 3,900ft summit of Mount Parthenion in the dead of night. The race is also well known for its strict time cut-offs at each of the 75 check points with an overall aim to complete the distance within an overall timeframe of 36 hours.

The British Spartathlon Team plays a unique role in the history of the race: RAF officers John Foden, John Scholtens and John McCarthy were the first three runners to complete the distance in 1982 when they set out on an RAF expedition to determine if the story of Pheidippides could be repeated. Their success led to the first Open International Spartathlon Race a year later, and the formation of the International Spartathlon Association, now the race’s governing body.

Members of the British Spartathlon Team being interviewed pre-race

After the unexpected events of hurricane Zorba in 2018, more traditional weather was expected as the runners set out from the Acropolis at 7am on the Friday and headed out of Athens through the city centre against the backdrop of noise from early morning commuters in their cars and vehicles.

Matt Blackburn heading out from Athens on the morning of the first day

Paul Radford and Ian Hammett heading out from Athens on the morning of the first day

Chris Ward (and hat) pictured along the coastal road

The temperature rose quite quickly as the runners headed out of Athens and along the coastal road past Megara and on towards Corinth with its impressive canal. Despite some forecast of weather in the high 20’s or early 30’s, the heat rose to 35 degrees+ during the day which started to take its toll on the runners with 74 of the 377 starters dropping by the end of the first day.

Al Higgins heading out along the coastal road

John Miskimmin pictured along the coastal road

Mark Bissett crossing Corinth Canal

The first part of the day sees the runners pass various schools where the children have been given permission to come out and see the runners and these small pockets of support always give the runners a lift.

Jonni Suckling and Sarah Sawyer greeted by the local school children

The runners can first be met by crews at the marathon checkpoint but it’s the first major control point at Corinth Canal approximately 50 miles into the race where there is a significant gathering of crews and supporters and where the first major milestone of the race is achieved.

Stephen Scobie entering the 50 mile CP

Ian Thomas cooling down at the 50 mile CP

Alex Whearity cooling down at a Checkpoint

The runners continued their journey into a warm evening and then into the night as they headed towards the imposing Mount Parthenion which they would cross at night which marks the second major milestone before making the final third of their journey through small villages towards Sparti on Saturday the next day.

Peter Abraham and Alex Whearity pictured during the night

A view back down the course. Runners must travel from the roads below in the distance.

The next morning was cool and misty which gave the runners some respite but around 10am in the morning the mist lifted and temperatures rose dramatically again forcing runners still on the course to endure another (typical) hot Spartathlon day as they made their way through small villages and roads before hitting the major dual carriageway and the seemingly relentless climbs towards Sparta. Once again, the temperatures took their toll on the runners with only 197 of 377 starters (52%) ultimately finishing the event.

Jonni Suckling using the opportunity to top up his tan during the race

Paul Ali braving the heat on the second day

The final part of the race sees the runners descend into the city of Sparti and on towards the finish. The last few hundred yards of the race sees the runners head towards the statue of King Leonidas in Sparta, surrounded by crowds of well-wishers and supporters. It is an emotional experience for the runners as the hours of determined effort gives rise to feelings of joy, gratitude and relief at the finish. It is an experience that few will forget.

Paul Radford approaching the finish

John Miskimmin and Andy Day finishing together

This year, the British Spartathlon Team saw some great success with Alastair Higgins finishing 4th overall in a time of 25 hours 48 minutes (and running without crew) and Sarah Sawyer finishing 4th lady in a time of 30 hours 37 minutes. The British Team also saw a number of good placings with Ian Hammett 6th , Peter Jackson 16th, Paul Radford 21st and John Miskimmin and Andy Day 28th and 29th respectively. Andy had a particularly emotional race as he proposed to his girlfriend Diane at the foot of the statue of Leonidas in Sparti as he completed the race.

Overall the British Team gave a brilliant account of themselves with 17/22 finishers (77% finish rate) which was much higher than the race average especially for people in the UK racing in temperatures they are unused to (i.e. cold, wet weather!). Overall, 2019 was a very good year for British runners.

The British finishers included a mix of first timers such as Alex Whearity, Peter Abraham, Sam Tomlinson, Chris Ward, Jonni Sucking and Mark Bisset along with experienced veterans such as Ian Thomas (5th consecutive finish at the age of 60), Paul Ali (3rd finish) and Stephen Scobie and Matthew Blackburn (2 finishes apiece).

The British Team were well represented not just by the runners but also supported by their crew members who gallantly followed their runners along the course ensuring they had adequate supplies at designated checkpoints. The team looked fantastic in their team colours thanks to the kind donations of our sponsors who made the purchase of team kit possible.

The organisation and conduct of the British Team was superb with many new friends made from around the world through our common interest of endurance running. A huge thanks to all the British crews who accompanied and supported the runners and contributed immensely to a fantastic event.

Once again the event was superbly organised by the International Spartathlon Association and enthusiastically supported by the many hundreds of volunteers and supporters along the race. On behalf of the British Team, we would like to thank everyone at the ISA for hosting a superbly organised event. In particular, I should mention the superb work of the Sparta Photography Club who provided all of the photos included in this report and created some amazing memories for our runners and crews.

The official event photographs can be found here

Al Higgins, 4th Place overall

Ian Hammett, 6th Place overall

Peter Jackson finishing pictured with daughter Gwyneira

Sarah Sawyer, 4th Lady

Paul Radford pictured

Andy Day pictured with (new) fiancee Diane

John Miskimmin at the finish

Peter Abraham & Alex Whearity

Ian Thomas

Jonni Suckling

Sam Tomlinson

Chris Ward

Paul Ali

Matt Blackburn

Mark Bissett

Stephen Scobie

Unfortunately, with an event of this nature and challenge there are always a number of runners who did not make the finish. I know from personal experience what a disappointment it is when things don’t go your way and I hope James, Dean, Richard, Tom and Carl (and Fabio our Italian/British companion) will return in again in the future.

The event wasn’t quite complete as the next day saw the Spartan Mile, a 400m and 1 mile race around the athletics track in Sparti with the runners completing the race as the Spartans once did (i.e. originally it was the ‘Naked Mile’ but for decency reasons, runners complete this in their underwear). Due to logistical reasons this year, the original organisers (Swedish team) and the usual Belgium hosts attendance was in some doubt due to their hotel location and the British Team were asked to help organise the event on the day. Thankfully, both the Swedish and Belgium teams managed to make the event which was very well attended and saw some ridiculous sprints around the track from some people who had run 153 miles the previous day.

We were delighted to be involved in the event and both participated and supported this with the award of a British Spartathlon Team shirt to the winners of the each of the races.

British runners ‘hammering’ (not) the Spartan Mile challenge

Winner of the 400m event, Ektoras Agathokleous (Cyprus)

An opportunity for the British Team to show off the kind ‘support’ from Runderwear

Nationalities line up for the Spartan Mile

Winner of the Spartan Mile, Petr Pasler (Czech)

Paul Ali

British Spartathlon Team

Note: The British Spartathlon Team represents the amateur British runners who participate in the Spartathlon event. The team relies on the kind donations of sponsors in order to fund kit and equipment for the runners each year. Details of the British Team can be found at www.britishspartathlonteam.org or they can be contacted at britishspartathlonteam@gmail.com