2019 Spartathlon Al Higgins

2019 Spartathlon Report by Al Higgins

‘Does anyone have a craft knife or a sharp blade?’. I was about halfway through the race and without any hesitation I was about to cut up a very expensive Nike Vaporfly Next% shoe. I’d already cut the Achilles pad out of the right shoe but now the friction on my left ankle was starting to become a problem. Long races like Spartathlon give you moments of stark clarity where the brain stops thinking about life’s distractions, and with a laser-like focus you reach a singular train of thought. You think about racing, about efficiency, about clinging on and getting to the end, no matter what the cost. You also think about the pain in your Achilles tendon and how to remedy it. In this case the removal of a small strip of neoprene was a deciding factor on whether I would finish the race or not.

For the last three years most of my running thoughts have been about Spartathlon. I’ve been thinking about the mountain, the start line at the Acropolis and of course the amazing finish line experience. I never thought I’d have to cut up my shoes mid-race but you can’t plan for situations like that!

2018 was my first year and I was denied the unique finishing experience by cyclone Zorba. Despite finishing in a strong 10th place I felt like I had missed out on the genuine experience. The storm had been severe enough to keep the locals and supporters away and Sparti was a ghost town.

This was one of my reasons for coming back in 2019. I also suspected that the cooler weather in 2018 somehow discredited my result. That it was a soft year, it wasn’t hot enough or tough enough, even though the winning times were comparable to other years.

I had serious reservations about my own ability too. Was 2018 a fluke? Spartathlon is a really tough race and this year I wasn’t even sure that I’d finish.

There were also some top competitors to think about. Despite the race clashing somewhat with the World 24hr Championships there were still many great athletes taking part. Amongst those I would include the British Team. Whilst the top international runners included Radek Brunner from the Czech Republic, a handful of Japanese runners, several Hungarians and the 100mile world record holder Zach Bitter. Clearly another top ten result was unlikely.

An extra unknown element was my race build up and training schedule. I’d been injured earlier in the year (yes, that Achilles again!), but I’d also started training under a coach for the first time. My new mentors Camille Heron and Conor Holt brought in some big changes. Most notably a big reduction in training volume- but more quality over quantity. Ultra runners are notorious for over thinking the importance of high mileage. Last year I was probably one of the worst offenders. As I trained I straddled the knife edge between physical gains and overtraining syndrome. My peak weekly mileage was just under 200m miles (310km). Now I know how silly the 2018 prep had been. Mentally it gave me the confidence to finish the race. However, I reached the start line in an overtrained state and that led to aches and pains throughout the 246km.

This year, if anything, I was was undertrained. Fresh and full of energy, armed with an improved race nutrition plan, but without the confidence of a high mileage training regime.

As we lined up in front of the Acropolis it was clear that 2019 would be a classic Spartathlon year. It was not quite 7am but already the temperature was 22c. Forecasts predicted 30c later in the day but I already suspected that once we turned inland from Corinth it would be hotter still. I resolved to take it a bit easier than planned for the first 80-100km. Heat could be a big factor in this race.

The heat is already becoming a big factor and we haven’t even reached Megara yet (Marathon distance). Some changes to the race plan are forced on me. Instead of stopping every 7 checkpoints or so I am having to briefly stop at every single one to top up with ice or use a water sponge. The ice goes into my arm warmers (or coolers in this instance), down my shorts, and into a custom made bandana. Fin Lawler, an Irish runner, very kindly made these for our contingent flying over from Dublin. It’s working a treat but I get the feeling that I’m walking a tightrope and it would only take a lapse in the cooling regime to cause some overheating issues. These can include stomach issues, cramps and heat exhaustion. It turned out I was correct and some of the top athletes dropped because of heat related issues.

My nutrition plan is simple. 300 calories every hour with a timer on my watch reminding me every half hour to top up on energy. In the main this comes from ‘Ultra Grunt’ strength tailwind with some additional Maurten gels and Maurten drink sachets. The timer is a new trick that Camille recommended to me. It’s a no brainer really. Experience has taught me that it is easy to forget to take in energy when things are going well, and even more so when things go badly! In the quiet hours of the night the timer definitely helped me keep on track with the race plan.

The first major hiccup of the race came at checkpoint 14. Here was where my second drop bag was meant to be. It contained tailwind, maurten gels and a backup real food bar. I was angry to find out that there were no bags at CP14 and was told they were probably at CP13 but maybe at CP15. WTF? I can’t go back to CP13 and it turns out they weren’t at CP15 either. This is not something you expect at Spartathlon but something very similar happened at CP13 last year! Fortunately, most of the aid stations have Powerbar gels or chews so I was able to use these and my stomach coped with them.

On to Corinth (80km) and I was happy to meet up with some of the British crews and exchange some banter with Rob Pinnington who helped me find some ice. Not rice Rob! Exiting this major CP I also spotted Sparta USA veteran Bob Hearn and gave him a quick hello. This year he was crewing, not running because his main focus was to be the World Champs in Albi.

As we turned inland the temperatures rose as predicted. A glance at a pharmacy LED display showed 36c, later when I checked my Garmin data it showed 38c! It felt it. Coming towards ancient Corinth I caught and passed Joao Olivera, last year’s 2nd place finisher. He was struggling with the heat which came as a surprise to me. Happily he still finished. Onwards through the day and towards nightfall this section is pretty sketchy in my memory. Somewhere before Ancient Nemea I caught Ian Hammet and we enjoyed some of the most pleasant running of the race. I’d already stopped to attend my right Achilles some distance back. Then when we took an extended break at Ancient Nemea I took the opportunity to deal with my left shoe. Thanks to Peter Jackson’s wife for the blades!

Myself and Ian continued on as the temperatures dropped and it became more comfortable. At one point we saw a local out on a run coming towards us. I commented that he had good form and looked like he was a decent athlete. Later he came back in our direction and introduced himself as Dimitrios. After some nice exchanges we found out that he was not just a good runner, but a great runner. A previous winner of the Athens (2 times) and Amsterdam marathons. Wow! Those miles were some of the easiest of the race. The conversation took my mind off the remaining kilometers and the approaching mountain. Usually I prefer the company of my own thoughts but running through the open country with Ian and Dimitrios was just magical.

On a long downhill stretch towards Halkion (I think) I upped my pace a bit and left Ian behind. I was feeling good and despite my reservations about the mountain climb I decided it was time to try and gain some places. We were sitting just inside the top ten, exchanging places regularly with Zsuzsanna Maraz and one of the male Hungarian. We’d also been told a Russian woman and a Japanese man were ahead and both were struggling. Race on!

Just like last year the winding road up to the mountain base CP seemed easier than expected. I thought I’d walk it but ended up running again. I didn’t stop at mountain base because I’d already heard a runner ahead being cheered on. I decided to try and gain that place as soon as possible. It wasn’t until the end of the descent that I passed Irina Masanova and she was in a bad way. It’s a nasty descent and I guessed that she’d had a fall. I gave her some encouragement which hopefully worked! She finished second place woman behind Zsuzsanna in the end but I think those last 50 miles or so must have been really tough.

Now I was up to fifth but one of the Hungarians was trading places with me regularly. We rarely ran together but switched around everytime one of us stopped at a CP. This was Balazs Simonyl (I think). We carried on towards Nestani then somewhere before Tegea (195km) we dropped into a CP almost together. Here the Japanese runner who had led at one point was in the process of dropping out. He looked cold, tired and broken. A sorry sight but it lifted my spirits enough to give me hope of a fourth place finish! My Hungarian friend arrived, sat down and asked for soup. Yes! I thought, game on. Last year at my lowest point I had asked for soup and this gave me the mental surge I needed to push on. Mental note: never ask for soup in front of a competitor!

I left and tried to maintain a good pace as I reached the ruins at Tegea then onto what I think is the biggest challenge of the race. A long drawn out climb that seems to go on forever comes just as most runners are at their lowest ebb. This road is monotonous and boring, you just want it to end, but it goes on forever! I could see a headtorch behind and was reminded of last year when at the same spot I dropped from 8th to 10th. I was slowing down: walking some of the climb but trying to run whenever the gradient eased. Fortunately my pursuer was also struggling and I soon lost sight of his headtorch. I came up with a walk/run strategy for the last 30km which worked well and kept my average pace up. A 500m power hike followed by 2km of good running (5.15/km pace) was working well. I was able to keep this strategy up as dawn broke when I started the descent to Sparti. Now I could see the town and I was joined by a few cars of well wishers. I later found out that one of them was the 2018 mayor of Sparti. He’d probably got bored of waiting for me and drove out of town to check my progress!

A series a final hairpins leads onto to the long straight road into Sparti. At the second last CP I threw away my worn out handheld water bottle and was joined by a large group of teenagers on bikes. The group grew as we got closer to the Evrotas River and we soon gained the company of a police biker, who tried to keep them in order. Now I was starting to get excited, knowing the finish was going to be special this year. Chaotic was the best way to describe the run into town. The kids weaved in and out of traffic pulling wheelies and holding up oncoming and pursuing cars. At one point one of the kids crashed into me but no damage was done. My police escort tried to keep them in check with a few stern words. That final 5km takes forever! Just as I was about to break into my final 2km run I was caught by Ian Hammet’s crew car. They told me 5th place was three minutes back and gaining! Wow, how did that happen? I broke into a fast run, the fastest km splits of my race. Then came the final turn onto the straight that leads to the finish. This is very special. I dropped most of my cycling friends but gained some local running kids, maybe the local running club or high school. Our entourage of about twenty sped up the road towards the statue of Leonidas, we could hear the music and cheers and we could see the flags of all the competing nations. Nearly done.

Now I knew fourth place was mine, now I could celebrate. I couldn’t believe I’d improved on 2018. What a race! I ran up the final three steps and kissed the foot of the King. Job done. 25hrs 49mins.

After some medical treatment and a beer it was time to see how Ian was getting on. My Hungarian follower had just came in 17 minute behind me. Turned out the gap wasn’t a worry after all! The guys just wanted me to run faster.

Ian arrived at great pace in an amazing 6th place and later Peter Jackson came home in an impressive 16th. This was a great year for the British Team and the results reflected the calibre of talent. Throughout the field there were great performances. Sarah Sawyer ran an incredible race to finish 4th female.

The rest of my day was spent drinking beer and watching the remaining runners finish. No sleep until later! I was sorry to hear Anto Lee from Ireland dropped out, however we got to see Anne Jennings come in after a pretty tough race. Other notable finishers were a strong John Miskimmin (also coached by Camille), Peter Abraham and Alex Whearity who’d accidentally gone off course for over an hour, Ian Thomas and an emotional Paul Ali. My favourite Fillipino’s Rolando Espina and Jivee Tolentino had good runs and both finished in style.

Taking time to think about the race I can be proud of my pacing, racing, strategy, resilience and quick thinking. A lot of the top athletes suffered. The heat was tougher than predicted and the challenge was to adapt and cope with it. Bob Hearn later described it to me as pretty much a ‘classic’ Spartathlon year. Just what I wanted!

Thanks go to so many people. Sorcha my partner, our son Austin, and my mum for their support and coping with my boring running talk and training. The British Spartathlon team- what a team! The team sponsors, crew and supporters. The Irish and Filipino gang, sláinte! Coaches Camille and Conor. Finally, Qilta socks for providing continued support to me and keeping my feet in great condition. See you all in 2020!