Interview with British Spartathlon Team Female Runners
2018 Spartathlon finisher Cat Simpson speaks to some of the previous female members of the British Spartathlon Team about their experiences at Spartathlon, training tips and what motivates them.
Can you give some background about your Spartathlon? What year did you run?What were the conditions like?
Lizzie Hawker:2012, which happened to be an unusually hot year.
Debbie Martin-Consani:I ran in 2015. It was hot during the day. I’m Scottish, so it felt real hot. I had ice in my bra, under my hat and a bandana around my neck. It was a real dry heat and it felt like I was being fried. It did rain and get quite cold during the night, which pleased me.
Sophie Power:I ran in 2016 – it definitely didn’t have some of the changes in weather of previous years and was pretty warm all the way through.
Ali Young:I ran the Spartathlon in 2017. Despite sitting in a sauna in the weeks leading up to the race, the conditions weren’t too bad. The Friday was a moderate temperature but it did get hotter on the Saturday – I was eating a lolly at one of the last Check Points by the garage on the hills leading down to Sparta. It was yummy! Now regret that as I should have been running rather than stopping to eat it as a French lady whizzed past me!
Emily Gelder:2010. Conditions were hot, but during the evening/night there were thunderstorms and heavy rain.
Mimi Anderson: The first time I heard about the Spartathlon was in 2004 when I met John Foden who told that I really should think about entering the race as it was right up my street, he told me the same thing a couple of years later! For a long time I kept putting it off as I never considered myself fast enough to even contemplate entering. Eventually in 2011 I took the plunge and put my name on the list. Age wasn’t on my side so it really was a case of if I don’t do it now I never will.
In 2011 the weather was perfect for me, lovely and warm. My aim was simply to finish as the DNF rate was pretty high I didn’t want to put myself under any pressure but ended up finishing 3rd female and first Brit home, something I’m very proud of. I went back in 2013 where the weather was good but it was incredibly cold during the night. The aim that year was to try to be the first female to complete the “double”. Run the race then turn round and run back to Athens. Unfortunately my body had other ideas and I missed the cut-off with about 6km to go! My body literally turned into a rag doll, my back wasn’t able to support me so I was bent over backwards (I had to be held up in the end!) I had a low level virus plus I probably wasn’t eating enough so lessons learnt. In 2015 I went back again to have another go at the “double” this time the weather was awful lots of rain but I managed to finish and complete the return journey so very happy!
Kat Ganly: I ran Spartathlon in 2017. We were very lucky that year- it turned out to be great conditions for running, and one of the ‘cooler’ years ( though still pretty hot for most of us Brits) The team and crew were brilliant and I have such fond memories of my journey through Greece.
Sarah Morwood: I used an auto-qualifier I got at the 24hr Du Ploeren to enter in 2017. I think the conditions that year were considered quite reasonable, but for me it was hot! I have hyperhidrosis, and I lose so much fluid in sweat, these were the hottest conditions I’d ever dared to run in.
Why Spartathlon? What was it about the race that appealed to you?
Lizzie: Curiosity, it’s one of the classic road ultras.
Debbie: Because I vowed that I was never ever going to do it – and my memory is rubbish. I don’t want to say it was a bucket list race, because it wasn’t simply about ticking a box. I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and experience everything about the race. The heat, the roads, the mountain, the tight cut offs. I liked the fact that it was a great honour to be starting such an historic and prestigious event.
Sophie: I’d always assumed it was the one race I could never do as I wasn’t fast enough. I had looked at the finish rates being around 1 in 3 and the quality of runners and just thought it was just going to be too much for me. But I’d just missed out on UTMB in the ballot (again) and realised I actually had a qualifier in SDW100 so threw my name in the ballot just to be able to experience it never thinking I’d finish!
Ali: My next race usually comes from hearing about what races other people have done. The only reason I started doing the 24hr event was listening to my MDS tent buddy Gareth in the tent one day talking about Endure24. Couple of months later I was there! Quite a number of the GB 24hr team had run the Spartathlon including Dan, Debbie, Sharon, Robbie, Paddy and they sowed the seed whilst we were at one of the Championships. I like a big chunky event as they just sound so crazy that I fancy the challenge. The tales of the mountain at mile 100 were alluring! Plus I had an AQ so it felt rude not to! Despite finishing the race and saying ‘NEVER AGAIN’ I did have a place for the 2018 race too but I withdrew due to family commitments.
Emily: In all honesty – I was aiming to get into Badwater and was choosing races around the world that would bolster my running CV.
Mimi: The Spartathlon is such an iconic race in the Ultra running world and for someone who is a better road runner than trail runner it was a race that was top of my bucket list. What drew me towards the race was the distance and time limit of completing the 153 miles in 36 hours. I’m always looking for ways to push myself and this was the perfect race.
Kat: When I started running longer distances I would hear people talking about this incredible race in awe. I remember clearly being on buses to race start lines overhearing conversations about Spartathlon and being totally amazed – it seemed completely out of my league, I was sure these people must be superhuman, and I never thought it would be something I would be able to do – or even consider wanting to do. It really is the stuff of legends. By sheer luck I managed to pull off a decent time in the GUCR (another race of legends way out of my league) and when I realised I had a qualifier for the Spartathlon ballot I put my name in the hat. I had not really considered that I might get a place, and to be honest I was a bit embarrassed when I got in. Nevertheless, I decided to accept my fate, and promptly got training. It’s the only time I have ever enlisted a coach, which really helped: I did not want to embarrass myself too much during the run. As the weeks went by I realised I really wanted this race, I felt very emotional about it and the very real likelihood of failure terrified me. The race is awesome in the true sense of the word, and it is something that still fears me with fear.
Sarah:I had heard about the race, but I’d though it wasn’t really for me, as I love listening to music while I run and I thought I wouldn’t manage that distance with no music. However, having survived 24hr Du Ploeren (in which headphones were banned due to French Athletic federation rules), I decided to give Spartathlon a go. Not long after that I fractured my patella and was told I might never run again. After a year of rehab I had made enough progress to step back into ultramarathons and wanted to use my auto-qualifier before it expired. I decided to use Spartathlon as the ultimate test of my recovery.
It’s a race that people go back to for more. What was it about the race that made it special to you? Any particular highlights? (Or horror stories!)
Lizzie: Not so much stands out about the race itself except running a bit close to thundering lorry during the night and the post-race chafing due to throwing water over myself at every single checkpoint having by that time lost my summertime heat acclimatisation. ButI have to confess it was rather special to reach the overall podium, not so much for me, but when I realised what it meant for the women in Greece from the response I got from the women of Sparta & Athens approaching me after the race …
Debbie: Before the race, I didn’t real understand why people raved about it so much. What could be so magical about running along roads? I honestly think it’s the people of Greece that make it so great. Everyone seems to know about the race and gets fully behind it. The schools and offices that come out to cheer you on, the kids that run to the finish with you. Lorry drivers shouting “Bravo” as they try to avoid taking you out in the process. Can you imagine running along a main road in the UK and getting the same response? Drivers would be calling emergency services to get you locked up. It’s really hard to explain, but people who have completed Spartathlon will know exactly what I mean. That last mile through Sparta has been one of the highlights of my life.
In a booming sport that has mass participation in hugely commercial events, it’s nice to go back to basics and be a person, not just a number. Spartathlon really does offer than personal touch. And the next day, the buzz around Sparta isn’t about times and positions, it’s just boils down to whether you finished or not.
No special horrors stories, just dealing with the heat, swollen feet and blisters. My quads were trashed coming off the other side of the mountains and the last 50 miles seemed to last forever. I wasn’t particularly comfortable with the feral dogs, especially during the funky hours when I’d convinced myself rustles in the bushes were hyenas.
Sophie: It’s definitely a race I want to go back to. The whole experience is unique – from the send off at the Parthenon to the support enroute, to the iconic finish and multiple parties afterwards! For me this was the first race I’d ever really trained properly for and despite an injury a few weeks before I was in the best shape I could be. I’d also never had a crew before and got to spend the race with 2 great friends (who amazingly still are my friends). The highlight would definitely be the “mountain” – which for anyone that runs trail is a bit of a hill. However most runners in the race seemed to only be road runners and were having difficulty on the terrain up and were walking down the gravel switchbacks on the way down so I made more than 30 mins up on the cutoffs in less than an hour! My horror story was my quad exploding at mile 138. I developed a huge oedema (probably from the camber and the fact I don’t run road) and had to limp the last 15 miles in and be put in a wheelchair. I made the cut off with 40 mins to go. The poor kid on the bike could barely go slow enough down the finish straight. I want to go back so I can run to the statue!
Ali: The main reason I would go back is for the ‘bigger picture’, the allure is more than the race itself, I love that team feeling and camaraderie. Probably comes from fact I grew up playing hockey and I think team sport is great. Being part of the British Spartathlon team makes running more about teams than an individual sport – it is the same with being in the GB 24hr Ultra team. The network available to support each other is fantastic and I also had two crew members Paul Magee and Marilena Netty that were absolute stars. The 3 of us were solid together and then on top of that you had your fellow runners and their crews who offered such amazing support – priceless.
Emily:The cut offs.. the constant pressure of timing, the history, the mix of terrain. Horror stories – traffic on the road in the last 3rdof the race. I literally had to clamber over the safety barriers on a few occasions to get away from the lorries. The main joys – the supporters in the villages and the magnificent English lady at the bottom of the mountain who made me the best cup of tea in the world.
Mimi: I love the history of the race and standing on the start line beside the Acropolis is incredibly special and the finish is like no other. Everyone who runs down the street towards the Statue of King Leonidas feels uplifted, elated, on top of the world and incredibly special because of the support from the crowds who line the street cheering and clapping as you pass.
In 2011 I was into the second day enjoying being in the moment trudging up a very long hill, not feeling at all competitive (I was at the time 2nd female) when suddenly from behind I heard not one but two female voices and the next thing I went from 2nd to 4th female. No more Mr nice guy, the competitive spirit kicked in. I couldn’t keep up with the Japanese lady who went off at the rate of knots but I did for about an hour keep up with the other lady. Eventually I overtook the Japanese runner which made me feel very smug and made sure I held onto that third place!
Running into the finish line was one of the best experiences I have ever had in a race. I had a motorbike escort on the final leg, children came out to run beside me or rode next to me on their bikes, everyone was cheering, my emotions were all over the place as I ran up to King Leonardis giving his foot not just a kiss but a great big snog!
In 2015 again on the second day I had just left a checkpoint when the heavens opened, one minute it was beautiful sunshine the next a downpour. I get cold extremely quickly but I couldn’t get a jacket from my crew until the next designated CP which was quite a way off. Luckily for me I was given a black bin liner at the next CP, stopped me from getting too cold and probably saved my race.
Kat: It’s difficult to know how to answer this. There are so many things about this run that make it special – the location, the local support, the legend behind it, the British Team. It’s tricky to pinpoint what it is that keeps people returning, but you definitely come away from Spartathlon feeling like you have made a new family.
It is a real challenge, not only completing the distance itself, but also those initial cut-offs that are quite tight. (In fact the 50 mile cut off was better than my 50 mile PB at the time I got a place, so you can imagine how that made me feel…!). I have horror stories, like everyone, but a memory that sums up this race entirely is a lovely Greek volunteer sweetly mopping up my vomit the other side of the mountain, whilst I apologised profusely. She was smiling all the time.
After I finished Spartathlon I was so elated and relieved: I thought I was done, that I would never have to do it again. Watching last year’s race unfold, however, from the runners preparation to the race day itself, made me feel…homesick. I have since had a growing feeling that I want to continue being involved in this race, and a real need to return. Sadly for my legs I have put my name in the hat again for 2019.
Sarah:Unfortunately I went into the race in a hugely negative headspace, convinced my knee would not last the distance. This resulted in a bad run from start to finish as I battled my internal demons. For the first time in my life during a race I cried and told my crew I could not go on (luckily they convinced me otherwise). Spartathlon is now a race I want to run again with the primary aim being to enjoy it and take away happy memories!
Do you have any tips to pass on to those thinking of running Spartathlon?
Lizzie: It’s a great country to have the chance to visit, soak up the camaraderie between the runners and the amazing support from the locals.
Debbie: Saunas. I had a few sessions in a heat chamber, but I think sitting in a sauna in the weeks lead up to it was way more beneficial. If you usually use headphones/music on your long runs, go without them for a few months. I found dealing with my own internal monologue quite difficult to manage in the latter stages. Wear something to make you visible to traffic at all times. I was wearing a black jacket during the night and staggering about is a state of disarray running along busy roads.
Sophie: Definitely get help from those who have – I called Robbie Britton the second I had a place and he coached me perfectly for it. On the start line, despite all the odds against me (a couple of the British team told me after they didn’t reckon I had a chance – thanks boys) I had never felt so confident as I had a well thought through plan (thanks Robbie). Also – you don’t need to be a super fast runner for this – the 50 mile point and tightest cut-off is 9hr 30. What you do need to do is have confidence not to go too quickly at the start. I would also definitely have a crew if possible. They can’t meet you very often but as cut-offs are important those extra minutes they save you (and ice creams they buy you) can make all the difference.
Ali: If you are thinking about doing the Spartathlon, I would say go for it. The qualifications are tough, so if you have made the qualification – YOU ARE TOUGH ENOUGH! Nothing can beat that feeling of running into Sparta, some of the more horrific memories of the race now a distant memory as you are accompanied by children on bikes and everyone outside the cafes and bars cheering you on like you are a superstar. (gutted for 2018 runners who were robbed of this due to the horrific weather). On a training note, I’m a big fan of strength training so my muscles are strong to support the joints for a battering!
Emily: Try not to think about the task too much. Take some mates with you and get them to meet you when they are allowed to. Change your clothes when you need to depending on the changing weather conditions. Put a few small items of food in drop bags even if you think you won’t need that many drop bags … you can always leave them, but if you want one and you haven’t prepared one that can be disheartening. Enjoy the last few miles … running doesn’t get much better than this. Don’t be too scared of the feral dogs (lots of barking but no biting in my experience).
Mimi: This is a race that you have to have total respect for, even the best runners can DNF in the Spartathlon. Run your own race, don’t agree to run with a friend as this could potentially ruin your own chances of finishing. There are 75 checkpoints along the route, each one has it’s own cut-off so competitors are constantly chasing time. Don’t panic by going off too quickly, believe in your training/preparation, stick to your plan, remember it’s 153 miles!
Kat: It is definitely worth doing some training for this race. Oh, and also: bring your own salt and and vinegar crisps, they are hard to find in Greece.
Sarah: Don’t over-think it. Just get on with it.
On a slightly separate note, the world of female ultra running is really exciting at the moment – is there anyone in particular you look to for inspiration?
Lizzie: There are some standout performances which are very inspiring, but to me it’s just seeing other people out for a run whether on the road or the trail that’s motivating.
Debbie: Too many to mention. If you want something, you’ll find a way. I love people with that drive. I have dream and goals and I work hard to achieve them. Often a I fall short of the targets I set for myself – who doesn’t – but I never lose sight of the overall goal. Women who show strength, courage and a total badass attitude are who I look up to.
Sophie: Having most recently finished UTMB I think some of the British female performances were outstanding – especially Beth Pascal and Sophie Grant. I covered the same ground an awful lot more slowly returning to fitness but they’ve shown what’s possible and I’d like to try again one year. I am also so inspired by Jasmin Paris – she has returned to top level running after having her baby so impressively and I can’t wait to see what she does in the Spine.
Ali: Female Ultra runners are rocking it! I get inspiration from them all, fast or slow. Often it is the slower runners that inspire me as they show such mental strength, grit and determination to battle on for such a long time.
Emily: must be the indefatigable Debs MC and Sharon Law. Anyone that can talk constantly and still run that well definitely deserves my adulation!
Mimi: I have loved watching the growth of female ultra running over the years it really has been wonderful to see and as you say especially at the moment. There is no one female that I can name over another as to me they are all inspirational not just because of what they have achieved but also their attitude to the sport itself. They show us that with hard work, commitment and a love of running anything is possible.
Kat: Ultra running is a great show to watch at the moment! I would be mad if I didn’t mention Jasmin Paris as someone inspiring to look towards. There are loads of incredible women running – I find women who also manage demanding and time consuming jobs (or mums of small children) an inspiration and a reminder that it is possible to do whatever you decide to put your mind to. I studied with Beth Pascall at medical school and I struggle to get my head around how bonkers it is that she can run so well with the demands of being a doctor, so I like to use her as a reminder to get out the door when I feel “too tired” to go for a run after a long day at work. (Hi Beth!).
Sarah:I’m most inspired by people who do things against the odds. One person who I always think of for inspiration during the hard times is an athlete I know from Devon called Trish Deykin. She has MS, but still competes at top level in triathlon despite having long periods of time during relapses when she’s unable to train. That dedication and love of her sport is a constant reminder to me of why I keep on running no matter what difficulties I’m going through.