Saturday, 13 October 2012

Spartathlon 2012

I have never done a race report before, but I wanted to do one because, some people asked me and I can use it as an aide memoire for next year. I feel it is a bit presumptuous to be so impertinent to write a race report for a race you have not completed. As this is my first race report it might not be what you are expecting. Finally, the fact I only covered a third of the distance, it will focus somewhat on the build up to the race, the aftermath and the lessons learned.

Not long after I did my first marathon, I heard about and thought about doing the Spartathlon. One hundred and fifty three miles or Two hundred and forty six kilometers across Greece, how cool does that sound!? The vague idea formed in my mind that I would do it by the time I was 50 years old. Last year, in 2011, events started coming together that made my entry inevitable. I was working in Hungary and some runners at work suggested I try Ultrabalaton, which at two hundred and twelve kilometers is only a tad shorter than Spartathlon, if a good deal flatter. The race report for that is whole different story, but having completed the race in thirty one and half hours and over a year to go to the next available Spartathlon I was told I had qualified for my dream race. A month or so after Ultrabalaton I went on a weekend charity run in Hungary covering 70km a day and met a few other guys who had either done it or encouraged me to do it. Then Mark Woolley, who I had met at Ultrabalaton introduced me to a whole bunch of people via Facebook and the momentum was gaining. Finally my wonderful wife gave me permission, which, as those of you who have been married over twenty years, know is the final seal of approval.

I have not ever been one for structured training plans. I gave up reading running magazines and websites on training years ago. I just run because I like the forests and fields that surround my house in Germany and it keeps my weight down. My goal is to average ten kilometres a day, but I knew I had to do more than normal to get Sparta done. So I simply started upping my mileage to one hundred kilometres plus a week as the year ran on. I was still working in Hungary and entered Ultrabalaton again and that was the first wake up call. 2012 Ultrabalaton was run in 40° plus, even at night it did not get below 20°. Sadly to say I was over confident and only made 80km in 12hours. I went back to the drawing board and asked Mark Woolley and Matt Mahoney, amongst others, what to do. Desert hats, training in loads of layers, soaking the body with water and Hokas where recommended. But I need another race to try them out. Fortunately, Andre Dreilich’s 100km in Leipzig was only around the corner time wise and although it was also darn hot one I completed it in 11:20, an improvement of 30 minutes. I then upped my mileage to 130km plus a week and thought I was ready.

Travel and Registration
I flew out of Frankfurt on Wednesday and got the X96 express from the airport. Knowing where to get out is an issue as the London Hotel is on the opposite side of a very busy dual carriage way and shrouded in trees. You will only see it if you go past the stop on the bus and look backwards. I was riding with some Germans who were obviously doing the race, so I ear wigged their conversation and got off at the same place as them . The next obstacle was crossing the dual carriageway to Athens without getting run over.

In the rather cramped reception of the London Hotel I went to register, only to have my place in the queue nicked by a German. Germans don’t do queuing, and the thief was Frank Witzlar, who I ended up drinking & running with on the Sunday evening/Monday morning and for all his lack of queue ability turned out to be a nice chap. As I turned away from the registration desk I was greeted by a very loud shout of “Hello Rob!” from a woman I had never met before and I didn’t have a clue who she was. Normally when in a foreign land when approached by young attractive lady, who is in the company of a young man, I think “they must be con artists or worse”. The couple turned out to be Claire Shelly and Drew Sheffield from the UK who had recognized me from my Facebook photo. Introductions & plans for lunch, made I went to check into my hotel. Because I registered from Germany, the organizers had put me in the Congo Place Hotel with the Germans and Japanese. Not ideal, but as I can speak German and a smattering of Japanese the only thing that seemed wrong with the idea was the 1km walk along the dual carriageway in the middle of a sun drenched Athens afternoon. On entering the hotel I was impressed by how much better it's reception area was than the London Hotel. Result I thought, but then came the first of the issues. The receptionist could not find me on the list and argued that I could not have a running number of 5 as they all had to be three digits in length. The second issue was the room they gave me was far from clean, but a quick call to reception sorted that out. The rest of the day was spent hanging around aimlessly. A lunch and dinner with Claire & Drew and an introductions to Lindley Chambers, partner Sue, and the force nature that is Allan Rumbles followed. Here I learned how inexperienced I was compared to all the other runners in Team GB. Allan kept pointing people out to me and saying “He is as hard as nails” or “She is fast.” A lesser man might have been intimidated and I was a far lesser man.

Thursday’s only major activity was preparing kit for the race and sorting out drop bags. You have to wear your race number on the front and back so make sure you either have race number holder or do not mind more safety pins than a punk. They give you a race chip to wear as well. This I laced into the top of my shoe as I planned switching shoes. I was worried this might rub , but it turn out to be the least of my problems during the race. The drop bags need labeling up with the check point number and your running number and seal them up firmly, and not, as I had done, laminated labels with my name & the checkpoint number. I am still, two weeks later, forlornly waiting for the return of my head torch. You put your drop bag into a bin liner inside a cardboard box that is marked with the checkpoint number. Don’t worry if you have more or less drop bags than everyone else, as no one does the same thing. Some have ever less than me and one guy had a drop bag at every even numbered checkpoint. This was the first time I did drop bags (even on Ultrabalaton I carried everything myself) so the three I did with my torch in one, a long sleeved shirt in another and a pair shoes in the third was an experiment in itself.

The rest of the day was spent on the beach sunning myself and having massages from odd Japanese ladies. Glyfada is ok once you get away from that damn dual carriageway.

The Race
The morning of the race was cooler than I thought it would be. A 5:15 alarm call and a quick breakfast and we were loaded on the buses. Our main luggage was left behind in Athens and another smaller bag, with a change of clothes for Sparta, tagged with your race number taken on the bus. Remember you might be in Sparta for Friday and Saturday night if you are pulled early, so pack two sets of clothes, so you do not have to do what I did and wear the same clothes, keks and all, for two days running in hot Greek weather. You have to wear a chip and your number back and front so make sure they are visible at all times. Later on, at each checkpoint they look for your number. I got into the habit of shouting my race number in Greek (which is “Penta”) and holding my five fingers up palm forward. This raised a laugh and I thought it was just my bad pronunciation. I later learn that five fingers held forward means “In your face” in Greek, or perhaps something worse.

The start is a really impressive location with the Acropolis towering above you, still lit up in the darkness. The hoard of runners and supporters are milling around, taking photos to relieve the tension in the air that is so thick you could cut it with a knife. There are plenty of sights to see, garish kitted Germans, Americans being loud only the way they can be and the restrained Brits.

The countdown starts prompted and suddenly we are off, jogging slowly down the hill, trying to be careful not to twist an ankle on the, quite frankly, dangerous cobbles. There is no let up in the speed, despite running through rush hour traffic, as the Police and organizers do a great job holding the traffic up for us. Then comes the first surprise of the race. There is a great sodding hill on the way out of Athens that goes on for flipping miles! No one mentions that in their race reports. It is not steep just bloody long. As we climb peoples positions change a lot. I had been chatting with Lindley Chambers, but we are soon running with Phil Smith, Allan Rumbles, Claire Shelley and Drew Sheffield. I am trying to keep to my tempo of 10km/hour for the first 42km and it is a little of a struggle on the hill, but then it starts going downhill and things get a lot easier.

By this time I have gone through two check points and load of the people around me are already complaining about the heat. It is warmer than previous years but I have dunked my desert hat in the water to keep cool. This is working a treat and am feeling very comfortable. As we go down the hill the sun starts coming out raising the temperature a degree or two. I reach up to take my sunglasses off the top of my hat and realize I have lost my blue Oakley Flames at one of the checkpoints in the dunking process. Panic and anger grips me. How could I have been so stupid! Lindley asks me what is wrong and a cry so loudly, that Claire Shelley, just behind me shouts out “Rob are these your sunglasses?” I turn and behind me is a nice Japanese guy who had seen me drop the shades at the last checkpoint and had been trying to find me. I am overjoyed and think this is going to be my lucky day! Just then James Adams joins us from the bushes after having a roadside dump. Even better, I am running with one of my heroes and keeping up with him. My spirits rise and rise. This is going to be a great day.

The road gradually turns right and we are on the coast road around the industrial park. The air quality is worse than the centre of car flume laden Athens. The smell is one of heavy oil refineries and diesel trucks whizzing past at great speed. We go past a truck show room that had a truck on a big pole, an obvious case of bad parking. At this point we see Chisholm Dupree struggling in the heat. Finally this horrid stretch ends with a small climb. Kevin Marshall is running strangely and Lindley informs me this is because he is not a runner but a speed walker and can speed walk faster than most people can run. The road levels out a bit and pace in the heat is starting to hurt. Down another dip and according to my watch we are dropping behind, Lindley and I review my belief against the next check point time and we have over thirty minutes spare, which is plenty in this race. I look up and see yet another hill towering in front of us. When asked if we have to climb it Allan Rumbles and Phil Smith say “It does not matter, the route is always forward and don’t think about the course.” Easy for them to say. Actually, not so easy for Allan, as he has been chucking up for some while.

We get to checkpoint nine and I realize that I have been reading the wrong time on the boards. Instead of looking at the close of the current checkpoint, I am looking at the close of next checkpoint. It means instead of having half an hour to spare I only have five minutes. Panic sets in and I speed up. I go past Stuart Shipley, the man who provided the Team GB shirts and the indomitable Peter Johnson, who turns to me and says “I am fucked”. This is starting to get scary.

I get past the marathon mark with only seven minutes to spare. I am suppose to slow down to eight kilometres an hour an hour according to my plan, but as time is tight I try to keep the pace. Between forty kilometres and sixty kilometres I always get a wobble on, irrespective of the ultra distance. This is normal for me and I do not worry.

I get onto the true coast run, with the heat getting worse due to the fact that it is coming at you from three directions. The first from the sun above, the second from the tarmac below and the third from the side as the sun’s rays are reflected off the wall of rock that skirts the road on the right. But the view is tremendous as we see the whole of the Sardonic Gulf. I stop and take a few photos and run with Drew Sheffield a bit. He is struggling with his tummy somewhat but battling on. This bit was supposed to be flat, but it undulates in a scary fashion. As we reach the crest of the hill, at checkpoint ten leader shouts “ five minutes to check point closing!” feck feck!

I run off down the road and go past Klaus Wanner, who has finished this race three times. He says “We have time” I am trying not to panic but the time is slipping from me. The next bit flat and I settle into a good pace running through a Greek village, cheered on by the locals. I am getting my strength back and it is only another ten kilometres to Corinth. Out the other side and another gentle incline.

I call Lindley and he tells me he is already on the death bus with Allan and many others. The race is picking us off like flies, just laughing at how foolish we are to even start. Lindley tells me they are giving us an extra twenty minutes allowance because of the heat.

I meet Paul Mott striding up with his long legs. He does not run with a watch, he just goes at the pace he thinks is right and if it is good enough then good, if not well tough. I tell him about the allowance and he says “that is wrong, just wrong”. As far as he is concerned the time limits should be set in stone they should not change them.

Onward to checkpoint eighteen and I am fifteen minutes late, but they let me through. As I round the corner I see Claire Shelley walking.

That is Claire who did the South Downs Way one hundred mile in sub twenty hours.

Walking, does not compute.

She is also worrying about her friend Drew. I tell her that I saw him at checkpoint ten just after he had thrown up. That makes her worry more and I try to unsuccessfully to recoup my faux pas. When in a hole stop digging. She asks me if I want to run a bit and as she powers off I struggle to keep up. My phone rings and it is my wife with her first call of the day. This cheers me up immensely and gives me an excuse not to be embarrassed by struggling to keep up with Claire.

I can see checkpoint nineteen in the distance and just then a death bus goes by. I call Lindley again to see if he is on this bus and then by the time I finish the call it is too late. I thought I was there fifteen minutes late with five minutes to spare on the extended cut off. But I am pulled, they must have heard what Paul Mott said. The ladies take my numbers and chips. Laurence Chownsmith soon joins me at the checkpoint and we commiseration in our shared failure. I start to complain about the cut off and he echoes Motty’s comment about the cut offs being the cut offs and we drop in to a sullen silence.

Eight hours twenty minutes and seventy kilometres is a poor return for all that training. The Death Bus continues on, full of people I have met this weekend we reach checkpoint twenty one where we get off and drink beer to drown our sorrows. Laurence takes me across the Corinth Canal and it is a truly amazing sight, it seems to drop forever to the sea. Claire soon goes by followed by Kevin Shelton-Smith. I start to complain again that they are been given longer that me, but Laurence calms me down. The stop is extended as the bus has to change a wheel.

After getting going again we go to the Corinth checkpoint and are moved onto another larger bus for the trip to Sparta. Fortunately beer is in good supply and the journey to Sparta is made easier with the great company. A good sleep and a long time later and we are in Sparta to pick up our overnight bags and the wait to be taken to another hotel outside Sparta.

We arrive at a luxury complex on the coast to be greeted by Allan Rumbles and the guys from the earlier Death bus. More food and free beer is in full flow. Although I would have preferred to have finished the race, this is great compensation.

The next day the bus us back to Sparta to watch the finishers arriving. The difference in people is amazing. Some run, some hobble with massive leans to one side, others look like the walking dead. The reception on that final stretch is amazing. The whole town turns out to greet the winners, because everyone who finishes is a winner. Seeing James Adams, George Illes, David Miles and Kevin Shelton Smith kiss the statue, filled me with a mixture of pleasure for them, but an overwhelming sense of envy.

Next year this will be me. But not until I have learned all my lessons

1) More speed is vital. One of the qualification criteria is one hundred kilometres in under ten and a half hours. My aim is to improved my fastest time at this distance from eleven hours plus to under ten. I have already found a training plans to improve my fifty and one hundred kilometre times. I will use these and get some good races in during the first half of next year. Getting under seventy kilograms and not using the phone so much might help as well.

2) More fuel is required. Normally I just eat what is on offer at the checkpoints, but a lot of successful guys use gels. I used to use these over ten years ago and they must have improved in that time. I believe I need to start training and using these in races to maintain the speed.

3) Better drop bags. My drop bag strategy will need improving to cope with the extra gels. I also need to think about where to point the lamp and warm clothes for the evening. One guy was doing really well and almost made Nestani, 172km in the qualification point, but was it too cold on the mountain.

4) Better blister prevention. I can take the pain blisters ok , but anything that helps stop them has got to be good. I use Wright double skin socks, but will experiment with blister tape and toe socks to see what works best.

Chin up there is always 2013!


  1. Brilliant, thanks Rob. Almost enough to make a marathon runner want to 'extend' (*almost*).

    Well done on what you did achieve, in the tough conditions (already an amazing feat), and good luck next year!


  2. I'm aiming for Spartathlon next year. (I qualified in a 24 hour last month.) I loved your report. It is encouraging in a way that so many people who end up on the death bus feel they can write about their experience with honesty and humour. It gives me hope.