Friday, 9 October 2015

Endlich is one of those German words, ( a bit like eng, hat means a tight space)  that sums up a feeling much better than an English one. It means a sort finality, so much more all-encompassing than the word finally. When it has taken over four years and three failed attempts to achieve something, it really does mean a lot. 

This does not mean the end of my ultra-running career, more the beginning. Now that I have finished my dream race, after three previous failures, I feel I have the right to call myself an ultra-runner. Prior to this there was evidence that I could complete the distances, but there was no proof I could actually run them. Spartathlon makes you run, firstly you have to speed across the tarmac and hills to the hundred mile point,  then scale a mountain and finally endure the last section while sleep deprived, all the while chasing the cut offs.   

Now that I can hold my head up high and declare that I am an ultra-runner, I am no longer a fraud. 

The memory of that experience will stay with me forever. The absolute joy and relief of walking those final few hundred metres to the statue is unparalleled. It is difficult to describe for one who has not experienced it. Even those proper runners who finish on their first attempt, may not get it.  Having failed three times before, I feel privileged to finally get there and suck up the emotions of the end. 

I will do it again and again until I can no longer run. After that I will support people who want to do it. Spartathlon truly is a great race that burns into your soul. No one can be happy with a failure. You have to come back to it again and again until you reach the end and kiss the foot. 

Enough of this wishy washy hippy drivel of a preamble. The rest of this blog will be split into the following parts. Firstly, what I did to prepare for this year’s Spartathlon, what was different to other years. Secondly, the last few days before the race and the race itself. Thirdly, a summary of the lessons learnt over the last four years. Finally, what will probably turn into a long gushing tribute to all those people who have helped me over the last four years to achieve my goal.  

After last year’s fiasco I was told by Martin Bacon  
"Listen Rob, you say you have done the same thing twice in a row now. If that is true, you have to change something. Work out what it is and do it. If you don't, you are an idiot" 

Harsh but 2014 I had got no further than 2013 and was closer to the cut offs. Very disappointing as I had convinced myself that I had put the effort into training and proved it by finishing C2C Ultra. As I had a hernia operation scheduled for October 2014, which meant an enforced layoff from training, I had plenty of time to re assess and think things through. 

I had to admit I really was a Fat Unt and the weight needed to come off.  I had moaned in past that I couldn't get below 73 kilos, no matter what I tried. As the hernia op would mean no running for 6-8 weeks drastic measures were needed, otherwise I would balloon up.  I went on a fast for the period of recovery.  As much as I like my food, I don't find an issue with fasting. I went from 73kg down to 67kg during those 6-8 weeks.  

A good few kilos went back on after I stopped fasting, especially as Christmas was just around the corner. I started using My Fitness Pal and that helped me see how little I really need to eat and how much junk food I put in. Now I get by on less than a thousand calories a day. Anything more and the weight goes on.  

I also had to admit that I did not train as hard in 2014 as I did in 2013. I took James Adams comment after Spartathlon 2013 "Rob Pinnington – you are going to finish this next year. Just carry on as you are,” To mean I had done enough and not that I needed to make a similar improvement for 2014. In 2014 I ran longer but not faster in training. Rooky mistake.  

Clever training was needed in 2015 and I returned to the plan originally given to me by Mark Cockbain for 2013. 10 km tempo runs, five nights a week and a marathon at weekends. To this, I added hill sessions and intervals at least two mornings a week, most often more. I found as the year went on I conquered my training demons. Often in the past, I knew I should train, but I would make a silly excuse not do it. This time I would still feel like not doing it but I would do it anyway. I also found that although the voices were ilstill in my head that said stop, I now had the power to ignore them. 

Fortunately in late July I found a training buddy. Fatih is a teacher near where I work in Dortmund and regularly runs the 12 km around the Kemnade See. We meet every Tuesday and Thursday and cover it in under an hour. Fatih is faster than me, which is good as he pushes me to my limits. We also did not swap telephone numbers or email addresses until the week before I left for Greece meaning that I had to meet him at the pre-arranged time and not pull out of a training session.  

I needed to sort out the heat. Most sessions this year were done in bin bags and a lot of the time I wore a five kilogram jacket as well. I sweated buckets during those training runs often ending up two kilos lighter. This really helped with dealing with the heat in races and shedding the weight. 

I experimented with race food on several occasions, but came back to the realisation that gels and carb drinks work best for me. I tried full fat yogurts but they just slide straight through me. 

All in all I was better prepared than the last three efforts and incredibly relaxed going into the race. There was no panic about it, as had been in previous years. 

Being heavily involved with the British Spartathlon Team helped a lot, as I could impart my knowledge to help others and this always makes me feel good and relaxed.

The Race 
I arrived late Wednesday evening and took the x96 bus to Glyfada. I saw some poor Japanese runner trying to explain to the bus driver where he wanted to get off. I did my usual kindly uncle act and calmed the pair of them down by offering to show the Japanese guy the correct stop. 

I reached my hotel room at a little after eleven and woke my room buddy and crew Nick Papageorge. Nick and his old school friend Yiannis would be crewing me this year as they did last year. I wanted to make sure I did a good job and not let them down, like I did previously. 

After an early breakfast we went to the local supermarket to get some extra supplies. Cheese, chocolate, rice pudding, yogurt and crisps to go with the 70 odd gels and 24 bottles of SIS Go. 

We toddled off to registration a tad later and joined the slow moving queue to pick up my race number and other elements of the race pack.  

The slow moving nature of the queue gave plenty of opportunity for us to catch up and converse with friends old and new. Firstly I saw the ISA president Kostis...he and his team do a marvelous job every year. As a token of the British Spartathlon Teams gratitude, we gave him some crew shirts and buffs. We also met with Adrian Kouyoufas, whose family have been involved with the mountain base checkpoint for the last thirty years. There is now an article on the British Spartathlon Team website by Paul Ali here about their contribution. We also gave them a gift or two. 

Finally Nick and I added the drop bags and bottles to the the cp boxes. 24 bottles with a weak mix of SIS GO and three gels taped to each. These were for every third cp. 12 bags with a rice pudding in each to be placed at cps 12, 21, 30, 36 39, 42, 45, 47 54, 57, 60, 66, 72 and a flag for the penultimate cp 74. As Eddie Izzard says, One must have a flag. The bag for cp 30 included my torch and spare batteries. The bag for the mountain base (cp#47) included my Care Keep Warm top. During the race I carried my s caps (40 or so) in zip lock bag to be taken once an hour. I also carried sachets of magnesium granules to prevent cramping. I am not sure if the last item is a placebo or not.  

We wandered off for a bite to eat in Glyfada for lunchtime, returning for the race briefing at 17:00...Then it was a matter of the British team photos. I was very pleased with how the kit had turned out. I had been working since January to raise sponsorship, get designs created, agreed and the kit printed and delivered. What is it about kit design that suddenly makes everyone think they are a professional designer? In the end we had two white runners’ shirts, two red crew tops, four buffs and a hat for each runner plus loads of accessories such as s caps, rock tape, sun cream and blister plasters. And all for zero cost to the runners. On top of this Paul Ali completely re vamped the website and we developed a media strategy with many runners being interviewed by their local press and loads of social media presence, thanks to James Ellis. My reasoning is that the more comfortable we can make the race and the more publicity generated, the more likely it is we will get better and better runners. A most excellent job even though I say so myself.  

That said arranging the photos to be taken by out official team photographer Sarah Dryden was like herding sheep. A similar problem ensued when we tried to get them to go off for the team meal. Not all the runners wanted to do this as many have their own pre-race routines. Those that did moved at a speed that certainly would not suggest that they were about to run in a fast ultra.  

After a good night’s sleep and breakfast I was ready to go. The bus ride to the Acropolis was smooth. The many runners chatting quietly and some nervously. I was completely calm, sipping on my bottle of SIS GO and talking to Debbie Martin-Consani. She seemed a little worried that I might be upset after all that work arranging the kit that she wasn't wearing it. I see the kit as something for the photos and a present to the more than deserving runners and crew. Each one of us is different and we all have our preferred kit to run in and it is not as if it Official stuff anyway. 

We got off the bus and there was some confusion as to what to do about the bags for the end in Sparta. Rather than letting us all panic, I asked Nick Papageorge to find out as a) he was my crew and I wouldn't see him until 42km in and b) he is native Greek speaker. During the next two days Nick did a great job not only crewing me, but finding other people's lost drop bags. No mean feat when you have the likes of Ian Thomas around. 

The text I had written on my arms caused a few comments.  "Don't be a cunt" or behave and remember all the advice people had given you on the left arm.

"Do not refuse to continue" on my right.  Or make sure you keep going no matter how bad you feel.

After the usual pre-race photos, we started off down the hill from the Acropolis. A lot of the Brits were crowded together Stouty, Steele, Ali, Debbie and Sharon.  All seemed to be going well. In fact I was very confident. I knew that I would finish when I noticed my different reaction to the honking of the car horns through Athens. Normally this really annoys me. I assume the drivers do not understand what we are doing and how hard it is. This time, however, I was pleased with their encouragement. Mark Cockbain had said to me you have to really believe you will finish before you start.  This time, I really did believe it.  

We climbed the long slow hill out of the bowl of Athens and I was really comfortable. Others around me were complaining about the heat and steepness of the climb and I didn't notice either.  I was running with GB 24 hour athlete Sharon Law and her friend Mizuki, a fellow 24hourer from Japan and I found the pace easy. It really bought it home to me how much I had improved if I could run with these ladies. Fuck! this fat little old guy was running with international athletes,  “yeah man, me iz rocking” I thought in the stylee of the young peeps.  

I soon settled into acting as a tour guide to Sharon explaining where the next CP was and the turns and twist on the early part of the course. I did screw up at one point, as I thought the view of the ships queuing for the Corinth canal was earlier than it was. 

CPs came and went and all was well. We reached CP 11 the marathon, in 4:06 bang on my target pace and this was the first time you could meet you crew. I had a rice pudding from Nick, even though I knew I had one waiting at the next CP. Nick told me to calm down and slow down, but I knew this was not like last year when I went off like a rabbit. This year I wore my Garmin and I was careful to stick to the target pace we agreed and not go any faster. 

As we came up the hill to CP 12 we saw Sean Maley and he looked proper fucked. The heat and the fact it was only a month since he had won La Ultra 333km in the Himalayas was getting to him. I offered him a lot of my rice pudding as I assumed food would help. I was glad I did, as the next day Sean ensured I kept going at the right pace when I was tired. He is officially hard as fuck  

Then I ran a little with Paul Katisva Corderoy, who was suffering. He had made the same mistake as me last year and shot off too quick. The fact we start in the cool of dawn tricks people and before you know it the sun is beating down and doing its best to take out the fast runners. 

I soon came across Jamie Holmes and James Ellis. I was over the moon at this point and at how well it was going and I raved about the views over Saronic Gulf. Jamie was really pleased for me. I barely noticed that James was not so good.  

As we neared Corinth, a tall Italian runner started singing at me and translating as we went along. I really have no idea why he did this.  It is just one  of those things that happens on Spartathlon.  The only song I know a reasonable amount of lyrics to is Gaudete' by Steelye Span.   

Gaudete, gaudete! 
Christus est natus
Ex Maria virgine,

I did sing this very loud when I felt a dip. Singing Latin in Greece…rather apt. 

I got into Corinth last year on the cut off. This year 8:12 still bang on schedule. The mid afternoon heat was telling a bit and I had made sure of dunking my hat and buffs across my wrists a lot. Nick got ice cubes to under my hat and under the wrist bands buffs at this CP.

As I ran through to Examila CP 24 I saw Paul Ali getting a massage and called to him. He saw me and was off the table and running down the road like a scared rabbit.  As I turned the corner to CP 25 just before Ancient Corinth I saw Ali taking another rest. I told him to stop sitting around as he had a race to win and I left him behind.  

I ran down the road to the ancient town centre and I noticed I had missed a turn. I didn’t worry but found my way to the CP by another route. This slight diversion had enabled Paul to catch me up. I heard later that he cried “Where is Rob?” as he reached this point and was really panicked that I might be doing better than him.  Nick kept the pressure up on him throughout the race, by telling him I was only half an hour behind irrespective of my actual position. What a complete cunt? 

Tim Anderson commented how much I was enjoying myself.  
 I informed him and Russell Tullett that by that time I had had around 30gels. Russell said that I must be buzzing from the sugar rush. 
“Not only sugar chap, each one has 40mg of caffeine.” 
“No wonder your eyes are like piss holes in the snow” came the response. 

I jogged on, hit the 100km point at 10:30 and knew I could now afford to slow from an average of 6mins/km to 9mins/km until the mountain. I picked up my head light at CP 30 and got to CP 31 Halkion village, up a hill in the daylight. Here I mentioned to Marco Consani that I had seen pictures of Paddy Robbins reaching this point in daylight in 2013 and had dreamed of doing the same. The last two times it had been pitch black. Now I had achieved that dream. Could things get any better? Rocking this one! 

I made it to Nemea the half way point in 13:34 on target and with a two and half hour buffer. It was now dark and the amount of gels was beginning to make me feel bloated. Nick changed my shoes and socks and creamed my, by now battered , feet. Russell asked what I wanted   eat and I had no clue and it didn’t matter.  

"Just get me fucking anything"  
A right prima Donna moment. 

As Nick and I walked up the street, he was giving me a pep talk but none of it was going in. 

I told him or rather engaged in a rant stating that the next forty km to the mountain was crucial for me as this was where I had failed the last two times. I was worried my legs would my burn out or that despite the magnesium granules I was taking, my legs would cramp up.  Almost mid rant I paused and puked up the pasta and cheese Russell had given me. Obviously I was so adapted to gels that the complex carbs were instantly rejected. I swear some of it splashed on Nick, but he didn't seem to mind. 
Just been sick
On I went and got to the CP where I had been pulled last year. I took out my little laminated card with key cps closing times on and asked a young woman there to do the calculations for me. I was still way ahead.  

I followed the road down to Malandreni where in 2013 I was on the verge of quitting but this year I was fine. Nick checked me over gave me some more encouragement and sent me on my way. I switched my head lamp off as we had full moon and lightening in the sky. The world was perfect and so was I!  

As I reach the CP 42 where I had quit in 2013 I saw Sharon Law for the first time in ages. She was refusing to continue as her legs were not co-operating.  I knew that was the same as happened to me and I have regretted not toughing that through for the last two years.  I tried to get her to go on but she refused. I really am not that good at encouragement. 

By now I was really on top of things and any lingering doubt had vanished. As I reached Lyrkia I saw Fergie (Izzy Wykes crew) and Becky (from Mimi Anderson crew and our accountant) and had a chat and a laugh. Becky kept trying to get me to go on and I was looking for Nick. In the end I grabbed a bottle of blue PowerAde to break the monotony of SIS GO and started the long ascent to the mountain base.  

Although people mention it in their blogs, and Sean Maley told me about it, I never really appreciated how long this section was. It is a fucking long long climb to the mountain base.  On and on and fucking on. Do you get the idea? Remember this because it is important! Fortunately for me it was on my favourite surface, tarmac, so I felt fine running on it. I had planned on doing this section in 12min km and I was going a lot faster. Therefore as first the only South African in the race and then Izzy Wykes went past me it didn't bother me. Izzy made me laugh as she commented that she had had a bad first 50. It is not what she said...just the frightfully posh accent she said it in, after running 100 miles.  

Eventually I got to the mountain base to change into my Care Keep Warm top and Montane Minimus jacket. I was so pleased to have reached the mountain. I had been told get over this and the race is done bar the shouting.   I had been told it was a hands on knees job, but I did not find it that steep...or at least I don’t remember it being steep because it is so fucking dangerous. The path zig zags with tape on either side of the climbing path and the occasional colour coded flashing light. Green for straight on, red for a turn. This path is made of many surfaces. Sometimes it is flat packed earth which is ok. Other times it is well worn large rocks which are very slippy, especially with a bit of rain on them. The almost most dangerous bits made up of hand sized rocks that wobble and fall away underneath your feet as you step on them. But most dangerous of all are the places where the path does not exist at all. It has crumbed and fallen down the mountainside. You might not believe me because you have seen photos of the path on the race website. But those photographers are stationed only at the beginning, so you never see good quality photos of the shit bits. They are probably to clever to go up. At certain points on the way up there are guides huddled under ponchos. They shine a light and say nothing. I don't know if they get paid, but whatever it is it is not enough. 

After forty minutes and two kms you turn a corner and have suddenly reached the top. I took a cup of warming chicken soup and complained loudly about how fucking dangerous the climb was. This was greeted with much mirth and merriment. 

One of CP guys said don't worry it is a road down the other side  

This some new weird definition of a road and the guy had definitely not walked up it. Admittedly it was wider than coming up. But it was just a shite surface. Loose rubble that slipped under your feet. The surface was painful like  Mark had  said. By now I knew I had blisters all along where the toes join the feet. 

At this point my memory becomes a blur. 
I think I was chatting to Neil Cloke as he overtook me. But I think it may have been a hallucination.Also Bob Hearn mentions he went past me at this point and I was rather rude.  sorry Bob.
I reached Nestani 172 km CP 52 with two hours on the buffer. Nick insisted I had massage. This was of no use and I didn't really need it. But it made Nick happy. Finally I had a shit. 50 odds gels is a lot to come out. I remember feeling tired and taking a caffeine tablet just afterwards but I puked it straight back up. That did the trick and I felt more awake. 

I plodded on at around 8mins/km. I just kept going, knowing the buffer was good and I had less than two marathons to go.  

Eventually I hooked up with Sean Maley again and we ran on together almost the end. As we reach CP 59 I had my rice pudding which should have been at CP 60. This, as before, I shared with Sean. We added lion biscuits and at one point as I was a feeding him,  the CP crew thought we were father and son. This actually works out mathematically as I am twenty five years older than him. We had settled into a run walk strategy by now. 

Sean was more focused on the job in hand and was constantly calculating the required pace. I noticed his lips moving and fingers unfurling as he counted out the time and km to go. I really hadn't got a clue and just ran or walked whenever he told me to.  

We met up with Mizuki from the Friday and at one point she showed us where her bra strap had rubbed her flesh raw. Not a pretty sight!

By now Nick was nowhere to be seen. He had told us he was going to the end with Liz Hearn to watch her partner, Bob, finish. The course is mainly flat and I didn’t need anything from Nick so that was OK.  My feet felt like painful bloody stumps. I knew they were blistered to fuck and I really didn't want to see them.

As we reached the second but last climb approaching  CP48 it started pissing down. With no crew around we had no access to our rain coats. I asked at the CP for bin bags but instead they gave us some rather fetching transparent capes.  The road drifted upwards for several kms and then up and down. At one point an Italian guys was drafting me. He had an awkward heavy step that meant he kept splashing me. I tried to tell him to stop, but couldn't make myself understood. Eventually I had to speed up to loose him. 

Then I was running with a Korean American called Bruce and a dog. This dog just kept following the runners and crossing over the road seemingly oblivious to the traffic. 

Nick finally turned up and we had words. I could have behaved better here. It was stupid to waste my energy insulting my mate. Sorry Nick. What I didn't know was that he had been sorting out more drop bag issues for other people. Nick really has a heart of gold.  

Finally we got over the last hill. Remember there are two of the fuckers that no one ever mentions in their blogs. It was while walking up this final hill that I bumped into the splashing Italian and we had an argument. For some reason he was annoyed with me. I really felt like giving him a good slap, but we were so close to the end it was rather pointless.

We started dropping down from  the central plateau passed the Shell garage at CP 72 and we three split up, Mizuki going first then me and finally Sean. I started chatting to the South African guy again. All about Rugby and how shit England and South Africa were. 

Finally I saw the two bridges that marked the entrance to Sparta and I got to the last CP and picked up my Liverpool towel.  It was only 2.4km  to the statue so I walked it singing You'll Never Walk Alone  

People were cheering from the side of the road,  from their cars and even from their balconies. 

I was so deliriously happy!  

I made the final turn as was greeted by the Steeles , Shirley and Jon.   
"Come on, let's run the statue"  said Shirley 
"Fuck off,  it has taken me  four years to get here,  I am walking this in and drinking in every moment."  

I was whipping the crowd up,  getting them to cheer even more. It was brilliant. The atmosphere was just everything I had wanted and dreamt of it being and more.   

Half way up the road Nick handed me  my Vodka Martini  

Stouty and Russell Tullett soaked me in champagne,  washing a contact lens out,  but all I was worried about was them not getting any in my Martini  

I saw Paddy and Sharon and loads of other from the British Team. Everyone was shaking my hand.  I felt like I had won.  

Unfortunately I blanked everyone on my left hand side,  sorry guys. 

What a waste I could have milked it even more!  

I made it to the statue platform,  but I wouldn't touch it. 

Kostis asked to take my Martni from  me 

"Never come  between a man and his Martini" 

I was handed the bowl of water from the River Eurotas to drink.  As I paused to drink it I saw a reflection  of Chrissy looking back up at me, smiling. After drinking it I had to check to see if she was still there. 

People kept telling me to touch the statue but I had to call Chrissy first.  I had my Martini and she was in a bar with our boys back in Germany.  

We toasted our success 

I went over and kissed it while on the phone  

That was it I had done  it. 

After four years of trying  I had made it to the end!  

They took me to medical tent and washed my feet and syringed the bigger blisters.  I was fine and just kept getting them to give me  beer. The race was over and all I had to do was get steaming drunk.  Unfortunately my body started to shiver and I was tucked up in bed quite early on. 

Lessons learnt 
  • The pacing was excellent.  I can do better in the second half 
  • The bottles,  gels, rice puddings, s caps and magnesium worked well. 
  • Grabbing a bit to eat from  the CPS relieves the monotony of gels 
  • Throwing up makes you feel a lot better 
  • The mountain is not that hard,  it is the hills at end that are a killer 
  • I need to train more for night/tired running as I always loose pace at night 
  • Most of all, if a normal guy commits to training and believes he can do something,  then nothing can stop him

First of all Mark Cockbain.Your training plan and knowledge of the race is invaluable,  you should write a book. 

Nick and Yiannis my most excellent crew.  I can't thank you enough for all your help.  

Mark Wooley, James Adams,  James Elson, Robbie Britton, Paddy Robbins, Paul Ali,  Allan Rumbles and many more for all your advice over the years.

Richard Fish and my sister Anne for offering all that encouragement  

and of course Chrissy, for everything.  

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