Saturday, 31 October 2015

Spartathlon 2015

You know one of those races that you're never ever going to do? Like never?  That was my initial response when I first heard about Spartathlon.  That heat and all that road, forget it.   But after a few years in the sport, the crazy gets crazier and the unthinkable becomes infatuation.  It's one of the world's classic ultra-distance races, so ranked high on my bucket list. 

I was reminded by running friends in a similar way as I was when I signed up for GUCR a few years ago.  "But, Debs, you hate running on the canal".  I doesn't bother me so much now, but it did then. New for 2015 was "But, Debs, you can't run in heat".  Valid and vital point.

The prospect of the heat terrified me and I'd pretty much resigned myself to airing on the side of misery during the race.  But it wasn't the car crash I expected it to be.  Granted, it wasn't as hot as in previous years, but it was still beyond the melting point for my fair skin.

I'd basically sweated my ass off in the month leading up the race in saunas, hot yoga and a heat chamber.  At my last heat chamber session I was surprised to report I actually felt quite comfortable for the hour.  My confidence was a few rungs up from last ill-fated holiday runs and I felt as prepared as I was ever going to be.

Previous participants spoke so highly of the experience, but how could running along the edge of road be the "best race ever"?  What could be so "special" about it?  Why would your get the race logo tattooed on your body?
Regardless of what the influx of international visitors think, the Greeks are very passionate about the race.  It's ingrained in their history and culture as it mirrors the journey made by Pheidippides, the messenger of ancient Greece, who covered the 153 miles (246km) distance to request assistance from the Spartan armies.  

Individually, there's nothing extraordinary about the race characteristics:  The heat, the relentless road, 8800ft of ascent, the mountain at 100 miles,  or the speed your need to travel at to stay within the strict cut off times.  It's the combination of those factors that stop the majority from making it from Athens at day break to Sparta before sunset the next day. 

Even despite the race's strict entry and qualifying criteria, the success rate speaks volumes about the difficulty of the undertaking.  Typically around 40%, but it's been as low as 23% on a few occasions. 
Brtish Spartathlon Team (britishspartathlonteam.org)

This year, the field was very deep.  "Stacked" as my Stateside friends would say. Arguably the best the race had ever seen.  The male and female 24-hour world champions, Florian Reus and Katalin Nagy were starting, along with previous winners and placers and a few high calibre international athletes.  On paper, that would increase the percentage of finishers, as the cut-offs wouldn't or shouldn't be the major issue.

As countries are allocated a specific number of places, everyone comes as a team.    So we arrived as a mixed squad of 23 in our fancy dress kid-on GB kit.  All part of the razamataz which I , of course, whole-heartedly embraced.

Even after the race, my recollection of the experience all merged into one big mish-mash, so this is a bit sketchy.
The Start: Picture by Sparta Photography Club
At 7am, as daylight was creeping in, we set off through the streets of Athens - causing a major traffic jam as we went.  Even after 33 years, I don't think anyone knows whether the motorists are honking their horns out of support or to show how pissed off they are.  We went with the former, smiling and waving like idiots.

I was pretty relaxed, but I could feel the tension around me.  People racing early on, breathing harder than what is deemed appropriate for a 153 mile race.  The mix of adrenaline and the fear of the dreaded cut-offs incite people to get-the-miles-in-early.

Media chat with Paul R
The cut offs aren't particularly tight, but there's no room for error. It's certainly not a journey you'd embark on for the social aspect. Each of the 75 checkpoints (placed around two miles apart) have their own closing time.  And each checkpoints had a board displaying the CP number, distance covered, distance to sparta and closing time.  Less of a gentle reminder and more of a don't-even-think-of-sitting-down-here statement.   The happy bus is always looming in the background waiting to pick-up the stragglers.

The checkpoints are well-stocked and you can leave a dropbag at any one of them, but I was lucky to have Marco crewing for me. He would meet me at the designated 15 support points. 

Playing in the traffic
The first 20 miles are pretty uneventful.  Just roadside, a few climbs and lots of a traffic.  I won't lie to you, the landscape doesn't change much.  But I was promised it would get slightly better after the first 50.

The run along the coast was beautiful though.  Picture postcard crystal blue. Never had water looked so inviting.  I'm sure every runner must have looked longingly at the sea - mainly because we were getting fried at that point.

Although we started in a nice stand-about-in-vest  temperature - which is the equivalent to a very good summer's day in Scotland - it started to really heat up by around 11am.  

Shortly after this,  I would see Marco for the first time in Malaga.  CP11, at marathon distance, was the first time support was allowed.  I arrived a few minutes ahead of my 4hr 13 plan, picked up a few supplies, changed bottle and pushed through.

At checkpoint 12, ice become my new best friend.  I stuffed it in my hat, my bra and a band around my neck. It was heaven, and the difference between shuffling and swaying and actually running.

Ice in my hat, bra and neck band.  Pic: Sparta Photography Club
Whenever I use ice for an injury or inflammation, placing it on my skin is always uncomfortable, but in Greece I didn't even notice.  Not only had the ice melted by the time I reached the next CP two miles later, it had dried too.  I repeated this exercise at every CP during the daylight hours.  Even the race marshalls were impressed with the places I could stuff ice.

My next mini goal was to get to CP22 at 50 miles in eight hours.  That would be 90 minutes ahead of the checkpoint.  After 60 miles, the route is very undulating and with absolutely course no knowledge, I was winging it from there.  I got to CP22 bang on 8hrs.  

50 miles down and HOT . Pic: Free Life Productions
The 10 miles after this were certainly the hottest, but I was managing it OK.  I'd pretty much lost the ability to eat, so was bonking quite a bit.  I went through 100km in 10hr12, still on schedule.  I was willing the hills to appear, just to break the motion of running. A good stomp was needed.  

It got dark just before 8pm.  I love running in the dark, so was looking forward to this.  When I got to Halkion at CP32, Marco told me that Paddy was having a rough time with his stomach and was not far ahead. Paddy is the king of pacing and strong finishes, so thought he'd come through it and sprint the final 50 miles.

With the night came the inclines, rocky tracks, ferrell dogs and wild cats with their glow in the dark eyes, rustling in the bushes, blisters and achy legs.  The Morton Stretches helped (pictured) but I opted to change into compression tights, just for the comfort factor.

Leaving Lyrkia at 92 miles, en route to the dreaded 1200 metre mountain, it was relatively flat for a few miles and I was enjoying the dark and coolness.  Then it started to climb and I was forced for hike.  The climb went on for-like-ever.  Zig-zagging.  Every time I looked up there was more. Around a corner, and more. But the time I reached the "base of the mountain" (98miles) checkpoint, most of the ascent had been tackled.

Pic by Adrian Bratty Kouyoufas
I sat down for longer than I should have.  Actually I shouldn't have sat down at all.  Sitting on the job is not something I would condone in any race, but this wasn't a race against anyone other than myself.   Plus  I wasn't exactly bouncing at the prospect of the feck off climb in front of me.

I changed socks and popped some blisters with the pin from my race number - classy lassy.   And then the GM appeared.  I was so happy to see her, as I thought I'd have company for the climb.  My brain took a while to register that we was wearing a down jacket and a very sad face, and had obviously dropped out.

I took a base layer, as stopping had caused me to chill quickly, and off I went.  I lasted about seven minutes with the layer.  The climb wasn't quite the drama I thought it would be.  As usual, mountains always look bigger than they actually are. In reality it was only a 30 minute stomp, with a few sways and couple of stumbles back.

I declined the offer of a comfy seat and blanket at the summit and headed straight down.  The descent was worse than the ascent.  A steep bed of scree and a defunct brain was not a good combo.  After sliding and toe-tripping on a few rocks, I decided to cut my loses and walk.  Looking around, everyone else had reached the same conclusion.

At the next checkpoint, I realised I'd seen the same twin lads at practically every station for over 100 miles.  I don't even know who they were supporting, but their encouragement was fabulous.  Even if they only words we exchanged were "bravo" and "thank you".

For the next few miles I was leap-frogging with a chap who was wearing what can only be described as a shell suit.  It was quite apparent that he was getting upset about getting overtaken with a female. We exchanged no words or glances, just the mutual annoyance that we couldn't shake each other off. I won.

I then went past Traci Fablo, Team USA and world 48-hour record holder.  On any given day that would be a running career highlight, but it wasn't a fair race.  She was struggling with injury and would later drop.

Arriving at Nestini (106), I saw that Paddy had dropped and joined Marco and Sharon.  I picked up some supplies and despite the fact that I was enjoying the chat and social interaction, they threw me out.

The next 20 miles were all a bit of a blur.  It started to rain.  I was still warm, so continued to kick about in my vest.   At CP53 an official seemed quite concerned and asked me if I need a raincoat to which I replied "No, I'm Scottish".  He found this so funny he took to Facebook. I couldn't work out how everyone seemed to know about it.

As I slowed, became increasingly incoherent and was soaked through, I did start to cool down.  At the CP60 I sent Marco to car the for a change of clothes.  Whilst huddled in door way, Mike Wardian's brother asked if I'd passed a skinny guy with a beard.  I did try to speak to Mike at a previous CP, but he was on another planet.  I told Mike's brother that he was really far gone and he might want to go get him.  He informed me that he would never drop out.  He was wrong.  I  later learned that he had chafing that would make every man cry at the sight of it.

There's a lot of climbing between 120 and 135  miles.  A lot, for tired legs.  I was wandering up a never ending hill along a road side.  It wasn't even a hard shoulder, just extra tarmac.  Lorries were trundling past and spraying me water, but the honking horns and howls of "bravo"  kept me awake. And smiling.  They were no race signs and I was starting to panic.  Up and up with no reassurance that I was going in the right direction.   I think I would have rather lived there than retrace my steps.  I was so relieved to finally get to a lonely CP and signs of race life.


After the climb, I was overheating inside my jacket and being on the warm side was making me slow down.  I needed some freshness so went back to bare arms even though we were being hit by a thunder and lightening storm.  Scottish, right?

The best thing about the race were the people. From Athens all the way to Sparta, the people of Greece go nuts for this race.  They love it.  Kids were out of schools high-fiving and asking for autographs, office workers were out cheering, people were hanging out of windows or out in the street taking pictures.

I can't imagine running alongside a main motor route in the UK in the dead of night, and getting positive encouragements from drivers.  I did have a few close shaves on the country roads because we were running into the traffic, but the vast majority were very respectful.

The worst thing about the race was being alone with my thoughts.  For obvious safety reasons earphones aren't aloud, so no music.    There was just no switch off.  I just had numbers - miles covered, time, distance to next CP, miles per hour, closing time, miles to go - going around in my head constantly.

Between 115-125 miles were my lowest points.  I'd worked out that if I did four miles an hours I'd finish within the 36 hours time limit.  So I stomped at 4mph.  Then an Austrian lady went passed me and I had a serious chat with myself.  And the numbers in my head.  Not only did I not want to lose placing, the idea of walking 30 miles was inconceivable.   Thankfully sense prevailed and I got going again.  

You know when you're in a race and you can cover 5 miles without even thinking about it?  Well, that didn't happen in this race.  I was aware of every single mile.  I decided to pick up my sleeves at the next checkpoint.  Not only because it was pissing down, but it meant I could also so cover my Garmin.

I got to CP68, but couldn't see Marco.  The hire car was there, but there was no sign of him.  So I started running up and down the road shouting his name.  As I was looking slightly demented and official came out to help.  Then Marco appeared from behind the rocks with a smile and a pack of baby wipes under his arm.  It's all about timing.

Sleeves on.  Garmin covered.  Don't peek.  That's got to be at least two miles... Ah 0.36 miles! Although at the pace I was moving, I was looking at 30 hours.  Considerably better than the 35 hours I was calculating at no so long ago.

The road to Sparta is very undulating and the space to run is very narrow, but I kept chipping away at it.  Walking the inclines and trying to get some life into my legs on the downhill.

At CP71  I stared at the sign trying to mentally convert 12 km into miles.  One the stewards asked if she could help and explained what I was trying to do, to which she informed me 12km was 10 miles. I just left it and pushed on.

I met Marco at the last support point with only 6 miles to go and took few sips of coke.  On paper, the last few miles look amazing.  An absolute flying finish.  But wow, my ITB and glutes were not happy about it.  In hindsight I was completely out of it.  I hadn't really taken in any calories in the last 20 miles.  In my head I wasn't hungry and I was in the final stages, so therefore I was fine. Emphasis on: In my head

I could see Sparta, but I seemed like a very long way away.  And I just knew that statue was going to be at the other side of town.  Guaranteed.  I was trying to do that positive - Just-think-about-what-you've-achieved thing, by my head was having none of it.  With 5km to go Fergie went past in the car screaming like a crazy man, just before I hit CP73 on the outskirts of town.

Some kids started to cycle alongside me, but even though got scared and fecked off.  So I shuffled at what felt like a glacial pace, but I'm probably being generous there.  I past a petrol station and a road...and then stopped.  Where to now?  There was a bridge, but I couldn't see anything past that.  Of course there were no race signs, because there was no deviation from running in a straight line!  But I wasn't of sane mind at that point.  I was trying to signal to passing cars to ask directions, but I must have looked NUTS.  Then one of the officials spotted me flapping about and came running towards me.  The final CP was hidden behind a tree covered roundabout.

I crossed the chip mat and picked up my Union Jack.  I was on my way now.  A lovely lady biked alongside me and I'll never know how she managed to keep balance at the pace I was going.  We talked about the fabulous support from the Greek people and she told me how she used to come out as a kid and run the finishers in.  I asked her how far it was to the statue and she said 1km.  I knew it was a 1.5 miles, so I don't even know why I asked.   She left me in the capable hands of a group of young children on bikes and went back to the checkpoint.

30hrs 36 mins.  5th lady, 34 overall.  First female Brit. 2nd overall
My conversation with the kids went...What's your name: "Debbie" "Beddie?" Debbie" Gebby?" "Yes".

Followed by "How far?" "Not long".  Two minutes later "How far?" "Not long".

Then we turned right into the street where the statue was waiting at the end.  I did seem like forever, but it was a great forever.  I was treated like a hero.  Even as I type this, I can still feel it and hear it.

That moment when I reached for Leonidas foot...just phenomenal.

I get it now.  It is truly special.  There's no other race like it. For the majority, it's not about time or position. The next day the only thing strangers asked was whether you finished or not.  It's all that matters.

That race I was never, ever going to do?  Well, I did it.  And it's the best race in the world.







Huge congratulations to everyone who finished, especially the British Spartathlon Team. Thank you to the organisers, stewards and the wonderful people of Greece.  Special thanks to my Mum for looking after my boy, to make these trips possible.  Last but certainly not least, to Marco for top-notch crewing.  Your turn next year.  Thankfully you'll be hard pushed to find a shitter hire car. 

17 comments:

Paul Cutler said...

Incredible and inspiring!!!

John Kynaston said...

Congratulations Debbie. What a superb performance. I was following your progress throughout the race and it was so exciting seeing you working you way through the field in your normal excellently paced way.
Love the video clip at the end ... it brought tears to my eyes!
Excellent race report as always.

Robert Osfield said...

Fantastic racing and report Geggy ;-)

That finishing video really captures the atmosphere and positivity from the crowds. Well done.

Santababy said...

Love it, you're an huge inspiration. I'm one who says no chance but have a wee inkling. Well done. Superb performance xx

Anonymous said...

Just amazing!

World Of James said...

Fab report Gebby x

Fabio said...

great report and great race! can't wait to do it! congrats!

Anonymous said...

Lovely to read and relive it all again, Debbie. So happy to have been there to witness your fabulous run!

The Geddi said...

AWESOME ! :-)

Anonymous said...

Amazing report and the video clip brought a lump to my throat.Congratulations what a run

Thomas said...

Great report, and you ran an absolutely awesone race! Well done!!

That finish is something else, isn't it? For hours I had been asking myself how I could ever have thought that running for 153 miles would be a good idea but as soon as I hit that last corner it was "can't wait to do this again!"

Amanda Hamilton said...

Unbelievable and epic. I just cannot begin to imagine how much of a battle this would be but I can feel a small part of how good that finish was for you. Bloody well done! X

Fiona Rennie said...

Fantastic running, I was following you and the rest of the Brits and was sad to see when others dropped but I just knew you'd do it!
Great to read your report and see you finish, thank you for sharing. xxx

Anonymous said...

Wow Debbie, what an awesome run!! Totally wonderful, huge well done, Susan Harley

Robbie Drummond said...

Inspirational perforance Debs, and your writing really brought it alive. Robbie

Rodger Sangster said...

Absolutely sensational Debbie. Great run and I keep coming back to re-read your report. :-)

Helen said...

Way to go Beddie/Gebbie oh Debbie :-) You are one helluva woman xxx