Spartathlon. Achieving the Impossible Dream.

Spartathlon 2019 – The Short Version

I left the Acropolis as the sun was starting to come up on Friday morning. I ran through the streets of Athens and then next to the clearest turquoise blue sea. I ran through villages where entire classes of schoolchildren had come out on the streets to high five you. I ran past tavernas late on Friday night as the entire restaurant erupted in cheers. I climbed a mountain at 100 miles under the clearest starry sky. I ran alongside busy roads as hundreds of drivers beeped their horns in support as they passed. It wasn’t all sweetness and light though as I ran through stinky industrial areas and saw more dead animals laid by the side of the road than I ever need to see!

And then on early Saturday afternoon, 30:37 hours after I left Athens, I had run the best 153 miles of my life to reach Sparta. I don’t think there can be any better feeling in the world as you run the final 0.3 miles towards the finish line of Leonidas statue. And I kissed that foot.

That race that everyone tells you is the best race in the world. It really is.

Spartathlon 2019 – The Long Version

The Acropolis – Megara (26 miles)

As I gathered alongside 376 other runners at the foot of the Acropolis, for the first time the pre-race nerves really kicked in and the enormity of the task ahead sunk in. I was under no illusion that Spartathlon was going to be the hardest thing I had ever done. The thought of running 153 miles is almost too big to comprehend, so in my head I’d told myself I was ‘just’ running six back-to-back marathons which sounded a lot better than running 153 miles! Some of the fellow GB Spartathlon runners and crew sensed my nervousness and a few words and friendly hugs did me the world of good. Ultrarunning is a very solitary sport but being part of the British Spartathlon Team I never once felt alone. We headed to the start line and before I knew it, we were off. Our journey to Sparta had begun.

The road to Sparta begins under the Acropolis

I don’t tend to focus on a race plan in the early stages of an ultra as my only plan is to keep things feeling really easy. Ian had told me that the race doesn’t start until the mountain at mile 100 so I was to get to that point with things feeling as comfortable as possible. However, having a crew it was necessary to pull together a race plan to give them an idea of possible timings when I’d arrive at crewpoints, so I’d given them two pace plans, one for an absolute best case scenario where I thought if I had the perfect race I could finish in 32:00 hours and then one for a ‘get the job done regardless’ 36:00 hour finish. If I’m being honest I thought my finish time would be somewhere between the two at around 32:30-34:00 hours.

I’m very much a heads down/music on runner when I’m racing, but because for the majority of the race you’re running alongside roads, headphones are understandably banned. I tend to like my own company and thoughts when I’m racing, but looking at potentially 36 hours of my own thoughts, I feared I was going to get very bored with myself! The rest of the GB runners ran off ahead and I settled in towards the back of the field on my own, exactly where I wanted to be in these early stages. After barely a mile, Jonni from the GB team came up behind me (he’d been in the portaloo when the race started!), he was also planning a similarly conservative start and we settled into the same easy pace and chatted away as the miles flew by.

The police had stopped all the traffic in the centre of Athens and we waved like excitable children to all the drivers beeping their horns at us and early morning pedestrian commuters who cheered us by, wanting to saviour every minute of it. All my pre-race nerves has gone. This is what I had come for and I was already loving every minute of it.

The road to Sparta is full of permanent road markings

It already felt warm but more akin to a nice summer day in the UK, nothing like the scorching temperatures I’d read about some years. I know you’re meant to want to run Spartathlon in the hottest conditions possible, but I don’t mind admitting a little part of me thought that if the weather gods decided to bless us with a ‘cool year’ then I wouldn’t complain!

There are 74 checkpoints throughout the race, so it’s possible to run the race carrying nothing, however runners tend to either use a waist belt, handheld or running vest to carry drinks/any nutrition between checkpoints. I like running with a vest as having my drinks and foods to hand means I never forget to eat and drink, and this was working perfectly and I was sticking to my tried and tested rule of eating something every 30 minutes, taking in 300 calories per hour. I had enough Mountain Fuel Jelly’s and Longhaul Ultra-Fuel pouches to last me until the first crewstop at marathon distance, and I was able to run straight through every checkpoint, bar a couple where I needed a water top-up.

I arrived at the first crew checkpoint in 4:16 (I’d told Tom and David to expect me at 4:20 so I was pretty much where I wanted to be at this early stage of the race). Tom has crewed me umpteen times and knows exactly what I need. Salomon soft flasks were replaced, food for the next section was stuffed in my vest pockets, rubbish was discarded, I downed two huge cups of iced tea and ate the first of many pots of custard – David had never crewed for me before and said at the end of it he’d never seen anyone eat so much custard and eat it so quickly….I think that’s a compliment!

Showcasing my custard eating skills!

Megara – Ancient Wall (50 miles)

Pre-race I wasn’t unduly concerned about the heat. I’ve done several multi-day races in very hot conditions and I tend to race pretty well in heat. I’d also done a lot of heat training in the 4 weeks leading up to the race. However, the heat in Greece was like nothing I’d ever run in before. My watch recorded a high of 37 degrees on Friday and 39 degrees on Saturday, and whilst I have run in hotter conditions before, here it was a very oppressive humid heat. In addition, the scorching sunshine heated up the tarmac so it felt like you were constantly running on hot coals. After the first 25 miles on busy roads and through industrial areas, the route turns much more interesting and picturesque in this section and we ran alongside a stunning coastline of sandy white beaches and the most brilliant turquoise sea. The sea was teasing us and all I could think about was standing in the sea and letting the water cool my already boiling legs down!

I knew the most important thing was to manage myself during these hottest hours as if I did then I’d be rewarded when the sun went down. With the advice of Debs Martin-Consani ringing in my ears, I shoved ice everywhere! I stopped at every checkpoint for ice and to dunk my hat; it meant I was spending longer at aid stations than I normally would but it was time well spent. It did lead to all manner of chafing later, but it was a small price to pay for a few minutes of not feeling like I was being fried alive after each checkpoint.

It seemed people were really struggling with the heat as I started passing quite a few runners in this section and unfortunately saw some fellow GB runners already suffering. The camaraderie and support I received from the other GB runners made such a difference, and a few friendly words as you passed really gave you a boost.

Every village we ran through we received the same incredible support. Entire classes of schoolchildren lined the streets all wanting a high five. Shopkeepers stood outside their shops cheering us on, work taking a very backseat until all the Spartathlon runners had passed through. After school, children stood roadside with autograph books, presenting us with pens to sign our name. I smiled so much my face hurt. Above everything I wanted to enjoy my Spartathlon experience and I really couldn’t have been enjoying myself any more.

I arrived at the Ancient Wall checkpoint at 50 miles in 8:16 (my best case pace plan had predicted 8:15) but the most important thing was, that despite the heat, it had felt really comfortable.

A similar efficient crew stop followed, and then from here I knew I would see my crew much more regularly, around every 6-10 miles. It’s possible to run Spartathlon without a crew (fellow GB runner, Alistair Higgins, ran an incredible 25:49 for 4th overall without a crew), as the checkpoints are so regular and the volunteers so wonderful. However, Tom and David helped me so much from a practical point of view getting everything ready for me when I arrived at each crewpoint so I didn’t have to do any thinking, and also for giving me such a psychological boost. From 50 miles I basically ran the race from crewpoint to crewpoint, knowing how many miles until I saw them again for a boost.

Ancient Wall – Ancient Nemea (77 miles)

The main thing I remember about the first half of this section is the relentless heat as I willed the sun to go down, but I knew I wouldn’t get any reprieve until at least 7pm. Pre-race I thought I’d hardly use checkpoints but I continued to stop at virtually every one, as I took on more liquids and ice continued to be my best friend.

Whilst not finding the heat easy, I seemed to be coping in it better than a lot of runners and I continued to move up the field. I caught up with Leanne (who was running for the Ireland team) who I’ve known for several years and we ran into the Ancient Corinth checkpoint together where Tom presented me with a gift from the Gods (well a Calippo!).

Quite possibly the best tasting Calippo in the world!

The miles continued to pass quickly and the majority of the course is really runnable; at some points I was hoping for a steep hill to give me an excuse to hike a bit, but mainly there was no reason not to run on the flat or undulating hills. The sun kept teasing me that it was about to go down behind a building or tree, but would then reappear, until finally the scorching heat of the day was behind us.

Because I’d managed myself well in the heat and taken things easy in the first 12 hours of the race, as soon as the sun went down it was game on and I put my foot down a little bit and my miles got a bit faster. Up until now I’d been pretty much arriving at most crewpoints just a few minutes behind best pace schedule (mainly down to having to stop at so many checkpoints for ice) but now it had started to get cooler, I started making up time and arriving at checkpoints ahead of schedule.

Arriving at each crew checkpoint I was greeted by huge cheers from fellow GB crews all dressed in their easily identifiable GB red crew tops. This always gave you a massive boost as it felt like every other GB crew had adopted you as one of their own and were willing you on your way to Sparta.

Ancient Nemea – Mountain Base (99 miles)

This section was another 20+ miles of pure running joy. At every crew stop and if I passed other British runners, they’d ask how I was feeling and I almost felt like a bit of a fraud telling people I felt so good. How could running 75+ miles in scorching heat and on relentless tarmac feel so easy and enjoyable?!

I loved the dark and relative silence of this section . We were running on often deserted roads and apart from spotting a head torch way ahead or behind, you felt a million miles from anywhere at times. A couple of times we ran through small villages, it was Friday night so traditional Greek tavernas were packed and as they saw a Spartathlon runner pass, the whole restaurant erupted in cheers.

I caught up with Andy during this stage and we shared quite a few miles together over the next couple of sections. Sometimes we chatted away and sometimes we ran next to each in a comfortable silence. Ever the gentleman, Andy asked if I was ok with his company or whether I’d prefer to run alone, but Spartathlon is one of those races that is so long and lonely at times, that sometimes even if you’re not saying anything it’s nice to just have company for a while and realise you’re not in this alone.

Tom had done an amazing job of knowing exactly how I’d be feeling and what I’d be wanting and I arrived at one crewpoint and he presented me with a second gift from the Gods, an ice cold alcohol-free beer. Beer had never tasted so good on a hot Friday night in Greece!

There’s a long twisting climb on road up to Mountain Base; I’ve always been a strong hiker (you don’t spend as many hours as I do with a weighted rucksack on your back and it not play to your advantage on race day!) and I caught and passed numerous other runners up to the foot of the mountain. I had no idea of my position but felt I was doing ok and I started to think if things continued like this, maybe I’d finish in the top 100 overall of Spartathlon!

Pre-race I’d planned to change my trainers for the mountain (half the people I’d asked said to change, half said not to bother), but as I approached Tom and David at mountain base, I realised that my feet and legs were feeling great in the Vaporfly. Although a more aggressive trail trainer might save me a few minutes on the mountain, there was about 6 miles on road after the mountain before I’d see my crew again and I was worried that a trail trainer wouldn’t do my legs any good so I decided to risk the Vaporfly on the mountain. Worse case scenario I’d just slide down the mountain on my bum! I was also worried that I might take the Vaporfly off and my feet had become so fat and swollen in the heat I wouldn’t be able to get them back on!

Although it had gone midnight, I was still feeling really hot – was it ever going to cool down?! I’d read so many blogs about the freezing cold nights at Spartathlon that I’d brought lots of warm clothes for the night section. None of it came out the hire car! People told me it would be cold on the top of the mountain (it wasn’t), but I took a pair of arm sleeves in my vest mainly just to keep my crew quiet, but they were immediately given back at the next crewpoint unworn.

Mountain Base – Alea Tegea Square (121 miles)

The hike up to the mountain felt like it was over before it began – I guess after spending the previous couple of summers training for races in the Alps and Pyrenees I’d become accustomed to climbs that last 1-2+ hours. Here, whilst the rocky terrain underfoot meant you needed to watch your feet, it took me less than 30 minutes to reach the top.

The summit of the mountain marks 100 miles and my watch clocked 18:48 hours of running. I’d discussed with Ian pre-race about what time I should be looking at for 100 miles if I was to achieve my A target of 32:00 hours and he said if I arrived there in 19:00 hours and felt good, then 32:00 hours was definitely achievable. There was still a long way to go but I was feeling so good and the first 100 miles had felt so ‘easy’ (relatively speaking!), that for the first time I started to think 32:00 hours might happen, which would be an absolute dream result.

I walked down the mountain using the time to take on more food. I didn’t regret keeping the Vaporfly’s on. A more aggressive trail trainer might have saved me a few minutes on the descent, but after a mile or so I hit road and the Vaporfly came back into their own. It also felt that using different muscles on the mountain had really rejuvenated my legs and I got my running legs back on and the miles flew past again.

I caught up with John in this section and had a fantastic few miles running with him on and off over the next 15 or so miles. We were both feeling strong and we both pushed each other on. I knew I must be having a good race as I covered 124 miles in 24 hours, only 4 miles less than my 24 hour PB which I’d set at Crawley on a track, whereas Spartathlon is a lot hillier and hotter. I knew I was moving up the field and I overtook at least three women in this section. Spartathlon had never been about a time or position to me, but curiosity got the better of me and I asked Tom how I was doing and he told me I’d moved into the top 30 overall and was 4th woman. I know the calibre of runners you get at Spartathlon – there were previous Spartathlon winners/podium finishers, Badwater winners, runners who run for their national teams and who go for national records on the start list. I genuinely thought Tom had made a mistake as I shouldn’t be up there amongst those types of runners and I got him to recheck the results!

Before the race my main worry about the race was the distance; if I’m being honest I do think 153 miles is a bit too far for one pair of legs to run! However, bizarrely it never felt like that long a race. Some races you’re Garmin watching, willing the miles to go by. Here at Spartathlon the miles really did fly by. I think that was due to everything going so perfectly. It’s when things start to go wrong and you have to start slogging out miles that they feel like they’re taking forever.

Alea Tegea Square – Sparta (153.3 miles)

The last marathon felt hard. But only as hard as you’d expect your sixth marathon in 30 hours to feel. Nothing particularly hurt, everything just felt tired. I was still getting 200+ calories in per hour so I had plenty of energy and was still moving at a decent pace, but I won’t lie, I was ready for it to be over. I hadn’t sat down once since leaving the hotel the previous morning and that’s what I was looking forward to most. Just sitting down, getting my trainers off and putting my feet up! I was also dreading the sun coming up, I’d had 12 hours of pure running joy overnight and I knew things would start to feel really tough in the heat again.

Between 7-9am there was a low level mist and I thought perhaps we were going to be blessed with a cooler second day. There’s another long slog of a climb at around mile 125. There wasn’t even a proper hard shoulder on this part of road and the fact it was so foggy and cars and lorries were heading towards me did unnerve me so I kept my high vis and head torch on. Imagine having the race of your life and then getting clipped by a car and instead of arriving in Sparta in a blaze of glory, you had to arrive there in an ambulance!

The sun broke through and the little bit of cooler reprieve deserted us. It was going to be a hot scorcher of a run to the finish, but I kept telling myself the sooner I finished the sooner I could get out of the sunshine so there was no point dawdling, and every step that I could run, I did.

223.4km down. 23.4km to go. Sparta is getting closer!

I arrived at the final crewpoint which meant 10k to go. Tom tried to get me to take liquid and a final Jelly, but I thought I’d be able to wing the final 10k on pure adrenaline. I said my final farewell to them, knowing the next time I’d see them would be in Sparta. The first 5k passed quickly, however as I turned onto the long road into Sparta, dehydration hit and I really had to slow down to manage myself. Imagine coming all this way and then falling at the final hurdle and collapsing on the roadside! I tried to take some liquid on at one of the checkpoints but my throat was so dry and parched I could barely swallow it. This section felt like the longest 5k of my life.

At the final checkpoint, a police escort and two boys on bikes started to accompany me on my final 1.5 miles into the centre of Sparta. These two boys had definitely got the short straw with me as I shuffled ever closer to Leonidas. I lost an overall position here as a Greek male runner ran past looking as if he was running a 10k. My two young bike escorts must have wished they’d chosen to accompany him and not me!

I turned the corner and they told me we were nearly there. If I live to be 100 years old I will never forget the feeling of running down the street to the statue of Leonidas. The bars and restaurants were packed, people were hanging from their windows, cheers were ringing in my ears, hands were held out for high fives, I saw fellow Brits going wild at my arrival and then Tom and David both beaming with pride, as a group of young children started running in with me.

That Sparta finish line feeling!

With a few metres to go I slowed down to a walk. I wanted to saviour every moment of it. I walked up the steps and reached Leonidas’ foot.

  • 30:37:59 hours of running
  • 4th female
  • 27th overall
  • 5th Brit
  • The race of my life

Spartathlon finisher’s video

I made my way to the wonderful post-race medical tent which is mandatory for all runners – a lot of runners were put on IV drips but despite feeling I could really do with one, I must have been in better shape than I certainly felt or looked, and after some foot cleaning and a bottle of water I made my way very slowly to the hotel with Tom and David.

I was tired and exhausted but couldn’t sleep. I just lay there with the biggest inane smile on my face trying to process the last day and a half. 

Post-Race Thoughts

Even now I have to pinch myself now and again to check it wasn’t all a dream and I really did run 30:37 and finish 4th lady at Spartathlon. It’s rare for an ultra to go so perfectly, even less so when it’s your A race of the year, but that is pretty much what happened to me at Spartathlon.

Physically I came away virtually unscathed, I had some weird heat rash on my legs for 24 hours post-race which I just put down to the miles and miles of hot tarmac, and my legs felt tired for a few days afterwards, but apart from that I couldn’t believe how good I felt, to the extent that I could even run the Spartan 400m track race the day after Spartathlon (sorry Ian I know that wasn’t on my training plan!).

British Spartathlon Team pre-Spartan 400m race – probably not on the training plan!

Mentally I didn’t hit any low points and there was never a moment where I started to doubt that I wouldn’t reach Sparta. The whole race was just full of so much running joy and happiness for me.

Don’t get me wrong though, this is an incredibly hard race, but I was incredibly lucky that nothing really went wrong for me. When I heard what some other GB runners had to deal with and yet still managed to grind out a finish, their achievements are even more impressive.

377 runners started and 197 finished; that’s a finish rate of 52%, which demonstrates that, despite the qualification standards, how hard it is to finish this race. The GB team were incredible, 17 of our 22 runners finished (a finish rate of 77%), including two runners (Alistair and Ian) in the overall top 10.

People had said pre-race that they thought Spartathlon would be my type of race. And I can honestly say I don’t think I will ever enjoy a race as much as I enjoyed Spartathlon. I never understood why people came back and repeated it again and again. Now I do.

Saying that I doubt I will return (or at least for a few years). I don’t tend to repeat races and I always take the view that as long as I’m as good as I can be on the day and I ran happy with a big smile on my face, then that’s a success. If I’d finished Spartathlon in 35:59 hours I’d have been delighted and wouldn’t have returned. To run the race I did and in the time I did, and to have absolutely loved every single minute of it, I don’t want anything to spoil my perfect memory of Spartathlon.

Thank you’s

Thank you to the wonderful British Spartathlon Team for being so supportive. Inclusivity in ultrarunning is something I am passionate about, and as the sole female runner on the team I couldn’t have felt more welcome. The miles and shared moments I spent with fellow GB runners on the course is something I will remember forever.

Thank you to Mountain Fuel and Longhaul Endurance for their support and making such superb nutrition products that work in the heat. 153 miles of running and no stomach issues or sickness says it all.

Thank you to Ian for the superb coaching; under his coaching over the last 2 1/4 years I’ve achieved things I never thought would be possible, but this result is really beyond my wildest dreams.

And finally the biggest thank you from the bottom of my heart to my crewing dream team of Tom and David. I’m so happy I made you proud!

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The Road to Sparta – Countdown to Spartathlon

3 Comments. Leave new

  • Maria Angeles Emmerson
    October 5, 2019 5:11 pm

    Thank you for giving us this amazing account of your epic experience and extraordinary achievement. I found the description of the last part, the tiredness and children at your side particularly moving.

    Reply
  • Brilliant write up! Loved reading this so so pleased for you xxx

    Reply
  • Absolute testament to how you nailed your training plan and with a brilliant attitude. Who knows what you could achieve when you realise how good you are.
    I love following yours and Tom’s tales, look forward to the next installment and Tom’s L100 next year!

    Reply

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