On the 28th September I headed out to Greece along with my husband to take part in the 29th running of the Spartathlon.
In 2004 I met John Foden who came up with the idea for this race, he said I should give it a go, I remember telling him that I wasn’t nearly fast enough to ever take part in such a tough event.
For those of you who have never heard of the Spartathlon let me fill you in (hope you are sitting down!) This is a 245km (153 mile) non-stop race from Athens to Sparta (with a mountain after 160km) the first 81 km has to be done in 9.30 hours and each checkpoint has its own cut-offs, which are strictly adhered to. If you arrive outside these times you are taken off the course. No music is allowed and runners must complete the race in less than 36 hours. The drop out rate is approximately 60% – now you can see why I have never entered this race…. until now!
Runners have to qualify for this event, you can’t just sign up and run. I qualified by running the Grand Union Canal race in 2010, which I completed in 28hours 12 minutes. Crews are allowed but they are not able to help you in any way until after CP22 the 81km point and even then they can only go to designate cps along the route. I left three drop bags at CP 5, 11 and 17 which contained a handful of nuts and raisins, a baby bell and a couple of electrolyte tabs. I had two crew helping me Tim my marvellous and long suffering husband and a good friend Bridget who had come all the way from Spain.
My goal was to firstly complete the event (so I didn’t have to come back again!) and if possible finish in less than 33 hours. I had broken the race down into sections, 42km, 81km, getting to the mountain, finish.
285 competitors stood on the start line at the Acropolis and at 7am on the 30th September we were set on our way for the 245 km run to Sparta.
The start was fairly relaxed as there were so many of us which suited me as it meant I could get my breathing under control (was slightly worried about the traffic pollution and my Asthma). The first section of the race was through the busy streets of Athens with lots of heavy traffic, not very scenic! I met up and ran with Mark Woolley for a bit which was lovely. At Elefsina runners were greeted by lots of children who had come out to cheer us on, lots of hands slapping as you run past, fantastic. I picked up my first drop bag here 22.7km but only used the electrolyte tabs I had put in and continued on my way towards CP 11 the marathon distance.
I loved running along the undulating coast road, looking down at the beautiful blue of the sea was so relaxing it lifted my spirits and put a smile on my face. Having no music was a real bonus; it meant I was able to enjoy the atmosphere of the race and the surroundings much more. After leaving Mecara I was greeted by yet more children who were standing by and under a bridge – more hand slapping. The easiest way to get as many hands slapped as possible was to just hold the arm out until you had gone passed – thankfully I survived with my arm still attached to my body!
Arriving at CP 11, the 42km point I felt great and was really pleased with my time of 3hours 52 minutes, just where I wanted to be. I had been advised by many friends who had done this race before not to do the first 81k too fast or I would have nothing left for the end. I had managed to keep up a steady pace, HR felt good and my breathing wasn’t causing me any problems at all. Tim, Bridget, James Adams and Robert Treadwell and his wife were there so lots of clapping and cheering went on which was fantastic and gave me a real boost. At each of the CPs there were buckets with water and sponges in, I would use these as I went through to keep my body temperature down.
At about 69km the course went past an oil refinery and a very unattractive industrial area – very unpleasant smells! Tim and Bridget would wave me through various CPs along the route which was wonderful, I did mention to them with 3 CPs to go before they were able to help me that I would love a really cold drink at 81km as I was feeling extremely thirsty. I was drinking enough, peeing and taking my electrolytes but couldn’t seem to quench my thirst. On towards Corinth I ran, crossing over the Corinth Canal that was quite stunning, although I couldn’t look down as it made me feel quite wobbly!
Arriving at CP22 with over an hour and half buffer was fantastic. Tim and Bridget ushered me over to the car, changed my top gave me a sandwich, changed my water (which was cold!!) and sent me on my way, no stopping. I was feeling good and quite happy that I wouldn’t see them for another 10k or so.
The next challenge for me was the mountain. It made a huge difference being away from lots of traffic and on the smaller roads running through the olive groves as well as vines (not a drop of wine in sight!) Being chased by a couple of dogs gave me a bit of a shock but it meant I upped the pace! During this time I ran with Fredrick from Sweden, we did about 25k together which was wonderful. Unfortunately he was having real problems with his stomach so eventually I had to say goodbye and head off. At CP 35 Ancient Nemea at 123.3km I was met by my crew again – I remember this CP as Bridget handed me an iced coffee, perfect, just what I wanted.
I was still feeling strong and enjoying running in the dark. Tim and Bridget handed me my headtorch at CP 32 as it was approx. 6.30pm and it would start to get dark at 7ish. Running into Malandreni Village I was feeling fantastic and was greeting by loads of young girls asking my name and running alongside me into the CP. Here I was handed some chips, which unfortunately after a couple wasn’t able to eat any more.
The road leading up to the base of the mountain was long and winding so it was a case of running sections and power walking the rest – I was feeling quite relaxed as I had big buffers at each of the CPs.
Arriving at the base of the mountain at 1.36am (18hrs 36 mins) my kit was changed as it was getting cold, they tried to get me to eat something but I just wasn’t interested and after about 5 minutes headed up the mountain. Not at all runnable but kept plodding my way up – met a guy half way who asked if I needed help (bit of a tricky section) to which I replied no thank you but will sit down and look at the view! Looking back down the mountain from where I had come was a zigzag of flashing lights, and coming up the road I could see the runners head torches as they meandered up the road towards the base of the mountain. At the summit a small CP which I didn’t bother to stop at and continued down the other side – now for the last section of the race.
During the night I had periods when I felt extremely tired and found myself wobbling all over the road, occasionally nearly falling over as I fell asleep, but I knew that as soon as the sun came up I would be fine.
I can’t remember the number of the CP but it was in the morning and warming up when Bridget mentioned that there was a woman hot on my heels – I said it didn’t matter as I my aim was to finish – however about an hour later going up a long hill I heard the chatter of not one but two women behind me and I went from being 2nd female to 4th! Not happy but with races of this sort of distance the race doesn’t usually start until the final 81km.
The next hour or so I kept on leap frogging one of the girls, the Japanese lady went off like the clappers so I had to let her go. Finally Ruth (the lady I was leap frogging) went off never to be seen again. However, I kept going determined to try and catch up with at least one of them to keep a podium place. A couple of CPs later I found the Japanese lady walking slowly up a hill…time to overtake and get a move on!
Coming into Sparta was the most wonderful feeling – just over 9km to go, I knew now I would finish. Running down the long road towards the town the views are stunning and makes everything you have done in the last 30 odd hours worth it. Getting to the last CP when I thought I only had 1km to go was beyond excitement – I was about to complete the one race that had scared me for years. Running down the street I did wonder where this statue was. People were cheering from their balconies, shops, street corners, it was a wonderful feeling. Finally I was instructed to turn right and given a police escort towards the finish.
It seemed the whole town had come out to support the runners, Tim and Bridget together with a fantastic group of Brits were there cheering me in, kids surrounded me on their bikes but I didn’t mind, this is what is was all about – but where was the statue I still couldn’t see it. As I passed the bar with everyone cheering, people standing on both sides of the street the statue of King Leonidas appeared – trying to hold my emotions together was almost impossible as I ran up the steps and touched and kissed those marvellous feet. I HAD DONE IT!!!
I had finished in a time of 32 hours 33 mins 23 seconds coming in as 1st Brit, 3rd Female and 37th overall out of 285 starts.
A big marvellous thank you to Tim and Bridget who were fantastic. To James Adams and Robert Treadwell who drove up and down the course checking up on all the British runners, you guys were great for keeping us all informed on how our fellow Brits were doing and to the fantastic group of Brits and their supporters who made this race very special.