I’ve just opened a book about something I’ve done. Three weeks have passed since the event. My wife gave me the book months before I had decided to run it. We both thought the book, “Why We Run,” was about something else. The coincidence is remarkable. It’s a true story. The book would have been a good insight into the adventure. It describes an ordeal. Maybe it was a good thing I hadn’t read it any sooner. The topic was one man’s year long preparation and ultimate failure. The book is about the Spartathlon.
In 1980, RAF Wing Commander John Foden, whom I knew in 1981 but about whose exploits I did not, set himself the challenge of seeing if Pheidippides run of 153 miles from Athens to Sparta to raise King Leonidas’ army to save the Greeks from the Persian army at Marathon in 490BC was humanly possible. We’ve all heard the story of his run from Marathon but that was the easy part, the believable element, but could a man run such a route to Sparta and ‘arrive the next day.’ John’s team quit at 50 miles. In 1983 he returned better prepared and with a little support from the British Consul in Athens, to test Herodotus’s account. There was no prize or reward, just the knowledge that it could be done. It was a classically eccentric British adventure.
Since Foden, the run has become an annual challenge. In 2011 VCTC’s Oz Pearlman and Mike Arnstein reached the half-way and 120 mile points respectively. They thought I might like a try, and I did.
Put simply, the race started at the Acropolis, Athens on Friday morning on September 28th, 2012. There were 74 aid stations en route, each with a tough cut-off time. For instance, Corinth at 50 miles must be reached in 9hrs 30 mins. The final accent of Mount Parthenon at 100 miles, where Pheidippides, hallucinating, heard Pan call his name, had to be reached in 22 hrs 40mins in the dead of night. Sparta must be reached in 36 hrs.
Following behind the race were coaches, picking up those unable to make the cut-off times. Runners would be down to a pace where getting on the bus was inevitable. They would be struggling, even suffering, but they would keep going until told to stop at a Check-Point and get aboard. The coach would fill with athletes, asleep, legs curled up, covered in dust, salt, vomit and blood, some in shock. Later, for many, the arrival of the drop-out coach, became a growing inevitability but a welcome one at that. Most knew they were finished and were done in, and were grateful for it to be over without them having technically stopped, though for many, they had already surrendered even if their legs had not. There comes a point when the demons ultra runners must fight off and keep at bay find a weakness and get inside the mind. From there, the battle is lost for the demons have control and the mind looks for any excuse to stop, only an instinct for minimal dignity keeps many moving forward, yet happy in the certainty that it won’t be for much longer. The mental toughness is eroded and breached and the will is no longer defiant. I made myself loathe the bus. I created a mental wall and made myself fear it and hate it, to drive me forward away from it, to compel me to do everything possible to deny it any success over me. I trained to dread the cut-offs, to fear the consequences of not doing everything I possibly could to gain an advantage.
Getting to Corinth at 50 miles was just a case of moving fast enough in the heat. Getting to the mountain 50 miles further on was a question of how fast it could be done in the best possible shape to endure the rigour of the second day and foil the bus without breaking myself in the process. I even carried Euros with me to kid myself that I refuse the bus and could carry on to the finish unaided regardless of the time. That may not be allowed or doable but I’d have a damned good try and it helped set the mind squarely against any acceptance or possibility of getting on the bus. But I knew, these were just mental defences. But if the demons got into my head and into my mind then I would be doomed.
I had run the Grand Union Canal Run (GUCR) in England in 2009. I had obsessed about the finest details for months. Maps were pinned to my wall. Every mile had been run in stages over prior months. Every road checked for access points to the canal towpath. Road books with photos were made for my family who would support me. I organised practise runs with my parents and wife rehearsing support and learning where to park the car. Food stops were found and opening times checked for where my crew could eat. Written notes were given on my expected physical and mental condition and what to do when I couldn’t think. Calories needed were worked out per stage. Diet was determined, taking account of my predicted stomach condition as miles progressed, no stone was left unturned. Fastest, slowest and expected times at all Check Points (CPs). This was close to obsession, fuelled by fear. A fear that I relished for it foretold of a significant commitment to a real challenge with no certainty of the outcome. I feared it like doom and I liked it for success would be all the greater.
Spartathlon was different. I had nothing to prove. I’ve run the required speed before over 100 miles. I’ve almost gone as far. I simply had to combine the two and run 8 miles further and 9 hrs quicker than I had ever gone in my life. If I could avoid injury, bodily failure and mental collapse then there was no reason this could not be done. On GUCR, I overcame 2 out of 3 and had limped for 60 miles to beat the 45 hrs cut-off. I had the mental attitude. Spartathlon makes no allowances though. Unlike other ultras, when struggling on Spartathlon, time is normally the winner, you lose. Of course, I trained, but my focus was only on getting the job done. I never once checked the route. It wouldn’t change my training the next day. I had the trails and roads near home and no more. Each step of my planning was done only when the time came for it and only if I really needed to know. In some ways I was preparing my mind. I would not waste mental energy. Nevertheless, make no mistake, my body and mind were as strong as they could be but despite the months of targeted training, days getting logistics right it had really taken years to get ready. There may have been calmness over obsession this time but nothing was left to chance. Nearer the time I reviewed photos of the route and expected weather but town names along the route would be meaningless. Total scientific logic was applied as far is it could be in the war against inevitable deterioration of body and mind. Every conceivable eventuality had been committed to a plan. There could well have been times on the run when I might not think so well. My drop bag plan for CPs should mean I wouldn’t have to. Things I would need would simply be presented to me at the appropriate pre-determined places.
Oz and Mike were back for redemption. Oz told me afterwards of his surprise at my sense of calm and certainty. In reality, this run could potentially bring about my annihilation and I was refusing to let the thought of it break me down from the start. I found answers for anything that could stop me and reminded myself of occasions where I had overcome such things.
I normally do at least three runs over 20 miles before a marathon. For Greece, I ran 19 long runs, sometimes two a day, many over 30 miles and some up to 50 miles, on the hottest days I could find, running from morning till late afternoon. I knew how much needed to be done and I quietly got on with doing all I possibly could. On training runs I would review my pace and compare it to what I needed to achieve over the same distances in Greece. Slowly it got better. Mike had taken Oz on a 90 miles overnight run to take him to a new horizon and to show that you can recover after a 20 minute doze. He would come to need this knowledge on the road to Sparta.
The “World’s Most Gruelling Race” denounces commercialism and takes the full pride of Greece into its being. Just €400 ($500) gets you entry, 6 days full board and meals, receptions, T-shirts, polo shirts, gifts, photos, support, coaches, individual medical care and a life time of friendships. The Olympian ideal is held sacred.
I arrived to register at the one-star coastal hotel in Athens surrounded by chiselled men and a few women. Sinews and muscles down the back of their legs revealed their credentials – there was no vanity anywhere. There were 350 of the best ultra runners in the world crammed into a lobby. I heard of the great races they had run before – Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, Marathon des Sables, Western States, Badwater, Lakeland 100, GUCR and the Viking Way. The first three were regarded at maybe-do tourist trips, particularly Badwater and Marathon des Sables which were runs that were or could be broken down into sections – almost a series of short races if you please. Given enough time, almost any runner could do an ultra and without pushing a pace that would be too challenging. Spartathlon was different. In the 28 years since 1984, only 700 people had finished the world’s toughest ultra. Even fewer were first time finishers. There were no running buddies and limited support crew access. Everyone here knew that two thirds would not finish. I was incredibly humbled – how was I with such a group of people? Faces told of years of training to be at this standard. The entry requirement was 100km (62.2 miles) in 10 hrs 30 mins. All but the elite needed 2 or 3 attempts to finish the Spartathlon. Some of these hardened tough guys never had, despite 6 or more attempts. A flicker of doubt crossed my mind and was quickly squashed. I was here now and had a job to do. Being briefed how the first 70 to drop out would be put in a different hotel in Sparta due to space constraints put things in context.
A British contingent who all knew each other wondered who I was and how they didn’t know me. I was quickly adopted and sold a Team GB shirt. I was welcomed and made to feel like I truly belonged. Space was made for me every meal time. Some had girlfriends in support and we made a happy group. Known to them or not, I must have been credited with some respect since I had satisfied the same entry requirements as them to even be sitting there, but New York Runner of the Year or not, this was no time to list times run in short races. Anyone cocky would quickly attract scorn for the foolishness of his certainty and had a 2:1 chance of looking pretty stupid in a couple of days time. The reality was abundantly clear to us all. Luck would have little to do with it, although fortune favours the brave. We chatted about longer races past and talked strategy. My fuelling plan included 70 gels of various types. Mike doubted I had enough. Drop bags could be taken ahead to any of the 74 aid stations. Some had 5 bags, others 8, with clothing, headlamps and stashes of food. I was asked for my plan and I told them 36 bags – virtually every even numbered check point. Glances were exchanged and then the simplicity struck them. Brilliant! Why hadn’t they done that! Carry nothing further than you need to. When your brain gets addled, no thinking is required. Oz came to panic early in the race having forgotten to pick up his bag at a CP, having another 15 miles to his next bag. He later found that he had made a lucky mistake as he was early and a few miles later at the right place, the aid crews simply presented it to him. Lesson proved.
Before dawn on Sep 28th, coaches took us to the Acropolis. There was a lot of excited chatter all around but I was silent, focussed on the daunting task ahead, unwilling to make an early mistake. As the inky-blue light of dawn rose over the Parthenon, Oz organised Mike, Chisholm from OK and me into a Team USA group huddle and a pep-talk. Then with a true sense of history stirring in my soul, we were off, down the stone road to the streets of Athens, following in the footsteps of Pheidippides. Police stopped rush-hour traffic and camera crews filmed our every step for the morning news that we would never see. Mike, Oz and I ran together and already I was seeking out the smoothest surfaces I could find. Climbing 300’ after just 4 miles I reminded the guys we were supposed to walk the ups. Most traffic patiently let us pass with the police holding them at bay in the morning rush-hour as we headed for the port of Pareus and the coast. The highway was busy with trucks passing close by but it ended soon enough when we reached the quieter streets of Elefsina where school children lined the streets to high-five us as we passed the ruins of their ancient city.
Oz was talking constantly about plans of what we would do, where and when. I doubted such things could be pre-ordained and figured this was excessive nervous energy. I found it distracting but said nothing. I didn’t want a discussion about anything. I had to focus. I stayed with Mike and Oz for 15 miles after which we separated to run our own paces. The temperature was rising quickly and I was anxious to conserve energy and not get too hot. I was wearing cap with a hankie pinned around the back and sides to protect my neck and face.
The coastal beauty of the Aegean Sea, with its inlets and islands was wonderful. Lovers of Route CA-1, eat your hearts out. The coastal road clung to cliff faces in places and took us through fragrant flowered villages and towns, past tavernas and beaches. In some towns, people had left out bottles of water for us. Temps were in the 90s and still rising. At Mile 30 I saw my first portajohn. My stomach was feeling jippy so I gave it a go. It was maybe the cleanest portaloo I’ve ever been in but it was like a greenhouse inside and nothing productive was happening. At the aid station outside I poured water on my arms, legs and torso and dunked my hat, as I now did at every CP to cool my skin. I downed a cup of coke and set off. Almost immediately, part of my brain rushed forward and my stomach rushed up. No one seemed surprised as I was sick, four times. No wrenching, just an emptying of more fluid than I thought I had consumed. There was no accompanying dizziness or delicate stomach. Feeling much better and picked up the pace, over the rolling hills and through the incessant heat. I drank cups of sports drinks at CPs but from now on I only put water it in my bottle. I used half to drink and the rest I dribbled sparingly on my head, neck, shoulders, back and legs. The focus was full-square on Corinth at 50 miles. I simply had to get to Corinth, only then would I think about what followed. I was told times got easier after Corinth.
The check points had information boards with mileage and closing times of itself and the next CP. There was no point looking early on, but from 30 miles I checked. Get to Corinth, patience, patience, patience. Watch the clock and do what I had to do, always think ahead, monitor the body and take early action. I was just 15 minutes ahead of the cut-off. The last long hill climb plus the time to apply extra sun-lotion must have used more time than I’d thought. In the heat, I couldn’t risk going too fast, but I had to not waste time. To rest but keep out of the heat, I ran in the sun and walked in the shade, but there was precious little of that. I clung to shade, even from a guard rail or wire fence. Runners were 25-100 yards or so apart. At 40 miles my lead over the cut-off was down to just 7 mins. Tight - I mustn’t fail. I had to get to Corinth. My ultimate goal was to be just under 36 hrs. I had to keep the effort going. A Brazilian came by and I matched my pace to his until we took it in turns to pull each other. Back on a major highway, we climbed 350’ until suddenly crossing over the Corinth Canal, with its sheer sides stretching down to sea-level below. I gave myself 10 secs to take this marvel in, then ran for all I was worth. The Corinth CP was close and this was not the time to mess up. It came slightly before expected with 3 minutes in hand!
Corinth was the first place where support crews could meet runners. I didn’t take any support crew but I was mobbed by Brits eager to help, getting me a chair, offering me aid station pasta, rice, drinks etc and dousing me in water, which sadly soaked my shoes. I could barely face food. Sue told me over 200 of the 350 who started were already out, picked up by the coaches, with less than a third of the challenge completed. The heat was routing the field.
I set off feeling shocked for so many runners but glad to be through Corinth as if I’d finished and met the challenge but it was just that I’d set Corinth as such a goal, and it was tough. I’d broken the race into three 50 miles chunks and I was through the first. It was a thrill to think that I was still moving compared to so many others. Maybe I was entitled to be here after all. The sun was becoming less fierce and the cut-offs were getting easier. I stopped to stretch out a strain that was developing. It was a recurrence of something I’d felt before and I was prepared for it this time. Norris Ogard had shown me what to do. Lying on my back on a wall, I got another runner to force my quad down over the side. I didn’t feel any better for the stretch immediately and maybe it would have cleared up of its own accord for I’m grateful to Norris anyway for over time the strain melted away. Thanks Norris. I had tried to keep moving as much as possible and to not spend long in CPs, but post-analysis of my GPS before the battery gave up showed I had spent 36 valuable minutes not moving over the first 60 miles. That’s not much but any more could have signalled my exit. Reaching the next CP I only had 2 mins in hand. Without stops and after running more, I reached the next CP. Still 2 mins! I reached ‘ancient’ Corinth, my pseudo support crew were there to cheer me on, but it was growing and now included Sonia and Rudi from Belgium. Still 2 mins! My feet were sore. This wasn’t looking good. The longer cut-offs were not so generous because we were all slowing down. At this rate, I couldn’t see myself reaching the mountain at 100 miles. I had left Corinth just behind a German girl, Ricarda, and I used her and her friend Jens to gauge my speed as we made our way on quiet lanes through olive groves but I was struggling.
At 60 miles, my drop-bag contained a spare pair of shoes with rubber cushioned New Balance insoles. The Superfeet insoles I’d worn so far were light and chosen for speed knowing I would need it early on. Both pairs were chosen to prevent any recurrence of the Plantar Fasciitis that had dogged me for 60 miles on the GUCR. Instantly I felt like I had new feet. This was the most remarkable turn-around and I was away. Children in villages rode their bicycles with us while others held out autograph books.
Short races are physical and devoid of feeling other than the pain of effort and the willingness to apply and sustain it. Ultras have to be felt, not simply with the body but the mind more than anything. The body must not control the mind. As night fell and we ran south to the Peloponnese mountains, I was in charge, still in the game and feeling good.
There was a full moon as we began looping round hairpin bends to climb up the next range of hills. The temperature had fallen nicely and I was running up hills with little effort. This gave me time to think about any sore spots that might develop and get them vaselined up. I was making up serious time. I ran past others as if they were hardly running. I was beginning to enjoy myself for the first time. But this is the distance after which things often go wrong. In the space of 6 miles, a runner can go from indestructible to an invalid. A force inside you crushes your will. Only those who never felt such a force themselves can be surprised how quickly others submit to it. The rest are astonished that anyone can rebel against it for even a moment. I was at Mile 70. Ahead lay Mile 83 which is often where many crumble. Assume nothing.
I gave a whoop of real pleasure for how I was now running as I approached ancient Nemea. For now, it could hardly be better. I was really pumped up. This major aid station had medics and physio-therapists. I grabbed a massage as an investment in the rest of the race. The price was 25 mins but I also took on soup and gels while I was still. I left just behind the cut-off but was back ahead by the next CP where I grabbed more soup and a coffee. I was cocker-hoop with how well things were now going. I was blazing ahead. Decisions all seemed to be the right ones. My mind was alive and thinking ahead all the time, this is what I’ve been trained for since school. Complete uninterrupted focus on a single goal for days at a time taking a broad range of elements into account.
Into the night and onto a dusty track. With the full moon I left my headlamp off. I was really throwing myself at the event now. I was fearful of the heat of the second day and how slow I might become and was creating as big a buffer as I could. Better to run now that the next day in the heat with an ever-present cut-off threat. I was now an hour ahead. Eating so many gels was a challenge. Dropping into the next village I had the luxury of time to ask how Mike and Oz were doing. I hoped they were both still running. They were 2 hours ahead. This was my first news of them and I was delighted. There were other runners there who weren’t going anywhere except by coach.
I ran with a Finn for a few miles but had to back off. He must have been resting and was fresh now. I reached the valley floor and set off at a steady pace until stomach issues necessitated a brief stop. Lyrkia was alive with light and festivity with locals and supporters enjoying the local tavern despite the early hour. Rudi gave me a cheer from above as I went by. Travelling up the valley to the mountain pass ahead, I could see the street lights of the motorway climbing high above and I Knew I would have to climb above that soon enough but couldn’t see how or where. Reaching the village of Kapareli I was handed a large drop-bag with my long-sleeved top and tights for the ascent of the mountain. It was still warm and I took only some gels, caffeinated, putting the clothing into a new pre-labelled bag that I had also pre-positioned for items I wanted sent on to the finish. I had tried to think of everything in advance. Moments later I could see the road ahead, 6 or 7 runners’ headlights zig-zagging up the mountainside as they rose gently higher. I felt a pull and ran after them. A crazy challenge had entered my head. I wanted to catch-up. It seemed improbable but I closed the 400m to the first pair after just half a mile. I felt like a bit showy, and even though it was too dark to see who I was, I didn’t want to look like I’d over-cooked it. I passed by quickly hoping to get far enough ahead to turn a corner and be able to walk unseen, but supporting cars drove by and lit me up in the road so I had to keep running since I could be recognised by my distinctive British shorts. I couldn’t possibly walk now. Was this suicidal? I was at maximum effort running up a mountain round. To my surprise, and certainly everyone else’s, I was sustaining it. More runners were pulled in and then more. This bravado was paying off – fortune favoured indeed. I caught Ricarda and Jens again just as we reached 100 miles where my waterproofs, another top and a warm hat, items that were essential most years, awaited me. I looked up to the clear sky above the mountain top and went on without them.
The track up to the mountain top can best be described as a goat track. It twisted and turned every few steps and the loose rocks and stones slipped under my feet. Hazard tape and a myriad of red lights guided our way up the escarpment edge. The higher I climbed the windier it became and the more fearsome the drop over the edge became. I didn’t dare take my eyes off the trail to gaze at the view for more than a quick flick for fear of losing balance. After climbing another 1,000’ the summit was reached amid a thunderous gale force wind. The summit CP was thankfully well-anchored but this was no place to hang about. Words could not be shared at the CP and I ran across the ridge without hesitation. The far side was a Land Rover track that zig-zagged sharply down the mountain. Knees took a hammering whether you ran or walked, so I got on with it, breaking hard on every turn as I entered the darkness below and raced in to the village of Sagas nestled into a niche in the mountain-side. A quick check with the CP revealed that I was now just 48 minutes behind Oz who had separated from Mike to take a rest, and I was just over an hour behind Mike.
A mist had formed in the fields either side of the road leaving Sagas. The moon was sinking behind a ridge and plunging the valley into total darkness. Ricarda and Jens came up behind me and passed by as we neared the large CP at Nestani. I was running out of steam and decided another quick massage might help. It didn’t and I dithered in the comfort longer than I should have. Daylight was upon us now. I was at Mile 108 and had been running for 24 hrs. I needed to keep pushing and covering as many miles as I could before the sun’s heat hit me again. After skirting Tripoli I was grateful to be in the shadow of a long ridge protecting me from the growing strength of the sun building behind it that would soon hit me like a sledge-hammer. I pushed myself non-stop through CPs. My internal organs were complaining again and began slowing me up. I was losing sight of those around me. I had to do something. I thought what to do. Pepto-Bismal had no effect. There was no sensation associated with the right solution but a quick visit to a barely-private spot in a vineyard was a major success and vine leaves proved quite adaptable. I was on my way again.
I caught up with Alan Myles who missed the direction arrows painted on the road as he attempted to miss a turning and was so grateful that I and a villager turned him back. Rudi cheered me on as I passed him and Sonya once more. He was so confident I had this challenge cracked, but I was still very worried. Whenever there was a bush or tree, I walked in its shade, to keep my temperature down. My drop-bag at the next CP included sun-lotion which I duly applied, and fresh shoes which I left behind since my feet were doing fine. Tegea was another major CP, with full medical support and encouragement from the many defeated Spartathletes passing on their hopes for success to those of us still running, but there was also the bus. I ran straight through and received jubilant cheers that made my spirits soar as I made my way past more ancient city columns and ruins. Any shade on offer soon disappeared and I reached the main road to Sparta as it began a long, long climb that passed the 200km mark. Here was a long road with a long hill. It turned out to be 3 miles slog and it was midday. This was a walker, a long steady walker. It wasn’t steep but it climbed inexorably, and once at the top of view it turned left to reveal more of a climb, and then more and then more. I could see it twist right for another mile at least and hoped the top I could see was the summit. It wasn’t. I had caught up with a Hungarian, Andras, and his countrymen were cheering him on, since their own efforts had come to an end. A stunning young lady ran across the road from her car saying, “Open your bottle,” to us both. She filled it with ice and put more in my hat. The treat was repeated a couple of times more over the next few miles. The road undulated along a plateau and we ran whenever it went downhill and walked the ups. We were still an hour ahead of schedule. The thought in my mind was about the bite out of my buffer that the climb had taken. Nothing was certain yet but I was holding up reasonably well in the heat. I wasn’t falling apart. It was far from complete but I was in good shape and feeling no weariness or physical break-down and the fear that had fuelled my industrious progress was ebbing away. It was by no means replaced with any sense of triumph and so the stoic application diligently continued. Together with my new companion we made good pace and he described the route ahead to me. He passed me an ice-cold beer. Yes, a beer. It must have come with the latest gift of ice. We picked out landmarks ahead as short-term targets we agreed to run to and quickly covered a few more miles. With Andras’ assurance that Sparta was at the end of long downhill section and that there were no up-hill surprises I was beginning to feel a little more confident. With 25 miles to go Andras reckoned we’d be finished in 4 hrs. “We just had to ‘bite’ our teeth,” he said. I’d been gritting mine to hold his fast pace for a while and had no intention of gritting them for so much longer and was happy to finish in 5 or 6 hrs. I reckoned I clawed my safety buffer back and as a new, sterile, stretch of road beckoned, where any hope of shade had been swept aside with its construction, the heat rose even more from the wide asphalt and I let Andras ‘bite’ his teeth into the distance to ultimately finish within 10 minutes of Mike.
I had caught up with Ricarda and Jens again and we established a routine that kept us near each other for the next few hours that was less gruelling than my pace with Andras. Ricarda walked fast and had made good progress up the long hill but she ran slow which had allowed me to catch up to her over the plateau. At CPs too, runners would make room for each other under the shade of an umbrella with a few chairs and a couple of staff, while we took a drink, maybe some dates and biscuits but always a sponging down with water that was becoming increasing warm. I was getting pretty tired of gels by now. Very few words needed to be exchanged between runners, but the sharing of a common goal that brings about a journeyman’s friendship was there. The heat had become incredible but the mid-afternoon hours saw no let up. If it was over 100F in the shade, who knows what it was on the open road, blazing off the white rocks of the arid countryside. The CPs had become smaller as the run progressed and fewer runners survived. Our route description, which I knew I wouldn’t need, had described every location, if not the route in between, such as BP gas station, shrine kiosk on left, tavern or small farmhouse with big tree, and listed all the food and support each would have. There was generally no trouble seeing a CP though. Every car that now passed beeped their horns and cheered and waved from every window. It was Saturday. People of all ages rallied us on. Eventually, with 8 miles to go and Sparta sighted far away in the distance we reached the end of the plateau and a major decent on the old road as it twisted and turned down to the valley floor over the next 6 miles. A check of my watch confirmed that I was still an hour up on my goal. Running down hills had pounded my feet like I’d been in a Turkish prison. I didn’t need more, and I walked. I still passed a few; those who had been far ahead but had since seized up, like George Eyles, but were soldiering on and would eventually be rewarded with an olive wreath and greeted as war-torn heroes at the feet of King Leonidas. In the sun-trapping hillsides, the heat seemed to have built up even more. On the valley floor I felt close to home and picked up the pace. I began to chase down those ahead. This wasn’t a race for me but old habits die hard. The guy I had passed seemed to be responding. With just 2 miles to go and I ran hard all the way into town. Those 2 miles were further than they looked and I had to take a walk break in the shadow of the shops. I almost missed my penultimate turn but was waved back on course by the townsfolk of Sparta.
I turned the final corner and ran for home. I could see the finish. I ran past a rousing cheer from the British contingent sat drinking beer as they watched finishers go by every few minutes. For some reason I had disappeared off the internet results during the run and they had no news of my progress and thought I may be out but acknowledged that no-one had seen me on a bus. So as I turned the corner in my Union Jack shorts without warning they were caught completely by surprise. They planned to run in with all the Brits but they couldn’t catch up. Having just ordered a round of drinks, their plans were further spoiled by having to assign someone to guard the beers while they ran down the street after me. The crowd was intense. The throng of people lining the street pulled me on. I was racing for the line. I got a final cheer from Rudi and push on my back as I passed that served to accelerate me even more. Unseen ahead was another runner, literally hobbling to the statue ahead of me. His feet crossing as he staggered in.
A crowd had folded behind him that now blocked my path. I unceremoniously weaved my way through at full speed and once in open space I leapt up to the statue of King Leonidas to stand side by side with him on his plinth. I was overcome with excitement, finally released after so much deep control. I had the energy of a conqueror.... what was I thinking? The plinth was 5 feet high! There were a few gasps of shock from those around. I got as high as his thigh and had to settled for striking his knee with my chin as I fell back down as, mid-flight, I had merged the actions I’d intended, with the kiss of his foot that was expected by tradition. I recovered my poise smoothly in the same flowing movement to hold his foot and looked up at the full height of the bronze warrior King with his sword and shield that had been my goal for so long.
The Mayor of Sparta turned me to face the cheering crowd and photographer. One of three robed maidens offered me a bowl of water from the Evrotas River while another placed a wreath of olive branches upon my head. The Mayor presented me with a plaque which I shall cherish forever, no doubt outlasting the fragile crown that it will be placed beside at home, and his daughter gave me a T-shirt that means more than so many I have since given to victims of Storm Sandy.
Taken to one side, my feet were bathed. Food and drink was brought, although I took nothing but the orange juice, as Sue and the guys gave me their congratulations. These former strangers were now firm friends and were so proud and delighted I’d finished. They were so pleased, much more than as if I simply scored for the team. My goal 36 hrs. My time was 34.54. I finished, feeling extremely happy. It was a feeling that lasted for days. I was at peace with the world. I was happy with what I had done, with myself and with others that made that possible or simply let me be myself enough to do this. Who else was this lucky! I had beaten no one, I had simply succeeded against the challenge. Through others I had been in a position to do it.
A medical team took over. Around me were several runners lying on beds on intravenous drips, having their wounds tended to. I was in good shape. A taxi was called to take me to my hotel – all part of the service. Sue told me that my hotel was right where they were drinking. Of 350 starters, just 72 finished. Of 18 Brits, only 4 finished, slightly better than average. One of those was professional and another, James Adams, had run from LA to New York. This was some company to be keeping. From VCTC and New York, we were 3 for 3. That takes some beating.
At the hotel I was given a choice of room mates to share with and I chose James. The room was empty. I figured he was outside drinking but he had his girlfriend with him so they were staying somewhere else. As my body relaxed a little I was vulnerable. I called Mike and Oz who were resting but ecstatic with my news. They had finished equal 24thin 33hrs 22 mins. I showered, and places I’d forgotten were sore gave me a fearful stinging reminder. Having dried I didn’t seem to have any bags. The only clean clothing I had was the T-shirt. So I got back in my filth and went outside for a drink, but sadly too late. I wondered around the town. The square was laid out with 3000 chairs and a stage for the music and festivities later on. I returned to my room having discovered my case in a corner of the lobby. I felt a little sick. I hadn’t eaten yet and the orange juice was finding its way back up. I awoke from the most restful sleep to find myself sitting in strange surroundings. One arm was on a waste bin and the other on the toilet bowl. I had reached the sink ok but the subsequent effort had dropped my blood pressure below critical. Worried and alone, I jarred the door open and called Mike to leave news with someone about my state and asked him to be sure to come and get me in an hour after a nap when we would go for dinner together. Dinner was tough. We all managed only a little. We skipped the festivities and went to bed.
If dinner had been a non-event, breakfast was a record breaker. I ate with Mike and Oz, then ate with others I now knew as they came in for all morning non-stop food, letting us chat till the cows came home. Ricarda she didn’t recognise me at first, but she had only seen me from the back and my face had been shielded from the sun. On the other hand, she looked remarkably different too.
Most were limping and hobbling around as I went to pick up all my drop bag gear from the gymnasium. Up behind the King’s statue, was a soccer pitch and behind that was ancient Sparta. It’s interesting that all these stone ruins remain in Greece. In England, our towns were built on top of whatever went before, including most roman ruins, and any useful stone was taken for the next development rather digging a new quarry. Maybe Greece isn’t short of the odd rock!
Returning to the hotel, buses were ready to take us to lunch with the Mayor. It looked extravagant since I supposed his residence or town hall must be reasonably close, but it seemed a nice gesture given that some could hardly walk. I dumped my stuff in my room and jumped aboard the coach which appeared to be on a magical mystery tour, taking us high into the hillsides for an outdoor meal for 400. There was a bag for each of us containing a Spartathlon book, photos of our run, a DVD of the event, local orange juice, olive oil and olives. I found that seats were saved for me on a number of tables but I sat with VCTC and later joined a Brits-only group photo, after regrettably spilling frothing beer on some during my attempt to dance to Greek music with a bottle in my hand. The meal was wonderful and traditional. Beer flowed freely (no pun intended) and there were speeches in both Greek and English. What a highlight.
As we left, the fleet of luxury coaches passed through Sparta and back towards Athens. I realised the awful truth that I’d missed some vital information. Isolated from everyone else in the hotel I had not heard we were not returning. My bags were in my room. Our escort was most unwilling to let me off the coach, saying she was responsible for my well-being. That seemed a stretch after what I’d been through. She said the hotel would send my gear in 2 days (this is Greece after all)– after my flight but I had no passport or anything more than the clothes I stood in. As we got further away I pleaded to be let off. She asked how on earth I would get back. I just looked at her. Really? By the time I got off we were 15 miles away but a flagged down coach going the other way took me to within 8 miles of Sparta. From there I put my thumb out as I crossed the road as a car approached and its non-English speaking Albanian driver took me back in a heart-beat, once my mix of limited Greek and English struck home. The hotel was expecting me and told me that the race director’s daughter would call in on her way to Athens. It turned out she was glad of the company and pleased I was English. Over the many years of supporting her father with the race she had had many passengers who spoke neither English nor Greek. She had learned her English working in London and for Citi Bank.
The following day was another of swapping stories. Some wanted to know how I had done it as a first timer. There was genuine interest. I had earned my place with the group but I was also alive to the disappointment in those whose success would have to wait another year. They took it well, recognising that this is not a competition against each other but between ourselves and the challenge. The success of some served only to fuel the hopes of others. Later, I found time to visit the Acropolis properly before the Awards Ceremony, Dinner and Dance at a night club that evening. The dignitaries were at the ceremony and each finisher was called up in turn. The British Consul-General awarded me with my medal and she joined us at our table afterwards.
The following day was more relaxing. There was time to spend on the beach before getting our flights home. Many had already gone, but there were several groups of familiar welcoming faces to join. The main topic was about returning and what a perfect week we had had. Cost was not a factor. All this for €400 ($500). Personally, I don’t want to start an annual pilgrimage, tying my calendar up for months of training to be properly prepared but I would like to re-new my friendships on other runs in the UK. For Spartathlon, I need to be physically ready but I will be back, and not just once.