This is madness. Madness? This is Sparta!!!

I have never written a race report or a blog before, so if you’re getting bored after the first couple of paragraphs, ditch reading this. And go out for a run!

Actually, I wouldn’t go as far as calling this a race report, it’s more like just a collection of random things that went through my mind in this year’s Spartathlon.

I was having a deja-vu. Oh, yes. Deja-vu. What would it feel like to be cremated? Normally, in a race situation I don’t often think about these morbid things, but at this very moment I can’t stop wondering that this is exactly what it must feel like. Earlier this year I was having the exact same thoughts during another reputable race in the US. That run was 35% shorter, but the weather was quite a bit hotter. But today, on this particular day in Greece it really felt like the sun had some personal issues with me that needed ironing out. It felt like it was trying to teach me a lesson. Only because I made it in June through the 40C choking heat, it doesn’t mean I’ll be among the finishers today. So far, I have been doing a great job with putting suntan lotion on my skin, preventing me from getting sun burned. Although, that’s not entirely true. I have been super excited and super appreciative when I spotted a British Spartathlon Team member, or other volunteer at various aid stations and asked them to put some lotion on me. I needed my hands to stay relatively clean so I could wipe my snotty, salty face and my eyes from time to time so I could see. I have been crying on and off for the past couple of hours, but I’m not really sure why. I always get emotional in ultras. However, this time it was different. Something was different. Something just wasn’t right.

The race started out pretty OK for me, arrived to check point 11 in 03:55 (marathon distance), then into Corinth in 07:44 (almost a double marathon). This first section was definitely one of my favourite parts of the race.

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Leaving Athens in the dawn and embarking on this iconic journey was quite magical to be honest. Well wishers along the road, lots of cars honking, everyone is sending you their love. Or were they just being grumpy that they were stuck in traffic? After CP3 you hit the coast and the kilometres start flying by. Everything seems effortless, the sun is out but it’s still early and cool, and because of the proximity of the sea there’s a constant breeze all the time so you think to yourself life just can’t get any better than this. Then it does. One of the best things about ultra running for me is how I appreciate the little things in life. After arriving at one of the check points for example, I dunked a slice of dry bread in some lukewarm, flat coke and went “Mmmm…! Delish!” The coast first along the Gulf of Elefsina, followed by the Megara Gulf, then the Saronic Gulf were all sparkling in a million shades of blue. It’s simply impossible to describe how beautiful it was.

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The terrain was constantly going up and down, nothing too serious though, all of it was runnable, and it felt really nice just to stretch out my legs on the downhills. Crossed the 100km mark in 10:09, and even though I was absolutely fine, for the first time at this point I thought I might have started out too fast. I didn’t think much of it, as the roadside cats and dogs gave me plenty of opportunities to be distracted. Saw quite a few different lizard species as well and even a juvenile four-lined snake crossed the road right in front of me. This was a definite highlight! Every time I heard the dry leaves rattling by the road I wanted to stop just to check if it was another lizard or maybe even a marginated tortoise! But I didn’t stop to check. If I had known that I would still be running the same race 24 hours later, I’m sure I would have held back and spent a little more time with my new reptile friends…

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After leaving CP32 I was running with a former Spartathlon champion, Otaki Masayuki from Japan. He won the race in 2000 and this was his 13th attempt. *headdesk* As the sun started to set we were running in unison chatting about the course, the scenery and about Scott Jurek. 6 or 7 kms later he sped up and I was left in his dust, so I arrived to the halfway point of the race alone, in 13 hours and 20 minutes. It was already pitch black, so I decided to turn on my headlamp, but because of a stupid person *points finger at me* my batteries were already out. When they say you should expect the unexpected in an ultra, well this is what they are talking about. Thanks to an angel like crew member called Kirstin, a mere 15km later I had a flashlight to run with. Happy days! Arriving at the mountain base was pretty cool, knowing if I crawled up the zigzag road, I would be halfway up the mountain. So I did that. CP47 was something like a weird party with music, people taking pictures, runners shivering and hot soup. For me this was where the next section of the race started to get interesting. This rocky, gravely, shingle covered path was one of my favourite parts in the whole race. No, I’m not totally insane, let me explain why.

I love mountains. And I love trail running. As soon as I started the climb, there was only one thing expected of me. I start at the bottom of the hill, and I’ll go up to the top. Nothing else, just that. And even though I was getting really tired by this point, I knew exactly what I was doing.

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This was my path and I loved every second of it. The descent was rather steep at certain points and I started to feel some mild discomfort in my left ankle. Who cares I said to myself, two thirds of the run is done, I’ve just covered a hundred miles on foot, so I’m pretty sure I can handle a little bit of swelling. To my shock I wasn’t sleepy at all, which normally happens in races that are run overnight. I was physically getting more and more tired, but my brain was on fire! This went on until 4AM when the air temperature suddenly dropped and I needed my two layers and an additional kid’s plastic poncho to raise my core temperature above zero. Yes, a kid’s poncho. Very classy, I know. I walked, hobbled and shivered through the next three hours by the time the weather was warm enough to carry on in wearing only my singlet again. I was getting slower and slower though. That ankle just didn’t feel right. I was still moving forward though, so I couldn’t really complain. Then the afternoon heat kicked in. I’m not exaggerating when I say I love sunshine and I love training in the heat. I’m like one of those sun worshiping ring-tailed lemurs that can spend hours with their arms held open, soaking in the sun rays. Thinking about summertime is basically the only thing that gets me through winter training. But this heat was from a different world. It was unreal. I kept telling myself that this is why I came here. I came for the relentless sun, the scorching temperatures and the beautiful rock formations along the road that this time of the day acted like giant heaters radiating the heat straight into my skull and turning my brain into mush. I told myself things change in an ultra. All you have to do is just hang in there and things will get better. It doesn’t matter that you have never run this distance before, if you can gut this out, salvation and happiness will wait for you at the finish line. Hopefully along with some shade and a bottle of water, too.

So this is when I arrive at one of the aid stations and without realizing it I start touching my top. It’s super dry. So is my forehead. My shorts, too. It must be really warm I guess that’s why my clothes are dry, right? In this hellish situation it would be impossible not to sweat. I put my hand on my lower back under my top, but nope, no sweat. That’s when it hits me like a ton of bricks. I’m not sweating! Unfortunately (or luckily??) I have read far too many articles and books on heat exhaustion to know exactly what was happening to me. When people overheat they usually suffer from a condition known as heat exhaustion, which is largely due to salt and fluid depletion. They feel sick and weak, but continue to complain of the heat, and when examined they sweat buckets, they have a fast pulse and low blood pressure of dehydration. But, if left untreated and they become hotter still, things can change. They go on to get heat stroke and behave quite differently. With heat stroke the body temperature rises so far that the control systems become wayward and inform the brain that the body is too cold instead of too hot. My slightly melted brain was still sort of functioning, but I started loosing being in touch with my body.

Not. Cool.

I felt really uncomfortable and I went very quiet at the aid stations.

An ambulance pulls up next to me and a guy jumps out and walks with me. He’s asking how I’m doing. I give him a growl, then suddenly remember that medical staff has the authority to pull anyone from the race regardless if they want to continue or not. Faking a laugh I start rambling about the heat and my ankle and the beautiful Greek countryside and promise him I’ll take a longer break at the next check point. When they drive off, I start shuffling and within a few seconds I start shivering. I feel cold. I hate myself immensely. I’m pretty sure most ultra runners possess a healthy amount of self-loathing, but am I hating myself way more than I should? Why am I putting myself through this? This is not fun. More importantly, how far am I willing to go? Would I be willing to collapse and to be carried out on a stretcher just because of a stupid race? Being in this state gives me a perfect excuse to quit, but I don’t want an excuse. I just really want to finish. My brain still drives my body and that’s enough for now. It has to be enough, because quite frankly I have nothing left in the tank. I’m thinking what options I have to remedy the situation…

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Submerging in cool water would make a huge difference, but that’s not really an option here. Having a few packs of ice under my armpits and under my hat would be good too, but where the hell do I find ice in hell? I arrive at the next aid station and spot a British crew member and explain him that I would love a cotton T-shirt, or a towel, or even just a kitchen cloth if that was possible. He disappears and brings back a life saving white cotton top, I quickly change, and pour a litre of water on my head which soaks everything. This sends me into a shivering shock as if I was epileptic. But I don’t care. The water logged top does its job and with my newly found hope I’m on my way to Sparta! Not very fast, but once again I’m moving forward. It’s funny how a dream that seemed far too unrealistic can turn into reality all of a sudden. Food and fluids have long lost their appeal to me at the various aid stations, unfortunately it’s getting more and more difficult to stomach anything. Still, I keep sipping some water at the check points and swallowing those foul tasting coke flavoured energy gels. Yuck! It’s driving me mad that I’m so close to the finish line (only 13km to go!!) and a casually crawling three-toed sloth would easily beat me. I’m literally dragging that stupid left ankle like if it was some kind of dead weight. Suddenly a ghastly, vomit coloured bus passes me and wakes me from my haze. The Death Bus! Damn it! The following three capitals appear in my head: DNF. Did Not Finish. I know the bus will be waiting for me around the next turning point and I’m pretty sure the situation will have three possible outcomes.

1: I’ll be told to hurry up because I only have a few minutes to spare before the official cut off times. That would basically mean a few more hours of suffering. Seems too daunting. Seems too real!!

2: I have just made it to the check point, I don’t have any time to fill up my water bottle, I’ll have to keep moving to stay in the race. This would suck. Keep going through this nightmare with no water?!

3: I’m out. Game over. I’m a loser, I really wanted to finish, but I came up short. Shame on me, but at least I can stop running and I can sit down in this oven. Finally, what relief it would be… It would be.

It would be, if I could just convince myself… I honestly don’t know what’s happening to me, but I start running. My body is trashed, but my brain is still the ringleader in this freak show. Not crawling, not even trotting, but I swear I break into a proper run without having a slight limp in my stride. And to my huge surprise the bus is not waiting for me around the next bend! Phew! I keep running and I literally fly into the next aid station. A couple of the British crew members are standing there in awe, patting me on the shoulder, telling me what a great job I’m doing and how amazing it is that my ankle feels so much better, but all I can say is “I saw the Death Bus! That was the Death Bus, wasn’t it?”. Sure it was, but I’m told not to worry about it. I’m told I can finish even if I had to walk the rest of the distance. I’m also told if I can run, I should run at least a little bit. I can hear everything what people say, but the words don’t really register. All I know is I have 10km left from this race and I’m going to try my best to make it to the finish line. I decide to run one km then walk 500m and keep repeating the pattern until I get to Sparta. What a splendid plan! After running for more than 30 hours it certainly doesn’t make any sense in my head how it’s possible to feel this fresh. I’m not running fast, but I do have a good rhythm going on and I’m so thankful to feel this great this far in the race. After yesterday’s stretch along the coast and last night’s mountain goat climb if I had to choose a section where I’m in total control and I feel amazing, this km would be it. As soon as my watch tells me I have done 1000 meters, I start walking with a smile on my face and still cannot believe how lucky I am to be amongst this year’s finishers! 500m are up and knowing I only have 8.5 km left, I break into a jog again. A couple of hundred meters later my watch makes a long buzzing sound, oops, the battery is dead. The sudden realization of my doom is sending me into a proper, full on panic attack and I start sobbing and gasping for air. Why on Earth didn’t I pull the plug when I had the chance at the aid station?

The pain is so unbearable that I’m thinking instead of sending criminals to prison, these people should be forced to run this god forsaken race. This is purely inhumane. I reach the next check point, fill up my water bottle, give the energy gels a look with indifference in my eyes and I keep walking. I have never been this sad in any of my races before. I have never considered myself one of those crazy masochists. I was wrong. Clearly I am, otherwise why would I spend a day and a half torturing my own body?

But this stubborn mule is still moving forward. All I can think about is the finish line and how much time I have left. Not enough. My brain can’t tell if I can make it within the time limit. I can still sort of see numbers in my head, but it’s getting more and more difficult to calculate. Do you know when you ask a small child the simplest equation and they take a few minutes, rolling their eyes around and humming and clearly concentrating very hard to give you the correct answer? That’s the face I’m pulling and I’m also drooling on my chest. The lowest of the low. I leave aid station No. 74 and a the sign says I have 2.4 km left to the main square. How could I possibly rationalize this? Perhaps 6 laps on the track? That I might actually be able to do. It might take me another 25-30 minutes, but now I know that I’m going to get there. Kids in the streets are clapping and giving you high fives, drivers are hooting from their cars and people are out in their balconies shouting things in Greek and in English. After what seems the longest mile of my entire life, I quit walking and start shuffling my feet once again. Home stretch. After a right turn I keep following the slow stream of walkers/joggers and I just know that King Leonidas’ statue must be at the far end of the square. If it isn’t and this whole journey has been the longest, most hellacious nightmare of mine, I’m going to have to ask a random person for a knife to slit my wrists. But it’s not a nightmare. The British Spartathlon Team is on the left and they are yelling and clapping like crazy. I can’t hear them, but they must be telling me I look like an old, crusty looking pile of poo. I cry like a baby and give them a wave. And then the statue appears! I’m here. Made it to Sparta. I’m trying to keep it together, trying not to cry, but I’m doing a rubbish job. I kiss the foot of the statue and I don’t really remember what happens after. An olive wreath, a little trophy, some papers and stuff. A cup of water from the nearby river. Evrotas river?

I’m sitting in a flimsy, plastic chair and two nurses are taking off my shoes and socks and both are looking at my feet with awe. No chafing, no bruises, no black toenails, not even a tiny blister. It seems like they are waiting for a confession from me or something. Yeah, I didn’t actually run 6 back to back marathons. Sorry. As soon as they place my feet in a tub of water I start shaking and shivering uncontrollably like if I was having dozens of spasms and cramps in my whole body. I’m thinking I must be a beautiful sight. I’m trying to tell them everything is perfectly fine, the water just feels a little cold, but I can’t speak I’m shaking so violently. They fetch a wheelchair and roll me into the medical tent which is situated maybe 8 meters from the area where I’ve been sitting.

Not embarrassing at all.

A doctor and two nurses are asking me questions but now that I’m under two cosy cotton blankets and wearing a foil blanket, I feel a little less cold. One of the nurses is trying to stab me with a needle, but she’s not succeeding. I stuff two bananas in my face (i.e. fruit just to avoid any confusions) just to distract my mind from the IV drop, but wow, look! The needle is in!! Yay! They are looking for a drip stand, but it’s nowhere to be found. This super talented nurse starts lifting the bag, seemingly reaching up to the sky and trying to attach the bag to one of the metal cross beams of the tent. What the…? She’s almost there, but the tube is too short, hey, funny enough it’s not designed for a patient to receive an IV drop from the second floor of a building and now she’s pulling it so hard that the needle is in an amazingly erected 90 degree angle in my arm and my blood is shooting up the tube. Is this really supposed to be happening? I’m speechless. I mean… Finally something must have gone wrong, because she rips out the needle, walks around the bed and starts poking this time my left arm. I’m too tired to put up a fight and just watch her in disbelief. My veins in that arm are probably faulty I guess, because she tries again and again and again. The needle is definitely under my skin, but she’s moving it around like if she was looking for some loose change with a metal detector. Seriously? She looks at me like if it was my fault, pulls out the needle yet again, and… and walks around the bed and starts working on my right arm again!! Hahahaha! I’m not squeamish when it comes to blood and I’d like to think I can handle a certain amount of pain. This time though, I’m really worried about barfing and that those two bananas will come back and will land on her face. She stabs me again, but something goes wrong, as she keeps tutting and all I have energy for is to roll my eyes. Another nurse steps in quickly and puts the needle where it belongs just in time for the arrival of a drip stand. What a palaver, one would think!

The doc is next, she’s super nice and I whisper in her ear that I’m not a doctor, but I think I might actually be having a heat stroke, so even though the blankets’ warmth feels really nice, I should be cooling my body one way or another. She gives me a huge smile and says something in a way you talk to an intellectually disabled person: “Well, we’ll see about that.” The thermometer confirms my diagnosis, she throws away the blankets, peels off my foil and leaves me to shiver. She also brings over a couple of bags of ice, warns me that this won’t feel very pleasant and puts them under my armpits. This sends me into a shivering shock again. The worst (or perhaps the best??) part is that my brain is still functioning and I’m really present to everything that’s happening around me. One of the nurses is super nice and keeps coming back to check on me. Whenever she’s around I’m trying not to shake too much and trying not to freak her out. After some 30-40 minutes, my core temperature drops a bit, so I’m free to go. Eventually, they put me on a bus with a bunch of other runners and drive us off to our hotel.

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At the dinner table everyone’s already talking about their plans for 2017! I’m appalled. All I can think about is how much I don’t fit in with this bunch. These are clearly hard core runners and I’m just a survivor of this year’s Spartathlon. So much pain, tears, not running, feeling weak and just general sadness, there’s no way I’m coming back. Like ever. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I’ve done this race, but it’s not for me. It’s just not fun. And one of the main reasons for me to run ultras is for fun. Having said that even just a couple of hours after the event I suddenly remember the beautiful parts of the race, the olive groves, the surrounding mountains, the animals (obviously!!), the vineyards and the nicest people ever. Volunteers, runners, team members, medical teams, physiotherapists, marshals and everyone else I missed.

Next day we’re at a restaurant and I’m having a chat with one of the Japanese runners, a nice lady, we kept seeing and passing each other for the last 60km of the race. We both are on the same page when it comes to the Spartathlon. We both liked some bits, we both hated a lot of things, we both went through hell, but in the end she turns to me and says: “Yes, I will definitely come back next year.” Looking at her like if I had just hallucinated I ask her why. “Because I didn’t run the race the way I wanted. I didn’t get to finish on my terms.”

For the next couple of days I’ll still be in Greece visiting the zoo, walking along the beach looking for tiny crabs, enjoying every minute of my time, but I just can’t stop thinking about what this lady said.

Looking west near Sparta across olive groves with the Taygetos mountains in the background Southern Peloponnese Greece

It took me a few days to fully understand what she had meant and to not think she’s a lunatic. Because she isn’t. 5 days after the finish it’s now crystal clear that I will go back to Greece. Maybe in 2017, maybe in 2018, I’m not sure. Every single ultra has taught me one or two valuable lessons. So this is this year’s Spartathlon’s:

I can tell you at least five different things that I absolutely loved about my race. And I can definitely tell you five that I hated with all my heart. But here’s the thing. Either cruising along the coast looking at the water, climbing up that super long hill on the second day when every fibre in my body was roasting, or staring out of my face, looking at one of the signs that said “next check point 6.5km”, or just admiring the pomegranate trees that I was passing, I have never felt more alive. Every cell in my body was appreciating what it was like to be a runner and move my body across/over/through vast geographical distances. To me, that’s what being alive feels like. And I genuinely mean it when I say I would love to get that feeling back, because that’s the best feeling ever. So yes, it will be an honour to run the Spartathlon again!!

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It would be impossible to thank every single person who helped me before, during and after the race, mainly because my memory is like a, and I can’t even finish this sentence. Having said that, every single member of the British Spartathlon Team, runners and crews alike all work together towards one goal, to get all runners to the finish line. I didn’t have my own crew this year, but all the help I received from Kirsten, Gill, Collette, Kelvin and quite a few other people is truly touching. Like that amazing man, who gave me the aforementioned white cotton T-shirt and single handedly saved my sorry ass, or that hilarious figure just after Corinth who warned me to be careful because I had no idea where his hands had been, while putting suntan lotion on my back. I am very grateful for a Greek physiotherapist, Mimis at the half way point of the race, and also the super nice nurse, Constantina for being so friendly and nurturing! Certain members of the Japanese, Taiwanese, US and Hungarian Teams (especially Laci, the guy who has a caiman for a pet!) will be remembered, that’s for sure! I feel a little bit strange that I didn’t get to know everyone in the British Team, but I don’t have a massively outgoing personality when it comes to meeting strangers and it takes time for me to open up to people. Anyway, from the moment at Terminal 5  when Paul started talking to me about how much he hated flying, to the nervous, sleepless nights when sharing the room and endless conversations with Dan, most runners did make it to my heart one way, or another. It was a pleasure meeting Dan. He can be a little introverted at times and I don’t mean it in a bad way. It actually really suited my mood, especially because the pre-race nerves started setting in. Whatever anyone thinks, I’m not a party animal. Who else do I remember from the team? Barry, AKA Superman. Then Ian. Well, if Barry is Superman, you must be “Runniseus”, Greek god of running or something. I salute you, and I want to be like you when I’m a little older. Tremayne, I wanted to mention you to check out Transgrancanaria 125, something tells me it would be a good challenge for you. Also, your wife is super lovely! The Three Musketeers: James, Russ and Duncan. Oh, and Carl. Carl found an unlimited source of patience while trying to explain to a bunch of Taiwanese runners why it’s a bit unfair keeping a bus full of people waiting because one other person not being present since they had been taken to hospital. Rob, I really don’t know what to say. You swear a lot. I mean you’re one of the few people I know who knows how to use the F word and the C word 14 times in a single sentence. But you’re also like a father to all of us, and I’m sure I speak for the others as well when I say we love you very much. See you next year!! Sophie, you’re just simply awesome. Period. Jim, I guess I was wrong at the gala. I actually did enjoy most of the race, just needed a few days to erase the horrendous parts from my memory. Paul, you’re like a guru telling runners pretty much everything about the race. And about running in general. And about life. You’re amazing!  John, I envy your stamina a lot! You clearly know how to gut these runs out, I’m sure I could learn a lot from you. Rusty. Right. So it’s the awards ceremony in Athens, everyone’s dancing like crazy, including myself. But can I just say I was a little more reserved than others since I was totally sober. Anyway. I was also wearing a sleeveless top with huge cuts on its sides. So in the middle of a song Russell taps on my shoulder and asks: “What’s that?” pointing at my top. I go: “Erm. It’s a T-shirt.” Rusty: “Yeah, I get that. But where’s the rest of the fabric?” And then there’s Stu. And Stu’s commitment to Parkruns. And Stu’s passport. I trust you have a new one by now buddy, woohoo! And at last, but definitely not least, Nick. Nick knows how to party. Actually, he should lead a workshop on partying, because he’s so good at it. The only problem is that I’m pretty sure he doesn’t remember most of the evening since he was so intoxicated, so here a piece of info. Paul and Nick: “Marcel, leave that pole alone! You made it to England from Eastern Europe, you don’t have to do that stuff anymore!” Unbelievable.

Girls, guys, I love you all and thank you for everything! x

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