For Ultra runners the Spartathlon needs no introduction, but for my Mum, the only other person who reads my blogs, here are some links to tell you all about it.
Spartathlon written by British Speed Merchant Ian Sharman.
Spartathlon in the Economist written by 3 & 0 British Spartathlon wrecking ball James Adams.
It’s basically 153 miles, from Athens to Sparta, which was proposed as by the British Military’s Ozzie marathon runner John Foden. Pheidippides was reported (by veritable Ancient Greek Times journalist Herodotus) to have run the distance before the sunset the next day (ie 36 hours). John did it with some chums in 1980, thus proving he really had balls of steel and now there is a yearly race for people to prove they are as tough as John. This year I’m going to have a go at it (but I have removed my balls as they are superfluous to requirements and I must go super lightweight…)
So how do you get ready for a race like this? I kind of knew I could make the distance, having run 149 miles in 24 hours in May and 100 mile in 15:43 in June, I just wanted to make myself a little quicker and learn to deal with the beast that finishes many a Spartathlon attempt, the heat. Easy, if you don’t live in the UK, where summer consists of 4hours 13 minutes of sunshine and 90 days of rain normally.
First point of call was the Heat chamber at Kingston University where ultra runner Chris Howe is a research techy. They let all sorts of nutters jump on the treadmill at 40 degrees centigrade and 40% humidity just to see how much they can sweat in an hour. A good chance to test myself way above expected Spartathlon heats but also to find out what it feels like when you push too hard and your core body temp goes over 39 degrees. You feel shit, much like when you try too hard in any race. Good to know. Get in touch with them here (Kingston Uni Science People) if you want some fun times in there!
That done I felt I needed some practice in a real hot place that was a little bit like Greece and Mr. Mark Woolley, multiple Badwater, UTMB, Spartathlon and breakfast finisher had invited a bunch of people to come out to Malaga for a Spartathlon Boot Camp and his infamous Death Run. Sounds good right? Closest I’m going to get to a relaxing summer holiday I thought!
It turns out it was eventually Mark, James Adams (three time finisher, no time DNF’er of Spartathlon) and myself were the only three foolish enough to sign up for this Boot Camp and Mark had no choice as we were in his house! The idea was to run a cheeky 53km road run on the Thursday, a nice 4hr scramble in the Sierra Nevada on the Friday, some wild camping (5 men sleeping in a car park), the Death Run, then another bit of dogging/wild camping and a rest day before James shot off back to the UK. Simples right?
The first two days went swimmingly, 52km in the heat was nice, less so for James and then the scramble was a nice rest for our wee pins for the Death Run. Then came Saturday. So, why do they call this the Death Run, a name placed upon it by James himself when it ate him up and spat him out 3 years ago?
The run is about 90km, from the coast at Motril to the highest point of Mainland Spain at just under 3500m. That said, it isn’t all up hill, sometimes you lose the precious height you gain and have to start again, with 4500m of ascent during the whole day. The first 60km is mainly road and is great prep for Sparta, dodging cars and, after the first 20km, just jogging uphill. We were joined by two of Mark’s Spanish amigos, whilst Mark was going to crew from the car, due to finishing a particularly hot Badwater and a cheeky Canadian 70 miler already this summer.
For me this was a chance to work out what to eat in the heat, how to stay cool throughout and find a lovely outfit that would make me look pretty in Greece (although not too pretty that I got picked up by a truck driver on route). I set off with a good few Wholebake 9bars and flapjacks attached to some pockets on my arms, a soaked buff round my neck and my “I look like a d**khead” sunglasses on. Excellent. The first 20 k was nice and flat and the 4 of us stuck together, using my pidgin Spanish and, mainly, the Spaniards English to have a chat.
After 20k the route we were taking decided to go uphill, for the next 70k it seems. I plodded off, setting 10k an hour on TomTom and the others didn’t fancy following. Apart from seeing Mark in the car a couple of times before 30k I was now in for a bit of a lonely day, but that’s the price you pay eh?
The local fountains and shops along the way kept me hydrated rather nicely and it wasn’t too long until I run out of road, getting to the National Park with our big mountain. I trotted up the trail to our cars at 2200m and then settled down for a wee kip. We’d promise to tackle the mountain together, just in case the weather came in and I got lost up there.
Everyone got there within a couple of hours and off we set for what was basically a full mountain day, about 5 hours of trekking up and down mainland Spain’s highest mountain. The views were fantastic and it was a rather chilly experience, not something you expect of Southern Spain but this place has so much more to offer than cheap Sangria and Brit filled beaches. This will not be my last visit to the Sierra Nevada (mainly because we spotted a high altitude training centre amongst the trails).
We got back to our camp site/car park about midnight, all a fair bit knackered and it was into sleeping bags and unconscious within a few minutes. Death run done and still alive. Nice.
Back in the UK now and a few hot baths, some heat chamber sessions and running around on a bin bag should keep any acclimatisation I’ve gained ticking over until Greece. Mark and his family were great hosts and hopefully they’ll let me out to stay again soon!
I’m right excited about getting to Sparta now and can’t wait for the great challenge of this historic race. We’ve got a solid British team heading out there, including a few Grand Union Canal Race winners, one of whom is attempting a double Spartathlon and it should be a great atmosphere out there. After a strong showing from the Brits at UTMB and The Grand Slam of Ultra Running, I guess we best put a bit of effort into Spartathlon now too…