Arriving at the London Hotel in Athens felt like I had always meant to be here, previously Juan Domenech and myself had been met at the airport by Mimi Anderson’s support crew; her husband Tim, and Brigit the mad Irish lady that lives in the same village as me. As we arrived at 1:30 in the morning we promptly got stuffed into our rooms and went to bed, trying not to wake up the other people already in the rooms. Vicente Vertiz and Luis Guerrero from Mexico, two of my best friends had already reserved me a bed in the same room as them and I crept in with the light of my mobile phone and I simply laid down and fell asleep. Juan didn’t have it quite so easy and managed to wake up the people in his room to which they expressed their displeasure. In the morning everyone apologised and as Juan pointed out, it wasn’t really his fault that the Hotel had put him in a room already full. The London Hotel could never be accused of not optimising space and the runners are stuffed into the rooms according to how many camp beds can actually fit. But this is one of the features of this race that makes it so unique. In any other race, the runners are all over the place, staying in a variety of different hotels, not so in the Spartathlon, everyone is bundled together and this ultimately bonds everyone into one huge extended family united by a strange obsession that involves kissing the toes of a bronze statue located in Sparti some 250 kms away.
The day previous to the race was spent getting everything ready, resting and talking to friends that I hadn’t seen in a very long time. Luis and Vicente had supported me in the Badwater ultra marathon the previous year and going through that hell together had bonded our friendship in such a way that we just couldn’t stop talking. Invariably the conversation would revolve around race tactics for the Spartathlon but we would often reflect on that shared experience in Death Valley. It had taken us all to our limits and in no small degree it had defined a large part of us.
There were many old acquaintances here, Pete Foxall had the wonderful idea of uniting all the Brits into a British team and had produced team tee shirts, these guys were easy to spot with the “what have the Spartans ever done for us?” written on the back in true Monty Python fashion. I soon found myself speaking once again to James Adams, (who?) I have shared a few adventures with James and James had recently run across the USA, he had come to the Spartathlon just to cheer everyone along and drink beer. Spartathlon does that to you. It’s like the most important party of the year and even if you can’t run you can’t help that feeling that if you’re not here you are missing something important. (Seriously, who is James Adams?). But not too much time to talk before having to get everything ready and get to bed early. Tomorrow was a big day.
The start line of the Spartathlon is right below the Acropolis in the centre of Athens. It is probably the most spectacular start of any race in the world and the ancient ruins add intrinsically to the mysticism of the event. It is a race shrouded by ancient history and for many years, the story of Pheidippides running all the way to Sparta was considered nothing more than a myth. That is until John Foden and his team set out to prove that it wasn’t! Now it is a piece of history, but what an incredible piece of ancient history it is and all the runners on the start line are conscious of this. Many would say that Ultra running is more of a cult than a sport, and in the Spartathlon I can see their point. Some 350 people, from literally all over the world gathered together to repeat an ancient feat carried out by an ancient Greek warrior messenger some 2500 years ago. All with reaching the bronze Statue of the Spartan King Leonidas in their minds, obsessed with kissing the dead king’s feet.
This was my fourth participation in the Spartathlon, I had failed on my first two attempts, successful on my third and as I lined up for my fourth attempt my mind never wandered or ever questioned that this fourth attempt would not end in a finish. I had decided, a long, long time ago that to “beat the clock” in the Spartathlon was absurd and that the only prize was to finish. It is such a difficult race that only a third actually make it to the end and I had a race plan, firmly in my mind based on looking after myself and making sure that the wheels didn’t fall off. This year has been an intense year of running for me, I have had a big race of over 100 miles every 3 weeks since the end of June, starting with the Ultra Balaton in Hungary and finishing with the UTMB in August. I had the luxury of 5 weeks between the last big one before the Spartathlon and my legs felt as if nuclear reactors had been installed due to the extra 2 weeks rest. It is amazing what you can condition your body to. I was concerned that I would break up before reaching the Spartathlon but as Nietzsche so succinctly put it “What doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger”. The intense season that I subjected myself to had prepared me perfectly for the Spartathlon and more importantly I was so in tune with my body that I knew exactly what every minute signal it made meant, and then, what to do about it.
So at exactly 7 in the morning we all started running in the footsteps of Pheidippides. I started the race running with Luis Guerrero and we had made a rough plan, that if everything went well that we would run the whole race together. We only wanted to finish and neither of us were the slightest bit interested in racing each other. We also recognised that in the Spartathlon this meant that if one of us slowed down, or had a low point then the other would have to go on. It was an ambitious plan, to run together but not an outrageous one. To tell the truth I thought that we would last about 100 kms and then Luis would forge ahead. He is an incredibly strong runner. As it turned out we ran the first 60 kms together and at a pace of about 10 kms / hour. We passed the marathon point in exactly 4 hours and 3 minutes which was exactly the pace we had planned. During this time we had met up with a few of the other known runners, Samuel Kilpatrick, the friendly Irish man would storm past us, only for us to catch him up again when he slowed down. Luis and I held a superbly uniform pace but others would speed up, slow down and even walk a bit. There are a few formulas that work in a race like this and for me uniformity is the key. Mimi Anderson literally flew past, obviously a woman with a mission and although it crossed my mind to run with her, at least for a few kms she was simply going too fast for me, for a race of this magnitude. We also came across Niel Bryant and David Miles who too stormed past us. I briefly hooked into their pace until Luis reminded me to take it easy. At about the 50 km point David was having a hard time, he had thrown up and was struggling. I gave him some salt and wished him the best. Who knows, maybe he would recover but the Spartathlon is brutal and doesn’t allow for mistakes. Unfortunately it didn’t look promising.
At about the 60 km point Luis told me to go on. He was starting to feel nauseous and this was slowing him down. No problem I said, you catch me when I feel nauseous and as I always get at least one period in a race like this that I want to throw up I thought I might as well get some kms in the bag so that when I feel sick Luis will catch me up and I won’t slow his race. I met up with Luis again at Hellas Can, km 81 but I was pulling out just as he was pulling in. I thought that by the mid-point at Nemea we would be running together again but it wasn’t to be. That was the last I saw of Luis in the race. I crossed the 100 km mark in roughly 10 hours 30 minutes. The qualifying time for the race.
Approaching Nemea I crossed paths with an American runner Christian Burke. I was getting a little bored running on my own so when I caught up with him, approaching the 110 km point I started a conversation. Christian had a broken toe though, and was determined not to quit. He was obviously in pain but with the 2 hour buffer we had, had made a plan that maybe, just maybe he could limp on to the end. I was in need of a short walk as my legs were stiffening up and the conversation seemed to pick him up. When I started running again he quickly hooked into my pace using me as a distraction for his pain. I was happy to oblige.
At the mid-point, km 124 in Nemea I was met with a couple of sad surprises. My Spanish Friends, Samuel Arroyo and Jaume Teres were out of the race. Both had been vomiting and had timed out. Jaume seemed to have recovered from his downer and being out of the race offered to massage my legs which felt great as I took a brief rest from the task in hand.
Then back to work. Once again Christian hooked into my pace and now that we had just over 2 hours on the cut offs I had decided to maintain that and use any extra time gained for body care. It is a strategy that has worked very well for me in the past and although many people recommend not sitting down at the check points, for me it works well and 5 minutes is time well spent if it means that you eat and drink properly. This is how we ran and we maintained the 2 hour margin all the way to the base of the mountain where Christian finally had to take more time out because of the intense pain in his toe. Time to say goodbye and I left his friendly company and ventured up the mountain alone. I started to feel a little fatigued at this point and a runner passed me climbing up the goat track that lead to the summit. This hurt my mountain runners pride but the legs didn’t respond so I settled into a slow slog up the hill until I reached the top. The way down was a joy though, I hadn’t expected this but I was wearing Hoka shoes which have amazing cushioning and the descent was pure joy. I was genuinely surprised at just how well they coped with the loose stones and ran the downhill with such an ease that I could hardly believe it. But upon reaching the tarmac again I was hit with an over whelming sensation of sleep. It was about 4:30 in the morning. I ran, or tried to run along the road leading to Nestani at km 172 but I would invariably run off the road as I actually fell asleep on my feet. (This isn’t the first time this has happened. In the Ultra Balaton I woke with a branch in my face when I ran into a bush) It certainly felt like I was running but I can only assume that I was running really, really slow as when I actually arrived at Nestani I only had one and a half hours margin left. Whatever I was doing I had lost half an hour. That thought, and a strong coffee got me going again and I set out with a vengeance trying to recover the lost half hour and as the dawn broke I started to feel my body wake properly again and the engines started to fire again.
The following day was cool but sunny and as far as I was concerned ideal conditions for running. I felt really good and the legs responded to all that I asked of them. I continued to stop for 5 minutes at the major check points and spend some time refuelling and drinking. It was a strategy that worked perfectly as the energy levels never dipped all day. But at about km 200 the tendons in the outside of my left knee started to lock up, probably the result of so much actual racing this year and from that moment on I was accompanied by pain. Sometimes the pain would drift away but most of the time it worked on the knee until it reached a point of absolute agony and I had to stop and stretch. I took an ibuprofen but I am not sure if this actually helped at all. The pain certainly didn’t go away. This was just so frustrating as I had loads of energy and I certainly felt capable of running faster than I was. The knee though, would just lock up if I upped the pace so I settled for the ultra-shuffle that those around me were doing and although I had the energy to go faster, I certainly didn’t look out of place. I would shuffle along for some 20 minutes and then stretch, followed by five minutes of walking which would relieve enough of the pain to be able to shuffle again. At about 30 kms before the finish I saw an ambulance at one of the check points and asked if they had any ice. No Ice I’m afraid but they did have a cold analgesic spray which to my surprise worked quite well and relieved quite a lot of the pain. I was actually able to shuffle a little faster!
With about 25 kms to go I found myself alone on the road with who I thought was a French runner. We hadn’t spoken much previously as my French is really rusty but now it was just the two of us on the road it was natural to try and talk. It was Jaun Carlos Prados, a Spaniard working in France and having a mutually fluent language (Spanish) we didn’t stop talking until we crossed the finish line. Both of us seemed to be having similar problems and the pace was identical. We literally free wheeled down the hill into Sparti, just letting gravity pull us along. The pain was getting more intense now as we pulled into Sparti and I had to stop and stretch again. We walked for a little and then as we turned into the final 500 M before the finish we started running again. Even with all the pain, it simply isn’t fitting to finish the Spartathlon by not running. We both crossed the finish together in 33 hours 48 minutes and 41 seconds in joint 57th position. Leonidas’s feet got kissed and then we posed for a few photos with some other runners that had just finished too. Then off to the medical tent to get the feet looked at and then a beer before hobbling back to the hotel and to bed. Spartathlon 2 Woolley 2.
Luis Guerrero made it to 180 kms before withdrawing. He was vomiting badly.
Vicente Vertiz made it to 110 kms. He was urinating blood.
Juan Domenech made it to km 100. Timed out after vomiting.
Samuel Arroy made it to km 81. Severe vomiting.
Jaume Teres. Km 60. Vomiting and then timed out.
Mimi Anderson stormed it. 3rd female overall. Yes, I was chicked and as Mimi is a grandmother that means I was chicked by a grandma, and do you know what? I am very proud of that!
Out of the Spanish runners, Josep Cardines (Catalunia) and Luis De Santiago Iglesias both finished. Congrats to both of them.
Out of my fellow Brits Neil Bryant, Paul Mott, Martin Illiot and Matt Mahony all finished. Matt had a rough time and there were moments when it wasn’t clear he would finish. Tough runner to hang in there! Samuel Kilpatrik: Finished in what was his 5th attempt. Saying that he was over the moon is an understatement.
I couldn’t make it to the award ceremony as I had to be back for work. I was registered as Spanish and the Spanish Ambassador to Greece was there to give out my finishers meddle. Vicente went in my place so you had the somewhat strange situation of a Mexican representing a Brit that was representing Spain …. Go figure!
Many people debate which is the toughest race in the world and it is a debate that recently has become rather ridiculous with all sorts of new races springing up, all claiming to be the world’s toughest this or the world’s toughest that. You know what? It’s all irrelevant, completely and utterly irrelevant because nothing, absolutely nothing could ever compare with Spartathlon.
Spartathlon is simply the greatest race on Earth and everything else plays second fiddle to it.