Another Ultramarathon Running Blog

2018 Spartathlon

The brief summary is that the 2018 Spartathlon event was a complete and utter disappointment for me personally with a DNF having been pulled from the race by the medics after collapsing at the Mountain Base checkpoint. This marked a particularly poor year of running for me through a combination of illness and injuries which never settled. 

That’s basically the gist of the report so no need to read any further if you just wanted a quick summary of what happened.

Pre-Event Build Up

Following a poor effort and (once again) badly blistered feet and a death march at the GUCR, I had a bit of rest and then an easy week or two before starting to train for Spartathlon. The training was mixed, we had some great hot weather which I certainly took advantage off but I was troubled with both a long standing piriformis injury and knee niggles. This didn’t prevent me running but hampered my training so I ‘defaulted to type’ and plodded out high mileage weeks (having to gradually build up my tolerance for longer runs) for a couple of months which should have been enough to see me finish the event.

I also chopped and changed my planned races and ran the Essex 50, Cotswold Ultra, Oxford Ultra (back to back) and the Ridgeway Challenge as warm up events. A few placings meant the results looked better than they really were and I was having to manage my niggles at each event and most of these races were small and not massively competitive fields (no disrespect intended to those who raced).

One area of focus was on my feet, so I spent a bit more effort looking after them on a weekly basis. You don’t want details of peoples footcare habits but mine are now pretty good condition.

I took an unusually long taper in the hope that any remaining niggles would settle but did try and batter the piriformis into submission 2 weeks before the race but this did more harm than good to be honest and I stopped doing it as I was getting hamstring discomfort. I felt like I had the mile in my legs to complete the event as long as the legs held together. 

Pre-Event drinks with the team

The Race Build Up

I arrived on the Wednesday with one crew member (Adrian) with the second member (Richard, a late replacement) arriving on the Thursday. I registered on the Wednesday meaning I was free on the Thursday to help organise the team kit.

Organising the team kit is a story in itself but not one I’m going to share in too much detail. Essentially, we were let down very badly by a supplier and had to organise a replacement kit at the very last minute. Two points I would like to make are that Jeff Strachan (brother of Darren) did an outstanding job of getting an emergency replacement organised, thank you. Secondly each member of the British Spartathlon Team were very supportive for a situation which was totally outside of our control. This added quite a bit of pre-race stress in all honesty.

Ready for the race briefing

The usual briefings and photo sessions took place (thanks to Chris Mills for acting as official photographer this year) and the runners and crew mingled and bonded as is the case each year. This was one of the aspects of the weekend I really enjoy is sharing a bit more time with like minded people as you never usually get this opportunity during a normal weekend race with people turning up at the start, running and then going home. It was good to catch up with old friends and make new ones.

2018 British Spartathlon Runners

2018 British Spartathlon Crew

2018 British Spartathlon Runners & Crew

The Weather, ‘Medicane’ Zorba 

This deserves it’s own paragraph! Prior to the event, rain had been predicted with cool temperatures which would mean potentially great conditions for running. It pretty much rained heavily for the entire period I was in Greece (except the last day) which really put a dampener on the whole week. No pleasant walks around town, no lounging around by the pool just rain, flooded roads and miserable weather.

As we got closer to the event we got ‘wind’ (see what I did there) that conditions were going to be very wet with very strong winds. At that time, we weren’t aware that Cyclone Zorba was going to hit the area which resulted in some horrendous conditions for the runners. I had packed spare kit and two waterproof jackets and carried one from the start and wasn’t overly concerned with rain predictions as I had some gear and it wasn’t going to be cold. You could event say I’ve been training for a wet event all my career with my unparalleled bad luck of taking part in events when it pours (TP100 2012, Caesars Camp 100 2012, W100 2013, Lon Las 2017, GUCR 2018 off the top of my head) but these conditions turned out to be exceptional. 

Race Start

The Race

A 7am (local) start time meant breakfast at 5 am which was in fact 3am UK time and after waking a 3-4 am meant I had hardly any sleep the night before so there would be the usual sleep deprived slumber to look forward to at some point in the race to look forward to.

I travelled direct to the start at the Acropolis with the crew and hung around before the start. My plan had to be to run really steadily (as my training had generally been at slow mile pace due to various constraints) and just concern myself with running as much as I could rather than worry about any sort of pacing. I had armed the crew with splits from 2015 for meeting points but each of the team were kindly supplied with GPS Trackers from Richard Weremiuk from Race Drone (the same Richard who was crewing me) which was really useful for the crews to keep an eye on all of the runners and their progress.

Pictured with Adrian (Left) and Richard (Right)

Standing at the Acropolis ready for this race should have been exciting but I simply wasn’t feeling it at all and as we set off under the cover of darkness, I immediately felt the piriformis ‘pulling’. The first 15 miles were a little nervous but the discomfort settled down and I carried on running steadily in the rain and spent a few miles with Russ Tullet and Stuart Shipley around this time. 

Heading out of Athens (Photo courtesy of the Sparta Photography Club)

I got to the marathon point in around 4 hours and continued on leapfrogging a few other British runners here and there. The rain had settled down resulting in perfect running conditions although my sleep deprived spell hit way too early around the 30-40 mile mark and I recall being jolted awake as Carl Howells approached me from behind with an ‘Ey Up Lad’. I think I had been doing that keep one eye open and the other closed thing at that point. Not good that early in the race.

Carl and I ran together and we got to Corinth in just over 8 hours so another steady but unspectacular leg. I paused here to eat, drink and adjust some taping on my feet before leaving in the company of James Ellis who gave a brief interview to some journalists from the BBC World Service who were following the event.

Corinth 50 miles in

The next 20 miles of the race were great. For some reason I couldn’t feel any niggles at all, felt like I had some energy and desire and ran this section strongly. It was the only period where I felt like I was enjoying the race, running ok, enjoying some banter with fellow runners, greeting runners of other nationalities and engaging with the supporters and volunteers. The sad thing was the stark realisation that I’ve been running injured for too long, this was the first time in months/years that everything actually felt good. 

I ran with Carl again and David Barker around this time as we passed through the village where the kids hang out for autographs (obviously with the result mine are now worthless). I overtook quite a few runners on this section and it felt good to start picking people off.

Running with Dave and Carl

However, the rain hit again in the evening fairly heavily this time to the extent that my UD Waterproof (20k hydrostatic rating I believe) could not repell the water and I got soaked, my feet got wet and the pace slowed and pretty much every runner I had overtaken in the past couple of hours came past me again which was a little demoralising.

Despite the slowing pace I was comfortably ahead of cut offs with a couple of hours in the bank and the opportunity to build more time as the cut offs eased the further you got into the race.

Evening rain

As it got dark, the conditions got worse. The rain continued to poor resulting in flooding on the roads (even up and down hills) and there just seemed to be no let up at all. I ‘plodded’ through this as best I could and took advantage of a change of kit at one Checkpoint in a village where you could sit inside a cafe.

I was feeling really cold (despite the temperatures not being that low and ended up putting on about 5 layers. With a change into dry kit, socks and trainers I set off again running and immediately warmed up and had to pause to remove a couple of layers. 

The rain seemed to eased off and I had a good 10 mile leg where I did more running that walking but then seemed to have a slower leg with a fair amount of marching. There was a long steady trail like hill around 90 miles or so which I had totally forgotten about which was flooded which I recall particularly pissed me off during those ‘down’ moments.

I met the crew at CP43 and then set off again on the next leg towards the Mountain Base checkpoint. There was a nice downhill section first where I saw Martin Bacon before a long climb towards the Mountain. I jogged/fast marched this section as best I could before arriving at the Mountain Base Checkpoint where I said hello to Adrian who runs the CP and then sat down for a cup of tea and some biscuits. I didn’t see my crew (who were sheltering from the rain in the car) and assumed they would check the tracker and meet me.

Moments, after I sat down I felt like I as going to be sick and ran outside and started throwing up outside the tents and started to shiver and was starting to breathe rapidly, I recall Adrian following me outside and offering some support before I collapsed.

(This next section was relayed back to me by various people who were around at the time). I was carried to the medical tent where I passed out for 30-40 minutes and was shaking uncontrollably. Rob P was there and grabbed a space blanket to put on me as the medic team threw several blankets on me to warm me up (although it was reported that my skin wasn’t cold to touch). My crew found me (they hadn’t expected me to be laying down in the medical tent) and a decision was made by the medic to put me on an IV drip and I lay there for another half an hour. As soon as they administered this treatment it was race over as they were not going to let a runner who had collapsed go over the mountain leg in heavy wind and rain which was a sensible decision. Thank you to the medic team for looking after me at that point.

Race over

When I started to become a bit more coherent and felt a little better I did offer a pretty tame ‘Can I carry on?’ but I knew it was all over especially as they had to carry me to my crew car as I was having trouble walking! I then had an urge to pee so one of the marshals had to hold me up whilst I had a pee by the side of the road. I shall never look him in the eye again.

A couple of hours had elapsed since my arrival and as we left to head to our hotel we could see the final runners approaching the CP chasing the cut offs as the rain had started to get even worse. I managed to get a message through to my wife as I knew she would be concerned dot watching from home although the seriousness of the incident hadn’t really sunk in at that time. 

I fell asleep in the car and awoke to find Richard driving through the middle of the storm which was quite alarming. I probably would have pulled over at that point due to the ferocity of the wind and rain but he got us to the hotel on the coast where I showered and crashed out for a few hours. We did pass a few of the front runners still battling the conditions. Despite feeling under the weather and a complete sense of disappointment of not finishing, there was a small part of me thinking I was pretty glad not to be out in those conditions.

After some sleep we headed back out to Sparta to watch some of the finishers. I definitely wasn’t feeling 100% and felt a bit sick in the throat and had that ‘empty pit of feeling in the stomach’ and was definitely a bit out of sorts. I bumped into Al Higgins who had a fantastic run finishing 10th overall in 26 hours and something who was back at the hotel, incredible run in those conditions.

Arriving in Sparta, we grabbed some food and headed to the finish to find the streets pretty much deserted and some of the railings and flags had been dismantled for fear of being blown away. 

Despite the weather, Chris Mills and Paul Rowlinson were doing a sterling job standing in the rain capturing photos and videos of the finishers. I felt some disappointment for the runners finishing who weren’t going to experience the ‘traditional’ Spartathlon finish, it simply wasn’t the same.

We watched a few of the runners finish before deciding to drive straight back to Athens that evening in the light to try and avoid the worst of the storm in the night (Richard also had a flight the next day). That seemed to be a sensible decision as we witnessed loose rocks on the road and emergency roadworks being completed due to a landslide so it would have been a little more dangerous driving in the dark.

Post Race

The seriousness of my collapse hadn’t really sunk in at first until I had a conversation with Sal later on. This was something I’ve never experienced before in any race.

At the time, the medics were more concerned with looking after me than diagnosing the likely causes and initially dehydration or borderline hypothermia were suggested (Yes I actually get to use that in a race report!) but having discussed this the crew afterwards (and this is speculation on our part) this was probably came about as a result of the combination of race effort, low blood sugar (nutrition/hydration), the poor weather and perhaps an underlying virus. For the next 3-4 days since the race I’ve not slept properly and kept waking up in a sweat and a week later I now have the full effects of a cold/sore throat. All of these symptoms have probably created a ‘perfect storm’ of events (another poor pun I know).

The crew felt a bit responsible for my state but I reassured them that there wasn’t anything they could have done. I thought I had been eating/drinking normal amounts at regular intervals (perhaps not enough though?) and the sudden onset was just one of those things. 

I felt like a complete and utter failure for not completing the event and was feeling pretty down whilst moping around the Hotel in Athens on the Sunday when most of the team were celebrating victory in brutal conditions. I did contemplate trying to get a cheap flight home and going home straight away to get back my own bed to rest and recover as I was still feeling under the weather and having not been able to sleep properly.

However, I decided to stick around (well the flights were a bit too expensive… 😉 ) as I did want to see and help celebrate with those who did finish. Having been involved in organising the team again this year, it would have been churlish of me not to celebrate and congratulate those who did finish and I met up with the team on their return to learn how everyone fared. 

I still felt like a complete failure about the whole race but just tried to put a brave face on it and continue with the weekend. Others have been in that position and still showed a face so the least I could do was the same.

The British Spartathlon Team

So how did the team fare? Al Higgins and Nathan Flear finished 1st/2nd Brits in 26.10 and 26.32. Cat Simpson had a great run finishing in 28.52 and there were also finishes from John Melbourne, Matt Blackburn, Rodrigo Freeman, John Stocker, Dan Masters, Carl Howells, Pete Summers, David Barker, Laurence Chownsmith, Ian Thomas, James Ellis, Martin Bacon, Stuart Shipley and Darren Strachan.

Towards the latter end of the field, there were some incredibly brave performances from those who had to suffer the worst of the conditions on the Sunday morning some of which we saw as we drove back to Athens.

I would like to mention Stuart Shipley who has shown great tenacity in returning several times to finally claim his first finish in probably the most difficult conditions, well done Stuart.

There were a few who didn’t make it including myself, Russ Tullet, Steve Gordon, Simon Prytherch and Matt Brand. There’s isn’t much I can say apart from it’s a bitter pill to swallow when you don’t succeed on the day but we’ve just got to accept defeat on this occasion.

The conditions were so bad that they had to hold people at Checkpoints 69 for fear of them being blown away and thankfully lessened some of the race restrictions (i.e. cut offs because of this) and allowed some people to be escorted by crew for their safety towards the latter stages. You are unlikely to ever see conditions like this again for many many years.

Post Race Reflection

Chatting with others after the race and after getting past all the ‘What Happened?’ questions it was interesting to hear of peoples perception of you from those you know to those who you don’t know so well, the general feedback I had was ‘you race too much’.

I think the nature of this DNF was a combination of unusual factors and I’m probably more worried about niggles settling than this happening again. However, I know I’m suffering from lack of motivation and have been carrying too many niggles for too long resulting in below par performances and DNFs.

I’ve often mentioned ultra running retirement with my close running buddies over the past two years and then carried on entering races (so DNFd my retirement plans.. dammit). I would like to make 10 x Thames Trot finishes in a few weeks even if its a cut off chasing jog/walk but after that it’s time I had a rest and then take a break from ultra races for a few months and then see how I feel next year.  

You may have all forgotten about me by then (who was that guy that thought he was funny, wore a stupid hat and got rained on all the time?).

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4 Responses to “2018 Spartathlon”

  1. @readeatwriterun

    Paul, I’m sorry this happened – a perfect storm of events indeed. I am glad it was not worse from a health perspective. I hope your time off post 10th TT finish heals you in body and spirit and helps you find what gives you joy – whether it’s ultrarunning or not. Thanks for sharing so honestly.

    Reply
  2. Simon Prytherch

    Don’t be too hard on your self Paul. As far as I am concerned you are one of my main inspirations over the last few years. I understand how it feels to not finish the race and I am having a hard time coming to terms with it too. But it sounds like you need to take a break, find your mojo and come back stronger than ever next year. Good luck in the Thames Trot

    Reply
  3. ultraian

    Paul, when I heard how the face unfolded for you I was shocked but so glad you were ok and looked after by mountain base. I initially assumed it was your feet due to the incessant rain and flooding.

    I can understand how dissappointing it must be for you but you are safe and there’s plenty of time for racing yet. I really felt for you out there and remember how you empathised with me on the Essex 100 when I was out of sorts. I thnk I can draw a psrallel with your situation having had a troubled 18 months of so of injury and inconsistency. Kind of lost my mojo a few times over the period as a result.

    It is no consolation but I’m glad you weren’t ill later in the Cyclone as it was truly life threatening. You’re safe and will be back to your indefatigable self soon enough. I applaud you for staying around to celebrate with everyone. You did a grand job for the team!

    Reply

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