Friday, October 8, 2010

Spartathlon. Mind over Matter.

There are lots of Race Reports on this race so I thought I'd try explain the mental side of my race.  I might change some of the text if I read over it again myself:)
The Start

In the minutes before the race started I stood close to the start line and all I can think about is the journey ahead. It will be at least 40hrs before I sleep and between where I stand and that sleep lies 246K or 153 miles and some unforgiving terrain coupled with extremes of temperature.  The distance and time were almost over whelming and at times like this doubt can set it. Thinking of the challenge in it's enormity can make it seem impossible but by breaking it down into more manageable chunks the impossible becomes possible.  The very act of just starting will in itself remove some of the doubt and bring you closer to success or completion.  The race starts and all that matters now are the next few steps and getting to the first checkpoint less than 5K away.  It's an insignificant checkpoint but in my head it’s the first stepping stone to the finish and now there’s only 74 to go.
 A Checkpoint

The first major checkpoint with a cut off time was at 80K and the time allowed was 9.5hrs.  I knew this would be tough considering the terrain and high temperature which averaged 35C as we ran along the coast but rather than thinking and worrying about something I couldn't control I switched my thoughts to the positive.  I have regularly run races of 100K and could quite comfortably run this distance in less than 8hrs30. The distance I was now faced with was shorter with more time so it was familiar and therefore should be easier. I didn't think beyond this checkpoint and thought only of covering this section because for now it's all that matters and if I didn’t make it on time my race was over.  Arriving at the 80K mark with plenty of time to spare I took time to sort myself out and pressed the lap button on my watch to restart the race in my mind.  I was now focussed on the next part of the task ahead which was the distance to the next major checkpoint and nothing else.  The distance from Athens was forgotten about and it was too soon to think about the end result and Sparta.

I continued running in this fashion and as fatigue starts to set in it can require more mental effort to stay focussed.  Again I thought of the positive and turned my attention away from the pain and fatigue thinking about what I had already achieved and the progress I had made.
In the distance the mountains were always visible and although out of reach I knew finishing the race meant crossing them and based on my progress I had to assume that would be in darkness.  The mountain section is what gives this race it's reputation but we all know that before we get here.  It's no good just arriving at the mountain base in good shape you need to reach the far side in good shape and this was key to finishing this race.  Knowing the difficulty this climb would present became my main focus in training and every weekend I trained in the mountains on terrain that would at least simulate what I could expect.  I sought out the toughest climbs and ran them until I could run no more and this made the climb ahead which I was now facing with tired legs seem easy in comparison.  Having trained so frequently in the mountains made me look forward to this section and I would have felt cheated if I didn't have the opportunity to test myself with this climb and for that reason my mood was elevated when I eventually arrived at the foot of the climb.

I powered up the mountainside in comparison to a lot of other competitors and finishing the descent I congratulated myself with an internal 'YES'.  I didn't know what the town of Sparta looked like but I was starting to see it in my head. Another short term goal had been met and each step was bringing me closer to where i wanted to be.  There was now less than 10k before I would again meet my support crew and reach the next major checkpoint.  I was running in almost total darkness having switched off my head torch opting to run in the moonlight instead which seems more natural than following a bobbing circle of light.  It was 5am and I was now awake for over 24hrs and had been running or walking for at least 22hrs.  I was well over half way in time based on the 36hr cut off time and just over halfway in effort, you need to measure the effort based on fresh legs at the start and tired legs coupled with sleep deprivation towards the finish.  For that reason the first 160K can require less effort than the last 80K.

The road ahead was lonely but to my surprise I saw a lone man standing by a railing to my right hand side.  He lit a cigarette and when I looked again he was gone.  I double checked to see if there was a gateway near where he stood and there wasn't.  Forgetting about him and moving forwards I then saw Chris the Cameraman, I ran towards him and he disappeared.  I now knew that I was hitting a low and the effects of sleep deprivation were causing hallucinations and I needed to regain control.  A garden shed appeared on the road ahead and I walked straight through it knowing it wasn't there and then I saw a giant plastic fish that resembled a toy my daughter Aisling once owned.  I stared at the fish willing it to disappear but it seemed so real and then it was gone, next up was a monkey's head which turned to watch me as I passed and that's as much as I can remember.  It was still dark and the distance to the next checkpoint seemed unending, it was like running on a treadmill in a darkened room.  Eventually I could see an orange glow in the distance that I assumed to be streetlights and soon enough the village of Nestani began to appear and I was never so happy to reach a checkpoint.  The thoughts that were going through my mind for the last hour really tested my mental strength and it was probably the first time in a race that I've ever felt like I wasn't going to finish.  I signed up for and entered this race knowing of the consistently high drop out rate of 70% and maybe the fact that I was accepting that in advance allowed me an escape route.

One of the pre requisites for Spartathlon entry was that the applicant must have reached the checkpoint at Nestani in less than 24hr30mins and this told me that it must be a regular point for dropping out.  Apart from the hallucinations I was in reasonably good shape and had no intention of stopping even though doubts were starting to set in a while back.  To mentally start a new day I took off my head torch and handed it to my support crew saying 'I don't need this anymore it's a new day'.  I quickly departed the checkpoint but had to ask for the direction of travel due to a lapse in concentration.  The next checkpoint seemed close enough and as a confidence booster I told myself that I didn't need it so I said hello and said a few words to the medics just to let them know I was OK and they didn't feel it necessary to stop me.

According to previous race reports the toughest climb was still to come!  It wasn't as high or as steep but it was still quite severe and positioned 35k after the last big climb.  Any muscle damage acquired during the last ascent and descent of the Partheion Mountains would now make itself know and to make matters worse it was getting hot yet again.  I was expecting and maybe looking forward to some more open mountain but instead I was faced with a very busy roadway that wound gradually upwards from the village of Tegea and eventually dropping down towards Sparta.  Even as I ran upwards along this busy road I was always waiting for an arrow or sign directing the route to a point where the serious climbing would begin and before I knew it the road started to level out and by looking around I knew this was as high as it got.  I had climbed the mountain without realising it.  Always prepared for something worse to appear I just accepted the situation and got on with it.  Reaching this point left me with less than 50K to run and I was now approaching a very familiar distance and I mentally prepared myself to run a marathon. 

My support crew were cautiously keeping an eye on me and rightly so, the temperature was now approaching the high twenties and there was always the possibility of the body just giving up.  Over 200K had passed and I had been on my feet for almost roughly 30hrs but I was now entering that zone where these races take you.  I lengthened my stride and relaxed my upper body, I was re-energized and my intention was now focussed on the finish line in Sparta.  I had thought about this moment for years, it was a dream that I was now turning into a reality.  I ditched my hydration belt and instead carried a 500ml water bottle that I planned to dump at the last checkpoint before Sparta.  I was now making good progress and easily made up between 30-40 places before joining up with Giorgos Panos.  There were now less than 4K to go and we looked evenly matched, we chatted briefly and agreed to help each other to the finish taking it in turns to control the pace.  Turns out we both competed in the 24-hr World Championships in Brive earlier this year and we might possibly meet again under the same circumstances next year. 

The road ahead seemed unending and as we entered Sparta I had thoughts of going the wrong way.  I began to feel cold inside and was almost shaking as I battled with my emotions.  The road ahead was clear and all the side streets were blocked off allowing our safe passage to the finish.  The locals stopped doing what they were doing and on balconies overhead people stood and clapped as we passed by.  I struggled to control my emotions and as I turned right to enter the final straight leading towards the finish I could have sprinted but now I didn’t want it to finish.  I’d been running for over 34hrs and less than 10hrs ago I doubted that I’d be running to the finish but now it was almost over.
The Finish.

 Unlike most of my other races this time I had friends at the finish and times like this remind you how important family and friends are.  Having someone to share the experience with seemed to make it worthwhile, I rang home.


  1. Great read,, well done, what an amazing achievement.

  2. What an amazing race, John. Epic!

  3. Thanks Thomas, it's one I won't forget.

  4. Wow, great report felt i was there with you!

  5. Fantastic John, adjectives do not do it justice! Well written report too.

  6. Superb account of an amazing achievement

  7. Well done! you are a hero.
    I was there at the start of the race and i took this vid .

  8. Thanks all and I live the vid thalis, it seems so far away now.


  9. Ι finally wrote about my spartathlon..
    see the picture of my text.

    I want to say again ..thank you john!

  10. Hi John. Great report and well done on completing the race. I was out there too and I might have chatted to you at some point in the race.

    You going out there to do it again?

  11. Thanks James. Yes I think we may have chatted shortly before arriving at Hellas Can. Think I offered to take a photo, does that sound right? Would like to do it again but this year might be too soon:) Are you going back again? How many times will that be?