Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Spartathlon Preview: The Rollercoaster

Yep, it’s another Spartathlon blog.  Really sorry, I know all of the 3 people who read this blog are sick of me banging on about Spartathlon.    If you already know all about the race and my attempt last year, feel free to close your browser now, or hopefully skip to the end bit where I ask for your help. 

Spartathlon is a long distance foot race in Greece based on a legend of a messenger being sent from Athens to Sparti.  It’s 153 miles long and must be completed in a maximum of 36 hours.  It is a brutal beast of a race, due to the combination of hot temperatures, hills, and a strict set of 75 time “cutoffs”. The winner typically takes around 24 hours but the vast majority of finishers are much closer to the cutoffs.  It’s not the longest race in the world and doesn’t claim to be the toughest, but just completing it (never mind competing to win it) is considered a major achievement in the world of ultra-marathon running.  Typically, less than 50% of the runners who stand on the start line at the Acropolis will make it to the finish line at the foot of the statue of King Leonidas in Sparti.   

I’ve been dreaming about / planning / training for / having nightmares about this race for the better part of 5 years.  The long distance running caper started back in 2006 with a drunken pub bet that Jamie Holmes and I took up with a South African mate (@Jo_Fo, you’ve got a lot to answer for dude! J).  The bet was related to running the Comrades marathon, a double marathon and a bit from Durban to Pietermaritzburg which we all enjoyed immensely.  That ignited the search for other long distance challenges and we were soon joined by James Ellis and David Bone for many events and training runs.  We formed a great group, somehow puncturing (inflating?) the lows that long-distance running inevitably brings with the best possible antidote of completely mindless banter.  I think we first heard about Spartathlon in 2011 or 2012 when we were attempting, nay doing, a run from Brighton to London (Chevs, just think, if you hadn’t been reading that newspaper on that day then none of this would ever have happened J), and then spent the next couple of years trying to qualify.  We all entered for the 2015 event, but Dave and I missed out in the ballot whilst James and Jamie were both successful.  With us as crew alongside James’ brother-in-law Andy, running together, both James and Jamie finished that incarnation of the race, showing incredible grit in the face of many forms of adversity to finish 20 minutes inside the cutoff.  We all learnt a lot from that experience.  I think our shared passion for this race was well and truly cemented on that epic, epic weekend of no sleep, a lot of running, a soupcon of cursing about brands of head torch batteries (naming no names), and a 3rd night of no sleep blamed on Eric and Audrey and the espresso bean martinis (sorry, lost myself for a minute there).  Last year James and I toed the start line with Jamie crewing together with crewmates Laura, Rosie, Jeff and Garry (David was away raving somewhere) and James went on to make his 2nd consecutive finish in a time around 40 minutes better than the previous year.  My race ended some 25 miles short of “the foot”, taken out by a combination of heat, hills, physical breakdown, mental breakdown, panic, and perhaps most of all an underlying sense that I just wasn’t “worthy” enough.  I learnt a lot from that experience too, or at least I think I did.  I’m soon going to find out.   

So anyway, this year, incredibly, all 4 of us got in…. we reckoned the odds of that happening were less than 1 in 50, and we are all delighted to get a chance to run together and have completely mindless banter take us, together, all the way from the Acropolis to King Leonidas. 
Many say this can’t be done, that the difficulty of trying to sync 4 runners is just too much, that there are too many variables – pacing, nutrition, low points, high points, sickness, weather, kit, losing each other in the dark, perhaps a complete dearth of mindless banter? (not gonna happen).     If it happens by accident then fine, but actually trying to plan it out and do it…. Impossible!   Well we are going to attempt the impossible and by hook, crook, or by begging the nature God Pan, we are going to work our way steadily out of Athens, fly along the blazingly hot coastal road to Corinth,  turn on the burners up to the halfway point, inch our way to the Sagas Pass at mile 100, and then enjoy the most epic of suffer-fests across the plains of Tegea and down into Sparti.  In order to achieve the impossible, we could really do with your help.  All 3 of you, dear readers, can do this in many ways:
  •       Tune in to the race on the 29th and 30th September and send us some messages of support.  We’ll be carrying trackers that you’ll be able to find on http://racedrone.net/events/events  Follow my brother @jeffstrax on Twitter – there’ll be some updates and pictures if Jeff gets a chance in between his manic crewing duties.  Send us some messages through there, it really does help us massively to get little bits of words of encouragement from home, even if it is just the two tweets spread across 36 hours.

  •        Help us spread the word of this endeavour by mentioning it to anyone you think might be interested in hearing about it.  This is not to raise any kind of interest in us as a group but purely to raise awareness of this great event to a wider audience.  There is so much about the event that is fascinating including the ancient historical details and the fact that the modern race was pretty much invented by a group of British athletes funded by the Royal Air Force, led by John Foden.  John died recently and this year the British Team will be running "in memoriam" to John and inspired (or intimidated) by his famous expression "I shan't wish you luck because if you have trained properly you won't need luck, and if you haven't trained properly luck won't help you."  Gulp.

  •          Help us raise funds for our chosen charity, Hemihelp.    We’ve been privileged over the years to raise money for this great charity which helps children born with Hemiplegia, a brain condition which occurs at birth where one side of the brain is damaged.  Jamie’s eldest daughter Holly has this rare condition and she has inspired us many times with her infectious enthusiasm and motto “never give up”.   Like many charities at the moment Hemihelp are really struggling for funding and are relying heavily on volunteers and donations. So like Holly we are not going to give up in trying to help them and would really appreciate any support of whatever size.   Please be assured that absolutely all donations go direct to the charity and nothing will be used for our race costs.    You can find out more about Hemihelp here http://www.hemihelp.org.uk/ and if you wish to make a donation our page is here http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/SpartaChunkTheory

Thanks so much for reading and for your support.  One more blog about how it all went and I promise you that’ll be it for Spartathlon, for a while anyway J

Pre Sparta days, oh dear how naive we were, and what on earth is that shorts and legging combo i'm wearing.  James still ribs me for saying "beyond the marathon distance it's all mind over matter anyway"

2015 Jamie Holmes 03
Jamie and Zeus qualifying for Spartathlon. I'm sure your quads don't look as big as that now lads?!
Our fantastic 2016 crew team and runners (L-R: Jeff,  Rosie, Darren, James, Laura, Jamie, Garry)
Success for the lads, a lesson for me.  National 100k champs.

Getting everyone across the Sparta qualifying line, Sussex 24 hour

Jamie and James' glorious 2015 finish.  

2016 start line at the Acropolis

High five kids, still felt good at this bit, only 10 miles in though!

Friday, 7 July 2017

24 Hour World Champs review

So, um, that didn't go to plan.  At least, not for me it didn't.  The wonder that is David Bone covered an amazing 130 miles, and James managed around 104.  I only reached 89 miles, i'll bore you with the ugly detail in a sec.  To start things off on a positive note though, here is David's press photo from the weekend (page 2 of the Irish Times).  This is after 23 hours of running:

The man is a god. Disco Specs Power

Hats off to you David you lovely lovely man.

So what went wrong for me?    I'd prepared well, i'd tapered well, i'd eaten really well, made sure I was really well hydrated.   I thought I was well prepared mentally, but looking back perhaps this is where I went badly wrong.  I'd anticipated being really fired up by being on the same course as the World Championships which of course has many of the worlds top ultra-runners competing in it. And, initially, it was really cool.  There are too many to mention them all, but just seeing top top runners like Dan Lawson, Pete Kostelnick, Andrzej Radzikowski, Radek Brunner, Katalin Nagy, Pam Smith, Yoshihiko Ishikawa, Patrycja Bereznowska etc etc etc was fantastic.   

Courtesy of thegalwaycow.com

The first few hours went ok I guess.  Physically I felt a bit off, just kind of a bit meh.... flat, without much power or zip, but it didn't bother me that much.  There was great banter between the runners, I made some new friends and chatted with old ones.  The GB men's and ladies World Champs teams are a fantastic bunch of people and would give a friendly word of encouragement every time they came passed.  Thanks a lot to all of you.  Stuff like that is really appreciated.  Robbie Britton made me laugh:

Lapping 1: "what's your first name Strachan?".  "Darren".   "Ok, well done Darren"

Lapping 2: "Strachan i've forgotten your name... i'm just going to call you Gordon, is that alright?".  "It's fine Robbie i've been called worse things"

Lapping 3: "Hey Gordon, want to hear my favourite Gordon Strachan quote?" "Sure Robbie".... "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog".  

Love it.  Unfortunately the size of my fight turned out to be not so big!

I think I went through the marathon mark in around 4:20, maybe 4:30.  Not great but not a disaster either.  But I was finding the one mile concrete/stone loop tougher and tougher, and eventually I had to break it down into sections where I would run and sections where I would walk.  After a while, maybe 5 hours or so, the volume of people consistently overtaking really started to get to me. 

Of course I knew that I was going to be spending a lot of this race getting lapped by most of the field. I'd thought I was cool with that, but in fact I found it hard to deal with.  No matter how much I tried to tell myself it was ok, not to compare myself, not to judge myself against these runners, my internal critic got a right gob on it, and eventually it wore me down.  "You're a shit runner, what are you doing here, you've no right to be here, look at all these people who are so much better than you."  Just over and over and over, on a bloody loop.  I got so sick of it.   After about 13 hours, I needed a break.  I lay down in the treatment tent for a 15 minute rest, and 2 hours later I woke up with my teeth chattering and legs frozen.  It was 3am, any chance I had of a PB was long gone, and even reaching 100 miles looked a forlorn hope.  I stumbled out of the tent.  Very simple choice time: turn left, go to race control, hand in your chip, get a blanket round you and go back to sleep.  Turn right, face another 9 hours of torture round this unforgiving 1 mile loop being lapped not only by most of the field but also your best mates.  Probably also telling yourself what a f****** failure you are. Somehow, not sure quite how, I turned right.

I stumbled like a ghost round a lap, wearing pretty much everything I had brought with me.  God knows how long it took, but at least moving was starting to warm me up.  I picked up some coffee at the aid station, and carried on walking.  Eventually, things got better, I warmed up and woke up and was able to shed some layers and move a bit faster.  I was mostly resolved to walking and just staying out on the course for as long as I could, but I was also able to do the "ultra-shuffle" on occasions.  I need the practice for Spartathlon, i'm sure gonna need the shuffle there.    Around 8am the wheels came off again and I nearly keeled over on the track, I think maybe a complete blood sugar crash.  A very kind supporter got hold of me and helped me to the tent.  I got some food and drink down me and stopped for another "10 minute break".... yeah, yeah, that one turned into an hour.  Again I was close to handing in my chip, again I turn right and resolve to continue.  This time it was easier as it was daylight and warmer.  Also only 3 more hours of pain until the end.

And that's where the story gets better.  Not from the point of view of getting a respectable distance total, more like I remembered why I love this sport in the first place.  By now i'd completely given up on targets (the timing system was not showing us any info anyway, and my watch had gone, so I had no real clue where I stood), the internal critic had decided to shut the **** up and my mind was beautifully clear and peaceful.  Physically I was suffering but I was still able to march quite well, and break into the odd shuffle.  In fact the course was now full of walking wounded, and whilst there were still lots of runners storming round, there were also loads of people who I was now overtaking. Also there was now quite a lot of crowd support in the park, including a huge group of folk from various Irish running clubs who were going bananas for every single runner.  Feed off them and get them involved I thought - it worked a treat, making me want to do "one more lap" just to see them again.   On the last lap I go to high 5 them and hear a Scottish voice "oi, I was first!", it's Debbie Martin-Consani loving the occasion and still running strong... she jokingly shoves me out of the way, soaks up the high 5s and continues to run to clock up as many metres as possible.   See you out in Greece Debbie and Marco for Spartathlon!   Before I know it, hooters are going off and the race is over......  everyone collapses to the ground wherever they end up.  I admit I shed a tear or two, mostly out of pure relief that it was over.  

Looking back I think I just have to see this as miles in the bank for Spartathlon.  It wasn't the race I planned or wanted, but hey it's 89 miles more than I did this time last year, so I can't be too distraught about it.

As mentioned, David had a storming run, massive kudos to you my friend.

James was his usual battle hardened self, reaching over 100 miles in 21 hours despite suffering a shin injury.  James then took a couple of hours out but got back on the course to notch up a few more laps. Solid work my friend.

Our fellow Sparta devotee Paul Katsiva-Corderoy was his usual friendly and chilled self, reaching close to 100 miles and laying down some awesome Sparta preparation.  Look forward to seeing you out in Greece mate.

It was a joy to meet Nathan and Tori Flear.  Nathan only took up running fairly recently but has clearly poured heart and soul into his training and racing.  Nath didn't have the race he wanted here likely due to illness but watch out for this fella!  Tori, thanks so much for looking out for us and all your encouraging words over the weekend, it really meant a lot.  See you out in Athens you two.

Big thanks to Ed and his team for organising a great event, you did Belfast proud and I hope you can keep the Energia24 as an annual fixture.  Now I know what i'm up against, i'll come back sometime!

James, me, David, Dan Lawson, Nathan Flear

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

24 Hour World Championship Preview

I am, as my American friends would say, "stoked" to be heading to Belfast this weekend for the World 24 Hour Championships.   Whilst i'd obviously love to be running for Team GB, that standard is in another orbit. Fortunately though, this event has an Open Entry race mixed alongside the Worlds, meaning that David, James, myself and around 70 others get to mix it right alongside the best in the world as they compete for Gold.

A 24 hour race is a fixed time rather than fixed distance format.  You basically run, walk or hobble as far as you can in the allotted time and the winner is the person who covers the most distance.  These events are usually held on 400 metre tracks or fairly short and flat loops where you are never too far away from the support area and feeding stations.  You are allowed to stop and rest if you like, although that's to be avoided if you want to do well, and you can't "DNF" as if you stop you are just given your final mileage as your result.   The definition of "success" at a race like this varies a lot from person to person and across age ranges and genders.... the world records for men and women are an astonishing 188 and 159 miles respectively.  In fact that 188 mile record, set by the legendary Yiannis Kouros, is considered by many to be among the very top sporting performances by anyone, across all sports.  At the more mortal end of the spectrum, getting beyond 100 miles can generally be considered a decent result, but it's one that's by no means guaranteed given the number of things that can go wrong in a race like this.

We'll be using this as a training race for Spartathlon (yep, we got in again this year, whoop) but also want to try to set a new PB for this particular format of race, having only previously taken part in one.  That event was hilly and muddy, a very tough 2.5 mile loop, and we had to pull out all the stops to just scrape a Spartathlon qualifier of 113 miles.  In Belfast, we'll be on a one mile, flat concrete loop and theoretically will be able to set a new PB.  But like I say, things can and do go wrong so we'll just have to see.  Training has gone well I think.... there's always more you feel that could and should have been done but sometimes you just have to go with what you've got and do what you can. I'll be going into it looking to adopt a very steady pace of around 10 minute miles for the first 8 to 10 hours.  Beyond that, stay positive, keep moving for the duration and when things get tough adopt the mindset of "just one more lap".....

Training with the lads in the Yorkshire Dales
(L-R: James Ellis, David Bone, me, Jamie Holmes)

Part of the appeal of entering this race was the chance to share the track with the elites and see up close how they approach this format.  In a typical point to point ultra you basically see them for about a minute at the start line before they tear off up the road!   The same thing will happen in Belfast but this time we'll get to see them frequently as they come flying past lapping us.   From a British point of view i'm really looking forward to watching our deeply talented men's and ladies teams challenge for individual and team medals.  Robbie Britton won individual World and European bronze two years ago in the combined championship in Turin and the mens team took the team gold.  Meanwhile the mighty Dan Lawson is the current European Champion and recently obliterated the field at Ultrabalaton.  The GB ladies won team bronze in Turin and surely have great chances again.  No doubt they will face very strong challenges from athletes from all over the globe including defending World Champion Florian Reus of Germany and strong teams from USA and Japan amongst others. It's going to be great to watch.  In the Open Race, I can see Nathan Flear for the men's win (and I wouldn't be surprised if he is up there mixing it in the overall Worlds!) and Aoife Lyons of Dublin has been grinding out months of 100 miles a week in training so it would be great to see her do well. If you want to follow along you should be able to find updates on Facebook and Twitter:


And the organisers are currently scrambling to put some form of Live Tracking in place, links to which should be posted on Facebook and Twitter once it's sorted.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Dubai Marathon

I really didn't think I was going to make it to the start line of the Dubai Marathon after being a complete idiot and attempting to play football on New Years Day.  There's nothing like a muddy pitch, the wrong trainers, serious dehydration and 42 year old legs that really should know better to ruin a so called runner's body.  A badly strained adductor muscule meant I could barely walk for about 10 days afterwards, the first run I attempted around mid January left me with a quivering lip and doom laden thoughts of "i'll never run again....", so it was with very low expectations that Jeff and I turned up to the start line.   Common sense should probably have prevailed, but hey i'd travelled all the way over for this and a work conference, and Jeff is friends with Peter the RD, who had really kindly arranged a free entry, so I would have felt even worse pulling out.

Anyway, make it to the start we did, and with Jeff on his bike alongside providing excellent crewing support, things went just fine.  I didn't come into this with any time expectations... originally this was targeted as a PB race aiming for around 3:22... following relative success at the Owler Marathon back in November I felt I had good fitness, but the football injury and some laziness over the Christmas period put paid to that and I was just happy to be moving in Dubai.

Setting off at around 5:20 per KM, I felt ok.  My stride was pretty restricted from the injury, so it was more of a trot / hobble than a free flowing run.  The course is just two out and back loops, the first one 5km out / 5km back, the second one a giant 16km down the beach road to the UAE flag, and then straight back up the other side.  Mentally, this was pretty tough going, without much in the way of landmarks to break up the miles.
It's a very flat and fast course though, definitely PB material if you're looking for something.  The best part was that we got to see the elites fairly close up as they were coming against us on the loops.  Boy were they flying.... they are running a different race to us mortals.  

Going over the new canal was the only section of the course that wasn't flat, and it was actually a bit of a relief to have a change of gradient.  By the time I was coming back over this on the final leg, at around 35km, things were getting tough.
The race had started at 6:30am in nice cool temperatures, but the desert sun had now heated things up nicely.  Lots of people were looking seriously beaten up by it, and were reduced to a walk.  Whilst feeling the heat, fortunately i'd kept a bit of sauna training going since Spartathlon and was coping fine.  General fatigue and some cramping in the injured adductor slowed me down considerably for the last 10k, but fortunately not down to a walk.  For most of the race i'd been thinking just about finishing without doing further damage, but there was also a bit of me that wanted the finishing time to start with a 3 rather than a 4. So that's what I focused on... just do enough for sub 4, just get that sub 4.    And that's what we got.... 3:59:47.   Job done and it was then on to the golf tournament in Abu Dhabi for a bit of rest and relaxation with Jeff and his golfing buddies.

Thanks to Jeff and Jane for looking after me in Dubai, to Peter the Dubai Marathon race director for the entry and the really well organised event. And of course to Rosie for graciously allowing me the time away from home!

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Dynatrace Application Performance Management

At an AWS conference yesterday and I came across https://www.dynatrace.com/.  Was blown away by their Application Performance Management suite and how it compares with "traditional" monitoring tools like Nagios, Splunk etc.  I can't think of how many times this kind of functionality https://www.dynatrace.com/capabilities/application-topology-discovery/ would have been useful to me over the past 20 years.  If you've any need to better understand an application estate before undertaking migrations, either on-premise, in the Cloud, or as a hybrid, or if your current problem resolution tools leave something to be desired, i'd really recommend checking these guys out.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Spartathlon 2016 Race Report (DNF, CP63, 128 miles)

Saturday 1st October 2016, 12:40pm, 25 miles north of Sparta, Greece.    I can see it, it's just there, the checkpoint, there at the top of the rise, about 200 metres away.  I'm stumbling towards it, weaving, shuffling, moving slower than a crawl.  My legs are shot, they won't respond to my mind's feeble exhortations.  It's 33 degrees, but feels like more.  I'm being pasted by the sun, burning me from what feels like directly above.  There is no breeze, and the heat is radiating off the road, burning me from below.  I've lost around 15 minutes of my precious buffer against the race cutoffs just in the last couple of miles, and I know, I know deep inside that this race is over for me.  I'm nearly at the checkpoint now, my crew and supporter team are there, though they are not supposed to be.  They are trying to encourage me not to stop, they have given so much to this race too, they are so invested in it.  I can hear the panic in their voices, my wife Rosie is verging on tears, they are upset. They are not allowed to touch me here, so they can only ask the checkpoint team to help me, they are arguing a little with the checkpoint team, and are told to back off.  I ask to sit down, for the first time in nearly 31 hours and 128 miles, I ask to sit down.    I think there are a couple of minutes where I make some slow attempts to drink something or cool down a bit, but it's hopeless, all the fight has left me.  Everything has left me.  It's over.  I put my head in my hands, and let the tears come.

So ended my attempt at this year's Spartathlon, in failure.  But before the failure, there was a hell of a lot of good stuff, so i'm going to try to capture as much of it here as I can, because it will help me learn for next time, if there is a next time.  And hopefully there are a few people out there who enjoy reading this kind of thing and can learn something, even from a DNF.  Sorry for the length of this post, thanks for reading.

Stage 1 - Athens to Megara
Friday 30th September, 2016, 7am, the Acropolis.  Athens, Greece.  This is it, the biggest race of my life, the biggest physical undertaking i've attempted to date.  I'm nervous, but not cripplingly so.  I'm relishing the challenge ahead, our "war" is about to begin.  390 runners from all over the world crowd the makeshift start line and before we know it we are off and away.

My running buddy James and I are quickly separated in the rush of people down the hill and away from the Acropolis, but it's ok, we have plenty of time to get back together.  James finished this race last year, and we're aiming to run this one together as much as we can, but with the agreement that we'll split up if we have to. Down into the streets of Athens we go.... finally I am in this race, after years of thinking about it, what a buzz!  It is rush hour in Athens, and we are running on fairly major roads.  The police do an incredible job of holding back the traffic at major junctions to let the race pass, drivers leaning on their horns at us, whether in frustration or encouragement i'm not sure.  James and I hook up for a while and then drift apart again, and I spend some time chatting with other runners.  I lock into the same pace as Sophie Power from the British team, and we spend a good few miles chatting away about running, life in London, our kids etc etc.  Sophie and I run up the hill out of Athens together at a decent clip, nothing too crazy pace wise though.  We are playing leapfrog with Rusty Rusk, also from the British Team, who is adopting a run/walk strategy from the start.

On past the half marathon mark and eventually Sophie and I drift apart, and James and I join forces. It's time to stick together and go to work.  For the next little while we find our rhythm, keeping a good pace whilst making sure we stay as cool as possible as the mercury is starting to rise.  At every checkpoint, we dunk our hats into buckets of water and get a sponge over our heads and necks.  Also ice cubes inside our "buffs" wherever possible.  We are keeping perfect pace against our plan, and both feeling good.  We start going through some oil refineries outside Athens and it's all a bit grotty, but it doesn't bother me too much.  At some point we are briefly running with Rob Pinnington, captain of the British team, but he seems to be struggling.  James tries to encourage Rob to come with us, but we drift apart from him and James and I push on.    Thanks Rob for getting some ice cubes for me at one of the checkpoints there and showing me how to wrap it into a buff.

At some points coming out of Athens, there were groups of schoolkids who'd been let off their lessons for a little while to come and see the race.  They'd line up along the road for high fives from the runners, which was very cool and a nice boost.  I hope they get the chance to run Spartathlon one day, it's a big deal in Greece.

Eventually we get near to Megara, the marathon mark and the first point where we can receive assistance from our crew.  I have my brother Jeff and best man Garry crewing for me, whilst James has his wife Laura and our mate Jamie Holmes, a man who finished this race last year.  Later on Rosie will join us at Corinth as a supporter.  The Megara checkpoint is just loads of cars parked up on either side of the road.  We have to go across a timing mat so our time can be recorded and then find our crew.  Fortunately, Garry is out on spotting duty and he gets hold of us and leads us through the crowds and up to the cars, otherwise it could have been quite stressful.  We reach the marathon mark in 4:15, bang on schedule.    Our crew treat us, getting us cooled down again and our bottles and pockets restocked.  They are well organised and on the case, getting us out of there probably in under 3 minutes.  Fortified, we push on.

Stage 2 - Megara to Corinth
We're into the race now, and it feels great.  Part of me had been worried about dropping out for some reason in the really early stages, and having huge regrets.  So far that hasn't happened, and i'm feeling good about our prospects.  But, the sun is now fully up and it is hot, hot, hot.  Time to see if all that sauna training I did had any impact.  The course also is now hillier and we have to get up to Corinth, 23.5 miles away, in about 4 hours 35 minutes.   It doesn't sound too hard but believe me when I say it's no cakewalk!  The bonus here is that we now have some stunning scenery to take our minds off the effort.  We are running along the old coastal road with the Saronic Gulf on our left.  It is really beautiful, and the quality of the road is very good, so we are able to coast along not worrying too much about our footing and soaking up the scenery.    James and I are still in our checkpoint routine of dunking the hats etc, it's working well and we make good time.  We mostly stick together, but James is starting to drift ahead in places and having to wait at checkpoints for me.  I encourage him to go on but for now he's happy to have a bit of a brake on his pace.  James is feeling a bit of stomach difficulty in these stages, but like the true hard as nails northerner he is there is no way this is stopping him.  Eventually we get off the coast road and start heading up towards Corinth.  There is a huge hill, somewhere around the 46 mile mark I think, which I struggle with a bit and James drifts on.  We have plenty of time in the bank though and i'm not worried.  Over the hill and suddenly we are upon the Corinth Canal, a huge channel cut through the Isthmus of Corinth to allow ships to pass through and save them going round the mainland.  It really is something else, amazing to see.  We cross it on a narrow metal footbridge, which is also hosting many spectators, so there is a nice atmosphere. From here it's not far up to the Hellas Can factory, the first major race control point just shy of the 50 mile mark.  I am so pleased to have made it this far, i'm feeling good and although the heat has taken a toll i'm really pleased that the preparation work I did has clearly helped a lot.  I come into Hellas Can at 8 hours 50 minutes, bang on schedule and 4 minutes behind James, and receive a lovely hug from Rosie who has flown in that morning.  She was driven from Athens airport by James' mate Christos, thanks Christos for everything.

The crew are again amazing here, they give us what we need, cool us down again, and say motivational words to us.  It's very tempting to hang around here, it's all pretty comfy, there are even people lying down having massages, which looks nice.  But, no time to rest we must go, go, go, those cutoffs are not going to lie down for a massage!  We leave the checkpoint with 35 minutes to spare on the cutoffs, right where we want to be.

Stage 3 - Corinth to Ancient Nemea
Out of Hellas Can and off we trot onto smaller, quieter roads.   It is still hot although maybe the heat of the sun is starting to wane a little, so that's a blessed relief.  We will have a couple more hours of trying to keep cool until the sun really starts to drop behind the hills at around 6:30pm.  We are making good progress, and with the added bonus that we will now see our crew much more frequently.  Their long night of work is about to begin!  Our next target is Ancient Corinth, around 8 miles up the road and we both enjoy the run up to here, with a few walking breaks thrown in, and we gain time on the cutoffs getting our buffer up to around 45 minutes.

Arriving into Ancient Corinth.

It's wonderful coming into here, there are lots of bars and restaurants lining the main street and the locals and tourists are out in force.  Plenty of clapping and shouts of "bravo" which was a lovely boost.  I try to acknowledge each one but it's little more than the lift of an index finger.  We see our crew again and they sort us out, and we push on.

For the next few miles we run through many old villages.  Some busy, most quiet.  People sat out on balconies having their evening meal cheer us.  What strikes me is the relaxed pace of life here, and that families seem to stick together, there are all ages round the table at a lot of the houses.  Not to make it sound better than it was because clearly life is tough for some of these villages, but they did seem to have a great sense of looking after each other.  Another feature here was the young kids, often alone or in pairs (not an adult in sight, wonderful freedom for them), who were at the side of the road with plain notebooks and looking for autographs from the runners.  I signed quite a few (wonder if they'll look me up online and be disappointed??!), you could see they really appreciated it so it was hard not to.  With hindsight I leaked a couple of precious minutes doing this, so maybe in future i'd just take something to hand to them as I went past.

Anyway it was a nice diversion and the miles ticked by without too much trouble, although I did have a sense I was starting to slow a bit.  Regardless, we rolled into the next crewing checkpoint, Zevgolation, with a 55 minute buffer on the cutoff and still in good spirits.  By this time we'd covered around 63 miles, or over 100km in the metric world, so getting into "pretty big run" territory.  Our crew performed their usual Formula 1 team duties here along with giving us our headtorches and I think some warmer clothes, although that may have been later.  The sun was really low now and we only had a few minutes light left, also there was no more need for cooling by this stage as the temperature had dropped to a very pleasant high teens.

On we went and it was soon apparent that the hills had begun. Whilst the early stages had had some hills, and some of them felt pretty tough at the time, they were frankly nothing compared to what we were about to experience.  Our next target was Halkion Village, mile 70.2.  I can't really remember but we must have been walking big chunks of this section, and running where we could.  The elevation profile is this:

In and out of Halkion and on towards the halfway point at Ancient Nemea checkpoint 35. Somewhere around here it became apparent that James was going to have to go on ahead.  Our paces were just a couple of yards different and it wasn't fair to hold him back any longer.  I think James had waited a bit at one point but because it was now dark it was difficult for him to pick me out in the glare of other runners headtorches and he was worried I had gone passed him.  He didn't know if I was ahead or behind so had to crack on and hope we would sync up again at a checkpoint.  Unfortunately by the time we got to Ancient Nemea there was a five minute gap between us, I can't remember if we saw each other there but it was apparent to everyone, including our crew, that we had to do our own thing now.   Thanks James lad for those magic few hours together on the road, it was truly epic.

Stage 4 - Ancient Nemea to Nestani
On I forged alone, still with a 55 minute buffer on the cutoffs.  Although clearly tiring, I was still in high spirits, and I was coping really well with the uphills.  In fact I was usually gaining some time on the cutoffs on the uphills (always did love marching up a hill in my youth) so that was all good.  The problem though, and I didn't realise at this point just how much of a problem this would turn out to be, was that I was awful on the downhills.  You've really got to be good on the downs in this race, because the way the cutoffs are structured they are assuming, rightly, that you will run all of them.  After Nemea you go down a fair bit then up another decent hill, and then it's down, down, down for quite a while.  You've got to be running this, and I simply didn't have a good time here.  It was pitch dark and the roads were by now pretty bad quality.  I was worried about losing my footing and turning an ankle, plus my legs, especially my quads, were protesting.  Coming down into Malandreni is a long winding downhill that seemed to go on forever.  People were going past me, I tried to go with some of them but it just wasn't happening for me at this stage.  This was my first major learning point from the race - more specific training for running downhill and more quad work in the gym.  I can get a lot better at this and it will help big time.  Anyway, I still had time and wasn't unduly worried at this point during the race. If i'd known better I could have seen some writing starting to appear on the wall.

On the plus side, it was a beautiful starlit night and I was really enjoying being out there.  It brought home to me how great events like this are, taking you to places you'd never go at times you'd never usually be up and about.  How much of a departure this is from "normal" life is quite extreme, but in a good way. Even when your body is being slowly broken somehow your soul is being healed.  Sometimes I just need that kind of thing.  Maybe we all need that kind of thing.
That's how I felt, but maybe delirium was setting in!  I pushed on, eventually reaching Lyrkia and then beginning the long slog on the road up to Mountain Base checkpoint 47 at mile 99.1.  At this point I joined forces with two wonderful chaps - Harry Wurm from Austria and Anthony Lee from the Irish team.  We made a quick agreement to stick together and spent an hour or so marching up the switchbacks and having a bit of chat.  Can't really remember what we talked about now, to an outside observer it would have been the ravings of three lunatics I imagine, but it helped us and we made good progress.  At some point Anthony said "that coffee's worn off!" and boom he was gone off the back of our little group.  Harry and I continued, getting almost all the way to Mountain Base together before drifting apart.

Into Mountain Base CP47 and I had 39 minutes to spare on the cutoffs.  Jeff and Garry welcomed me to the CP but there was little time to stop and rest.  They put a jacket on me and encouraged me to get on my way, Jeff repeatedly telling me "get your head down and get over that mountain".  Sound advice, ok, I will do it.  Now we go off the road and sharp left, onto a mountain track and almost immediately it feels like we are going straight up.  The track is rough, lots of loose stones, and it is tough to make progress.  It feels like I am crawling, but in fact I do ok.  At times I stagger and lose my footing a little, but it is never a hands on knees climb like i'd read about.  Don't think i'd fancy it in the wind and rain like the boys had last year though.  I made the mistake of ignoring the advice and looking up to see if I could see the summit.  This is an error as you get demoralised from seeing all the head torches winding their way up above you, but the flip side occurs as you can look down and receive a quick boost by seeing all the torches below you too.  Before I knew it I was popped out at the summit checkpoint 48, i'd done really well on the climb and gained 10 minutes back.  I was a pretty happy boy at this point, because lots of reading i'd done suggested that get to the top of the Mountain with around an hour to spare and your chances of finishing the race are very high.  I'd stupidly equated that to mean that i'd done the hard part and the rest would be more straightforward. Nothing could be further from the truth but I didn't realise that at the time and pressed on, spirits high.

Remember I said I was awful at the downhills?  Well coming down off the mountain I also had a bad time, and I gave back that 10 minutes I gained.  Going down the track is wider, and it is runnable, but it is very rough and again I was worried about falling or turning an ankle.  Bear in mind that by this time it is 5am and the runners have been on their feet for 22 hours!  Again I walked most of it, breaking into the very occasional half hearted trot.   To be fair a lot of people were doing the same, but there were people coming past trotting, and they would have been saving a few minutes on me. Likely they are experienced Spartathletes, these guys just seem to know the right times when they need to make a push to save a few minutes.  Do that in enough places and those minutes really add up.

Onwards to Nestani, CP52 and another major milestone in the race.  Reach here within the cutoffs and, even if you subsequently drop, this achievement counts as a qualifier for future years.  I'd kind of forgotten about that at the time but it was a nice small consolation to take away afterwards.  I got into Nestani in 202nd place and with 46 minutes on the cutoffs.  My crew led me inside a nice warm building and we made some clothing changes.  They also forced some small bits of food down me, I can't remember what it was but it was good.

Stage 5 - Nestani to Tegea
Out of Nestani and Rosie has woken up from a nap in the car, it was nice to see her and she guided me down the steps of the village square and pointed the way back onto the route.  It was first light at this stage so a new day was coming upon us and I was still, I think, in ok shape.   The next section is pretty flat across the plains of Tegea/Tripoli for a good few miles, and I was hoping to get some time back off on the cutoffs before the final hills.   However, I performed badly here with too much walking and not enough running.  I just wasn't disciplined enough.   As Jeff later said, you really need to get locked in to a strategy here... run 800 metres, walk 200 metres would be great.  Or even run 400, walk 100. Just keep doing that consistently and this section would have been fine.  But, I didn't, for whatever reason I just couldn't get it going properly, and I was pretty haphazard.  I still felt not too bad, but I was slow when I should have been just a bit quicker.  Instead of a proper run/walk, I reset my watch at each checkpoint and figured out what pace I need to hit to maintain my buffer on the cutoffs.  This was a big mistake.  Let the cutoffs get inside your head and they will mess with your head, especially when you are tired and you're not gaining.  I should have ignored them, and focused entirely on consistency of movement.    Another major lesson.    I also had some stomach woes here, and had to nip behind a bush a couple of times.  Nothing major but it cost me a couple of precious minutes each time.    For a couple of hours there was a weird temperature drop and the sudden appearance of a pretty heavy mist.  Later my crew told me they were kicking themselves for us taking off my jacket at Nestani and they were worried about the cold.  It really affected some other runners but luckily I don't think it affected me all that much.  It certainly didn't get to the shivering stage anyway.

I battled on.  And on and on and sodding on.  Eventually I reached another major control point CP60 at Alea-Tegea mile 121.4.  Looking back at the results it's clear just how badly I did over the plains.  I dropped 24 places down to 226th and my buffer on the cutoffs was down to 30 minutes.  By now there were only 34 runners behind me, and if there wasn't writing on the wall before it was being spray painted on in red letters now.  It was around 10:30 in the morning and hot again.  Really hot.  Really, really, ridiculously hot.  My heat training in the sauna had worked a treat for Day 1, but it didn't seem to be helping me now.  There was some point around here where I had been reduced to a crawl and it felt like I was completely gone, but I saw my crew and they encouraged me and I got moving again at a good pace.  I thought "oh, they've given me a good kick up the backside there and it has really helped".  Another major mistake, what they had actually done was get me properly cooled down and that was what enabled my muscles to start working properly again.  None of us connected those dots at the time.  We simply didn't have the experience, and by this time we were all pretty frazzled. They'd had virtually no sleep either.

Stage 6 - Tegea to Sparta    
So to the denouement.   Fairly soon out of Tegea you start going up again, this time on a long, brutal climb that takes you all the way back up pretty much to the same elevation as the Mountain Summit. It is truly agonising.  It goes on for about 8km and it is utterly relentless, there is no shade and I was wilting under the sun.  I wouldn't have any crew support again until CP65, which was 10.5 long mostly uphill miles away.  I also was losing my mind, and forgetting to look after myself properly at the intermediate checkpoints.  Whilst I should have been dousing water over my head and even pouring it over my thighs (I saw a Japanese guy do this, I thought he was daft, turns out he was doing exactly the right thing!) I simply did not equate the lack of power in my legs with overheating. What happens (I found out afterwards) is that your body has to avoid the danger of your core temperature rising above a certain point, because that means serious illness or worse.  Your body will do virtually anything to stop that happening, and one of the things it does is send as much blood as possible to your skin where the heat can be lost to the air.  This diverts blood away from the muscles, and stops them working.  Movement just isn't important to your body in an overheating situation.  If you can get cooled down, blood will flow back to your muscles and you'll get better movement.  Like I said before, not knowing how to deal with this was just a complete lack of experience of these kinds of conditions, and it was almost the final nail in the coffin for my race.  The absolute final nail was another mental error - I let myself get obsessed about the cutoffs.  I couldn't see how I could possibly make it to CP64 within the cutoff, let alone the end.  I was trying to extrapolate my feeble pace into checkpoint times and finishing times, and realising how hopeless it all seemed.  I thought they would pull runners who are behind the cutoff, but in fact it is not as simple as that.  A lot of it seems to be related to your condition and how well you are moving... if you can get yourself back in some kind of condition where you can move at 6.5km/h (a fast walk) then you'll generally be allowed to continue. I still had 15 minutes on the cutoff when I sat down at CP63, so if i'd had the presence of mind to dump a couple of litres of water over my head and thighs I might have been able to get going again.  Maybe, just maybe, if I could have made it through the heat of the afternoon and got on the downhill section into Sparta as it started to cool I might have had a chance of a finish.  Or maybe that's just wishful thinking and i'd never have made it anyway.  I don't know, and never will, for the 2016 version anyway.   What I do know is that I learnt a hell of a lot about myself by preparing for and participating in this race.  It's a failure sure, but it's one tempered by some satisfaction about getting that far in the biggest race i've ever been in.  A lot of the stuff I did to prepare, and a lot of the stuff I did during the race, worked really well. With a few tweaks and more effort on some things throughout the year, I now know I can finish this thing, whereas before I did have a lot of doubt, no matter how positively I tried to think.  Not to say something else won't get me on another attempt, but it won't be poor downhill running or poor heat management skills that's for sure.

Closing Time
I already said thanks to everyone on a Facebook post, so won't repeat here.  Just want to say well done to a few people:

James Ellis, well done big man, proud of you.  Another tat on the leg?

Sophie Power, great to run with you in the early stages, massive congratulations on your finish with a blown quad.

Ian Thomas, the most unassuming, politest, gentle man you could hope to meet, but a running machine.  Well done sir on your top Brit finish, I salute you.

To all the British finishers, congratulations guys, really pleased for all of you.  Especially Rusty Rusk who came back from the dead of Day 1 with a storming night-time and Day 2 performance, powered mostly by watermelon. Well done mate, really great stuff.

Bob Hearn, whose blog post from last year taught me so much and from which I nicked quite a few ideas, well done sir on an astonishing improvement from last year.   Can't wait to read about how you planned your assault on 2016.

Lastly to the elite athletes at the front of the field, congratulations, you guys and girls (especially the girls if i'm honest) are absolutely freaking unbelievable.  You should be feted and lauded wherever you go, as an Olympian middle distance star would be, unfortunately our sport doesn't have that kind of exposure.  Yet.

If you read this far i'm truly amazed and humbled.  I'll leave you with this: anyone who runs has likely experienced the phenomenon of random music playing in their head.  Tunes pop up that seem to be completely unrelated to anything, sometimes they can help and sometimes they can hinder (last year James had "Have you seen the muffin man?" for the final 10 hours; torture).  During the race I had loads of tunes crop up, most of which i've forgotten, but one which sticks.  Every single checkpoint, about a half mile before I got there, a song called "Closing Time" would erupt in my head.  It's pretty obvious why when you know that you're going to be looking at one of these at every checkpoint:

Even though it's about getting kicked out of the pub, I found the lyrics a good fit for how I was feeling during the race, so thought I would share, hope you enjoy it:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFV5DZTgqKw

Thanks for reading, see you "out there".

Friday, 16 September 2016

Spartathlon Anxiety

So the summer has gone by like an express train, it's now only 2 weeks until James and I take on Spartathlon, and it's all starting to get very very real.   My brain is constantly whirring with thoughts about the race, trying to assess how ready everything is I guess.  Sometimes I wish I could switch it off and just be very chilled about the whole thing.   Maybe if i write some of it down it will help me achieve inner Spartathlon peace, so here goes:

Have I done enough training?   Yes.   No.  Maybe.  It's impossible to tell really.  Since crashing
and burning at the Brighton Marathon back in April, I've done more running than ever before in
my life.   I'd say i'm way fitter than when i qualified for Spartathlon back in 2014, i've
racked up weeks of mileage that I haven't gotten anywhere near before (70 mile weeks, 80 mile weeks) and i've done a couple of fairly big "double" sessions where you run long on both days.  The idea being to get used to running long on tired legs.  All that being said, the training hasn't been perfectly consistent, and mileage not as high as I read about being required for Spartathlon.  I also haven't done much in the way of speed sessions.  It's easy to find lots of stories online about people doing 100 mile weeks for months leading up to the event, and them still thinking that's not enough. For me, I think I would break down injured if i tried to do that, and I know it would take too much of a toll on other aspects of life.  I'm going to have to be happy with what i've done, especially as it's too late to change any of it now!

Can I cope with the heat?  We went on holiday to Greece in August, and it was fearsomely hot.  Just lying by the pool in the sun was strength sapping, never mind trying to run.  I always knew i'd have to have a strategy for dealing with the heat, and i'm coming at this from two angles.  First, try to get the body adapted to heat.  I've been spending a lot of time in the sauna the last couple of weeks, building up from 10 minutes and now up to over 30, following a program on the Badwater site (http://www.badwater.com/university/heat-training-in-the-sauna/).  Who knows if it works, I can only hope, but if it's good enough for people running through Death Valley there's got to be something in it.   Second, try everything possible to stay cool on race day because if you overheat, chances are there'll be no time to recover.   I'll be following the well documented strategy of stopping briefly at every checkpoint to dunk my hat and buffs in water buckets.  At the risk of looking like a complete fool i've taken this a step further and sewn what can only be described as a pouch onto the top of one of my hats.  It is a good old fashioned botch job, complete Heath Robinson.  Into "the pouch" I plan to stash ice, and have it melt over my head and onto my neck.  Whilst it's never going to be comfortable, i'm hopeful the combo of these two strategies will see me survive the heat on race day.

Can we get the pacing right?   This one is absolutely critical.  The overall time limit for
Spartathlon is 36 hours, meaning to finish the 153 mile race in that time you have to achieve an average speed of 4.25 miles per hour.  The distance is obviously scary, but it doesn't sound quite so bad when you think about the overall pace needed.  The problem is that's not the whole story, and one of my biggest fears about the race is the way the first part of it is setup.    They basically force you to cover the first 50 miles faster than you might otherwise plan to.  The way it works is this: every couple of miles there is a checkpoint, each one has a closing time (aka a "cutoff"), and if you arrive after the cutoff you are out of the race.  No arguments, no mercy. The organisers say "this is the specialty of Spartathlon" (said with a certain relish I might add).  Now after putting all this effort into training and everything else that goes with the race, it would be a huge shame to get booted out for failing to make a cutoff in the early stages.  The cutoffs therefore are potentially stressful, lots of
people say they are THE most stressful thing about the event, and there is a real danger that they make you panic and run too fast.  Do that, and you may build a big buffer against the cutoffs in the early stages only to see it evaporate mid race when you blow up.  Of course I don't really
know a great deal about this, this year being my race debut, but i'm basing it on what I observed last year while crewing for James and Jamie, and on what's been said by much better runners than me:


So we have to have a plan to stay cool under the pressure of the early stages.  Run too fast and we risk blowing up, run too slowly and we risk being caught by a cutoff.   The plan is to run the first marathon in around 4:15, and to aim to get to Corinth (50 mile mark) in around 9 hours.  That would be a 30 minute buffer on the cutoffs, and hopefully would mean having enough energy to keep chipping away at them until the mountain at the 100 mile point.  By that stage we'd hope to have
an hour to spare, maybe a bit more if things go really well.  Get up and over the mountain successfully, and the chances of finishing become much higher.   Sounds so easy when put like that (it's not!!!)

Should I even be doing this?    When you read about this race it's easy to become overwhelmed
by the quality of the field.  There are only 390 runners, and most of them are very, very good.
The vast majority have Ultra "CVs" that make mine look utterly laughable.  Badwater, Western States, UTMB, Ultrabalaton, you name it these guys and gals have done it.  Even so, usually only around 40% of this high quality field finishes the race.   So I do often wonder if i'm being
completely naive by attempting this race without fully completing my ultra running "apprenticeship". Obviously though, I qualified, so i've got a right to be there and give it a go.   I go into it fully knowing that i've got huge amounts to learn about this sport, and humbled that I have this chance in such an iconic event.

There's loads of other stuff on my mind, but that's enough for now.  One last thing, i'm looking to raise a little bit of cash for "Lab 13", which is a science lab at our kids school which has had its funding cut.  The folk who run the Lab do a fantastic job and it's a brilliant resource for the kids, who all really love it.  We'd really appreciate any help in keeping our young scientists going, anything at all is really appreciated.  Hop over here if you'd like to donate, and thanks!!