SPARTATHLON 2004 (1st/2nd October).
256KM (153 miles) road race from Athens to Sparta.
Well don't ask how I came to sign up for this race, but it had been a desire of mine for many a year to "have a go" at the Spartathlon.
In 490BC, as Greek mythology tells it, Pheidippides (an Athenian messenger) was sent by his Generals, from Athens to Sparta to secure help for the reinforcement of the Athenian forces against the Asiatic incursion.
Pheidippides arrived in Sparta on the very next day of his departure from Athens-36 hours in fact.
Many years later, 1982 to be precise, a British RAF Wing Commander, John Foden (a student of Greek history) wondered if modern man could run the 256kms from Athens to Sparta in 36 hours.
Thus, he and four other colleagues set off from Athens to run the distance to Sparta, finishing at the statue King Leonidas some 36 hours later -A MAGNIFICENT EVENT WAS BORN.
It was the 2004 event that was my concern, and as my wife and I were flying out to Athens from Birmingham, thoughts of brave Paula Radcliffe and her agonizing end in the Olympic marathon came flooding back to me.
It was the heat and the terrain that put paid to her brave effort on the 26 mile run-I had to endure that for 153 miles "NON-STOP".
As we booked into our hotel the nervous anticipation became stronger, as I registered at the race HQ those damn butterflies were break-dancing in my stomach, my wife kept reassuring me that "at least I was having a go, and whatever the outcome-I would still be her hero".
Runners from all over the world were here, some who had finished the gruelling run many, many times- and some who had tried many times, but had not experienced the joy of reaching the finish in Sparta.
We had met John Foden, the man who had started this event many years ago, and as my wife was worried about driving in Greece John offered to drive her to Sparta in his car, before driving back out to show support to the runners still in the race.
I went through the programme of events again and again, the organizers had really put on a week of events for runners, and as we were here from all over the world, it was a great way to get know other competitors ,and as the week wore on the language barrier disappeared.
So Thursday evening I had packed all my kit into the boxes allocated for each checkpoint along the way, these items would be there waiting for me at my preferred points of the race-my drinks bottles, energy gels, extra vests and shorts, and just in case extra pairs of shoes (which I didn’t need).
I had spent a few hours in my hotel room plotting what I would need and where-this job was usually done by my mates at SNEYD STRIDERS -and boy did I need them now!!
After doing all I could in my pre-race preparation, I went to bed only to get about three hours sleep, I had never felt like this before, never had I felt so worried about anything in my life, had I done the right training, had I done too much, or not enough ?
Friday morning, I ate very little breakfast, I just wanted to get this over and done with, and hopefully be successful.
John Foden being the great man he is, inspired me to think "I'll give it my best”, and the man himself wished me success-he didn’t wish me luck, as he said "a man like you doesn’t need luck, so I wish you success", his words helped eased the nerves.
I slowly took my place on the coach that was taking us to the Acropolis and the start of this great journey, as we made our way there, I still kept wondering if I had the strength and endurance to make the whole distance.
At the start there was a mass crowd, T.V. crews and other media were there to capture the beginning of an epic race, the Japanese runners had their own T.V. crew to follow them, as Ultra distance running is huge in Japan-as is the SPARTATHLON.
My wife waved me on my way, and we set off bound for Sparta, my plan was to do just enough to get me through this race within the time limit, so I was horrified to find that within the first mile I was in fifth place !
Easing back on the pace, I allowed the lead runners to disappear in the distance and I ran at a good, but sensible pace-however at certain points of the race it was so easy to let yourself get carried away, as passing cars would sound their horns in admiration, and crowds of onlookers would cheer you on, and the more they cheered the faster you would find yourself running.
The first day was hot and humid, but it was bearable to run in, I just wanted to get the first day over with and plan to run a little faster in the cool night air.
The course was surrounded by stunning views and lots of hills; one huge hill was to take us over the Corinth canal.
Now this race is one in which runners pass each other over and over again, so it was no surprise that I bumped into two other British runners "John and Jackson", these guys were great and enjoying every step of the race.
However, Jackson had felt the need to retire from the race after battling an injury for some distance, John had passed me on a huge hill, and he was going well, really well.
I caught up with him in a village, only because the local children had thrust pens and paper in front of us asking for our autographs, we felt really honoured being asked for our autographs.
As the evening drew on, we ran together which were great company for us both, and passed time and distance discussing anything and everything.
However the hills got steeper and longer, John had got us to adopt a "run, walk" up the steep climbs, but he was stronger than me on the climbs, and my plan to run a little faster through the night when it was to be cooler, was thwarted by the continuous plod!
As we approached the 100 mile stage of the race, we realized that we had to climb over "Mount Sangor", a steep and rocky uphill straggle that seemed endless, though the views from the top were well worth the climb-I say the views from the top, it was the early hours of Saturday morning and lit up only by the light of the moon-but the lights in the distance that were from the towns and the villages made a stunning kaleidoscope of colours.
The support from the checkpoints was fantastic. These folks couldn’t do enough for us runners, but as I was finding it hard to digest food, I began to feel a little weaker than I should-so I started chomping on sugar cubes, this disgusted some runners "how can you eat sugar cubes”? They asked.
It gave me the fuel I needed to get me through what was to be a bad patch, and, more importantly-I got my appetite back and was eating normally again.
Alas John was not so fortunate, he had not felt too well for quite some time, and told me to go ahead-he would catch up with me if he could recover.
From now on I was on my own, having to get my head around the fact that there was still another forty four miles to go before I got to Sparta, and the finish at King Leonidas statue-I was still able to motivate myself by thinking of Sneyd Striders and imagining them cheering me on from checkpoint to checkpoint.
I ran alone for quite some time, with a line of runners behind me in the distance, but alas-a line of runners in the distance ahead of me too!
The second day (Saturday) was to be just as hot as the previous day, I had discarded my running hat some hours earlier (to my regret and my wife's disgust), the heat was taking effect -my face was red with sunburn, in fact it was so bad that officials at each checkpoint were sponging my face and head with cold water even though I never asked them to.
I was still timing myself between each checkpoint and I was keeping a good thirty minute "cushion” all the way-I had the thought that I was doing just enough to make it all the way within the time limit of 36 hours.
However I hit yet another steep hill, so I walked up it, only to find that man- John Foden waiting at the next checkpoint, he was quick to point out that time was going against me, and if I didn’t pluck up the courage to run up part of these hills ,I could be timed out- in fact the hill I was planning to walk up, had a steep uphill climb that went on for 9km, "walk for that long Glyn, and time will slip past you, and you may get to the last checkpoint only to find it closed and yourself out of the race" John explained.
NO WAY, NO WAY, I couldn’t get that near to the finish then be timed out- so now I was on a mission, I marched, then ran, then marched up each agonizing hill for the next 9km-and the next 5km hill after that.
With about 20 miles to the finish, I was unaware that the line of runners behind me had, one by one, failed to reach certain checkpoints in the allotted times -therefore they were pulled out of the race.
At this time, John Foden pointed out that I was last but one in the race, and needed to find something, anything from somewhere and quick!
I kept saying to myself "I don't want to be last, not last to finish", now bear in mind that there were 140 or more runners who had quit a long time ago, so to reach the finish in whatever position is an achievement anyway, but this wouldn’t surface-so I went into a near sprint with about 6 miles from the finish.
I was passing runners who looked at me surprised, they were on their last legs, but it seemed it that I had got a new pair from somewhere.
John Foden jumped with delight "GO FOR IT GLYN, GO FOR IT" he shouted from a checkpoint that I was running past.
I ran into Sparta with an escort of kids on mountain bikes, and a convoy of cars behind me as no-one tried to pass me (a mark of respect for a weary runner). Car horns were blasted, Police sirens wailed as to inform the waiting crowds at the finish line of my approach-all of a sudden I could see the statue of king Leonidas right in front of me, I sprinted, even though my legs were screaming in pain, and the closer I got, the faster I ran, sprinting up the few steps to the monument, and the cheers of huge crowds ringing in my ears.
I touched the statue of King Leonidas, signalling that I had completed my aim of running the whole of this gruelling run, people were even leaning out of windows to cheer my achievement, two young girls dressed as Greek Goddesses were on hand to crown me with my "Olive wreath" and give me water from the Evrotas river.
What a feeling-I had finished in a time of 35 hours and 24 minutes, not a record breaking time, but I had endured the most punishing hills and mountains-lets face it, 153 mile flat would be gruelling, but over this terrain it was tough, then there was the heat-need I go on?
But I had followed in the steps of an ancient messenger, a modern day Pheidippes if you like, as some would say.......all that finish can claim with pride that they are- "ALMOST A GOD".
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