The Spartathlon Route

By Tompky - 5:57 AM

Challenge number 6 I had always billed as the most difficult one I was going to do, the 156 mile route from Athens to Sparta through Greece known as the Spartathlon.  The race is designed to follow the ancient route from Greek folklore that Pheidippides ran to seek aid from the Persians before the Battle of Marathon.  Whilst the actual race is done over 36 hours in cooler September temperatures, I was going to tackle it over 72 hours, but with the summer heat in June.

I set off from Athens at 5am, and ran through the city.  Oddly the city was still bustling at that time, with revellers from the night before still out partying and enjoying the city life.  I made my way out of the city, and into the Greek countryside by the time the sun had come up.  At this point the mammoth task really became clear, as I ran past a pharmacy at 8am with a temperature sign outside that signalled it was 34 degrees.  Although I had a support team, made up of mam, dad and girlfriend, I had arranged to meet up with them at 11am.  It became clear that this was going to be a real challenge, I ran out of water that I was carrying at 9.30am, and with the heat approaching 40 degrees I started to quickly become dehydrated.  Moving towards 11am I had slowed to a near enough crawl, with a few desperate texts trying to arrange to meet with them sooner.  Due to the roads I was on this was difficult, and I struggled on to 11am, by which point I was just over 30 miles in.  They handed me a couple of litres of water, which I gulped down, and agreed to continue on until 12pm, at which point we would stop for lunch.  I managed another 5 miles by 12pm at which point we decided to stop.

It was clear that we needed a slight rethink, with the temperature over 42 degrees.  We agreed that I would not run again until 5pm, and they would meet me every 5 miles with water, food and to check I was still in an OK condition to continue.  I was keen to get to the 50 mile mark, so started again at 5pm on the dot.  The temperature was still well over 35 degrees, and running was a real struggle.  I managed to keep moving at 4mph until 8pm, at which point I had covered 47 miles, when it became very dark and we agreed it was time to call it a day.

Another early start, 6am and another hot day meant this was going to be another hot and difficult day.  I decided that I would try to move at 4mph, with the heat I felt that would keep me safe which ultimately is necessary when taking these challenges on solo with a small support car.  I ran until 1pm covering 28 miles, and again trying to keep out the hottest part of the day.  I had a break until 5pm, before getting out and doing an extra 14 miles, completing 42 miles in total.  This left me 66 miles to cover on the final day, including the 1200 metre high Mount Parthenion.

I knew I would have to move slightly quicker on the final day to complete the challenge within 72 hours.  The morning started with the 1200 metre climb, with the first 850 metres on a twisting winding road, which felt solid and my legs felt strong.  The last 350 metres leaves the main road, and effectively has you scrambling over shale, which was frustrating, hot work and also really sapped the energy from the legs.  Reaching the top of the mountain gave a real morale boost, and by the time I got to the bottom I had 50 miles left, and was moving quicker than I had done since the first morning.  The temperature had started to take a turn and clouds had rolled in, providing a much needed relief from the sun beating down on me.  I continued to move well, covering the next 15 miles until 1pm.  At that point the clouds continued to roll in, and it had gotten very dark.  Just as we were deciding to stop for lunch, lightning and thunder cracked across the mountains, and within minutes the most torrential downpour started.

This continued for the next 5 hours, and with the lightning it made it too dangerous to run.  We discussed whether it was possible to start again, or whether we were going to have to abandon it and come back into a 4th day.  Regular checks on the forecast showed the lighting would stop between 5-6pm, and I made the call that I would start to run again at 6pm.  At this stage the rain was light, and running conditions were perfect.  I had 35 miles to go and tried to tackle it at 5mph.  The elevation made this difficult but progress was steady.  The final 25 miles were tricky, on a single lane main road, with cars driving past at 65mph.  My support car had to follow me in with hazard lights on and me in the headlights of the vehicle.  Fortunately, running into Sparta, most drivers understood what I was doing.  The run is well respected, with it being a route steeped in Greek history, and many drivers beeping and waving and showing support, which kept morale high over the last few miles.

Around 8 miles out, and with Sparta in sight, my legs felt heavy, and I had to slow the movement to a walk.  Whilst being so close, mentally 8 miles was still a long way to go and at this point I became heavily reliant on my support vehicle to keep me going.  As they have in other challenges, the three of them excelled and got me through.  Within 2 hours I was struggling through the streets of Sparta, and finally after 68.5 hours, and 34.5 hours moving time, I collapsed at the feet of the statue of Leonidas I.

The Greek people were very supportive of the whole thing, although I was surprised at the route, with a lot of the route ran along fairly main roads effectively on the hard shoulder.  The race itself must be a great experience, although I would question ever doing it in the middle of summer ever again!!

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