Standing on the start line at 7am looking up at the iconic illuminated Acropolis with 379 fellow aspiring ‘Spartathletes’, ahead lay a daunting 153 miles/246km of running in which I would have 36 hours to make it to Sparta. A huge challenge lay in waiting for me.
Rewind some weeks. I had completed another gruelling ultra at Badwater 135 for the second time back in July and also the North Downs Way 100 in August. Plus I had run a 50 miler around the track with Phoenix Running in September. Special attention was paid to the Spartathlon 50 mile cut off time whilst there and I thankfully made a 1 hour 7 minute confidence buffer.
Other preparations included weighted vest hikes and HIIT, all my regular training runs plus I completed a solid 4 weeks of heat training which firstly involved daily saunas and culminated with 8 sessions in the Heat Chamber at Chichester University, a strategy I knew worked for Badwater 135.
Temperatures in Greece at this time of year could be vastly different so I trained for the most heat although I was soon to find out that the day time temperatures during the race were very warm but the night got very cold, especially on the downhill side of the famous Mount Parthenio at 100 miles.
I put my heart and soul into training for this race so I could be in the best possible fitness both mentally and physically strong. One (of many) of the very difficult aspects of Spartathlon are the 75 check points and every single one of them with their own cut off and of which were very tough.
We flew into Athens in the early hours of Thursday morning and spent two days meeting and catching up with the British Spartathlon Team (BST) of which I was now a very proud member. All the runners and crew had fantastic team shirts provided by our team sponsors. Runners were white and crew were red, (affectionately called the Red tops). For ‘foreign runners’ the entry fee is €820 but this includes accommodation for 5 nights, most meals and the famous Gala dinner two days after the race.
There were only two girls in the British Spartathlon Team this year, myself and the amazing Ali Young who was going for her third Spartathlon finish, (a first for any British lady). I was feeling under self-imposed immense pressure (cut-offs and imposter syndrome) but from speaking to several people in the team who had run Spartathlon multiple times, they all said they had faith in me and if I could make it to the other side of the Mountain (106 miles) the cut offs would get easier.
Fast forward to zero hour. It was actually about to happen! I was about to run from Athens to Sparta, blissfully unaware of the savagery that was coming! Swept up in the start line euphoria and seeing incredible runners that I’d shared previous running miles with at Badwater (Simon Holvik to name one!).
The atmosphere on the start line was absolutely buzzing and located just down the hill from the illuminated Acropolis. The scene was set. Sunrise was close. Pulse rate rising. Anticipation red lining! All the different countries participating had team kits on which just added colours and team patriotism into the mix. Finding team mates was super easy with the red white and blue splash on our shirts.
At 7am precisely we were off! The first few miles of the race were all downhill. I was wearing my new Nike AlphaFly running shoes as I needed all the help I could get to reach that elusive 50 mile cut off just past the Corinth Canal in 9 and a half hours.
The weather forecast for the race was highs of 27°C and lows of 18°C (more on that miscalculation later!) Current conditions looked perfect. We were off! Everyone seemed to be running at quite a fast pace! It was cloudy and not hot at all. I had a great start and spent some miles with different members of the BST. So far so good as I was trying to find the right pace for the job.
The first part of the course was running alongside rush hour traffic in Athens so not the most inspiring! Police were everywhere protecting us from the Athens rush hour. Thank you! I had a new nutrition strategy for this race as in my last few races I’ve struggled to eat and always end up being sick around 60-80 miles. One of the guys at Chichester University, Patrick (Patch Nutrition) had recommended some high carb liquid calories (SIS BETA FUEL) and a flavourless electrolyte (ELETE) which was to be my new way of getting the calories and electrolytes in when food failed me.
I went through Megara, CP12 and the marathon mark in 4 hours 20 minutes which was also the first official place I could have crew assistance. My wonderful husband Matthew was my sole crew member and as much as I wanted to chat with him about how the race had been going, it was a case of spray me with icy water, ice bandana, new water bottles, an iced bun and a fizzy drink and I was gone. I was 35 minutes ahead of the cut off but there was no room for slacking.
The temperature was increasing and I found myself cooling myself with sponges from icy water buckets at the check points. The next crew point was at Mile 50 just after the Corinth Canal. This section of the race was much more picturesque running alongside the aquamarine Aegean Sea, it was beautiful. (Matthew actually went for a swim between seeing me). It was a wonderful moment running over the bridge crossing the Corinth Canal, a sight I had seen on so many videos I had watched in anticipation of Spartathlon and it was happening!
To my delight, I reached the 50 mile CP22 in 8 hours 35 minutes (over an hour ahead of the cut off!) and my feet were starting to hurt so it was time to switch to the super comfy Hoka Bondis for the rest of the race. The Alphafly’s had done their job but they made my quads hurt so badly already! Another F1 pit stop and I was off again. Every second really did count! Matthew had bought me a requested Calipo (my favourite) and I chomped some ginger cake.
Now the course turned into beautiful olive groves, vineyards, and Greek villages. I was loving the race except for those damn cut offs! Oh and I kept seeing the ‘Death bus’. A massive coach that sweeps people up who don’t make the cut offs and it was leapfrogging and lurking at various check points just enough to remind you of what the consequences were if you didn’t get your race strategy right and it was unsettling me.
Temperatures the first day hit 30°C so it got pretty hot, the heat training had definitely paid off though as it didn’t seem to affect me. After 50 miles Matthew was able to start crewing me properly as crew were allowed much more frequent stops, 6-9 miles on average. Ancient Corinth was next, which had an amazing atmosphere in the buzzing village square plus some ancient ruins to admire as we ran in. Another hot turn and I was off. More vineyards more olive groves. I was feeling good and running at a good pace.
When it got dark I met Matthew at mile 70, Halkeion Village, AKA CP 32, and I had a complete change of clothes and I mean complete! I was into my warmer night gear as my day clothes were soaking wet from the humidity of the day and all the cooling spray downs. This crew point was buzzing and so busy and I had a mince pie and took a bottle of Sis Beta Fuel with me.
The course was really well marked with permanent painted yellow ‘SP’ and direction arrows on the floor plus wooden Spartathlon signs in various places along the route. All the Greek people know about Spartathlon and are all very proud of their race and its history and that we were honouring their history.
I was still feeling good but hadn’t sat down apart from the rapid shoe change at mile 50 so was so looking forward to giving my legs and feet a break!. I had planned this for mile 106 after I had climbed and descended Mount Parthenio. Before you get to enjoy the brutality the mountain has to offer you, you are treated to a warm up!
A 7 mile climb up from Lyrkeia to CP47 ‘Mountain Base’ (mile 99) was pretty savage. I had teamed up with James Ellis from the BST who was on course for his incredible 6th Spartathlon finish (legend and respect) and he had kindly offered to escort me over the mountain in the middle of the night. It was wonderful having his company and so we power hiked the 3000 ft to Mountain Base at mile 99.
This was where I started to feel really sick, cold and became unable to eat. I treated myself to a quick sit in the chair at the Aid station to regroup before it was time for the steep and rocky ascent up the mountain. It was brutal. It had been going really well up until this point but the inevitable low point that ultrarunners face came to say hello. Pitch black but lit up with some coloured lights from time to time, loose rocks making an uneven path with a treacherous sheer drop down the side of the mountain just inches away. It was, however, beautiful looking back down the mountain at all the twinkly head torches behind us and so glad I was not down there looking up any more!
According to my Garmin watch I went though 100 miles in 20 hours 45 minutes which is a 100 mile PB for me so I was delighted, plus over an hour ahead of the cut offs. The descent from the top of the mountain was crazy, more crazy than the climb up! It was literally loose rocks everywhere, impossible to run whilst trying not to ‘stack’ it, immersed in darkness. Although gravity was on my side it was shuffle with caution down the zig zagging switchbacks to the village of Sangas.
I had been warned about the wild dogs before the race and during the race you could constantly hear dogs barking. Luckily I didn’t have any encounters with any, they just didn’t stop barking, usually behind a wire fence. Thank you dogs for the regular free shots of Adrenaline!
After this was the Plains of Tripoli and this was a tough sleep deprived section. James and I were so tired and then I was sick a few times. It literally was relentless forward motion getting through the night. It was freezing cold and really foggy but I just pressed on in the roads through the Greek farmland. It was now 9ºC. Uncomfortably colder than I expected. My Montane Down jacket was at the ready but not used.
Matthew kept updating us on the time cut offs and it was always on my mind. (I was so tired that I was miscalculating cutoffs and finish times.) Once first light came I felt so much better although that was the end of my eating, it was just sips of water and ginger ale for the rest of the race.
We ran through a succession of small hamlets and the village of Zevgolatio of Arcadia where I saw the first sign to Sparta, (55km away), the remaining mileage slowly decreased and the temperature started hotting up. It felt so much hotter than day 1.
At CP60 Tegea, mile 120.4 we started another climb which went on for 22km! It was really starting to hurt, I think I declared at the time “This is horrendous”. I still wasn’t sure if I would finish the race within the cut offs but remained around 30-40 minutes ahead of them at all times. There literally was no time for any slacking or taking 10 minutes out to have a reset. I was relying on Matthew for accurate estimates based on my pace which was now a run/walk.
I started to get really emotional as the race staff at the numerous check points were so lovely and encouraging and were telling me I was going to do it along with Matthew who was telling me I was doing an incredible thing. I kept crying but still at the back of my mind was really panicking about the time. More hot climbing, long descents, we were praying for a rain shower to cool us down, it didn’t happen. The calculations continued and for the first time I knew I was going to make it! As we approached Sparta all the cars were beeping their horns and everyone was shouting bravo, bravo. It was incredible.
The last crew point is CP72 in the village of Voultiani, so I changed into my BST running top and put my Union Jack in my race pack and it was time for the 6 mile descent into Sparta. It’s incredible how the pain of all those miles is completely overtaken by euphoria and running became easier (and quicker!) Suddenly there were loads of other runners about to finish at the same time as me and although we couldn’t really converse with the language barrier our universal language was that we would be ‘Spartathletes’. It was emotional stuff. More adrenaline was pumping through me.
Matthew had gone ahead to park and meet the BST on the home straight and I called him to say I was nearly there. He was tracking me on his ‘Find my Wife’ app. Very useful on ultras! As I ran down the Main Street in Sparta the atmosphere was electric, people were shouting bravo from their balconies, from bars and restaurants and all along the road.
I proudly had my flag in the air and ran into a rock star’s welcome. I got a rapturous welcome of claps, cheers and whistles from my team mates and their crews which was one of the best moments of my life, all filmed by my wonderful husband. The BST were genuinely so delighted I was a Spartathlon finisher, and only the 13th girl from the UK to ever finish the race.
I was given an olive wreath crown, offered to sip water from the special goblet from the Evrotas River, much as Olympian winners would have been honoured in ancient times then I kissed the feet of King Leonidas whilst wrapped in my Union Jack. I had dreamed this dream and here I was living it. Emotions continued to hit me in waves. Happy, ecstatic, relieved, joyous, honoured, privileged. So many emotions. After a few photos I was ushered to the adjacent medical area and my shoes and socks were removed by a saintly volunteer and washed before my eyes before I was allowed to go!
In summary. What an insanely tough race. It was the furthest I had ever run. The 4 key elements of this race were the distance, the terrain, the heat and the cut offs.
153 miles is not my normal race distance, my legs took a pounding and I thanked them regularly for what they did for me! The terrain was way more terrainy than I was mentally prepared for. As for the heat, the Greek Gods let us off this year at Spartathlon. I’m not afraid of sizzling temperatures and being boiled alive (51ºC) as a 2 time consecutive Badwater finisher and was ready for it.
Well that just leaves the cut offs. They are kind of like having the Grim reaper following you around for the weekend! On smaller points. No real opportunities to have a sit down or reset. Not spending any time with Matthew at the limited number of crew CPs. Loved having BST guys and girls out there to lift you up when down and share the journey with; you know who you are. Thank you. Then the 9ºC and fog. Didn’t see that coming!
Photo credit: Spartathlon GR
It was a complete honour to be part of the British Spartathlon Team. I hope I can show people that I am just a normal girl trying to do extraordinary things with a strong mental strength.
That race hurt me and I vowed I would not do it again, once was enough. As I write this….hmmm…yes please, can I have some more punishment and glory at Spartathlon 2024!
The day after Spartathlon we attended the “Sparta” mile also known as the “naked” mile where the competitors do a lap of the Sparta running track in their underwear which was fun, funny and very entertaining watching a group of battered and broken runners trying to run 400m!
I went to Greece with a mission to finish Spartathlon and my mission was accomplished. ‘Molon Labe’
Huge thanks to the Sponsors of the British Spartathlon Team : Pura Collagen, Avani Solutions, Track Trail, Run Grateful and Camino Ultra and the biggest thank you to Matthew, who believes in me and without whom I couldn’t do these extreme events.
What’s next for @Laura_Runninggirl?
Plenty of training Marathons
Dreamlist and here’s praying events.
Badwater 135 2024
Until the next time.
It’s simple. One foot in front of the other and don’t look back.
What an incredible year!
All photos credit to Matthew Watts except where stated.
Young, Ali 29:28:41
Maxwell, Chris 31:04:54
Higgins, Alastair 32:20:34
Mckillop, Andrew 32:21:32
Jones, Robert 33:15:51
Selway, Robert 33:36:58
Gordon, Steve 34:04:24
Hardie, Michel 34:10:56
Persson, Andy 34:26:10
Stuart, David 34:53:14
Larmour, Chris 35:08:03
Thomas, Ian 35:08:51
Hewitt, Ivor 35:14:59
Ellis Miles, James 35:19:38
Watts, Laura 35:20:30
O’Sullivan, Paul 35:38:45
Cooper, Lyndon 35:52:51