Last updated: 02-Mar-21
By Dan Stinton
After 50 hard miles at Wendover Woods in 2016, I crossed the line after a final lap in the dark, feeling fantastic to have finished my first 50-miler. My friend, Michelle, was there at the finish line. It was great to see her and have some support after such a long day running through the woods. After a couple of minutes of chatting, suddenly, she was ignoring me and staring over my shoulder.
“It’s Vassos!” she said excitedly, “Shall I go and speak to him?”. All my ultra-glory faded rapidly and I suddenly felt very unimportant indeed.
“Bloody Vassos…” I thought as I stood there munching through my hard-earned chilli…
That very race features later on in Running Up That Hill, Vassos Alexander’s latest book which explores the highs and lows of going that bit further. It’s great to read someone else’s perspective on a race you were at yourself and he captures the experience fantastically.
For those that don’t know, Vassos Alexander was the Sports presenter on The Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2. He now continues to report all things sport moving with Chris and a number of the team over to Virgin radio earlier this year. He’s had various roles in the media including reporting during a number of Olympic Games. He’s also the co-host of a free weekly podcast focussed around parkrun.
After a foreword by Chrissie Wellington and a short intro, the book begins at the pre-race briefing for Spartathlon, a 153-mile footrace reliving the footsteps of Pheidippides who, in 490 BC, ran from Athens to Sparta to seek help in the war between the Greeks and the Persians. The Spartathlon becomes the umbrella race as Vassos gradually recounts his experience during various chapters spread throughout the book. It doesn’t feel disjointed and works well to create a sense of suspense about the outcome of the race and the people he meets along the way.
Vassos has a great writing style and intersperses humour along with serious messages about the challenges of ultra running, both physically and mentally. Part of what I love about ultra running is that there is always a tale to tell as something bizarre/funny/horrific (delete as applicable) seems to happen on these journeys. Vassos has many a tale to tell – from his encounters with Mick the flatulent Australian to a ridiculous-sized ankle at the Dragons Back race in Wales which could potentially have been cured by a magic-wand!
This isn’t just Vassos telling us about his races though, throughout every chapter he includes interviews and recalls discussions with many of the big names in ultra running including (not the full list); Scott Jurek, Jasmin Paris, Marcus Scotney, Dean Karnazes, Killian Jornet, Debbie Martin-Consani and several others. This works well and gives a great insight into their character, their achievements and what continues to drive them to run long.
There are also a few colour pages in the centre of the book showing pictures of the various races covered, including the obligatory ultra runners horrific-foot image. Thankfully, this only takes up a small part of a page.
At a little over 200 pages this isn’t a particularly long book and is a nice comfortable read. If you’re new to the world of ultrarunning, this will give you a great picture of many big names and races and you’ll come away knowing a lot more about the scene and who’s who. Experienced ultra runners will enjoy the stories from these epic races and interviews with many of the great runners around the world. A thoroughly enjoyable and recommended read.
Back to that race in Wendover – as a final punch in the kidneys, whilst I thought I’d finished a couple of minutes ahead of Vassos, it emerges in chapter 17 that two miles into the last lap he doubled back to see his wife and kids and then went back out to finish the race…