Nicarus – The Failed Spartathlete…

It is written that in ancient times, on wings crafted from feathers and wax, Icarus ignored his father’s warning and flew too close to the sun causing the wax to melt and Icarus to come to a pretty dreadful end. Several millennia later and Nicholas is being counseled by race veterans about the perils of setting out too quickly in Spartathlon, held by some to be the toughest foot race in the world. Fast forward 10 hours and Nicholas is heading a field of 380 of the world’s top ultra marathon runners, with a personal police escort through Athens.  Back in the first person and I can’t help but admit this was a fairly intoxicating experience of having my name chanted, high fiving school kids, which I assumed would last for a few minutes at best but which actually lasted for nearly 35 kilometers/two and half hours.  It ended with a comfort break at a service station, during which a handful of runners passed me, the wax  that was holding me together melted, and Nicarus started to head rapidly to the ground.  I am far from a novice runner and after 74 marathons and 17 ultra marathons felt that I was running within the bounds of the achievable, even in the context of such a brutal  race, but was proved to be misguided. Maybe celebrating my achievements the night before the race with a bottle and a half of red wine was also misguided…

The backdrop is an often repeated tale of the consequences of failing to adequately prepare. Not an excuse, but I had been working long hours and weekends so had struggled to put in more than consistent short runs. In a vain attempt to redress this I ran back to back marathons in the UK in July and then in Europe in September (the latter of which are a story in themselves, featuring green fairies in Prague, youth hostels and 450 kilometre taxi rides across Eastern Europe…). This turned out to be the equivalent of reading ‘law for dummies’ and then sitting the New York bar. I was also asked about my ‘drop bag’ strategy at the race sign up on Thursday afternoon.  After Googling this term it appeared I did not have one (to be fair, until I read a previous race report two days before the event I did not even have a head lamp as I had not quite registered that it would be dark for 12 hours of the race). I went back to the hotel and developed a drop bag strategy only to find that I had missed the cut off for delivering drop bags. Thankfully, in a show of the collegiate spirit which makes ultra running so special, members of the British team introduced me to their support crews who offered to help.  The ‘strategy’ I had developed involved leaving a jacket and head torch at the foot of the mountain, 100 miles in. Genius – until it was pointed out that, unless I was planning to break the course record (I was not), I would have been running in pitch darkness for approximately 10 hours by this point. I called a team meeting (of one) and we decided I would run with the head torch around my neck and have my drop bag (jacket and painkillers) taken to the foot of the mountain. I couldn’t help but thinking that I was steadily becoming a knowledgeable ultra marathon runner…

Friday morning duly arrived and we were escorted to the Acropolis for the 7am start.  Goodness knows what the founders of modern civilization would have made of the mass of excited runners crowded at the feet of this historic site.  We swung down over paved rocks before heading into the streets of Athens. This is when I saw the opportunity to grab my 15 minutes of fame by hitting the front of the field (and the rest is sad history).  By the time I had finished the first marathon of what was due to be 5.8 marathons it was 10:30am and the heat of the day was just starting to rear its head. Aside from some mild cramp in my right leg and a bloodbath down the right hand side of my chest (my right nipple – not for the first time – deciding it had seen enough and would wait for its left side colleague (steadfastly hanging in there) and owner in Tartarus (the deep abyss that is used as a dungeon of torment in the Greek underworld)), physically everything was in check until around the 80 kilometer mark when I realized both feet were in some mild discomfort.  The distraction of some company in the form of a few kilometers with some guys from England then a guy from Puerto Rico kept me going until around the 120 kilometer mark, but I then decided it was time to seek some attention for my feet.  I had no interest in seeing the condition of my feet in the flesh, which I suspected wasn’t great, so settled for them being heavily taped to hopefully block out some of the pain. By now I had fallen into “running” with a South African/honorary Brit called Terrence, although in reality the best either of us could manage was a shuffle.  At some point early on in the night (which seemed to last forever) another British athlete passed us and asked what my GPS tracker was showing. I responded that if by GPS he meant ‘watch’, it was showing me that one gets what one pays for in life (which had several meanings at this point) and all I could see was condensation, rust and – if I strained – the time. On a separate point, and without wanting to be graphic, there was some relatively severe chaffing downstairs and I was reduced to handling my unmentionables  with more delicacy than I imagine the North Koreans handle slightly more potent junk. Probably not one for the e-harmony profile under other comments – “eroded undercarriage”…

spart-start

spart-lead

spart-police

spart-leadersparta-leaderboard

spart-view

spart-watch

spart-corinth

spart-night

After 100 miles we reached “the mountain” – a 1,200 meter affair that would be a fairly unpleasant proposition even if confronted on fresh legs in broad daylight for a family picnic, let alone after 160 kilometers and 20 hours of movement. I made the mistake of looking up and seeing headlights weaving their way up seemingly to the stars and was advised by a previous finisher never ever to look up again.  It was now that my drop bag was delivered although the gentleman who delivered my jacket suggested that if I took all of the pills in my hand my kidneys may well fail.  I have to admit that this did not sound that terrible at this point as I had been looking for a legitimate reason to lay down for hours – I was favouring being slightly run over at this point; renal failure sounded less tempting…On the climb, the stones under foot were slippery, the drops to the side awaiting in the event of a mistake significant and we soon stumbled across an American lady laying on the floor crying because it was all too much.  Having helped her out, we pressed on and reached the summit mercifully quickly, only to find the descent to be even worse.  Every step was a challenge, with sliding rocks and muscles which felt like they were full of battery acid.

The wise old heads of previous Spartathlon had told me that if you clear the mountain within the cut-off time, you will make it to the end. Sadly, after the mountain we plunged into a valley. It was 5:30am and we had not seen the sun for 10 hours. My t-shirt was proving woefully inadequate and I was shaking uncontrollably with the cold, falling asleep as I ran and mildly hallucinating I think, seeing the wind pass over me in beautiful technicolours (which I have to admit was great and, if commoditised, a multi million pound industry). Such was the pain in my legs that I could barely even take a step forwards without yelping in pain so when the next check point came, complete with a roaring log fire, I suggested to my companion that he give me ten minutes to recuperate before we carried on. Ten minutes came and went and I knew my race was run – the cut off bus was approaching imminently and I had nothing left to offer. I told the race attendant to give me another 10 minutes, sent Terrence on his way, in the hope he could finish, before shuffling another four kilometers, at which point I dived on a make shift mattress on the floor of a small restaurant and was quickly covered on four blankets, none of which quite warmed me up.

spart-end

Knowing that my race was run was a strange feeling of depression at failure and elation that the indescribable pain and fatigue had ended. In the condition I was in I knew that there was no way I could finish within the cut off time so I decided I would live to fight another day, a decision which may well haunt me forever – “we are Spartans and we do not surrender”.  The ‘death bus’ (for non-finishers), after stops to collect other broken souls hailing from all around the world in various states of disrepair, deposited us – fittingly – opposite a dead, tethered boar in the back of a pick up truck in Sparta. My final humiliation was shuffling up the finishing straight, which I had hoped to fly down in glory hours later, with my shoes in my hands and my hopes (and feet) in tatters.  Sadly a few of the assembled spectators had not grasped that my day was over and for a while it threatened to be a death march accompanied by an undeserved crescendo of cheers until I managed to convey that my race had ended early, before scuttling into the shadows.  If the ‘death bus’ to the finish line in Sparta was bleak, the finish line in Sparta was something else. Several people were put straight into wheelchairs or onto drips and a Taiwanese runner sharing our taxi to the hotel drifted into unconsciousness for 20 minutes until we managed to return him to the medics and thankfully recovery…

spart-boar

spart-feet

 

spart-leon

In short, the most extraordinary and difficult event in which I have ever participated. I have walked, crawled and cried amongst the Giants who finished and recognize my own insignificance against them.

The whole event may best be summed up by words from the film 300…”Madness?…This is Sparta(thlon)…”  Heck, yeah…

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