I can’t remember when David first mentioned he wanted to run Spartathlon. He mentions wanting to run races quite often and largely I ignore him and hope the idea will go away. This one didn’t.
Spartathlon is a 153mile road race from Athens to Sparta following the footsteps of the Athenian messenger Pheidippides, sent to Sparta in 490BC to seek help against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. He is alleged to have arrived in Sparta the day after leaving Athens, and so the race must be completed within 36 hours.
We ummed and aahed for a while about whether or not I would go too. It was term time so we’d have to leave the kids at home, plus I didn’t much fancy crewing on my own. Call me conservative but hairing round the Greek countryside in a hire car in the middle of the night by myself sounded a bit crazy. Fast forward a few months and we’ve roped in David’s mum and sister to look after the kids and a good friend of ours to join me as David’s crew. All set then.
Not quite. At the last minute Beks is unable to get time off work and has to pull out of crewing. This is quite a blow (to her and to us). Paul Ali had counselled against letting your other half crew for you solo on the basis that as a runner you’d be more worried about them and not be focused on your race. I’m not sure there’s much danger but there’s certainly not as much fun on your own.
I am hugely grateful and still somewhat surprised that Mark Craig answered my Facebook appeal for a second crew member, took time off work, left his family for the weekend and joined us in Greece. Mark, you have no idea what a difference you made to the whole experience. You are a bloody legend. And so is your missus.
There’s a slight drawback in that I now have to wear Beks’s “small” crew kit so that Mark can have my “medium”, but I’m prepared to overlook this for now.
We’re Spartathlon virgins and are perhaps a bit naive but alarm bells start ringing for me when fellow runner Paul Rowlinson introduces himself to us on the plane and mentions something about his “room mate” from last year. I’ve not thought about the hotel accommodation at all. We check in to the 4 star Hotel London in Athens and the receptionist asks us what sort of room we’d like. “A double and a single, please” I say. “We don’t have single rooms” comes the reply. O kaaaay! Triple it is, then. Good job we all get on well.
I’m an emotional person. I like to think that it’s because I’m in touch with my inner feelings and comfortable expressing them. In reality it’s because I’m 48. Either way I’m prone to a little dampness around the eyes now and again. Add to this the fact that I have left my children for the first time since they were about two and four (they’re now eight and ten) and basically I’m an emotional wreck. I’ve got two little packs of Handie Andies and they’re running out before we get to the start.
Actually getting to the start is the first bit of crew fun we have. The runners are instructed to be outside the hotel to catch one of the race buses to the start. Crew can follow on in their cars. The first bus leaves (David is waiting for the second bus) and we nonchalantly decide to follow the first one in order to get there in plenty of time. It turns out nonchalantly is not the way to follow a Greek bus. Luckily it’s only 6am and we figure the speed cameras are not turned on yet.
The atmosphere at the start is amazing. The Acropolis provides an inspiring backdrop (but only two Portaloos) and soon the 390 runners, 26 of them in the British team, are on their way. Because of the way the race is organised we have already met all of the other British runners and most of their crew. Thanks to Rob Pinnington, team captain, we have the best kit and are quite distinctive. I have a little cry.
As crew we have a bit of down time now. The first crew point isn’t until marathon distance (42k). David’s not going to get there for 4 hours and it’s only, yep, 42k from Athens. Mark and I have a second (and possibly third) breakfast, the last shower for a while and then pack the car.
We set off in plenty of time for Check Point (CP) 11. And then we hit a massive traffic jam. It’s like the Reigate section of the M25 on a Friday afternoon. Mild panic sets in after being almost stationary for about 30 minutes. Finally we break free of the traffic and hit the motorway, and the first of several toll booths. The woman asks us if we are part of Spartathlon and then tells us we shouldn’t be on this road; we are cheating. Puzzled, we pay and press on, anxiously checking the book to see which rule we have violated. Eventually we work out she thinks one of us is a runner getting a lift. News of the seedier side of British ultra running has obviously reached Greece.
There are a lot of rules around crewing for Spartathlon, and threats of dire consequences (disqualification of your runner) if you break them. This early on in proceedings, disqualification would be less than ideal. We have a go at bending some of the rules a bit later on though.
Finally we arrive at CP11 with just enough time to gather our composure and look calm and collected when David arrives. This check point is manic. It’s set up at a road junction the equivalent of the roundabout outside Asda at North Farm. While trying to avoid being run over, we help David change his top and hat, top up his drink and he’s on his way again.
We now think we have a bit more down time. According to the road book the next crew point isn’t until Ancient Corinth (93km). En route we have a bit of a tourist stop at the Corinthian canal and I discover that Mark has a fear of heights. I’m happily hanging over the railings taking pictures while he’s gone a little bit green and retreated to the car park.
Ancient Corinth is lovely and we have hours before David is due to arrive. So obviously we find a nice café and have a beer while we watch the Spartathlon volunteers set up the checkpoint. We still have lots of time and so we order lunch. Mark has souvlaki and I have a gyro. So, kebabs, basically. We still seem to have lots of time, so we settle our bill and have a look around the ancient site and discover that St Paul must have watched the Spartathlon race pass through here once too.
Time still seems to be on our side so we install ourselves back at what is now “our table” in our favourite café and our waitress, Magda, brings us more beer. We watch the lead runners come through the checkpoint. It’s hot in Ancient Corinth but we are in the shade and have beer. Happy days. My phone rings. It’s David. He never calls during a race unless there’s a problem. Shit.
David: “Where are you?”
Me: “Ancient Cointh, where are you?”
David: “At CP22 wondering where you are.”
Oh. It seems that while we have correctly read the road book, which tells you the designated crew checkpoints, we have not thoroughly read the rule book, which tells you that crew are also allowed at major timing checkpoints. Consequently we have missed the checkpoint at 80km. Fortunately David didn’t need anything, and with a slightly clippy “read the rule book”, he rings off.
Top crew tip #1 – If you’re going to let your runner down, do it early and then redeem yourself well.
Around 5 pm David finally arrives in Ancient Corinth, sits down at our shady table in the café and we feed him rice pudding while the lovely Magda makes him a café frappé. We are forgiven.
For the remainder of the afternoon and evening we fall into a pattern of leap-frogging David from CP to CP (without missing any now), topping up his fluids, feeding him and encouraging him on his way. The heat has been intense and he’s now a way off his ideal pace, but he’s happy and moving forward.
A team of 26 Brits ran Spartathlon this year. Some have crew and some don’t. Those that don’t are looked after by the wonderful Spartathlon volunteers who keep them fed and watered. But if they need spare kit of any sort and they haven’t packed it in their drop-bags, they’re in a spot of trouble. Luckily I had my “Mum pants” on while I was packing and have spare clothes and a head torch in the car. Both get used by other members of the British team. We also help another guy by taking his hastily prepared drop-bag to the right checkpoint and confiscating the potentially lethal painkillers he’s tucked away in it. Helping runners other than your own is not strictly allowed according to the race rules, so these runners had better remain nameless.
Top crew tips #2 and #3 – Be prepared for every eventuality and make sure the race officials aren’t watching when you bend the rules.
It’s night time now and we’re getting hungry and tired. An enterprising Greek family has set up a barbecue by one of the checkpoints, so we have a kebab and move on to CP 47 – Montain Base. This is actually about half way up the mountain, and the point at which the run route turns from road to trail. It’s as far up as crew are allowed to go and it’s basically the middle of nowhere. We have a little time to wait here so we try to sleep in the car. I wake up after a short snooze and am completely blown away by the stars. It is pitch black and you can see the Milky Way and all of the constellations I can name and many more I can’t. My eyes start to leak a bit and a Coldplay song lyric comes into my head. I have a romantic moment and text it to David.
I snap out of it a second later when his reply arrives. There is no time for romance; we have work to do. It’s 3.30 am and David needs his trail shoes.
He presses on into the night and we set off for the next checkpoint, which is on the other side of the mountain. At times we follow the race route itself, being careful to avoid running over tired and unsteady runners. At others our Sat Nav sends us via the motorway. I discover that a combination of anxiety, tiredness and too much Greek coffee is having an effect on my normally co-operative digestive system, and we stop at a deserted service station on the motorway. I run to the ladies where I spend at least the next 15 minutes, while Mark valiantly tries to converse with the only employee on the night shift. Neither of them can speak each other’s language and both of them know exactly what I’m doing. Awkward.
Although dawn is breaking as we reach the next checkpoint it is really cold. The car’s temperature gauge reads 6.5 degrees but a mist has rolled in and we are still wearing shorts. I’m shivering. We park in the town square, turn on the heating in the car and try to get a little nap before David arrives. I wake up to see that a small truck has pulled up alongside us and that its dozen or so occupants, who appear to be gathering to start work on local farms, have jumped out and seem to be surrounding the car. I guess they normally meet here to smoke a few cigarettes and chat before starting work, and they aren’t letting us disrupt their usual routine.
This checkpoint is dismal. Aside from the slightly threatening atmosphere, the runners are realising that they are cold and tired and still have a long way to go. David is pretty much ok but has to ask us more than once how far away the next checkpoint is before the information seems to sink in. Added to that we see another member of the British team who is struggling but we’re not allowed to help him at the checkpoint. It’s a bit of a low point and Nestani doesn’t make it onto my top 10 list of places I must go back to in Greece.
The next check point brings good cheer in the form of at least two other British crews and a bakery. Mark and I eat cakes for breakfast in a bus stop that smells of wee but we don’t care.
The sun is starting to warm us and there is a flushing toilet. At this point in time that’s about all that matters. We don’t even feel inadequate when we see another crew knocking up a kale and avocado smoothie for their runner in a blender they run off their car battery.
We keep pressing on. We decide to chivvy David along a bit as he’s slowed down compared to the timing plans he’s given us. We start to worry about cut off times and keeping ahead of them. Regardless of what we say, they don’t seem to be worrying David. I later learn that this is because he knows he can walk to the finish and still make it in time. Worrying, however, is the crew’s job, and that’s what we do for most of the morning.
Happily the lunchtime checkpoint is at a restaurant. We are now regularly meeting two or three other British crews at checkpoints and helping to keep each other going. We tidy the car boot and order another frappé. It’s not as good as Magda’s but it seems to do the job and David is in good spirits as he leaves.
Two more checkpoints before the finish. We can do this. The first of them is really just a grass verge by the side of the road. It is about 2 o’clock, stinking hot and there is no shade. Neither is there any 4G coverage. There’s a lot about Greece that doesn’t work very well (hopefully the speed cameras) but almost everywhere we’ve been we’ve had a good data signal which means we can check David’s progress on the Race Drone tracker and keep friends and followers up to date on Facebook. Not here. Mercifully Mark’s wife Joanne becomes our official third crew member and keeps us in touch with where he is from her home in the UK.
The children have made good luck cards which I stick to the car where David will see them when he passes. The road must be quite dusty at this point because my eyes water and so do David’s when he gets here.
Mark and I move on to the final crew point, a Shell petrol station with a small café bar. We reward ourselves with a couple of cold beers. We are happy to spend an hour or so here. Everyone is in good spirits. This may be because it sells beer but is more likely because realistically all of the runners who reach here before the cut off will get to the finish. They all get a massive cheer as they leave with calls of “see you in Sparta” and “go kiss that foot” following them down the road. David changes into his British team top, gets a quick hug and is then sent on his way.
Mark and I high five each other. We have done it. We head for Sparta and our* moment of glory. We find the rest of the British crews along with runners who have already finished, about 50m from the race finish.
David is wearing a tracker which we’ve been able to monitor throughout the race. It’s been accurate since the start, allowing us to be ready for him when he arrived at the various checkpoints in the race. Whether it’s the volume of traffic or the buildings in the city of Sparta, it chooses now to go a bit awry. In the end I have to stop looking at it; trying to work out why David might be paddling in the river or strolling through a nearby park is more than I can cope with on only an hour’s sleep.
He is, of course, doing nothing of the sort. He is on track and making progress to the finish. For the last 2km he is escorted by a couple of girls about our daughter’s age who ride their bikes alongside him. Finally his familiar figure comes into sight. My view immediately blurs and I have to blink several times to be sure it is him. Mark and I get to run the last 50m with him to the finish.
This moment is unreal. I know our children and lots of our friends are watching the livestreaming of the finish at home and I can see the elation and relief on David’s face as he touches the foot of King Leonidas’ statue. It is over. He has done it. Mark and I hug each other and I’m guessing from the way his torso is shaking, I’m not the only one who’s in tears.
Photos courtesy of Sarah Dryden and Mark Craig.