In writing this little piece I need to say that it is completely and utterly subjective and written from my own little viewpoint as a middle of the pack, middle aged, of average ability ultra-distance runner. I have started Spartathlon 6 times and finished 3 times and all of the finishes were smack bang in the middle of the pack of finishers. Not the fastest but not the slowest either. To put this in perspective to other measurable distances I have clocked 8:27 in the 100 kms and 190 kms in 24 hours on the track. Not that fast, or great but not that slow either.
What I will describe here is more of a training philosophy rather than a training plan, but I hope it is useful and that it helps at least a few others achieve success in the Spartathlon. I have a couple of friends in mind when I am writing this so if this article actually helps them then I will collect my beer at the next post-race celebration. So these are my recommendations for a 50 something year old amateur athlete who wants to finish the Spartathlon before old age creeps up on them.
John Fodden summarises what it takes to finish Spartathlon in a beautiful, simple quote: “I shan’t wish you luck because if you haven’t trained properly, luck will be of no use. And if you have trained properly then you don’t need luck.” I like to add that “Luck starts at 5 in the morning.”
But just what is training properly for the Spartathlon?
AND JUST HOW HARD IS IT TO FINISH?
I really don’t like qualifying a race as the hardest or the toughest or baddest or whatever based on a subjective opinion. So many races claim to be the toughest or the most difficult but the truth is they are only playing to a public that are all just too eager to buy into the image of the event where they imagine themselves as the “toughest in the world”. However, what I will say is that the Spartathlon is the race that I personally have found the most difficult and demanding just to finish. The reason is simple. You must run 246 kms in 36 hours. The Spartathlon is the epitome of an ultra-distance athletics race. It is ultra-distance, it is athletics and it is a race. And there you have it. Most people in the “ultra running” world can understand the distance and the race element without too much explanation but I think it is the “athletics” part that the vast majority of people that present themselves on the start line fail to fully comprehend. The act of fighting in battle for an ancient Greek warrior was incredibly athletic and it should come as no surprise that Milatides chose only the very best athlete to deliver the message to the Spartan king. I repeat; the very best athlete. So when Herodotus documented this original feat of Phiedepides, we are talking about the very best warrior athlete of the day. Not a plodder and certainly not a long distance walker. If you are considering doing the Spartathlon you need to comprehend this little fact. Far too many do not.
Unlike many other ultra-distance races, the Spartathlon forces you to run almost all of the time. The moment you ease up the pace you find yourself against the time barriers and they are brutal. As a result you have to be extremely physically and mentally well prepared to finish. Note that only 33 % actually finish and this against a back drop of having to present a good solid ultra-running CV to enter. And this brings me to the first major point:
The Spartathlon qualifiers: They are far too soft. You can qualify for the Spartathlon by doing a 100k in 10 hours 30 mins, or by doing a 200k race inside the time stated by the organisation. For a start, the 100k distance isn’t really a good indicator for a 246 km race and let’s face it, 10:30 is way too soft. If you can just break 10:30 in the 100k on your best day you will almost certainly not finish the Spartathlon. I hope I don’t sound too cruel, but that is the truth. If you can just break 10:30 don’t waste your time or you money, you will only be disappointed. Most people I have spoken with that have actually finished have the 100k time in at least less than 9:30, most under 9 hours.
A much better qualifier would be the distance covered in a 24 hour track event and the word on the street is that you should be able to clock up at least 175 – 180 kms. The cut off in the Spartathlon is 172 kms in 24:30 so 175 – 180 kms in a 24 hour, flat track race would approximate to this …. Except that you still have 80 kms to go.
Clearly it is a race that is very, very difficult.
YOU MUST TRAIN ON ASPHALT.
To succeed in this kind of race you have to know how to run with maximum efficiency. Ie , with the minimum expenditure of energy. And if you want to finish the Sparta that has to be the only goal of the year. Other races are nothing but fun and training sessions in racing conditions. And since it is so difficult I would recommend that at least 70 % of all training is on asphalt.
For the year that I first had success, I trained with a GPS heart rate monitor . I set the speed to 10 kms per hour and I experimented with different positions, postures, stride length, arm positions etc. , etc . in order to find the most effective and efficient way to maintain this speed. I started with 125 pulses per minute to keep 10 kms per hour and got to 106 just by polishing running technique alone. Clearly this already gave me a huge advantage over my previous technique with no actual gain in fitness. The moment you discover the technique it then takes lots of practice until it becomes firmly engrained in the subconscious and it becomes the most natural thing to do. Basically there are almost no foot lifts and the foot almost glides over the surface of the road, which cannot be done in the mountains without a face plant into the rocks. The arms are kept low and the torso kept straight and leaning ever so slightly forwards with your head facing forward. I also learned a lot watching the runners in 24 hours races. Think of efficiency when training, not speed.
As far as the amount of training involved I have a very simple philosophy. You train when and however you can, but for an ultra-distance runner you must maintain a very high volume. Why no set plan? Well, because I work and have a family and they have to come first. In my case this means I have to get up at 5 every morning to train but if I do not, I know that I will not finish the Spartathlon. As a general rule I will train 2 hours a day in 2 sessions during the week, one before and one after work with long runs of 5 or 6 hours during the weekends.
I will do some 160 to 200 kms a week, week after week, for at least 4 – 5 months before doing the race. I will take a full day off every 7 – 10 days where I will do nothing. But be aware, most of this is at a slow relaxed pace. Only slightly faster than the speed I will use to run the Spartathlon. That is about 11 to 12 kms / hour, no more. These are not junk miles, as some often mistakenly assume. You are not just training your body, you are training your mind just to keep going…and going … and going. You will need that in the race and this last point cannot be stressed enough. However, I will still put in a couple of speed sessions a week just in case I want to do a fast race like a 100k. The vast majority are slow sessions that allow me to be fully recovered for the next session.
And a major factor that is often overlooked in preparing for the Spartathlon is the psychological preparation. This is where the relentless high volume really gives major benefits. With so much running your mind will eventually adapt to a state where running at 10 kms an hour is the normal state for it to be. This means that your new comfort zone is running and when those demons at 3 in the morning come out to haunt you can happily revert to your comfort zone which is running. If you can get up at 5 in the morning and get out on the road without even thinking about it, and then again every evening when you finish work, again without thinking about it you are probably well on the way to a Spartathlon finish.
So, if you do need a bit of luck, remember that luck starts at 5 in the morning, every morning for months upon months before the Spartathlon.