Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Guest Post: Report on the 2021 Spartathlon Alex O'Shea

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Guest Post: Report on the 2021 Spartathlon Alex O'Shea

Thanks to Alex O'Shea for this extensive review of the famous Spartathlon Ultra which is 245 kms in length. 


From running my first marathon in full fire gear at the age of 40 in Cork to finishing Sparthatlon one of the world's most difficult races.

There's been some amazing adventures along the way. Fueled by the support of family friends and the running community near and far. Like anything in life there has been highs and lows and not every challenge has gone to plan.

Spartathlon 2021

28hours 40min 12sec Recording the second fastest Irish finish time ever.

Fellow Cork man Eoin Keith is the only Irish competitor to have ran it faster.

A difficult year of injury and the fact that my longest training run had only been 30miles I am thrilled with my result.

My training was very last minute only managing to achieve a few weeks of real quality training pre race.

This definitely impacted the last 1/3 of my race where I briefly thought of giving up..

The plan for the race would change as I approached race day.

Plan A early in the year was simply get to the start line and see how far I could get and enjoy being part of this event. As I wasn't sure I would get back running competitively after my bi-lateral adductor tears this was a realistic goal at the time.

New plan A

After managing a few weeks of solid training I was now setting my sights a little higher; reaching the finish line might be possible and it was definitely something to target.

Pre departure

I told my wife I hoped for a finish and if all went very well 30hrs was my target.

Hopefully this account might give an overview some insight,  answer some questions and help anybody considering pursuing similar goals.

There are many athletes that will write a far better account of Spartathlon geographically then I could but maybe this will offer a different insight.

A little bit about the race

On the surface spartathlon is a Greek ultra running race held between Athens and Sparta.

It is 245.3km in length

It has 3937feet of altitude gain

Has 75 time sensitive checkpoints or cutoffs

(These also double as aid stations some of which you are allowed have your drop bags at)

A mountain to climb and descend

Runners will also run through darkness with just a head torch to illuminate their way.

With a maximum 36 hours to reach the end. It's not a simple divide 36hrs by the distance and maintain that average. Each check point has a different cut off and the first 80km or so are faster than what follows... 

You can as I did run without a crew or have a crew aid you at certain points in the race if you opt for and register a crew that is.

I was well aware this is a race that has been described by many as one of the world's toughest foot races.

A reputation echoed by the fact a large number of starters each year will not get to the finish line.

Finishing this race is certainly not guaranteed. 

A race that attracts competitors from all over the world and has a strict entry qualifying criteria.  there's no prize money, no cash bonus for breaking records, no big advertising campaign just the prestige of knowing you did it - if you succeed  you will have joined a very special club if you reach the statue of King Leonidas at the finish line in Sparta.

(And what an amazing finish line it is with the statue of King Leonidas towering large over you & the Greek people out in force to applaud you, to them this is not just a race you have come to run, you are bringing their history to life; you have followed in the foot steps of Pheidippides.

The history of this race is epic & It certainly is in the back of your head that the first man to do what is now Spartathlon was Pheidippides the Athenian warrior that made the same journey in 490BC to  request an audience with King Leonidas of Sparta to ask for the Spartan warriors to fight alongside the Athenians against invading Persian forces at the Battle of Marathon. Plenty of times during the race I thought back to this. I did think surely he could have found an easier route....

The modern day marathon is said to stem from this time also. When a soldier after fighting the Battle of Marathon ran the marathon distance to tell of their victory and later died of exhaustion. So it looks like the ultra marathon predates the marathon.

Plenty to ponder if you like your ancient Greek history. You have to wonder what other amazing ultra running stories are lost in the fabric of time waiting to be discovered.

I knew from the first time I heard of this race that Spartathlon was special and represented a huge challenge.

I remember reading various accounts and finding myself wanting to know more I was hooked following others that had ran and given their all. As part of the Irish ultra team it had to stay on the wish list as I was juggling a lot with family, fire brigade & running, annual leave only stretches so far. So I needed to wait for an opportunity.

When that opportunity came  I turned to friends at home and abroad asking questions or simply reading their reports on Spartathlon and found myself getting more invested in the race.

Decisions had to be made:
Heat acclimatization
Have a crew or run without a crew
Kit selection
Drop bags
Nutrition Hydration
Cooling strategy


I opted not to bring a crew

I guess it was easier to just organise myself when there was a fear that Covid could halt the race at the 11th hour as it did the previous year. But this meant I had to be self reliant and would limit the assistance I would get in the race. This is a big decision. While I didn't have a crew it was great to meet up With Anne and Anto along with their crews Andrew Lorraine Jimmy and John. I knew runners had successfully ran without crews and just focused on the task.  That said the checkpoints all have water and various bits plus I could leave drop bags at some...

Conclusion a crew will definitely improve your performance as I made some mistakes with my drop bag placements.

*Kit selection

This could pose a lot of issues if I got it wrong...

Shoes shorts fine normal everyday gear tried and tested after that things required more thought.

I opted for a Decathlon trail running tee shirt. I have ran long events in this before and did a lot of training in it so it was tried and tested. Best described as a cross between a running top and cycling top. Large zip down the front allowing you vent and two little gel pockets to the rear I took a sissors to these cutting the flap allowing me stretch them and use them to store arm sleeves. I could think of another one or two alterations I'd like to make adding a rear pocket like a cycling jersey and maybe a shoulder pocket to hold race I'd and blister plasters.

I also got a friend to print the St Finbarr's AC crest and the team Ireland Spartathlon logo (thanks Stan)

A desert running hat the one with the flap to protect from the sun was a must not something I had used before it was light and easily stored away in the evening.

I also used a running belt and between that and the shorts I carried

Some wet wipes
Salt tablets
Blister plasters
A Flexible 500ml bottle
4 or 5 sachets of tailwind at a time
GPS tracker
(didn't work in my case)
A race I'd card
Timing chip
List of checkpoints that had my drop bags 
A head torch at times
Rear light
A needle if needed to deal with blisters.
A buff

A sun factor lip balm would be a good addition for lips and nose as you definitely look and feel the effects of the sun afterwards .

I had a disposable rain poncho ready but as the weather forecast showed no rain I left this behind one less thing to carry..

I also left the sun glasses behind thinking the hat would do the job...

That was a mistake the morning after the race my eyes looked quiet swollen...

Drop bags

I opted to make up just 6 again my focus was to try not to linger and lose time.

The most important drop bag to get right was your head torch .  Take it to early it's something else you have to carry but not having one when it gets dark could result In being pulled from the course. Turn it off spare the battery when you can as my head torch nearly ran out. If you have a crew you will have access to this at multiple points crews are registered to their runner and carry Id if you are helped by someone else you will be disqualified. That said it was always nice to see a familiar face on the course.

You can place drop bags throughout the course at most of the checkpoints I wasn't limited to 6 but didn't want to be thinking what was where if I split them and spread them out over a great number of checkpoints.

For me it was sachets of tailwind I made up a stock and carried enough for a few hours at a time that way I could run by some checkpoints at least that was the plan as stopping at every chechpoint will add a lot of time to your event.

I also placed a jacket before the mountain and some long sleeve tops for after the mountain stage... I opted not to take my jacket on the mountain and just about got away with that decision I was still feeling hot at this stage. latter I found myself In a valley frozen with no access to extra layers they were all at points behind me as I had reached this point faster than planed my drop bag strategy was out of sync with my race then. I got it wrong and this slowed me to a walk finding my self frozen in a low lying valley. I was for the first time experiencing cold and low temperature seeing myself exhale. I put on my arm sleeves and placed my hat inside my top against my chest and pulled my buff up.

A runner told me afterwards if this happens ask for a rubbish bag at the next available checkpoint and make a covering this could make all the difference and get a runner back moving.

I had to wait for the valley to heat up with the morning sun. Now every car that passed me created an icy trail of air that was so cold. When packing my drop bags in the sun it was hard to imagine the race could get this cold.

Irish Spartahlon finishers as of 2021


I planed to keep it as simple as possible. At many 24hr races i had adopted for the all day buffet approach having loads of different foods to chose from it worked but it was complicated to do without a crew. But this in reality means you spend far to much time and energy at the table looking, talking and wasting time.

I opted to try run using tailwind a powdered food  carbohydrate with some electrolyte in it basically.

If I could this would minimise the time spent at aid stations. Could reduce the risk of stomach issues as I wasn't trying to digest solid food and allow me compete without a crew. Mentally it meant I could tick the food box and focus on other things.

I would also need to add salt tablets to combat the amount of Sodium lost through Sweat something I had been looking at before the race..

If the plan didn't work I knew there would be various things available back to the buffet option as I called it soup biscuits fruit etc.

Thankfully the plan worked. quiet well using tailwind.

The only solid food I had was 1 biscuit and a bite of banana in over 28 hours. 


While my strategy was to run past some checkpoints I did end up stopping at more than I planned..  By day they became part of my cooling plan grabbing ice when available placing in my buff and under my hat it was hot and I could feel the heat I had a bad experience racing in extreme heat before so I was conscious I need to be actively cooling hydrating and replacing sodium..

I saw an other runner use arm sleeves to hold ice tied around their neck it looked like a clever idea..

The race started at 7 with runners up from about 5am to get breakfast and board buses to the start line from each of the 4 or 5 hotels hosting athletes and crews.

Along with us Our hotel housed athletes from Italy Hungry Russia Sweden and our friends from the Philippines I am sure there where a few more nations also. About 5O nations took part. Don't look for a toilet on the start line you won't find one.

The race starts in the shadow of the Acropolis in Athens and heads off along Athens busy streets as most Athenians are making their way to work. The police are out in force Manning every junction providing us with safe passage out of Athens.

It is only when you leave Athens and it's cityscape that you see the coast road and the race begins to stretch out a little. The first few checkpoints are the most basic as runners should require little in the way of assistance and officials record your number as you pass. Early morning and not feeling the full effects of the sun, many athletes find themselves running faster than planned trying to cover as much ground as was sensible before it got very hot. I was also one of these runners and was mindful Alastair Higgins had described the race this way think of it as 3 parts first 1/3 fast 2nd part try maintain progress more as it's more technical with most of the course elevation gained hear try run the hills even if it's a slow run and last section give it what's left our just hold on and dig deep.

As the road follows the coast you can't help look at the amazing blue sea and mountains off in the distance, without the city clutter you can see for miles  as the coast winds around in a horse shoe shape. With the heat now above 30,c and rising the ocean looked very Inviting. With 75 checkpoints doubling as aid stations i never felt alone in the race but at times I did spend large sections without seeing another runner but volunteers always wished you the best one volunteer told me I was 18th male at this early point of the the race it wasn't something I cared about. Surprisingly I only droped to 26th place so very little movement. Support came in many forms with every car beeping and shouting sparta Sparta. School children lined sections of the roads as you passed, it was evident early on this wasn't just any race. The course would take you along the coast passing an oil refinery. As the refinery stack smoked away in an otherwise  clear blue sky it briefly offered a bit of shade as the smoke cast the only shadow . The road would rise and fall with slight elevation changes for now.  Latter we would leave the coastal route and turn inland through more country roads than we had been on passing through villages up and down hills. The journey would see us wind through vineyards in the countryside passing ancient ruins and through old picturesque villages in the hills. The surfaces would go from good to stony trail to a rocky mountain and everything in between.

I remember at one point thinking there was a footpath why aren't the runners ahead using it? It looked smother than the road and would be safer so I hoped up. I quickly got my answer when a Lime tree hit me on the head as I brushed by.

In any given year the weather is a huge talking point and any athletes that are acclimatised to the heat have a big advantage...

(Anybody selling a sauna on the cheap let me know) this is one of the ways people acclimatize to the extreme heat.

Heat training will definitely help athletes. All that said  the difficulty of this event will discard some of the best runners in the world and they will fail to reach the finish line in Sparta. if you make a mistake this race can be unforgiving. exhaustion cramping stomach issues foot problems heat induced issues Cold sprains strains trips dehydration the time sensitive cut offs the list is endless some runners have even been known to have halucinations.

At night time I often looked ahead and thought I could see the outline of a runner in the distance only for it to turn out to be something else a sign a tree etc. I also remember running slowly up this hill it was going up in a repeated  s shape winding upwards energy sapping stuff. I thought a run is still a run no matter how slow so I tried to keep moving and not let myself be reduced to a walk attacking this hill any faster would burn to much energy so it was slow and steady. From time to time I would notice large cracks on the unprotected edge of the road. It was eroding and had fell away in places. As it was night I couldn't see a whole lot over the edge but knew there was a big tree lined drop. One time as I looked below I thought to myself if I fell down there I could have a grand sleep before anybody would find me. After that I tried to move in a bit it certainly wasn't a road to tray take a racing line it was just energy sapping and times you left your mind drift off but you just need to be mentally and physically strong and well prepared digging deep when the lows and lapses of concentration hit and tell yourself you can get through this. So don't run on the edge and be mindful of traffic if you move in.

I witnessed runners with various issues some got a second third firth wind even and got back in the race & for me it was no different.

I know coming into the race my preparation was very last minute with my longest run of the year being only 30 miles so this would impact my race somewhere and when things got tough it could mess with my head. It did and the last 1/3 of the race was more walking then jogging.

Let's not forget the mountain

Reaching mountain base was a lengthy road climb in itself before taking a sharp left and up a steep pathway with stone and rocky outcrops. As I took one look up I could get some impression of what lied ahead in the distance as I could see some flashing red lights against a dark background no village lights or anything to be seen in the distance just flashing red lights snaking their way up the otherwise dark mountain. I thought it was the rear lights of fellow competitors and looked amazing. It was likely to be a combination of saftey lights and the odd runner. After the one look up I then focused on the ground looking for good foot placement every step it was like climbing a stairs but every step was a different height an uncomfortable height slanted uneven etc and you where over stretching between rocks. Every step different and needing to be though out. While the mountain going up was difficult and slow the route was well  marked some lights some parts taped etc.

I remember somewhere on the mountain they had a camera set up that you triggered as you passed it and it certainly startled me for a minute as this bright flash suddenly went off to my left.

My mountain assent was for the most part a walk I hadn't the experience others may have running this terrane.

I had made good time up till now and was happy to take it slow and get some speed coming down to offset this slow section.

What goes up has to come down. On the mountain top there was another checkpoint but I wasn't hanging around wasting time my getting cold. I went to run down. The surface down didn't have the rocky mountainous outcrops more a gravel stony road you'd take a 4x4 up Some large stone mixed with small ones so I decided all looked good and I would run it and take advantage of running down hill for a change. I quickly discovered this was not a stable footing as the surface slid out from under foot causing me to accelerate and not be in control. Other athletes said it had been more compacted in previous years. The surface was lose and dangerous again many mountain runners would come into their own here gaining time. I chose to go it safe and went very carefully after all a finish had to be more important than a quick time and if I went over on an ankle I wasn't going to finish. That said even my slow decent allowed me pass two athletes that where being even more careful than me (it wasn't long before they would pass me again on the road.

Not long after when the running slowed I found myself no longer running in and out of aid station instead I was stopping short walking in and then out the other side. The legs where heavy and spent I  didn't have the endurance training base I would of had in previous years and things where falling apart the mental focus to overcome it was not their this started a downward spiral. Less running now meant I was getting cold, getting cold meant I couldn't run. At one point I did think it's not worth walking to the finish line and I could opt out. But I would have to face the kids when I got home. So new plan jog a little walk a bit keep moving forward and see can I get back running maybe it's just a low point and I can bounce back. I now counted as I jogged or set small targets go as far as a light a tree etc then walk. My race  for the most part would continue like this with the occasional runner passing me. I wondered how the others where getting on? 

On approaching Sparta the support grew and I mustered a slow run with far less walking. I could hear people cheering me as they went about their day a lot of the time I had no idea where they where the sounds came from everywhere. With the last few kms to go I had a police escort bike and a few kids cycling alongside me, then another runner passed me I said well done and just kept putting one foot in front of the other slowly running. I had expected far more runners to pass me to be honest and had forgot my race position best guess put me at 30th but I was running my own race and had no interest in other athletes I was struggling but was ahead of all expectations.  if the race was another km or two longer I would have dropped another few places for sure.

Last turn and down the finishing straight I was taking it all in what a sight. Flags of every nation. The straight finished at a dead end with the statue of King Leonidas standing tall I had done it I had ran from Athens to Sparta now I had to concentrate and not trip on the few steps and cross the timing mat.  I had followed in the foot steps of Pheidippides. I had read the blogs followed others looked at pictures but now was among those I had great admiration for. I had completed Spartathlon. 

Anthony Lee, Anne Jennings & Alex O'Shea

As the sun has set on the 39th edition of Spartathlon 2021

I need to say

It has been a race like no other for me a supper challenge of mental and physical stamina. I loved the history of the event and the way it brings people together United in their common goal.

Just on a foot note my watch would latter say I burned 14000 calories

A huge thanks to my family at home and all those that messaged me.

Also a huge thanks to fellow Irish athletes  Anne & Anto also both completing Spartathlon making it a clean sweep for the Irish Spartathlon Team. To their crews Andrew Lorraine John and Jimmy a huge thanks for their shout outs and support before during and after the race.

Also thanks to  Rolando  from the Philippines ( living in Ireland) his family and friends,  Alastair Higgins Scottish living in Dublin and  Crew Gary you all added so much to my experience.

Delighted Anne achieved her goal 2nd Spartathlon finish and is the only Irish lady to have done so and Anto balanced the score with his third finish from 6 starts. Also thanks to the British Spartathlon team they provide a great Facebook page helping newbies and experienced runners alike with all things Spartathlon.

Would I do it again most certainly.

More info on

British Spartathlon team FB page

Or message me on

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