Debbie is first British lady in 153-mile Spartathlon 2015
Scottish ultra runner Debbie Martin has pulled off another incredible race, coming home first British lady in the epic Spartathlon.
The 40-year-old Glasgow runner also took fifth female place and was 34th overall in the race that calls on competitors to run 153 miles and almost 4,000m of ascent from the capital city of Athens to Sparta.
That’s similar to running Glasgow to Edinburgh more than three times and including a triple summit of Ben Nevis.
Impressively, she took only 30 hours and 36 minutes to do a distance that most people would struggle to ride on a bike, let alone run non-stop.
Debbie, a mum to a young son, is no stranger to ultra running having achieved some superb wins and ultra distance records in recent years. This year, her main goal was to run for the Great Britain team at the 24-hour World Championship in Turin in April. “Spartathlon was a ‘close second goal’ for this year,” she says.
To qualify for the Spartathlon, Debbie needed to have run 100km in sub 10 hrs 30 mins, 100 miles in 24hrs or 170km in 24 hours. She says: “I have bettered all of these distances on a few occasions and my 100 mile PB is 15:48. However there was still no guarantee I would get a place.
“When I did win a place I had no aspirations other than making it to the finish line.”
In fact, Debbie reports that when she first heard about the race it was a “definite no-way”. She says: “I thought it would be much too hot for me. I am fair skinned and I melt in anything above 14 degrees. The Spartathlon is so hot and it seemed unthinkable to race it.
“But over the years, I have continued to push the boundaries of my ultra running and the unthinkable became the next big goal. Spartathlon is one of the world’s classic ultra-distance races, so it was a bucket list race for me.”
What is Spartathlon?
The race began in 1983 and aims to trace the footsteps of Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger sent to Sparta in 490BC to get help for the Persians in the Battle of Marathon.
Jump forward to 1982 and a British RAF team decided to see if it was possible to run 250kms in a day and a half. From 1984, the International Association “Spartathlon” was founded and has since be staged every September.
It is described as the world’s most gruelling race, on rough tracks and muddy paths, with a great deal of climbing and frequently wet weather. It can also be extremely hot.
A tough race to complete
Surprisingly, Debbie does not describe the race as “extraordinary”. She explains: “As individual elements – the heat, road, mountain, cut-off times – there’s nothing extraordinary about the race. But when you put them all together, it’s a tough ultra-distance race.
“Added to this, headphones are not allowed for safety reasons on the road so I was alone with my crazy thoughts and no music to distract me. There was no switch-off at all.
“There are also 75 checkpoints to keep track of and each with their cut-off times so I was very conscious of the distance I was covering and I found I had numbers going round and round in my head for 30 hours. It was mentally tiring.”
There were many times when Debbie wondered if she could possibly keep going but she never wanted to quit.
She says: “Finishing the Spartathlon was my main goal, so I knew I had to do that. Unless I was told I had to pull out, because of the cut-off times, there was nothing that would make me stop.
“I had a low point at around 110 miles and resigned myself to walking at that point. I’d worked out the splits and I knew I could do a bit of walking within the cut offs. Thankfully, sense prevailed and the prospect of walking 40 miles was inconceivable.
“Then I nearly lost a placing to an Austrian woman, which was the kick up the butt I needed to get running again.”
Debbie has long struggled to find the right fuel for ultra running. She says: “Nutrition is my weakest link. I never get it quite right, but I keep learning so it’s getting better. I struggle to eat in races, but I try to start with real foods and electrolyte drinks and then go on to gels, cola and Shot Bloks.”
The highs of the Spartathlon
And there were several highlights for Debbie. She says: “The people in Greece go nuts for this race. From Athens all the way to Sparta, they really embrace the race because it’s part of their history.
“Cars were beeping, people were cheering from the windows, schools and offices were out high-fiving all the way along. It was amazing.
“When you get to Sparta, there’s a real festival atmosphere. The kids come out on bikes and escort you for the last couple of miles. Then another bunch of kids run the final stretch with you. It’s really emotional.”
Race support is a huge part of Debbie’s success. Marco, her husband, travelled to Greece and supported Debbie. She says: “There are 75 stocked checkpoints along the way, so there’s plenty of food and drink available. Plus, you can leave drop bags at each checkpoint. But you can’t beat a familiar face and someone doing the thinking for you.”
Speed versus distance
Debbie claims that speed is not her forte, but rather she is “competitive at longer distances”. Yet, she still managed to run an average 12 minutes for every mile of the 153-mile race. That means that she runs around five miles in every hour and for more than 30 hours without stopping.
Debbie says: “I’m just good at pacing myself. I don’t get caught up with the excitement at the start and I just get into my groove and a pace I know I can comfortably sustain.”
Of course she is also very dedicated to training – and also experienced at ultra running races.
Debbie, who races in Brooks Pure Cadence shoes, says: “I’ve been competing in ultra-distance races for eight years and so my body is more conditioned for high mileage. Last year I ran nearly 4,000 miles.
“I try to mix up my training, though, with speed work, easy runs and long runs at weekends. My weekly mileage can be anything from 50 to 120 miles depending on my race schedule.
“When people ask me I say that I don’t find the time, rather I make the time for training. I run to and from work a lot, do speed sessions at lunchtimes and get up early at weekends. Thankfully I’m a morning person. I just need to be organised.
“Also, Marco is an ultra-runner, which makes it easier as we appreciate and respect each other’s training schedules.”
Next year’s big races?
Next year’s ultra-race plan for Debbie is Country to Capital (January), Highland Fling (April), SDW100 (June), Lakeland 50 (July) and UTMB (August).
She is sponsored by Montane, Ultimate Direction, Drymax and ultramarathonrunningstore.com.