IT was during his ascent of Mount Parthenion in the dead of night, around two-thirds of the way through the 153-mile slog from Athens to Sparta, that Al Higgins began to wonder if it was time to get a new kitchen.

Ultra-running is an onerous and physically demanding pursuit but it can take the mind to unexpected places too, the brain repeatedly oscillating from calculated focus to the everyday mundane, the distinction between reality and fantasy blurring with every step.

Add in what can be described understatedly as ‘challenging’ weather conditions – a hurricane in 2018, temperatures in the high 30s in 2019 – and little wonder the Spartathlon is considered among the toughest of all endurance races.

Higgins, though, is back for more. Originally from the village of Dunscore near Dumfries and living in Ireland since 2000, the former Le Galaxie drummer and aspiring whiskey distiller finished fourth the previous time the race was held two years ago.

It follows the historic route taken by a messenger called Pheidippides who, in 490 BC, was sent on foot from Athens to summon help from Sparta to battle the invading Persians. Duty done, he is said to have continued for an additional 26 miles to spread word to Marathon, thus creating the blueprint for the race that bears the town’s name.

Pheidippides’ first journey, however, was much more demanding and has been revived and run annually – except last year – since 1982.

It is a hugely popular event with the Greek locals, with thousands lining the streets to welcome those in the 400-strong field who make it to the end of the route in Sparta. When Higgins reached that point on the two times he  entered the race, the feeling that washed over him was the perfect marriage of euphoria and exhaustion as he sunk his first beer after almost 26 hours on his feet.       

“The Spartathlon is just a really special event,” says the 48 year-old who didn’t undertake his first ultra-marathon until he was almost 41.

“This is the 38th edition of it I believe which makes it one of the longest-running ultra-marathons in Europe. It also has a much deeper history with the story of Pheidippides so you could probably say it was the original ultra-marathon.

“The support out there is quite special, too. In a normal year, if you pass by a school the kids would be out on the street cheering you on. When you get into Sparta the whole town is out to welcome you over the finishing line. It’s a massive thing for the whole community.

“It’s such a great experience. And as a typical Scotsman, there’s definitely value for money for what you get for your entrance fee (around £500) compared to the other big races!

“There are so many variables you have to contend with. In 2018 it wasn’t as hot as normal but there was a hurricane during the race which really affected the runners down the order. But temperature-wise it was like running in Scotland which allowed you to attack the course.

“When you’re running in the usual heat it’s a different story. You have to make sure you’re not over-extending yourself or you’ll never finish.”

Last year’s event fell by the wayside due to the coronavirus and there will be adjustments this year, too.

“It’s not a massed start line this time but a staggered start, almost like a time trial which will make it difficult to work out who’s winning during the race,” explains Higgins.

“Traditionally at the finish you run up to the statue of King Leonidas in Sparta and kiss or hug his feet. And that’s not allowed this year sadly. And there won’t be congregating at the finishing line or anything like that. But they’ve done really well to get the race to go ahead this year after having to cancel last year.”

Spartathlon is unusual on the ultra-marathon circuit in that competitors aren’t allowed to wear headphones, leaving them only with the company of others or their own thoughts as they clock up mile after mile in the searing heat.

“If I’m training I don’t use headphones unless I’m feeling mentally jaded about the whole thing,” says Higgins.

“But in general I try not to, as just taking in the sounds around you and the sound of your feet on the road can distract your mind and get you through a race.

“There’s a certain level of mindfulness that comes with being able to run these really long races without any external distractions, especially when you’re running through the night and there’s nothing else around. Just silence. I find that strangely comforting.

“Your mind does wander and all kinds of weird things pop into your head. You start wondering about whether it’s time to get the kitchen done at home. Or remembering that the car needs a service and making a mental note to get that sorted.

“Sometimes you’re performing complex calculations on the race based on your pace and projected times. And other times you’re looking at the things you see around you, especially when you’re tired and wondering what they are and questioning if you’re hallucinating or if it’s actually real at all.”

Often to break the monotony and to restore their sanity, runners catch up with others and power through a section of the course together.

“Last time I had a very good English runner called Iain Hammet running with me for a good wee while which was the most enjoyable bit of the race as I could talk to someone. And then we were joined by a Greek runner who wasn’t in the race but was just out training. And it turned out he was someone who had won the Athens and Rotterdam marathons. He joined us for 10 miles and was good company.

“I also like running on my own and getting into my headspace, settling on a pace and just getting that going. That’s harder when someone else is with you.

“You need a number of different coping strategies to deal with the pain. Experience is a big thing in that regard when you know the course and what you’ve been through before in a race of that length.

“You know what to do when you start to feel that you don’t want to carry on. Most runners get that from the halfway point, sometimes earlier. There are a lot of ups and downs and you have to hope you get a second wind. The main thing is staying focused and remembering all the training you’ve done to get you to the start line. You don’t want to throw that away.”

As an athlete in his 40s, Higgins is the norm rather than the exception. The majority of competitors are of a similar age, underlining the value of experience and of knowing what your body is capable of and not being reckless. This, after all, is six marathons and not a sprint.

HeraldScotland: Al kissing the feet of a statue of King Leonidas at the finish lineAl kissing the feet of a statue of King Leonidas at the finish line

“I was about to turn 41 when I did my first ultra,” he recalls. “I had done one marathon before that and read a book by Scott Jurek called Eat and Run where he talks about Spartathlon and I was in awe and a bit gobsmacked.

“I thought, ‘that would never be me’. But it just became small increments of me running further and further every time and here I am now doing some of the toughest races in the world. So that was a very inspirational book for me.

“I’m 48 now so getting on a bit! But the biggest age group at Spartathlon has been the 40 to 50 age group and also the most successful. That’s where most of the seasoned and fit ultra-runners are.

“I think when you’re a bit older you can deal with it better mentally and you also know your body and what it’s capable of. And you’re less cocky too when it comes to pacing yourself which is a big thing in these races. You can’t chase it too hard. Let the race come to you.”