SARAH SAWYER Q & A - GB Spartathlete talks training, nutrition, highs, lows and what next

Cajsa caught up with GB Spartathlete, Sarah Sawyer (www.instagram.com/sazzleruns)
Sarah Sawyer represented the British Team at Spartathlon last week and had a corker of a run! She finished the 153 mile race in 30:39:01 placing 4th lady, 5th Brit and 27th Overall! 

I had the nerve to disturb her poolside recovery with a quick Q&A to get the lowdown of her experience under that hot Spartan sun. 

sarah.jpg

Q: Congratulations on not just finishing but acing your first Spartathlon. Can you describe your experience in five words?

A: The race of my life!

Q: You qualified for Sparta with a course record breaking run at Crawley 24 last year, was that part of a long term plan to gain an entry to the race or did the idea of Spartathlon come about after qualifying?

A: I’d wanted to run a 24 hour race for a while as I thought it would be the type of race that I’d love (I did) and Spartathlon had always been my dream bucket list race (even though it massively scared me!), so I thought I would see if I could achieve the Sparta auto-qualifying distance at Crawley. I didn’t actually think I’d get the AQ on my first attempt, but when I did I realised I had no excuses not to run Spartathlon now!

Q: I’m guessing that you have spent most of 2019 in preparation for last week, how has having such a particular A race this late in the year affected your race schedule? Has it meant you’ve entered faster paced road races rather than the usual undulated centurions?

A: Pretty much the whole of the last 6 months has been about getting ready for Spartathlon. I’m the type of runner who loves the process and really getting stuck into training for a big race, as much as the race itself. The only races I did in the build-up to it over the summer were AAUT, a multi-day race in southern Spain over 5 days which was perfect for testing out nutrition/kit for Sparta in hot conditions, and two marathons. The final marathon was 3 weeks before Spartathlon and I ran an unexpected marathon PB on untapered legs and that was a real confidence boost that everything had come together perfectly at the right time.

Q: Tune up racing aside how has your Sparta-specific training looked like? It’s famed for being a hot one (last year being the exception), with the lack of a UK heatwave this summer have you been commuting to the canaries or gotten creative with Endurance-Sauna-ing to prepare for quality time under the Greek sun? 

A: There’s been a lot of hilly road running, which fortunately I love, to get my legs conditioned to all the tarmac in Spartathlon. I also did a mix of heat training - heat acclimatisation runs (which basically involved me running round Brighton looking like an idiot in a down jacket and various other items of winter clothing in August!), sauna sessions and hot yoga classes. My coach (Editors note; Ian Sharman) is a big advocate of quality over quantity so my weekly mileage hasn’t been that high compared to some runners, at around 80 miles per week.

Q: Marathon fuelling is all about fast sugars and Ultras runners tend to mix gel’s with everything from Paella’s to Tacos to keep the body happy for a long time on feet. How did you strategise and test your nutrition for this kind of hybrid race? 

A: Over the years I’ve come to find what works for me nutrition-wise so my fuelling for Spartathlon was what I’d tried and tested in previous races - a mix of Mountain Fuel drinks/Jelly’s, Longhaul Ultra-Fuel pouches and pots of Ambrosia custard! I always struggle to eat/digest solid food in ultras so I know this mix works for me and I aim to eat something every 30 minutes and take on 250-300 calories per hour.

Q: Did it work or did you find yourself switching things up on the day(s)?

A: My nutrition worked like clockwork - the high temperatures at Sparta this year meant that a lot of runners suffered with sickness in the heat and struggled to eat, but I managed to eat for the duration of the race. I drank a lot more than I would normally but I was really lucky that I could also stomach food the whole time.

Q:  What are the aid stations like at Spartathlon? (I’m imagining all things salty!)

A: I never really use aid stations in races and that was the same for Spartathlon - I only used them for drink top-ups, for dunking my hat in water and to get ice to stuff pretty much anywhere and everywhere!

Q: I guess you’ve figured that I’m typing this on a hungry stomach by now so lets turn things back to running, how did the race unfold? What was your hi/low points?

A: The race just went like a dream; the nature of ultra running and the length of time we run, means that perfect races are pretty few and far between (and it’s how well we can manage what is thrown at us on the day), but I pretty much had the perfect race at Spartathlon. My coach told me the race doesn’t really start until the mountain (100 miles) so I wanted to get to that point with things feeling as comfortable as possible. By pacing myself really conservatively in the early stages and really managing myself in the heat, I got to 100 miles and almost felt like a bit of a fraud at how easy it had felt. Don’t get me wrong, the heat on both days was really tough to manage (my watch recorded a high of 39 degrees) and the combination of heat and tarmac was hard on the legs, but I never felt like I was uncomfortable or not in control. Once the sun went down I had such a strong 12 hours overnight and continued moving up the field. I won’t lie, the final 25 miles was hard, but only as hard as you’d expect the final 25 miles to feel when you’ve already run 130 miles. Nothing particularly hurt, I was just ready for a sit down and a rest! Once it got to Saturday morning, I started to believe that short of a disaster I’d run under 32:00 hours and it then became all about what time I could get to Sparta in. I also feel a bit of a fraud for saying this but I didn’t really have any low points. Just before the end I got a bit dehydrated (my own fault for not taking enough liquid at the final crew stop as I thought I could wing the last 10k on pure adrenaline), but mainly the whole 30:39 hours was just full of complete running joy and happiness.

Q: How did a long race on tarmac differ from the trail ultras and 24 hour track events you’ve done in the past?

A: Trail ultras are definitely kinder on the legs! Saying that my legs after Spartathlon didn’t feel anywhere near as bad as they have done after a 24 hour track race. Spartathlon is pretty much 153 miles of undulating hills so you’re using different muscles all the time, whereas the hardest thing about a 24 hour track race is the fact you’re using the same muscles for 24 hours. The morning after Spartathlon is the legendary Spartan 400m race (barefoot and in underwear!) and my legs were even up to a 400m run around the track in Sparta!

Q: Did you have a pace plan? If so how did you work it out and did you manage to stick to it? 

A: I had a pace plan mainly for my crew (an absolute best case scenario which was to finish in 32:00 hours and a ‘get the job done regardless’ finish in 36:00 hours), but I tend to run by feel and I just knew that I wanted the first 12+ hours to feel easy. Up until Saturday evening I was pretty much bang on best pace schedule for my crew, and then as the race progressed I kept making up time and started getting ahead of where I thought I’d be and I slowed down less than I thought I would.

Q: We think you had absolutely smashed it but speaking from own experience there is always things that play on your mind even after a perfectly executed race. Do you have any ‘could have, should have, what if’s’ and is there anything you wish you’d done differently on and/or before race day? 

A: I think as runners it’s very easy to be self-critical after a race (I know I’ve definitely been guilty of it in the past!) but without wanting to sound big-headed I just feel so happy and content with my performance at Spartathlon. I really don’t think I could have done anything better on the day. People have asked if I will return, and whilst I genuinely don’t think I’ll ever enjoy a race as much as I enjoyed Spartathlon, a part of me thinks I had such a perfect experience of it the first time that I don’t want anything to spoil my Spartathlon memory!

Q: ... And on the contrast what did you nail and did you make any decisions during the race that you think helped you have a great time out there? 

A: I think two things really contributed to my race on the day - pacing and good nutrition. At the first timed checkpoint, at about 12 miles, I was 295th overall and I just steadily worked my way up the field all day. My legs were feeling great so I knew if I kept stuffing calories inside me then I’d have plenty of energy to be running strong, so even when eating was the last thing on my mind I made sure I ate something every 30 minutes regardless. I always say to people if you get your pacing and nutrition right, then the running part of ultras is easy! 

Q: From the outside it looks like the aid-stations are fairly close and regular does this mean you don’t have to carry a lot of kit? 

A: There are so many aid stations (74 in total) so it’s possible to run the entire race carrying nothing, although most runners run with a belt/hand held/running vest. I had an amazing crew (my husband Tom and friend David) and after 50 miles I could see them approximately every 6-10 miles. I ran with the Salomon Sense 5l which is really light and minimal and I just carried enough nutrition to last me between crew stops. The second day was even hotter and I felt I was overheating in the Salomon vest so I ditched it for my Naked belt, but personally I prefer a vest and having drinks bottles easily accessible as it makes sure I don’t forget to drink.

Q: What did you wear and use during the race and did you pick up any kit-tricks from the other runners? 

A: I actually ran the whole race in the Nike Vaporfly - it’s probably not what Nike intended them for when they designed them as a speedy marathon trainer! However, I’d run my last 24 hour race in them and they’d felt brilliant so I decided to use them for Spartathlon. I did have a back-up pair of Hoka Clifton’s and also a pair of Hoka Speed Instinct for the mountain, however my legs and feet felt so good in the Vaporfly there was no need to change.

Q: Ultra races on trails are famed for being friendly and chatty, what was the atmosphere like out on the Greek tarmac, did the fast pace make people less inclined to chat or did you all come together in joint suffering?

A: I’m normally a heads down/music on type of runner when I’m racing, however as you’re running alongside roads for the majority of the race, headphones are understandably banned at Spartathlon so pre-race I did wonder how I’d cope with just my own thoughts for company! Although I mainly ran the race on my own, there were a few sections where I caught up with and ran with fellow Brits and I really enjoyed sharing those miles with them. Spartathlon is such a long and lonely race at times that it was really nice to have company and just know you’re not in this alone, and there is definitely a very unique camaraderie on the course because of what you’re undertaking. My biggest worry pre-race was the length of time I’d be out running, but bizarrely it never felt like that long a race and the miles really did fly by!

Q: What was the best advice you were given before the race and do you have any wise words you’d like to pass on to runners who are thinking of tackling a similar challenge?

A: The best piece of advice came from my coach and he told me to just run my own race from the start and not to worry about the early cut-offs as the biggest mistake people make at Spartathlon is to try and bank time in the early stages. Anyone who knows me know I bang on about pacing in ultras all the time, so I’d tell anyone embarking on a similar race that it really is all about the pacing! Don’t worry if you’re towards the back of the field during the early hours, the race really doesn’t start until the final third.

Q: What has training for and racing Spartathlon tought you about yourself as an athlete and human?

A: I guess that anything is possible with hard work, determination and if you genuinely love what you doing. Pretty much 10 years ago I started running with a 1 mile run around our local park, if anyone had told me then that 10 years later I’d be finishing 4th lady at an international 153 mile race, I’d have thought they were completely bonkers! I’m not some naturally talented runner, but I love training and running and there’s really no secret to running - it’s just consistently getting good quality miles in week after week after week.

Q: How is your body feeling a week later and what is your recovery plan looking like?

A: I’m really surprised at how well I’ve recovered, apart from my legs feeling a bit tired, I came away from the race completely unscathed. My husband and I flew to Paros for a few days after the race so recovery has mainly involved sunshine, good Greek food and beer! 

Q: What’s next? Do we get to see you challenge Courtney Dauwalter at Big’s Backyard Ultra or will you roam a distant desert for consecutive days? 

A: I’m doing Valencia marathon in December so I’m looking forward to seeing if my legs can remember how to run shorter and faster! One thing that Spartathlon has taught me is how much I love runnable ultras so my main goals next year are all very runnable races - Comrades, Tooting 24 hours and Desert Solstice 100 miles.

Q: Finally if you were a character from the Greek Mythology who would you be?

A: People laugh at me because I always run with a big smile on my face so I’d have to say Euphrosyne, the goddess of good cheer, merriment and joy!

Thank you Sarah, we think you are amazing and can’t wait to see what you get up to next! For more running joy courtesy of Sarah Sawyer give her a follow on the gram @sazzleruns and check out her coaching and race endeavours on; http://pilatesandrunningwithsarah.com

Sign up to get this news direct to you inbox at bit.ly/runningemail

Like our work? Buy us a coffee