Two Hundred and Fifty Miles in Thirty-Six Hours
Those who compete in marathons and ultra-marathons are certainly deserving of our respect but when I first read of the Spartathlon (250 kilometres in under 36 hours), I was dumbfounded. People do this for pleasure? Words fail me!
The Spartathlon takes place each year in Greece. This historic ultra-distance foot race commemorates what must surely be one of the greatest marathon runs in history. It started way back in the 4th century BC...
The Greek historian, Herodotus, recorded an account of the Battle of Marathon. Prior to the Battle, in 490 BC, an Athenian named Pheidippides, was sent - on foot - to Sparta to seek reinforcements. Herodotus recorded that Pheidippides arrived in Sparta the day after his departure from Athens. The distance covered was 250 kilometres.
The idea for the recreation of the run was the brainchild of John Foden, a British RAF Wing Commander. Having read Herodotus' narration, Foden wondered if the feat of Pheidippides could be emulated. Foden and four others set off on 8 October 1982 to follow Pheidippides' route. On 9 October, John Scholten arrived in front of the statue of King Leonidas in Athens half an hour before Foden. John McCarthy also arrived less than 40 hours after leaving Athens. The team received a warm welcome from the British community and from Greek friends.
After this epic trip, the decision was made to establish a foot race that would attract long distance runners from around the world. There was enormous interest in the project and the 1st International Spartathlon was organised the following year (1983). The Athletics Federation gave their approval and supervised the race. Forty-five competitors from 12 countries tackled the inaugural race.
Such was the success of the venture that in 1984, the 'International Spartathlon Association' (ISA) was created. To tie in with Pheidippides' run, the Spartathlon is run every year in September and has become one of the most famous sporting events in the world. Marathon runners come from all nations, attracted by the uniqueness of the race and respect for the athletic ideals imposed.
The race is run over rough tracks, through vineyards and olive groves and over inhospitable terrain. Part of the race is often run in the rain. The paths are often muddy and the hillsides always steep. Most challenging perhaps is the 1,200 metre ascent and descent of Mount Parthenio. To increase the challenge, this stretch is covered during darkness. The mountain, covered with rocks and bushes, has no pathway but a trail is marked out for the runners by a series of battery-operated flashing lights (which I presume weren't there in Pheidippides' time). The mountain is often swept with strong winds and temperatures drop as low as 4oCentigrade. Crossing the mountain is a great test of human stamina and mental endurance. The legend states that Pheidippides met the god Pan on the mountain.
The last sections also wind up and down hills, sapping the energy and strength of the exhausted runners, often inducing hallucinations in the minds of the weary athletes as they push on towards the finish line at the statue of Leonidas. Most times, a third or less complete the energy-sapping course.
The course is point to point. Elevations range from sea level to 1,200 metres. Sealed roads, trails and mountain footpaths all need to be negotiated. Aid stations every 3 to 5 kilometres provide food, water and personal supplies. Doctors, physiotherapists and emergency vehicles are on call throughout the 36 hours. Weather and race conditions combine to make the race exceptionally demanding. Each of the 75 control points has its own time restrictions and late-comers in any section are eliminated from the race.
The starting line is the base of the Acropolis of Athens. Athens was the most important city of ancient Greece. It was at the height of its glory during the so-called 'Golden Age' of the 5th century B.C.
From Athens the runners make their way to Corinth, 81 kilometres away. They are allowed 9.5 hours for the distance. Then it is another 43 kms to Nemea, the site of the great Panhellenic Games which were held every two years during ancient times. Nemea was also the site of the famous Temple of Zeus of the 4th BC, one of the most venerated sites of Ancient Greece. Today it is a picturesque village with a modern new Nemea built a short distance away.
Nemea to Lyrkia is another 24.5 km. This section has remained unchanged for some time with stones and potholes ready to trip the unwary. Darkness is falling and the air becomes chill.
From Lyrkia, the road climbs 960 metres in 13 km. The path is treacherous and winding. From the summit, a zigzag dirt track plunges downhill. To reach Nestani in the time allowed often necessitates a fast sprint to the checkpoint. Nestani is 172 km from the start. The runners are soon onto flat plains but the temperature often rises now to uncomfortable levels.
The runners reach Tegea, which once boasted its own currency, an all-marble theatre, a stadium and a gymnasium among its many wonders. From here, there is a final climb from 640 to 975 metres in 22 km. The final 28 km are mostly downhill. School-children meet the runners and accompany them to the finish line.
Sparta is surrounded by a panorama of exceptional beauty framed by two majestic mountains, the Parnonas to the east and the Taygetus to the west. But the runners have little thought for the beauty of the region.
The ruins of ancient Sparta lie 500 metres from the modern town. Modern Sparta is the main centre for the industry, agriculture and trades of the fertile Evrotas valley, which is also renowned for its citrus fruit and olive oil.
On reaching the statue of King Leonidas in Sparta the capital of Laconia, finishers are presented with an olive wreath and offered a goblet of water from the Evrotas River. This is much as Olympian winners would have been honoured in ancient times.
Nine runners have won the event more than once. Yiannis Kouros won the first Spartathlon plus another three and holds the four fastest times with the record at 20 hours 25 minutes. In 2005, of his own accord, he ran from Athens to Sparta and back, thus completing Pheidippides’ complete and epic journey.
For many of the runners, this is a personal journey of great significance. They certainly deserve their hero's welcome.