“Grim viewing at times – more like a war zone than a mere running race! But it fully deserves all its plaudits.”
Professor Paul Cartledge, chief historical consultant ‘The Greeks’ and ‘The Spartans’
The Spartathlon is an ultra-marathon run annually since 1982 from Athens to Sparta on the last weekend of September. It is 246 kilometres (or 153 miles) of road and trail which the runners are required to complete within 36 hours.
Those are the bare facts. But as every runner knows, the bare facts never tell the whole story; as every ultra runner knows, Spartathlon is a race different to all other ultra-marathons.
Not because of its distance, although 246 kilometres is not to be sniffed at, nor even for the difficulty of the terrain. There are difficult parts of course, including a mountain at the dead of night, but it is not Death Valley. No, it is for something else. Two things else perhaps.
The first is a racing factor, namely, the brutal cut-off times. Other races allow for the runners to revitalise en route; have a sleep or a sauna or a swim or a three-course meal with brandy and cigars. Not the Spartathlon. There are over 70 checkpoints on the route; if you don’t reach them within the specified time then you are out. Your race is run. Your reward is to clamber into the Death Bus.
Around 350 runners take part each year. Only one-third of them are expected to make it to Sparta within the cut-off times.
The second aspect is history. It is heavy and can weigh on the shoulders of every runner who dares to take his or her place on the starting line at the Acropolis in Athens.
The history dates back to the Battle of Marathon in 490BC. The Persians wanted revenge on the Athenians, they wanted blood. When the massive fleet of Darius landed in Marathon Bay in August of that year, the Hellenic world stood on the precipice.
The Athenians had a cold sweat. No way could they take on and beat an army of such a size. So their general Miltiades sent a runner to Sparta to try to raise reinforcements. According to the historian Herodotus, the runner’s name was Pheidippides and he arrived in Sparta the day after leaving Athens.
In the early 1980s an RAF officer John Foden decided to test the theory that a man could run that distance and arrive the next day. The experiment was successful and the Spartathlon was born.
Unlike Pheidippides, who had to turn around quickly and run back to Marathon (that is 500 kilometres in four days), today’s runners only go the one way. Much of the route has changed of course but on certain stretches, in the Peleponnese especially, it is easy enough to visualise Pheidippides making his way through the vines and olive groves as he bears his message to King Leonidas.