A week from Friday (Sept. 26th), along with 350 others, I will be standing in front of the stunning Acropolis in Athens, Greece at the start line of what is — likely — the most prestigious “long” road ultramarathon in the world: the Spartathlon, a 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta.
(The start line of the 2012 race)
(Three Americans from the 2013 Spartathlon team: Blake Benke, Brenda Carawan (who won the Keys 100 outright in 2013), and our own Mike Morton (who’s won basically every race out there)).
I’ve never been to Greece, but from what everyone says, this is a “must-do” race, given (a) the history of the course, (b) the immense challenge, (c) the unbelievable support of the race staff and volunteers, (d) the race atmosphere, and (e) the fact that it is — easily — the most competitive international road ultra in the world. (The other very large international road ultra, the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, isn’t really a traditional “ultra” in my opinion, as it is basically the world’s longest marathon (56 miles), and the front-runners race it as such).
The 2014 Spartathlon is shaping up to be a truly epic event, as basically every podium winner for the past decade in the race is back this year, and there are several world-class rookies running as well (most notably, American Jon Olsen, who is the current 24-hour world champion and has run 100 miles in less than 12 hours). Including Jon, Team USA is sending a record 13 runners this year. We are even bringing the circus to town with us, in the form of Dean Karnazes and his decision to run the entire race on figs and olives (more on that in a bit).
First, here’s a little background on the race and how it came into existence:
2. Pheidippides and the Spartathlon Legend.
Every marathoner — and most people in general — now have heard of the “legend” of Pheidippides, and how after the Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens, proclaimed “Rejoice, we conquer!!” (or some equally inane phrase), and promptly fell down and died.
(The Pheidippides statute, along the Olympic marathon route in Refina, Greece).
That’s ONE legend about Pheidippides. The OTHER one — and the one believed to be more historically-accurate (by the people who somehow rank Greek fables) — is by Greek writer Herodotus. His version is that when the Greeks were preparing for the imminent Persian attack on Athens, they sent Pheidippides to Sparta (over 150 miles away) to ask the Spartans for help. As the legend goes, he left Athens in the morning and arrived in Sparta the next day before nightfall.
(As an aside, the Spartans said “no” because they were in the middle of some religious ceremony, so Pheidippides had to run all the way back to Athens to deliver the bad news. On the way back, however, he “ran into” (pun intended) the god Pan, who inspired Phedippides, who in turn inspired the rest of the Greeks, and they fought with “legendary resolve” and defeated the Persians at Marathon, even though they were vastly outnumbered. Aesop couldn’t have written it better himself.)
For centuries, the fable of Pheidippides’ incredible feat and whether it was humanly possible to run from Athens to Sparta in 36 hours was hotly debated. That all changed in 1960 when four enterprising young lads from Liverpool came together to change the course of rock and roll history…
Oops, wrong British group. Let’s try again. That all changed in October 1982 when British Royal Air Force commander John Foden and four of his buddies attempted to recreate the fabled 153-mile Athens to Sparta run. Three of them, including Foden (in 36 hours), succeeded, and in 1983, the first official Spartathlon race was born.
3. The Spartathlon.
Since that first running in 1983, the Spartathlon has steadily grown, in terms of participants and in prestige, and today, is widely viewed as the most competitive road ultramarathon in the world. Each year, 350 athletes toe the line in Athens and attempt to retrace Pheidippides’ footsteps.
With an all-inclusive race fee of $550, the Spartathlon is one of the great bargains in ultrarunning. That fee covers the registration fee, SEVENTY-FIVE aid stations along the course (so it is entirely possible to run the race uncrewed), transportation to and from the start/finish, . . . and, a FULL WEEK of room and board accommodations! That deal is obviously very unique in the world of ultrarunning; on the other end of the spectrum, some races cost many hundreds of dollars more for just the race fee alone (with nothing else)…
MANY race directors of ultramarathons around the world employ marketing descriptions such as “world’s toughest footrace,” “ultimate test,” etc. The people that run the Spartathlon just let the race speak for itself. It is not the hottest race on the planet. It is not the hilliest. And since over 95% of it is on the road, the terrain is certainly not the most “technical.” Rather, when all the elements are combined, the challenge is nothing less than formidable. Temps can reach 90 with high humidity, there are rolling hills (and one mountain) to overcome, and, perhaps most challenging, runners must complete the 153 miles in just 36 hours. And one look at the list of VERY accomplished runners who have DNF’d at Spartathlon over the past few years — including Mike Morton — only confirms that this is a VERY hard race. The following graph of finishers over the history of the race illustrates the difficulty of the course; many more people finish closer to the 36-hour cutoff than to the race winner (which is usually around 24 hours):
(Note that only 15% of all Spartathlon finishers have run the race in under 30 hours…)
(The Spartathlon course)
(The elevation profile: rolling hills for the first 100k or so, then a few significant climbs, culminating with the mountain at mile 100-ish. The final 50k into Sparta is downhill…)
(The early miles in the race between Athens and Ancient Corinth (Mile 50)).
(Scott Jurek passing Ancient Corinth, sometime in the mid-2000s…)
(A runner approaching the mountain section of the course)
(The finish line in Sparta. The race is over when the runner touches the feet of the statute of King Leonadis. Hope he doesn’t mind that I’m a Michigan fan; Go Blue!) 🙂
3. Team USA Amongst A Ridiculously-Stacked Field.
While the overall quality of the field this year is the highest it has EVER been, the US contingent is also at its strongest ever. At the top, we are sending two athletes — Jon Olsen and Katy Nagy — who both have legitimate chances to win their races. Jon, as described above, is currently the top 24-hour runner in the United States, and will undoubtedly look to finish the Spartathlon in around that time. And Katy lives right here in Florida, where she has already had an amazing year (sub-16 at Keys 100, set the 200k national record in April, won the Everglades 50 outright in Feb, etc.).
Some other noteworthy US runners include Bryce Carlson, who was the second male at this year’s Keys 100, Rob Youngren, who finished in the top-10 at Badwater this year (and even somehow managed to beat Aly Venti), and Andrei Nana, who has finished over 20 races of 100 miles or longer, including Spartathlon last year.
As for me, I’m just looking to run a strong race. I surprised a few people out at the Milano-Sanremo 175-miler in Italy back in March, so perhaps I’ll be able to do the same in Greece 🙂
One other noteworthy United States runner is none other than the self-dubbed “ultramarathon man,” Dean Karnazes, a runner of Greek heritage who is participating in the Spartathlon for the first time. In true “Dean” fashion, however, he is adding a twist to his run . . . he is going to attempt the race on the “Pheidippides diet,” meaning that he will only eat the food available to Pheidippides during his historic run (olives, figs, and perhaps cured Minotaur meat) :). He claims to be doing this because he is “writing a book on” Pheidippides…
Shameless self-marketing/publicity stunt, or a neat way to draw more attention to the race from casual observers and maybe entice them to a healthier lifestyle? That’s the line Dean has made a career out of living on, and one that I have no interest in debating. So to the “Dean Show,” I say, Godspeed! (And I especially wish him good luck in taking a fable of a Greek runner and extrapolating it into an entire book; now THAT will be an accomplishment!)
Seriously, I think Dean is a good guy who catches a lot of flak, and a lot of it is caused by his own doing. He and I talked a bit during the race at Badwater last year, and he was nothing but positive and encouraging to me, both when he passed me at Mile 5 (everyone is nice when they are the ones doing the passing), and when I passed him at Mile 95 (most people are not in a really good mood when getting passed late in a race, but Dean was just as positive as he was at Mile 5…)
4. Team Zwitty.
As always, my “ace in the hole” at this race will be the fact I’m representing Team Zwitty out in Greece:
Even though the little munchkins won’t be making the trip to Greece, I’ll be thinking about them for 153 miles 🙂
So good luck to everyone running the race this year; I can’t wait to see you all in Athens next week! And for those of you who back here in the states, the Spartathlon website has an excellent race tracking system to follow along during the race next Friday. Just go to http://spartathlon.gr to follow!
Finally, if anyone who is dreaming about running Spartathlon — or any other ultra — and would like someone in their corner throughout the journey, check out the Zwitty Endurance Traning Program at www.davekrupski.com . We are adding an “Endorsements/Testimonials” page in the next day or so!