It was early on a Sunday morning when 19 Americans gathered around the statue of Leonidas in Sparta. A few minutes later they would embark on an adventure they had been planning for months. “Courage! That's what the 300 Spartan warriors of Leonidas must have had to fight the Persians,” said the team's leader, Lance Cummings. They took commemorative photographs and shouted “Molon Lave” (an expression meaning “Come and take [them],” which Plutarch describes as the Spartan king's defiant response when his Persian counterpart, Xerxes, demanded he and his men lay down their weapons), then began their trek, escorted by a police vehicle. For the next eight days they followed in the footsteps of the ancient Spartans, 378 kilometers, all the way to Thermopylae (Thermopyles).
It all began last year when Cummings, a member of Britain's Royal Marines, was looking for a new challenge. “I started looking for places that have a history of altering the course of humanity and the first place I thought of was Thermopylae,” he explains. He had seen the movie “300” a few years prior and had read books about the battles fought by Spartan warriors. “I could identify with them. We Marines feel a sense of kinship with them. They had all of the characteristics we try to cultivate amongst ourselves, like loyalty in the heat of battle and fighting for our ideals, while at the same time being complete and honorable members of society.”
He searched the internet and found Arcadian Trails, a company run by Costas Panagoulias, which specializes in sports and trekking tourism in Greece. They've operated this particular trek, of the “300,” since 2014. “It was something that hadn't been done before, so there were various challenges,” says Panagoulias. With the help of historians, they mapped out the trail. Seventy-eight people from 15 countries had got in touch to say they wanted to participate. Most had already sent Panagoulias a deposit when he'd decided to cancel the whole thing.
Photo: Enri Canaj
“It was spring of 2015 and we were worried because of the great uncertainty that existed at the time and the risk of the country going bankrupt while we were doing the trek,” explains Panagoulias. The money was refunded, but the idea was not abandoned. A year later, they decided to try again.
At that same time, Cummings was trying to form a team that would follow him. “I decided to cast out my net and see what I would catch,” he laughs. He ended up “catching” 18 men and one woman, aged between 26 and 65. Some were retired marines, others active. One was a veteran who had lost a leg in Benghazi. In the team, there was also a lawyer, a stockbroker and an athlete who had broken a record for doing 50 Ironmans over 50 consecutive days. Another was a quadriplegic athlete.
“Everyone had set their own personal goal, but we were all inspired by the spirit of the Spartans and of course we had a common goal, which was to raise money for three charities which help marines and their families,” says Cummings. For himself he had set a particularly high goal, at $300,000.
There were difficult times along the trail, which at times pushed the members of the team to their limits. “It is worse than the week from hell,” one of them said jokingly, comparing it to the intense training US Marines go through. Especially after the fifth day, exhausted, with blisters on their feet, some said they wanted to quit. Nevertheless, at 5 o'clock the next morning, all were up and ready to get going.
“We all found strength we didn't know we had before,” says Cummings. “It helped that we had Kyle, a quadriplegic, on our team. He did the trail on a bike and without any other help. When we saw him making it through all of this, there was no reason for the rest of us to complain or quit,” he adds.
During a break on the trail, they talked to each other about how they felt and where they took their inspiration from. “I will never forget the moment I turned and saw Sparta behind me,” says Jolene, a Marine Reserve. “I thought about the Spartans who left along this trail 2,500 years ago, knowing they would never see their loved ones again. It is the same feeling we have when we go off to war,” she adds. “I took strength from the memory of my father, who suffered tremendously due to illness, and worked until the last moments of his life without showing weakness,” says another member of the team. Others talked about wars they've fought in, friends they've lost on the battlefield and about the spirit of the warrior. In a way, the Spartan trail became a form of group therapy.
Photo: Enri Canaj
“This experience has changed us all. It brought us face to face with our psychological strength, our limits and how we can work as a team,” one of them said at the end of the trail. That day, the first of the team reached Thermopyles at 1 p.m. But then the leaders waited for two hours under the sun, a kilometer away from the statue, so that they could finish the trek together. When the 19 team members were gathered together, they draped an American and a Greek flag on their backs and approached the statue of Leonidas. “It was a touching moment ,” says Cummings. “During this trek we fell in love with Greece, learned even more about its history and culture, and of course achieved our goal.” The previous night he'd found out they had managed to raise $300,000.
Thermopyles marks the end of the trail, and for Panagoulias, reaching it was also a touching moment. Without sponsors (he contributed his own funds) or help from the state (except for the police and highway patrol escort), he felt it was a major accomplishment.
The challenges were not just logistical. Working with local authorities in the municipalities that the trail runs through was also a challenge. In the end, they welcomed the team. Tripoli gave them a hearty send-off with a band, and Lamia, the municipality where the trail ends, cooperated too. Still, there were things that should have been simple that turned out to be hard.
For instance, getting a permit to camp in the countryside. They failed to get one due to suspicions that the tents would be used for refugees. He doesn't regret it though. “Greece is full of hidden treasures and of course it is a major attraction for foreigners, who in many cases know our history even better than we do ourselves. Imagine that there are countries that have used their history for thematic tourism. We're still behind on that,” he explains.