Athletes retrace ancient route

At dawn today, 275 athletes from some 30 nations will assemble at the foot of the Acropolis and brace themselves for one of the world’s most grueling long-distance races, retracing the steps of a legendary Greek soldier who ran from Athens to Sparta. But less than a third of these runners are expected to complete the tortuous 246-kilometer (153-mile) route within the 36 hours it reputedly took Pheidippides in 490 BC when he was dispatched to seek reinforcements for the scant Athenian forces facing invading Persians. The 20th century equivalent of the ancient run was invented by British Air Force colonel and philhellene John Foden who led a group of British soldiers from Athens to Sparta in 1982 to see whether modern man could measure up to Pheidippides. Foden, then 56, and one of his colleagues made it. The other three burned out on the way. «Basically we were just testing a myth,» Foden, now 80, told Kathimerini English Edition in Athens, which he is visiting for the 24th Spartathlon. «When we got there though, everyone was astonished that this myth had become a reality.» At a dinner for Foden and his fellow soldiers held after the race by the Sparta City Council, Foden told officials: «You ought to make this a race.» Mapping problems But mapping out the route purported to have been trodden by Pheidippides was no easy task for Foden and his cohorts. «The Greek authorities would not give us official maps of the country at the time, as it was so soon after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus that all maps were considered secret – so we had to make do with NATO maps,» he said. So with NATO’s maps and the help of some helpful Cambridge University classics professors, Foden established the Spartathlon route a few months after his trial run. Since then, long distance runners have flocked to Athens every September, when the original run is believed to have taken place, to trace the steps of the desperate messenger. Those who complete the course for the first time are said to have trouble describing their feelings after crossing the finish line where they are presented with an olive branch and cup of water. As for Foden, despite his fatigue upon completing the course, he claims to have been «able to read the newspaper headlines when I got to Sparta.» «It is bloody awful though – you have to be bloody-minded to get through it. You can’t let yourself dwell on the discomforts, the sunburn, the thirst. It needs real focus,» he added. «The athletes are attracted to the uniqueness and difficulty of the route as well as the modesty and respect for athletic ideals imposed by a race known as legendary,» said President of the International Spartathlon Association Panayiotis Tsiakiris. «There is less competitiveness than in other races – the athletes come to see their friends,» Tsiakiris said. Camaraderie Austrian Markus Thalmann, who won the race in 2003, and came second in 2004 and third last year, agrees. «It’s quite amazing how the athletes support each other. It’s a competition, of course, but I was surprised at how many people I ran with for several kilometers along the route,» he told Kathimerini English Edition. For Thalmann, 42, the main problem is practical – «getting food and drink when you need it.» Asked about the big day, he said he was «a bit nervous, as always.» The route takes participants along dirt tracks and over mountains, with the toughest part of the course deemed to be the 1,000-meter ascent up the Sangas Pass, about three-quarters of the way into the race. «In terms of distance, it is three-quarters of the way through but psychologically it is a huge barrier,» Foden said. Some 250 volunteers are to be stationed along the route to help runners in need of sustenance or medical treatment, while ambulances will be on standby. «Athletes often suffer from dehydration and exhaustion but we have not had any serious problems to date,» Tsiakiris said. Some runners are even said to start hallucinating during the final stages of the race. «It is not an easy course – athletes run during the night, temperatures change dramatically and the terrain is extremely tough in places,» Tsiakiris conceded. Less-experienced athletes often get disoriented over the course as their stamina runs low. «We lost our way several times during the test run in 1982 but this was because there was no motorway between Lirkia and Tripoli,» Foden said. «The route has become more clearly marked over the years,» he said. Finishing Because of the difficulty of the «ultra-distance race,» the main aim of most participants, who this year range in age from 24 to 69, is to finish the course within 36 hours. More experienced athletes strive to improve their personal best. The record for the best time has been held by Greek runner Yiannis Kouros since 1984, when he completed the race in 20 hours and 25 minutes. The winner last year, and the year before, was German Jens Lukas, who completed the race in 24 hours and 20 minutes, and is a favorite again this year. Of the 35 participants from Greece, the strongest contender is Costas Reppas, who was champion in 1997 and 1998. This year’s race is being funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation as part of its efforts to «promote, maintain and preserve Greek heritage.» «We are very grateful to the foundation for its support, particularly as we have not received the backing we expected from the government,» Tsiakiris said. «Things were particularly tough after the Olympics.» The 24th Spartathlon is dedicated to two regular participants who died on the same day last year. Polish national Barbara Szlachetka died of cancer in Hamburg on November 24. Belgian Leo Van Tichelen died in an industrial accident in Antwerp on the same day.