The demanding experience of running from Athens to Sparta

Balazs Koranyi, a Reuters correspondent in Budapest for five years, took up ultramarathon running in 2004 after retiring from a middle-distance running career that took him to two Olympic Games. In this report, he describes his run in the Athens-to-Sparta Spartathlon last month. To prepare for it, he ran more than a dozen times over the marathon distance this year, including all-night sorties and 100-kilometer runs through mountains. I sat down, or more accurately fell down, and buried my head in my hands. Cold winds blew through my shirt. Would my body survive the punishment I was dealing it? Why was I doing this? Just over halfway through the 246-kilometer Spartathlon, a 36-hour nonstop footrace from Athens to Sparta that traces the route of an ancient messenger, my body was already hurting beyond belief. It was around 3 a.m. on a Saturday in September. A relentless climb toward a 1,200-meter-high mountain pass had left me dizzy. I ached. I had been running for 20 hours, my only sleep was to be occasionally wandering off the road when I dozed off. A day earlier, nearly 300 of the world’s strongest and most stubborn runners had left from the Acropolis. People tend to run the race at their own pace: Now, 160 km into the race, I was crying for my mommy. I have always admired the Spartathlon and its runners. It is an extreme sport that humbles its athletes but, if you succeed, victory lifts you to seventh heaven. I had until 7 p.m. on Saturday to reach Sparta and touch the statue of ancient King Leonidas. The Spartathlon, in its 26th running this year, traces the run of Pheidippides, a messenger sent to Sparta in 490 BC to seek help against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. Greek historian Herodotus described his run, saying Pheidippides arrived in Sparta the day after his departure: The 36 hour cutoff in the modern race reflects his feat. But sitting semi-conscious on the mountain, I didn’t care much about history. I needed fuel. Ultramarathon running is as much about eating as running – my body would consume around 24,000 calories before reaching Sparta. That’s 10 times a normal adult’s daily intake and double what Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps eats on a tough day. It was time for my secret weapons: goose-liver pate, cheese, yogurt with honey, peaches, Coca-Cola and a cup of coffee. I don’t know why these foods work, but they do: Ultramarathon running’s rule of thumb is keep eating and keep moving. With the food consumed, I felt the energy slowly return and began the last leg of the climb. We had endured a burning sun and temperatures up to 30 degrees Celsius for most of the previous day: The night was cold and gusting winds made the temperature feel close to freezing. With the mountain behind me, a relatively easy section lay ahead, but at best I could run 15 minutes at a time before slowing to a walk. My right Achilles tendon was swollen, my feet were blistered, my thighs were bloody from rubbing against each other, my knees were swollen and the sun burnt my lips. By the race’s standards, I was perfectly fine. Why was I doing this? Latent masochism? A desire to be a modern-day hero? Quest for victory? Probably all of these. Cheapest legal high But ultramarathon running is mostly a spiritual experience for me. As the body runs out of energy, the mind and will take over and keep pushing you forward. When you think you have nothing left to give, the mind will fight on and find the energy. When the body fails, you can dig deep in the soul and search for the whys of running and even the whys of life. Concentration was getting harder as the morning dawned. My body was crashing again and I began to hallucinate. Scenes from old Leslie Nielsen movies kept playing before my eyes. I mistook a discarded cardboard box for a kneeling elf. I kept seeing wild animals running down the hill to attack me. A joke: This has to be the cheapest legal high. As I entered the last stretch – the length of a marathon – my will had faded. I could no longer run and the blood blisters made every step painful. I kept dreaming about collapsing at the finish and waking up in a hospital bed. But I kept moving and slowly descended into Sparta more than 35 hours after leaving Athens. In the town, families stood on balconies to welcome runners, men at cafes stood at attention to cheer. Here, first and 100th are equal, as were all Sparta’s heroes for a day. This year 50 percent of the runners made it. Scott Jurek of the United States needed just 22 hours and 20 minutes to reach Sparta, but most runners arrive between 34 and 36 hours. The town’s palm tree-lined main square was filled with people who roared as I approached the statue of King Leonidas draped in a flag. The statue towers over the square and, reaching up, you can only hope to touch its feet. So, is this why I came? I let my tears roll. The town’s mayor handed me a drink from the River Evrotas and placed an olive wreath on my head. I have arrived. I ran like Pheidippides. (Reuters)

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