"There's the world class, the elite, then there's Yiannis." --Trishul Cherns, runner
Greek-Australian ultra-runner, poet and songwriter (not necessarily in that order), b. Tripoli, Greece, 1956-02-13.
In the history of sports there are a select few athletes who are not just good, are not just champions, but set the bar for years or even decades.
The legends of Jesse Owens, Nadia Comaneci, Mark Spitz and Sergei Bubka are standards for aspiring champions and reaching their level is the
holy grail of a competitive athlete. But there's more to sports than those who grab the headlines. There are also those enthusiasts of obscure and
especially tough sports who work outside the classical and Olympic circuit in a shadowy world of extremes.
No competition, except maybe the triathlon and round-the-world sailing, is as demanding and trying as an ultramarathon. Beyond the 42195 metres of the classic marathon distance, beyond the shouts of the crowds and the sponsors, humans put themselves to the ultimate endurance test. And among these amateur athletes who drive themselves to unlikely feats, a songwriting Greek janitor was undisputed king for over a decade. Yannis Kouros is one of those athletes who appear once in a generation, if we're lucky.
Kouros began running in school and was a junior champion in the 3000m and 5000m distances. He claims to never have had a role model, though Emil
Zatopek does inspire him. Still, he was clearly inclined more towards the arts than athletics and saw his future there, not in sports. He continued running during his army service and became a marathon runner with no significant distinctions, always feeling he wanted to go on running past the finish line. This changed in the first Spartathlon in 1983 where the completely unknown Kouros, running his very first ultramarathon, burst onto the scene with the unbelievable time of 21 hours and 51 minutes for the 246km (153 mile) distance, arriving three hours ahead of a field of established runners. Nobody was at the finish line. He clocked his finishing time himself.
"People expected the athletes to come in at 10am. I came in at five. Nobody believed me. I had to wake up the officials."
Three months of silent preparation had gone into that race. He used music for the rhythm and his experience of hardship for inspiration. Aiming only for a national record in a fringe sport and a finish as the first Greek competitor he achieved something nobody, let alone he himself, thought he could do. Gossip behind the scenes was rife, many believing that he'd cut corners. The critics ate their words the following year when he solidly won the 1984 event bettering his own time by well over an hour with a time of 20 hours, 25 minutes, a course record that still stands. No other runner has ever been able to complete the distance in less than 22 hours and 50 minutes. Kouros did it four times.
1984 was the year he established himself as a runner of mythical capabilities. Since the Spartathlon he had run and won a small race, so he entered the New York Road Runners' Club Six Day Race, his target being the 24-hour world record. He had no intentions of running the whole race and set an incredible pace on the first day. Everyone expected him to crash before the day was over. In the end he covered 163.5 miles and failed to break the 24-hour record but decided to ignore the blisters on his feet and the peanut gallery's skepticism and ran another full day since he had a decent lead. 24 hours later he broke the 48-hour world record with 266 miles. Unable to stop and inspired by some mystical strength he attributes to the presence of the Sri Chinmoy team, Kouros ran 635 miles, 1023 yards in six days, breaking a world record that had stood for 99 years. This race would become the centrepiece of his autobiography The Six-Day Run of the Century published ten years later. The following year, undaunted by Hurricane Gloria and defiant in the face of the elements, he broke his own record.
The demands he placed on his system were intense and led to knee surgery in 1987 and achilles' tendon problems. Nonetheless he entered the 1988 1000-mile race (guys, this is people. running. a thousand miles.) in Flushing, NY half-prepared and recovering from injury. This time not only the six-day record fell but he smashed the 1000-mile time by 34 hours, running the distance in 10 days, 10 hours and 30 minutes. The first four days he went sleepless because of the jet traffic that also dogs tennis players during the US Open. Ridiculously, this record was not validated because only one time was taken. An official could have shown up to clock him the next day and it would still have been a record. Such was the gap between Kouros and the competition.
The official Greek sporting establishment, in the meantime, paid little attention to this incredible representative on the international scene and he continued to eke out a living as a stadium attendant in his native Tripoli. Indeed, until that point very little in his life had gone right. Eventually he moved to Australia, which was more appreciative of his talent and offered him better opportunities, and became a naturalised citizen in 1996. Recognition finally coming at home, he began running in the Greek colours again in 1998.
"There is a theory that says we need positive thinking to surpass the hard situation of our lives. In my life, because there is nothing positive to be remembered, I had to create energy, enthusiasm and inspiration from all the negative happenings that I had."
In a sport with few events on the calendar due to its gruelling nature and long preparation times, Kouros has won more than 40 major races, broken over 70 world records, often his own, and was still a competitive runner and winning races at the age of 51. In the spring of 2008, Kouros ran four ultra races in two months--something that even marathon runners rarely dare to do--and set world records in two of them. This is the same man who made the 24-hour record attempt in 1985 at the age of 29 because he feared that age was catching up with him. His feats include four World 48-hour Championships, six Sydney-Melbourne wins, including the 1985 event in which he broke eleven world records in a single race, and four Spartathlon wins. As of 2008, he was still the holder of every men's world record in distances over 100 miles and distances covered over 12+ hours.
Only once did he throw in the towel and then not because of another runner who did win the race fair and square but before the elements of nature. Out of his specialty in a stage race (he prefers continuous races) and battered by the cold of the Tasmanian winter of 1994, he led the 650 km Telecom Tasmania event for three days before surrendering, explaining that it was different now that he had a wife and children to think of. "I didn't want to leave my bones in those hills," was the quote that went on record.
How does he do it? I don't think he himself knows. He's defied every canon of human physiology and puzzled the best of sports medicine. He refuses to acknowledge the concept of mechanical running as a working model for such distances where the strength of the body is not enough and wants to "demolish the myth that wants people to believe that long-distance runners run mechanically." In the end, he believes, it all comes from within and it's a war between a weak body and a willing spirit. A painter and published poet with two LPs to his credit (though I have not read and heard his work to critique them), the artist gives the answer, not the runner:
"I do consider it a spiritual journey, but not a journey that has a necessary goal or end: We are spirits running from one type of life to another without stops or ends. To me what counts is the freedom to act and the joy it gives you when you try. Because the contest and our devotion to an attempt is more drastic, valuable and effective than the result or the success itself."
Or is it the philosopher?
"Each horrid event should equip you with the necessary provisions so that you can confront the next one; it shouldn't make you yield. The continuous confirmation is that despair and hopelessness supply you with means - inconceivable at first, and they make you discover hidden unexpected powers. Later, an unhoped-for tranquility and sobriety should follow so that you may pursue your goals with precision."
Running is a spiritual quest for Yiannis Kouros and the loneliness of the long distance runner breeds enlightenment. Perhaps the artist does more than offer answers. Perhaps the artist is the runner.