We're all familiar with the Marathon race, based on the distance which the legendary runner Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to proclaim the victory over the Persians before breathing his last (or so it is rumoured, we're really not sure that it wasn't someone else). What's less well-known is that this was not a one-off for him. He was a professional message runner, equipped with Hermes' staff and, it appears, his winged boots as well. The victory over the Persians may never have come without the previous work of the same runner.
In 490 BCE, with the Persians threatening the city of Athens, a message was dispatched by their chief general Miltiades to Sparta requesting their urgent help. The carrier of this message had to be the swiftest runner the Athenians had and Pheidippides was the choice. It's said by Herodotus that he ran the entire distance of 246 km (153 miles) in less than a day and a half.
Fast forward (no pun, okay?) to English history enthusiast and Greek freak John Foden. Foden, an RAF officer and long-distance runner, read the account of Pheidippides' run and decided to see for himself whether it was actually possible for a man to run that distance across that terrain in the same time. In October 1982 he set out with three other runners and, indeed, they arrived in Sparta in times between 35 and 40 hours. Having proven that it could be done, one year later the first Spartathlon was held, on the last Friday of September, in accordance with Herodotus' chronological placement of the original event. 45 athletes from 11 countries took part.
The following year the International Spartathlon Association was set up to cover the logistics of the race and has been organising it annually since. They've made it one of the most challenging fixtures on the ultramarathon calendar, being part road, part cross-country and part trackless. Once a year a group of determined runners set out from the gates of the Acropolis of Athens and maybe half of them will reach the statue of Leonidas in the centre of Sparta. Certification as an ultramarathon runner from the competent authority of an athlete's country is required, as well as a bill of fitness which is confirmed by a medical examination before the race.
Unlike the marathon, this is only partially a street race. Sure, the road between Athens and Sparta is well-paved and well-trodden and in many places existing roads follow the ancient route. But the athletes follow the presumed footsteps of the ancient runner over footpaths, trails and sometimes over nothing at all. After the first 85km stretch, which follows a paved former highway, the runners turn south before Corinth and head towards Tripoli in the central Peloponnese. This is where the fun begins and the runners are allowed support stations every 5km.
Greece, as is widely known, is a mountainous country and the way from Athens to Sparta is certainly not the flattest part of it. At kilometre 90 at Ancient Corinth, the ascent begins and the runners ascend from 50m above sea-level to 390m over the next 15 kilometres. The next 40km are relatively level, though the Greek definition of level means lots of small ups and downs rather than flat. The greatest challenge lies at kilometre 155 (the village of Kapareli) after which the course is more suited for mountaineers than for long distance runners. Over the next eight kilometers the athletes climb from 380m to 1100m. That's five miles of 1:10 gradient. If it were a road, which it is decidedly not. You're climbing a mountain in the dark in autumn. Dark in the mountains means pitch-dark and autumn means the temperature can drop below 5°C (41°F) even if you ran the rest of the race in sweltering heat. The descent is less dramatic but no less dark if you're one of the leaders and takes the runners down to an elevation of 590m. Thirty more kilometers of ups and downs follow before the last major ascent at kilometre 195 (Tegea), which rises to 970m over 23km, and the last thirty-odd kilometres are downhill.
Local hero and ultramarathon legend Yannis Kouros is the only runner to have completed the stretch in under 22 hours, doing so in all four of his victorious attempts. There have been women competitors and finishers since 1994 (though I'm not sure when they started giving awards to the top women finishers) but I've been unable to find records for them for the events prior to 1997. I believe Helga Backhaus did win the three unlisted ones but that's subject to confirmation.
No prize is offered for winning the Spartathlon, nor do participants have any of their expenses paid. The winner is rewarded with an olive branch and a ceremonial cup of water brought by young Spartan girls from the Eurotas river that flows through the city.
Roll of honour (These crazy folks deserve to be mentioned)
- 1983: Yannis Kouros (Greece) 21:53
- 1984: Yannis Kouros (Greece) 20:25
- 1985: Patrick Macke (Great Britain) 23:18
- 1986: Yannis Kouros (Greece) 21:57
- 1987: Rune Larsson (Sweden) 24:41
- 1988: Rune Larsson (Sweden) 24:42
- 1989: Patrick Macke (Great Britain) 24:32
- 1990: Yannis Kouros (Greece) 20:29
- 1991: Janos Bogar (Hungary) 24:15
- 1992: Rusko Kantiev (Bulgaria) 24:08
- 1993: Rune Larsson (Sweden) 26:57
- 1994: James Zarei (Great Britain) 26:15
- 1995: James Zarei (Great Britain) 25:59
- 1996: Roland Vuillemenot (France) 26:21
- 1997: Kostas Reppos (Greece) 23:37
- 1998: Kostas Reppos (Greece) 25:11:41
- 1999: Jens Lukas (Germany) 25:38:03
- 2000: Masayuki Ohtaki (Japan) 24:01:10
- 2001: Valmir Nunes (Brazil) 23:18:05
- 2002: Sekiya Ryoichi (Japan) 23:47:54
- 2003: Markus Thalmann (Austria) 23:28:24
- 2004: Jens Lukas (Germany) 25:49:56
- 2005: Jens Lukas (Germany) 24:20:39
- 2006: Scott Jurek (United States) 22:52:18
- 2007: Scott Jurek (United States) 23:12:14
- 2008: Scott Jurek (United States) 22:20:01
- 2009: Sekiya Ryoichi (Japan) 23:248:24
- 1997: Helga Backhaus (Germany) 30:39 - 14th overall
- 1998: Mary Larsson (Sweden) 28:46:58 - 7th overall
- 1999: Anny Monot (France) 35:38:08 - 45th overall
- 2000: Hiroko Okiyama (Japan) 29:16:37 - 10th overall
- 2001: Alzira Portela-Lario (Portugal) 30:31:41 - 15th overall
- 2002: Irina Reutovich (Russia) 28:10:48 - 5th overall
- 2003: Akino Sakamoto (Japan) 29:07:44 - 11th overall
- 2004: Kimie Noto (Japan) 29:57:40 - 12th overall
- 2005: Kimie Noto (Japan) 30:23:07 - 12th overall
- 2006: Inagaki Sumie (Japan) 28:37:20 - 10th overall
- 2007: Akiko Sakamoto (Japan) 31:09:24 - 21st overall
- 2008: Sook-Hoe Hur (S. Korea) 30:03:22 - 16th overall
- 2009: Inagaki Sumie (Japan) 27:39:49 - 14th overall