Race Report 2019: Balázs Korányi

Race Report 2019: Balázs Korányi

Can you have a first love a second time? Can a magical spell lift you, shake you up, and torture you again, just like it did before? Can everything that feels familiar also be new and strange?

Running towards Sparta, I recognized every sound, smell, and scene. Yet, it felt like I’d never been there before. I was both at home and in a new, forbidden place. I recognized every turn, yet felt lost.

It’s difficult to explain love. It just exists. And every adjective you use to try to explain it just weakens it because it forces you to single out individual snippets of the magic. This love is of the children lining up for autographs and cheering you on until the wee hours of the morning; it’s of the tiny flickers of light from the torches along the mountainside; and it’s of the villages where even the priest comes out to cheer you on. This love is of the turquoise sea, the smell of the fresh grapes in the vineyards, the late-night coffee that keeps you going, the new and old friends, the eucalyptus trees, and the relics of ancient Greece which dot the land. It includes the humbleness of ordinary people, the love they send your way, and the stray dogs that join the runners and stop for a drink at the aid stations just like the humans do. The love includes the emotional exhaustion that you manage to shake off time and again, and the physical constraints that don’t really exist. And the final manifestation of that love is when you swear ‘never again’ as you stagger up to the statue of Leonidas, and then start making plans to run again a few days later.

That was my first love, but I lost it 11 years ago. We broke up, and I can’t really explain why. Maybe the passion was too intense, and it sapped my energy. Yet ignoring it didn’t work either. It left me feeling empty inside. I was last in Sparta in 2008. Like now, I ran down Sparta’s main road, touched the statue, and swore, like many times before, never to run again. Until tomorrow.

But tomorrow turned into the next day, then next week and next year. I sat on the proverbial couch with my Spartathlon medal and got stuck there. The unimaginable happened: I lost my will to run. I sat on that couch for years with a coke and bag of chips, waiting for the magic to return. The years came and went, and I stuck to my white lie that I could make a comeback anytime; after all, the Black Knight always triumphs! But as I sat, Sparta, running, and sports in general faded into a distant memory.

My 2019 Spartathlon started out on this proverbial couch. So, to me this race is only partly about running. But mostly about why you should never wait until tomorrow and why you should never stop dreaming. Without dreams, we’re just droids, after all.

The motto of another legendary ultra race used to be: “The Barkley eats its young.” The Spartathlon is even less gracious. The Spartathlon will chew you up and spit you out onto the pavement over and over again, forcing you to get up and keep moving. It makes you believe that you still have a chance, only if you dare to get up. As long as you keep going, it’s not over!

This was my mantra as I was jolted awake after crashing into the dense bushes on the side of the road. It was around 1:30 a.m., not far from Kaparelli, and I guess I fell asleep walking up the hill. I fought a losing battle to keep my eyes open, but my legs kept going. It only lasted a couple of moments but was a powerful reminder that in the Spartathlon, nothing is certain and your fortunes can turn on a dime.

Still, that little accident was also one of the highlights of the day; collapse and recovery in one. Because the Spartathlon will also show you its best side during the night. Beneath the light of the Milky Way, the night and the silent mountainside were mine. I hadn’t seen anybody for ages and the loneliness empowered and pushed me forward. Allons enfants de la Patrie, Marchons! Marchons!

We’d been on the road for about a day by then, but the Spartathlon’s bad habit is that it takes a long time to really get underway. You need to run 90K, maybe even a 100K before you feel that you are really doing it. Exhaustions and recoveries up to that point are just tests to see whether you’ve done your homework, and whether you qualify to go on. Hermes will send along a string of panic attacks to test whether you know what you’re doing and to expose the impostor. But this time I really did my homework, I swear, I did.

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Described as the world's most grueling race, the Spartathlon runs over rough tracks and muddy paths (often it rains during the race), crosses vineyards and olive groves, climbs steep hillsides and, most challenging of all, takes the runners on the 1,200 meter ascent and descent of Mount Parthenio in the dead of night.
This is the mountain, covered with rocks and bushes, on which it is said Pheidippides met the god Pan.

Spartathlon is the event that brings this deed to attention today by drawing a legend out of the depths of history. The idea for its creation is belongs to John Foden, a British RAF Wing Commander. As a lover of Greece and student of ancient Greek history, Foden stopped his reading of Herodotus' narration regarding Pheidippides, puzzled and wondering if a modern man could cover the distance from Athens to Sparta, i.e. 250 kms, within 36 hours.