The roads from Athens to Sparta were even more punishing than I had imagined. In fact, by the double marathon mark, about 52 miles (83km) in, just after crossing the engineering marvel of the Corinth Canal, but with over 100 miles (160km) still to go, I began to realise that this was the start of the race and my legs were already in shreds. I reconciled this rather depressing outlook with thought that I was nearly at the first major checkpoint and that hopefully some decent food would be available. The cup of hot soup with noodles I was subsequently offered there was taken with immense gratitude – efcharistó (Thank you!)
I was competing in the 153 mile Spartathlon, which can legitimately claim to be the ‘original’ ultra-marathon, as it covers the route taken by the messenger Pheidippides from Athens to Greece, in his attempt to secure the services of the Spartans with the Athenians in the Battle of Marathon, against King Darius of Persia in 490 BC .
Clearly, Pheidippides would not have had to contend with any punishingly hard tarmac roads in 490 BC, but then I guess he would also not have had sleek trainers, advanced nutrition, water checkpoints every 3-4km on average, wicking technical tops and shorts, in fact the ‘buff’ he would have experienced would have been of an entirely different type to that I had on my wrists from the start of the race.
Anyway, I’m sure you get the point that Pheidippides, the father of the marathon, was a pretty awesome dude to have been commemorated in the writings of Herodotus by running the first ultra marathon. Fast forward 2500 years to the beginnings of the burgeoning ultra running scene and in 1982 five British RAF officers, Wing Commander John Foden and four others travelled to Greece on an official expedition to test whether it was possible to cover the nearly 250 kilometres in a day and a half. Three runners were successful in completing the distance: John Foden, John Scholtens and John McCarthy.
Since 1983, it has been an annual footrace from Athens to Sparta.
Back to the present day and I had entered the race as it had been on my bucket list for some years and yes, you’re not mistaken, you can sense the ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ coming hurtling down the trail at break neck speed.
I had arrived on the Wednesday and spent a couple of days going through the registration / drop-bag planning / briefing process, all the while getting to know my team mates on the British Spartathlon team. Although unofficial, the team is well supported and organised by individuals who have competed in past years (Rob Pinnington and Paul Ali) and James Ellis (#158) who was going for his third finish this year. I noted a certain ‘team envy’ from other competitors and this is due in no small part to the efforts from these three gents – many thanks!
The 360 or so starters were delivered from various hotels mostly in the coastal resort of Glyfada at the south of Athens, to the base of the Acropolis, where the race was due to start at 7am. All of the runners prepared in their own way’s, some excitedly, others pensively, most taking pictures to record the occasion marking the start of an event which would mark the culmination of many months of training, perhaps for many, as for me, it would be their ‘big’ event of the year. The time ticked away inexorably with many nervous glances towards watches and then suddenly the appointed hour was upon us.