In The Economist, a look at a running event in Greece that attracts only the most obsessive of long distance runners:
This year’s Spartathlon, which took place in late September, was the 30th. Its heritage goes back much further. The most famous ultra-marathon in history was that run by Pheidippides, an Athenian who made the journey to Sparta in 490BC. His mission was to ask the Spartans for their help in fighting the invading Persians; Herodotus, a historian, records that he reached Sparta on the day after he left Athens. (The Spartans were celebrating a religious festival, so could not offer help until after the Athenians had dispatched the Persians at the battle of Marathon.)
Herodotus did not appear particularly taken by Pheidippides’s feat of endurance. Since his “Histories” also includes tales of ants bigger than foxes, it probably seemed rather unimpressive. But in 1982 his terse description sparked the interest of a British air-force officer and long-distance runner called John Foden, who wondered if it really was possible to run from Athens to Sparta and arrive the next day. With four other officers, Mr Foden decided to see for himself; after 36 hours’ slog they arrived in Sparti, as the town is now called.
Racing through history
That achievement inspired the organisation of the first Spartathlon a year later; the race now ranks as one of the world’s classic ultra-marathons. The Spartathlon’s allure has two sources. The first is the difficulty of finishing it. Any race that is longer than a marathon can call itself an ultra-marathon, but no self-respecting ultrarunner gets excited about finishing, say, a 48km course. The most talked-about events in the calendar are the ones that look most incomprehensible to the average person.
Take the Barkley. This 161km trail race in Tennessee forces runners to makes climbs and descents of 18,000 metres each inside 60 hours. The Barkley has been going since 1986, and in that period only 13 people have managed to finish the course within the cut-off time. Badwater is another race that derives kudos from insanity. The 217km course in California runs from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in temperatures of 50°C and above. (“Nudity is specifically not allowed,” say the rules.)
The Spartathlon cannot claim such extremes. It is not the hilliest race, nor the hottest. But it combines lots of different tests. There is the heat of the Greek day, then the plunge in temperatures when darkness falls. There are climbs, too: the route includes a series of ascents, among them a 1,200-metre mountain pass negotiated in the dead of night. Above all, there is the relentless pressure of the clock.