By Mark Cockbain
A Brief History
In 490 BC the Persians landed at the city of Marathon to battle with the Greeks, and the city leaders realized that they would be overpowered without a lot more soldiers.
So, they told their best foot messenger, Pheidippides, to run all the way to Sparta, which was 246km away, to get re-enforcements from the Spartan army. According to the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, Phidippides managed to get to Sparta in around 36 hours!!
Then, in 1982 RAF wing commander John Foden was reading about the legendary journey of Pheidippides, and wondered if it was possible to run the same 153 mile route today.
After lots of research, he presented the most historically accurate route, which involved crossing five mountain ranges with the highest pass at Sangas of over 4000ft.
Then in 1982 Mr. Foden and two off his RAF friends decided to try and tackle the course for themselves, and stunned the world media when they managed to complete the course in less than two days.
This became the basis of the Spartathalon race as it is known today. It’s a 153 mile race from the Acropolis in Athens, along the Greek coastline and across several mountain ranges to the base of King Leonidas statue at Sparta. All of which must be completed within a strict 36 hour time limit, with intermediate cut off times! To finish this race is a dream to most, some of whom return year after year to try and complete the course. Within the distance running community it is the ultimate purest running achievement.
My 2005 Race
Its 6:50am, and I am amongst 230 international ultra runners standing at the base of the beautifully lit Acropolis in Athens, and about to start my second Spartathlon attempt.
I have been here before in 2004, but I had only managed to reach mile 92, as I had set off too quickly, ran out of steam and thought that I would have struggled to get much further between the checkpoint time limits.
This year my strategy was to set off a little slower, to just try and scrape through the maximum time allowance of each of the 74 checkpoint’s on route.
I would be up against the clock all the way though.
It’s 7:00am, the time that Phidippides set off, and the race begins.
We twist and turn through the heavy traffic laden streets of Athens for mile after mile, narrowly avoiding a few collisions along the way. A steep incline starts to take us up and out of the city where it is easier to breathe. Through the industrial outskirts, I pick up my first bottle drop at mile 15, and push on to the marathon point at Megara in just under 4 hrs, the cut off time being 4hr 30. From here we start to snake down the beautiful coastline, with small boats bobbing on a clear calm sea, and fishermen displaying their catches at stalls at the roadside. The sun is up and the temperature soon hits about 80F, and regular drinking is a must to prevent dehydration. We pass through some beautiful little villages, and are given warm encouragement from the local residents.
Time ticks on, but I am enjoying the scenery, and its not long before we are back on the main road beginning the long steady climb towards Corinth at mile 50, with a cutoff time of 9hrs30.
I cross the Corinth Canal bridge, and look down in awe at the engineering achievement of cutting such a long deep canal wall through the rock.
In 8hrs 45mins, I reach the Corinth checkpoint, and I am pleased with the 45 minute buffer I have gained.
I grab some tinned rice pudding, and head off up the road stuffing my face, eager to build on my buffer.
The first few checkpoints come and go pretty quickly as I snake through olive groves and picturesque little villages, building just over a one hour buffer.
I had been on my feet now for nearly twelve hours, and the sun was starting to set. I had been feeling a bit sick at this point, but this was mainly due to the amount of gels and snacks I had been eating at the checkpoints, but I knew that I had to try and keep energy in my system.
I picked up my head torch from the 70mile checkpoint, but it failed to work, so I pushed on up some long hilly inclines without it and was given small hand held torch later on.
My legs were very stiff now, and I tried raising my knees now and again to stretch out my quads. Blisters were also becoming annoying, as I felt one or two pop as we moved onto a rough stony path heading up across the Nemea Mountains.
Here, my friend John Tyszkiewicz came running past at a pace, but he was also suffering from foot problems, and said he was pushing on to the next checkpoint to re-tape his feet.
It was now around 1 am, and I began my descent of the mountain, down a long road, and I could see lights from Lirkia village in the distance.
I knew that progressing past Lirkia would give me a psychological boost, as this was the point where I had come to a halt last year.
I pushed on straight through the village, hardly glancing at the spot where I failed last year. Now I could begin this year’s race.
I would soon be approaching Sangas Mountain, but my second torch had just failed, and I knew I needed one for this treacherous climb.
Down and down the path took me to the base of a huge silhouette of a mountain, where luckily I managed to get yet another, if somewhat smaller hand torch.
Then, the steep climb started across the mountain switchbacks. It was now well past 3am.
Up and up I went, and I was wondering when the road would turn into mountain track. Almost another hour passed before I reached the post summit checkpoint, and I could see luminous sticks, flashing lights and the torches of fellow runners snaking straight up what looked like a sheer mountain face.
It was hands and knees time, as I scrambled precariously up the rock face, trying not to knock any boulders or myself down the mountain. Progress was painstakingly slow, and each step was followed by swear words, as I managed to catch my badly blistered feet on the sharp rocks.
It was very dangerous indeed, and full concentration was required, as one wrong step could cause a fatal fall.
After almost an hour of climbing I reached the summit checkpoint in 22hrs and 25mins. This was the 100 mile point, and it was a great relief to get this far.
The cutoff time for this point was 22hrs and 50mins, so, my buffer was now down to 25mins.
I waited to catch my breath after the climb, and then started to descend the other side of the mountain immediately.
Going down was even worse, and it was hard to establish decent foot holes with my tiny little torch beam. I ended up on my backside several times, but just went really slow to prevent a nasty accident.
I had taken almost an hour to descend, and I was worried that the race might be over for me time wise.
Back onto a solid path, I ran into the village of Nestani and to the next checkpoint which had a cutoff time of 06:25. I got there at 06:24 and a few seconds!!!!!
Go, go, go they shouted at the checkpoint. The hairs were up on the back of my neck as I realized I had no buffer left at all, and needed to virtually sprint through the next two or three checkpoints to build it up again. I had come so far, so I just grit my teeth and ran as fast as I could through the pain of my feet for over an hour.
Luckily the next few checkpoints were through a fairly flat valley, and I eventually managed to gain around 15 minutes.
I was now going to be a slave to the clock for the rest of the race!
I managed to hold my buffer for quite a while, until I reached the second major mountain climb, and the heavens opened with torrential rain.
My feet were instantly soaked through, and I could almost feel the skin on the bottom of my feet sliding off as I tried my best to run up the steep incline.
The rain actually made it easier to eat the honey coated bread that I picked up from some of the checkpoints, as I managed to mash it up with my wet hands. This was a long torturous incline to be run, and it would take hours.
I was now on autopilot, and sort of immune to the pain of my feet and legs, as I trudged on. Sometimes just narrowly missing a cutoff, and having to dig ever further to speed up to pull some time back again.This little game went on and on, and I just became a moving zombie.Eventually, I reached the 130 mile point, and started a long steady downhill in the direction of Sparta.
If I could only just hang on, then surely I could make it now. But, the downhill was even worse, on my legs, as my quads were so sore that I could hardly control them.
On and on, I could almost smell victory, but I had pushed so hard that I had nothing left. Mentally, I was becoming confused with exhaustion, as checkpoint numbers, times and distances spun around in my head. What was I doing, I asked myself?
Then, I saw Sparta in the distance! I just had to hold onto this shuffling pace for a few more hours.
I’m now passing checkpoint 73. ‘You can do it, ‘’you can do it’, ‘just go, go, keep moving’ the checkpoint team shouts to me.
I’m now in that special zone, where these races can take you. It’s me against me, mind against body.
I can see the town, but it gets no closer.
This now starts to feel like a thorough cleansing of the soul as I move into the last hour of the race.
Then, I’m suddenly within the city walls, and I pass the final checkpoint, and a young Greek girl hands me a small olive branch.
Forty minutes left. I’m going to make it!
A police car appears just to my left, to escort me through the city streets. Locals hang from balconies above, applauding my efforts, as my battered body shuffles past them.
I am full of emotion; it’s almost a sense of enlightenment.
Eventually, we make a right turn down a crowd lined street and I can see my goal in the distance.
I’m overwhelmed as I’m cheered by the crowd and fellow runners.The crowd then opens up ahead of me to allow me to climb the final few steps towards the statue of King Leonidas.
I kiss the huge bronze feet of the statue, and then slumped in a daze to the side of it.
I have made it!
I pull myself to my feet, as I am crowned with an olive wreath, by two girls in ancient Greek attire. I’m then handed a bowl, and take a sip of water that is from the Evrotas River.
I have made it. I have completed the Spartathlon in 35 hours and 52 minutes.
It felt like the Gods were with me!
(I completed the Spartathalon four more times in 2006,2007,2008 and 2009 with a best time of 34:23)
For more information on the Spartathlon goto: