Introduction to the Spartathlon

Spartathlon logoFor September’s introduction to a classic world ultra here’s one that could be said to have inspired the entire sport, the Spartathlon in Greece. The race starts on Friday, September 28th at 7 am at the Acropolis in Athens and follows 153 miles of roads to Sparta with a mountain scramble thrown in after about 100 miles.

The route is along the path originally run by Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta in 490 BC, yes the one famous for giving us the marathon. According to the legend, Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger, was sent by his generals to Sparta in order to secure reinforcements for the depleted Athenian forces against the forthcoming Asiatic incursion. He then may have died, if he even existed at all.

This is the 30th running of the event, which was started in 1983 to see if it was possible to recreate Pheidippides’ feat. The story goes that Pheidippides arrived in Sparta on the “next day of his departure” from Athens, hence the tough 36-hour cut-off that usually leads to around 70% of starters not finishing.

And in these days of growing prize money, the Spartathlon sticks to its roots and offers just a laurel wreath and a medal for the finishers.

About the Spartathlon Course

Due to the non-standard distance, heat and the predominance of roads, the race is often compared to the Badwater 135 through Death Valley. Temperatures are not as high, usually up to the mid-80s °F, but humidity and rain plus the tight 36-hour cut-off mean many seasoned ultrarunners that have attempted both describe this as the harder of the two.

Spartathlon road

A shot of the course in Spartathlon’s early miles. Photo: James Adams

The Spartathlon runs over roads, rough tracks and muddy paths, crosses vineyards and olive groves, climbs steep hillsides and, most challenging of all, takes the runners on the 4,000-foot ascent and descent of Mount Parthenio during the night. Temperatures can get close to freezing during the mountain section. The climb is marked by colored flashing lights that are augmented by the bobbing headlamps of the runners – a sight all mountain racers know is mesmerizing.

After the descent it barely gets easier for the runners as they follow around 50 miles of roads that winds up and down hills before descending into Sparta. Hallucinations are common in this section as runners aim for the finishing line where they kiss the feet of a statue of Gerard Butler (well, King Leonidas of Sparta, anyway).

Aid stations are every 2-3 miles with plenty of options for drop bags, so there’s much less self-reliance than in most long ultras.

What Makes Spartathlon Special?

The course is not the most spectacular and 153 miles of roads doesn’t appeal to many trail-oriented ultrarunners. There’s even the chance of being bitten by rabid dogs or choking on the Athenian pollution; however, I’ve not met anyone who has run this race (the author has not… yet) and not loved it. A good example is the returning American contingent from last year, despite many DNFs and the long journey. As two-time finisher and prolific blogger, James Adams puts it:

I love this race for many reasons. I will try to name a few.

It is the “original” distance. “The Marathon” never actually happened. If history were reported properly we’d all be running Spartathlons and not marathons. Can you imagine the London Spartathlon? F#$% knows how much the New York Spartathlon would cost to enter.

It is a simple but brutally hard race. It does not claim to be the hardest, longest, hottest, coldest, hilliest, highest or anything like that. However, ask anyone who has finished both Spartathlon and Badwater which one is harder. I’ve only ever heard one response.

The organization of the race is fantastic, too. Loads of people mainly from Europe and Japan all group together at get through it. The locals in all the villages you run through are amazing.

The cut offs are challenging for sure, but the thing that puts people out of this race is that they panic and run too fast early on and blow up between miles 50-80.

This is my favorite race. It’s a lot of peoples favorite race.

So the challenge and the people involved are the main draws. That sounds a lot like the reasons many of us choose ultrarunning.

The 2012 Spartathlon Competitors

Many names in the starting list won’t be as familiar, but there are many top Japanese runners within the 352 entrants from 34 countries. Greeks also make up a lot of the starters and road and track legend, Yiannis Kouros, holds the four fastest times on the course and the record of 20:25. Americans haven’t fared as well at the race in recent years since Scott Jurek won three times.

The winner from the previous two years, Ivan Cudin (Italy), returns to defend his title. Other past winners include Markus Thalmann (Austria) who won in 2003 and podiumed in 2004 and 2005 and Valmir Nunes (Brazil) who won in 2001 and has also won Badwater (He holds the course record.) and the 100k Road World Cup, being a former world record holder in that distance in the 1990s. At this point you’re probably thinking this sounds like a race for Mike Morton. I agree, but he’s not entered this year.

Other notable men include Mike Arnstein (USA), Glen Redpath (Canada) and Oz Pearlman (USA) who all DNFed in the 2011 event.

The women’s race looks intriguing with Lizzy Hawker (UK, living in Switzerland) looking to add to her recent shortened UTMB and bonus-miled Run Rabbit Run 100 wins within the last month. She’s dealing with a knee injury sustained at RRR100 early in the race during a fall, but that didn’t stop her finishing amongst the top men. Claire Shelley (UK) won the 145-mile Grand Union Canal Race and could give her compatriot some trouble, especially if Lizzy’s not fully recovered.

The women’s field also includes several Japanese past winners – Akiko Sakamoto (wins in 2003 and 2007), Noto Kimi (wins in 2004 and 2005), Sumie Inagaki (the 2009 winner) and Hiroko Okiyama (the 2000 winner). Last year’s defending champion, Szilvia Lubics (Hungary) is returning too.

The year’s Spartathlon will feature live race tracking.

There are 16 comments

  1. Kristin Z

    To give a shout out to a couple ladies… Stacy Bunton of OR finished 2nd Woman in 2008, I think?? and Lisa Stranc Bliss finished 3rd Woman/first American in 2009. Burly girls! Good luck to the Spartathletes this year!

    I LOVE James's take on how we'd all be running spartathlons… hilarious! Nice preview, Ian!

  2. Sebastian

    Go Mike – The Fruitarian – Arnstein!!! After a crazy summer schedule (Badwater and VT) will this be his focusrace of this year.. He is the running carrot (compared to Shaun White the flying carrot..)

  3. Mike Redpath

    You said "Other notable men include Mike Arnstein (USA), Glen Redpath (Canada) and Oz Pearlman (USA) who all DNFed in the 2011 event."

    Glen Redpath was not even in the 2011 event, so the DNF comment is wrong.

  4. George S.

    I have a question for Ian or any other people who have the info. The main prerequisite to register is completing a 100K race under 10.5 hours. My question is that does it have to be a 100k race? What if you ran one of the faster 100 milers with not much elevation gain and managed to pass the 100k mark under 10.5 hours? Or how about you entered a 12 or 24 hour event and again passed that mark under that limit? Are you going to be eligible or does it have to be a 100k race no matter what?

  5. SzPeter

    Good report! I guess Szilvia Lubics will rock again this year, it will be a good match between Szilvia and Lizzy!

    let to mention András Lőw, he is a 14 times finisher, 12 times in a row, a great icon of spartathlon

  6. G. H. X-AKOS

    HELLO to everybody from Sparta

    i can't wait finish working at 17.30-18.00(local time) and go with the "mountain climbing club of Sparta"-yeia sou Themis-to the Mountain to see this year's Heroes coming in the dark night and then return to welcome them infront of the Statue of King Leonidas …..the weather is a bit hot now but fortunetly is less hot than yesterday( in the main street of Sparta we have now 33 C).. it will be a Woderful weekend as all the last weekends of September in the last 30 years

    good luck to ALL the Heroes,hope we have the best % of finishers ever this year and a special "LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING U ONCE MORE" to the "DOCTOR"(Dr Markus Thalmann-crewing u with Chrysa in 2009 was a FANTASTIC experience, better than waiting ,on bikes with friends of the school, the arrival of leggendary Yiannis Kouros some 30 years earlier…)

  7. Rob Y

    Probably want to add the American ex patriot Christian Burke to the list as well, was through the 50 mile check point in top 10, ~7h 30m but haven't see another update since…

    This is definitely a dream race for me. I helped crew my wife Kathy there two years ago when she was the ONLY American to finish. I had such an awesome adventure trying to find my way around the country. Epic! What struck me the most about how different this race is compared to others I've been to or participated in was that there were not a lot of smiling faces; no, looks of shear determination is more like it. Why? Well the lucky 1/3 of the starting field that managed to finish all knew they were one bad spell from being out of the race which has such strict cutoff times!

    Spartathlon is a very unique event; nothing like it in the US!

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