Introduction to the Spartathlon

An introduction to Greece’s 153-mile Spartathlon.

By on September 27, 2012 | 16 comments

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.

Ian Sharman
is the Director of the Altra US Skyrunner Series, a professional running coach, and a sponsored ultrarunner who has competed in top-level races all over the globe.