The supermarathon Athens – Sparta, 246 kms long, has been held every September since 1983. The runners do not stop to rest. The whole world participates, but there was only one Greek woman who ran: Niki Chasapi - A Parianí.
I met Niki in the Aegean Center’s vocal ensemble, in which I sang for the first time in Autumn 2007. She completely amazed us when one afternoon in September she quietly told us that if she would not be present for the next rehearsal, she would have made it to the finishing line of the Spartathlon, and would be in Athens for a big party.
Nobody knew what she was talking about. We learned: the Spartathlon is one of the longest and most gruelling races in the world, 246kms without rest, from Athens to Sparta.
In 1982 this race was run for the first time by an English Ellinóphilos, RAF Wing Commander, historian and long distance runner John Foden, who, reading Herodotus’ writings about the battle at Marathon, discovered the story of the imerodrómos (the “day runner”), the brave courier Pheidippides, who ran in 490 BC at the request of his generals from Athens to Sparta in one day to get help (which the Spartans denied) in the war against the Persians. Foden asked himself if a modern man could possibly do the same, studied the way described by Herodotus,and decided to run this race with two friends, all very well trained, at about the same time of year. On the early morning of the 8th of October 1982 they left the Acropolis and after 36 hours Foden reached Sparta. His mate John Scholten had arrived half an hour earlier, and the second friend, John McCarthy, needed 39 hours.
There was so much attention from the press that the first officially organized Spartathlon took place already just one year later, becoming an annual event during the last weekend of September. Every year more people participated from all parts of the world. This story is not about financial reward; it is about honour. The modern trend to commercialize the athletic ideal is rejected. Every person who gets to the finish line at the foot of the enormous bronze statue of Leonidas in Sparta gets a wreath made of olive branches to wear and a cup of water from the Evrotas river, offered by young Spartan girls. The first three finishers get the greatest honour, for the others it does not matter if they come 5 minutes or 5 hours later. The limit is 36 hours, and the honour is the same for everyone who reaches the finish line within that time.
It is a cruel race; it can be very hot during the day. The runners continue during the night, and then it can be terribly cold or it might rain. The roads vary: they can be highways or donkey paths; at night there are lights so the runners don’t get lost, and every 3-5 kms there are posts with volunteers offering food, water, and medical aid, if necessary. There are only six stations where the runners may have contact with their personal coach or trainer, where they can discuss tactics, or get different clothes or shoes. Other personal contact is forbidden, as is listening to music with earphones. If runners are caught breaking the rules they are expelled from the race immediately. There is constant monitoring by cars from the organisation, driving with the runners.
At the three quarters mark, after 160 kms (people have been running for at least 20 hours), in the middle of the night or in the very early morning, the hardest part of the race is yet to come. At the Sangás pass Mount Parthénio has to be conquered. There is not even a path here; one has to climb the bare rocks. The discipline the runners need here must be tremendous; even for the best athletes, this part of the race is pure torture.
Since the Spartathlon was first officially organized in 1983, the number of participants has increased dramatically: hundreds of athletes register to run, from many different countries. To be able to participate you must prove that you have run a distance of 100 kms without rest. Age is not an issue; a 20-year old Hungarian got to the finish line in 2000, and over the years I counted four finalists of 67 years of age! One 70-year-old Englishman had to quit during the last race because of heart problems.
Greeks runners are not the majority; it is mostly Japanese and South Koreans who seem fond of running this race. But the champion is certainly a Greek: Yannis Kouros, who has arrived first – with spectaculair timing – no less than four times. He won the first race in 1983 in 21 hours and 53 minutes. His record was one year later: 20 hours and 25 minutes, and no one has beaten his record yet. In 1990 he came in first again with a time of 20:29 (his ‘slowest’ time was 21:57 in 1986). Three years ago (when he was 51) he ran the whole route on his own, and ran it back as well, just to show the world he could do exactly what Pheidippides had done. This was seen as self promotion, though, and not in accordance with the Olympic ideals, so it was disapproved of, however great the performance.
I met with Niki in Lefkes, where she lives. She is a slender blonde of 39 years old – you don’t realize she is capable of this sort of superpower. She teaches theology at three of the island’s schools, and has the voice of an angel. I want her to explain it to me: why does she want to run a distance of 246 kilometers without resting?
She tells me: ‘When my first marriage ended I wanted all the freedom I could get, I wanted something totally different and I started climbing, every other week at a different location, all over Greece. I lived in Athens then, and luckily my mother could take care of my 8-year old son when I was away. I met other climbers, and one of them, Andreas Rangoussis, from Paros, became my second husband. I liked the climbing; I love challenges. And then something totally unexpected happened. After Andreas and I were married, we lived on Paros. By a strange coincidence I met the man who would encourage me to start running. One day Andreas found a helpless young owl on the road and brought it to the rescue centre for birds, Alkyoni, that we have here on the island. Marios Fournáris, the “Birdman of Paros”, runs it, someone who has been running marathons for years. We became friends. I had run some long distance courses before, but never more than 30kms. Marios encouraged me to participate in “The Race of Paros”. He had been running the Spartathlon since 1989, and regularly got to the finish; nowadays he is even a Member of Honour of the International Spartathlon Association. The “Race of Paros”, 52kms around the entire island, was initiated by him in the summer of 2003 as a preparation for the Spartathlon, and has been an annual event since then. I ran this new race in 2003, decided to continue running, and Marios became my trainer. That same year I ran the classical Marathon and loved it. Subsequently I participated in all kinds of races all over Greece. I had become a long distance runner!”
Niki explains to me how she registered for her first Spartathlon in 2006: she ran for 12 hours in the stadium in Athens, 94.9 kilometers in total. Although 100km is the limit to be accepted, they allowed her to register. This was, she thinks, because she was the only Greek woman to do so. She was also the only one in 2007. But both times she did not manage to get to the finish line.
“In 2006, at Corinth, after about 60kms, I started to experience pain in one of my feet; it spread to the ankle, then to my leg and back. It was very hot. There was a post with a doctor, and I got some aspirin and decided to continue. Another 35kms further, at Nemea, my husband, my official coach during this race, gave me different shoes. I still wanted to go on, but the pain got very bad. I arrived too late at the next post and had to stop. I had run for 15 hours, 120kms. That was less than last year, when I stopped after 20 hours and 150kms because of knee trouble. We drove to Sparta and checked in at the hotel; I could not eat, let alone sleep, I was shaking in bed, and my body hurt all over. I was awake all night and heard how the winner was welcomed by the mayor with loudspeakers in the early morning.”
She describes heartrending scenes of exhausted runners who reach the finish line in tears, stumbling, or on hands and feet, how the hotel is full of those who did not make it (two-thirds of the participants), and how disappointed they are. Terrible things can happen: heart attacks, broken legs, car accidents. But it is about the honour, and nothing else. The finalists go to Athens on the Sunday, and are offered a gala evening the following day in the Záppeio by the Mayors of Athens and Sparta.
Niki’s other great love is singing. Although she had never taken singing lessons, she sang Greek music with a band – rebétika and nisiótika. She knew some classical music from listening to it as a child. “My parents played a lot of classical music, and I loved Mozart’s Requiem. A few years ago, when I saw the Aegean Center’s announcement in my son’s music school, asking for singers for the ensemble, I contacted them immediately. When I was accepted I got acquainted with Belcanto and the music from the Renaissance, a totally different world of emotion, and a different way of using one’s voice. I loved it instantly.”
As I write this, it’s not yet clear if Niki is going to run again in this year’s Spartathlon on 26-27 September. She is busy with the process of building a new house together with her husband Andreas, and that takes a lot of time and energy, she says. How she is able to combine her teaching job, singing, running and her family life is a great mystery to me. She simply responds: “If you really love what you are doing, you can do it!”
Excerpted from an article in the February 2008 issue of Lychnari magazine, Holland, with thanks. For the past 21 years, Lychnari has been publishing articles about modern Greece including politics, religion, social themes, archaeology, literature, music (recent releases & translations of Greek books & CDs), providing information about institutions in Greece where you can learn Greek, an agenda of performances by Greek musicians, etc. Lychnari is available by subscription. See www.lychnari.nl
Parian Ultra-distance Runners by Iris Papathanasiou
Any ultra-distance runner who has participated in the Spartathlon and has succeeded in covering 246km within the time limit of 36 hours talks about a unique experience, a race with oneself, a bet that you’re never sure you can win, and of the bond that is created between the athletes that is nothing like the kind of competition existing in other long-distance races. The same athletes will often return year after year from many different parts of the world for the challenge, but also to meet their fellow runners and share the unique experience once again.
The 2008 Spartathlon will mark the 20th time that Parian Marios Fournaris has participated in the race. Since he started 20 years ago he has never missed the event and has managed ten times now to reach the finish line in the given time. He has made long lasting friendships with other Spartathlon runners as he meets many of them every year on the road.
This historic race does not only involve the incredible challenge of running 246km in just 36 hours; in addition, the trail is not easy – one of the hardest parts is climbing Mount Parthenio in the dark where many runners are suffering from such fatigue that they drop out at that point. Sustaining an injury is the least that can happen to you - Marios remembers one time when a runner fell off the cliff; his leg was badly injured, but still he continued and managed to reach the finish line in time. Dehydration is one of the most common ailments and many runners suffer from hallucinations in the final stages. As the official Spartathlon Association website records: “Having lost all sense of time and reality, they are ‘on automatic’ as they push their weary bodies on towards the finishing line at the statue of Leonidas”. It goes on, though, to describe how those who succeed in reaching Sparta “have trouble finding words to describe their feelings”.
“It’s about testing your limits and surpassing them”, Marios says, “For me the hardest point is after 24 hours of running, just as dawn breaks and until 10 in the morning. If I manage to continue then, I usually make it to the end. In this race you will see people from 50 different countries; young, old, men and women, champions, simple joggers, who all share a passion for the Spartathlon challenge. Out of around 300 people who participate most years, usually only a third will make it to the end”.
When Marios first entered the Spartathlon he was training in the national team for short distance running. He managed on his first attempt to cover 200km after he was used to running distances of no more than 1500m! It was clear he had now become a long-distance runner.
Parian runner Andreas Dragatis first became involved in the race as a supporter of Marios in the Spartathlon 20 years ago. “It is impossible to run if you do not have someone available to take care of any needs you might have during the race”, says Andreas. “I remember the first time Marios entered I had rented a taxi as I did not have a car. The taxi driver was so exhilarated by the whole thing that he would not accept any payment in the end, and since then he is a fanatic supporter of the event”.
Marios and Andreas met for the first time during school competitions in Ancient Olympia, at the beginning of the 80s when neither of them were living on Paros. They became good friends and subsequently discovered that their two grandfathers had also been great friends for years. Andreas provided race support to Marios until 2000, when he first decided to make an attempt at the Spartathlon himself. He managed to finish on his first go, something quite rare for Spartathlon beginners (he came 5th among the Greek runners in 2002). “I love this race because of the challenge”, he says, “At the point when you think you have reached the end of your strength and cannot continue, if you keep going you will discover more power within you than you can imagine. And when you reach the finish line, it is like reaching nirvana. Running the Spartathlon can be compared to the course of your life: you have happy moments, terrible moments, you see that there are people around you who help you, but mostly you come to understand what it is to rely absolutely on your own power as you are ultimately alone in this vast nature, pushing yourself to the very end of your limits”.