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'Beyond physical strength and mental toughness': Running 246km in 36 hours at the Spartathlon

Ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes looks at one of the world’s toughest endurance races.

Karnazes, 55, stars in new film The Road to Sparta.
Karnazes, 55, stars in new film The Road to Sparta.
Image: Dean Karnazes

WELL PAST THE halfway point of The Road to Sparta – a new film which documents the 2014 Spartathlon ultra race – a runner with an Irish accent does not break stride when he sees the camera.

“Another day in paradise,” he says.

One of three Irish athletes to last the course in Greece that year, his tongue-in-cheek comment neatly sums up what drives about 350 people to take on the 246-kilometre race every September. Trying to do the equivalent of six marathons back-to-back in a time limit of 36 hours is incredibly painful but the thrill of the chase is exhilarating.

Running in sun and rain, day and night – without sleep and against the clock – the athletes try to retrace the route taken by Pheidippides in 490 BC. He was reportedly dispatched from Athens to Sparta to ask for reinforcements ahead of the Battle of Marathon, when the Greeks were set to be vastly outnumbered by an invading Persian army.

The race has been run every year since 1983 and in The Road to Sparta – set to be shown at the Light House cinema this Saturday to get you in the mood for Sunday’s Dublin City Marathon – the gruelling nature of the ordeal is laid bare.

The film focuses on four athletes of varying experience: a teacher who was told he could never run again after a climbing accident, an intensive care nurse entering the race for the first time, and a project manager who has tried and failed before. The fourth is the famed ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes.

As an American with Greek ancestry, attempting to complete the Spartathlon had extra significance for Karnazes. But for anyone hardy enough to make the start line, one of the world’s toughest races is special. As if simply making it to the end was not difficult enough, however, there are over 70 cut off points throughout the run that participants must beat in order to proceed any further.

“There are many elements at play with the Spartathlon,” Karnazes told The42 this week.

“Certainly the historical link is a big one but also the difficulty of the race cannot be underestimated, especially given the aggressive cut off times in the early stages which forces a runner to move very quickly at a time when ideally you would be conserving some of your energy.

“Finally, the people and the support along the way are remarkable. Some of them can barely take care of their families given the economic times in Greece, yet they are out supporting us runners with enthusiasm and energy. The human factor is a big one.”

As he tells filmmakers Barney Spender and Roddy Gibson, Karnazes has “gained some notoriety” as an ultra athlete. His epiphany came at the age of 30, when he decided to go on a run at the end of a night out and realised he could push himself beyond his limits.

Karnazes eventually quit his job to focus on running and the challenges he set himself gradually became more spectacular. He ran a marathon at the South Pole in 2002 and two years later won the 2004 Badwater Ultramarathon – a 135-mile trek across the Death Valley desert in California. In 2006, he finished 50 marathons in 50 US states over 50 consecutive days.

Aged 52 in 2014, Karnazes added another level of difficulty for the Spartathlon. To be as faithful as possible to the original trial, he tried to replicate the conditions that Pheidippides ran in. That meant no energy bars or drinks other than water, which led to an even more uncomfortable experience.

“It was more difficult than what I had anticipated,” the Californian native says. “Training for eight hours eating only figs was fine but eating figs for 24 hours created a lot of stomach issues. I won’t go into detail but it wasn’t pretty.”

Karnazes says The Road to Sparta “captured the race experience perfectly” and that watching it moved him to tears.

The goal of the race is to reach the feet of Leonidas, the fifth-century Greek warrior-king whose statue marks the finishing line in Sparta. Many do not make it that far.

Running in searing heat and then wearing headlamps when darkness descends and temperatures drop as they reach mountainous terrain, the odds are stacked against the athletes. In that sense, the 60-minute film is a study of human suffering but also of courage, perseverance and mental fortitude. The addictive nature of pursuing such a dream is also in evidence.

“I think many people fail at the first attempt at the Spartathlon,” Karnazes says. “There are so many elements that all must come together in synchronicity to finish the Spartathlon. Even many elites fail to finish on their first attempt.

“It goes beyond physical strength and mental toughness into the realm of the spiritual. To finish the Spartathlon you must tap into the enduring might of the human spirit. I think the film illustrates this perfectly.”

Albeit on a more modest scale, 20,000 people will require similar resilience when they compete in this weekend’s Dublin City Marathon. So what advice would Karnazes have for those who are hoping to push their boundaries in the coming days and weeks – whether it is for a half, full or ultra marathon?

“Hope for the best but plan for the worst,” he says.

“For every athlete, things will go wrong at a point. How will you persevere when that moment arrives?

“They say that without war, we do not know if we are heroes or cowards. The marathon gives us that war. It is the ultimate proving ground.”

Karnazes, who has written a book about his Spartathlon experience, has little more to prove. Next year though, he is planning to run a marathon in every country in the world over a 12-month time span. The “true magic” of the endeavour, he hopes, will be getting locals to run with him when he visits.

“As you can imagine, the planning, logistics and sponsorship negotiations are every bit as complex and difficult as the running itself,” he says. “But I’m not giving up until it’s done.”

The Road to Sparta is being screened at the Light House cinema in Smithfield, Dublin on Saturday October 28 at 11am followed by a Q&A with the directors. Tickets are available here with all proceeds going to the Irish Heart Foundation.

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Mark Rodden

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