Next stop Sparta

There is plenty of nervous tension before the start of the Spartathlon in Athens with the runners well aware that the majority of them will not make it to Sparta

Athens. Friday morning. Five am. The night sky is black, no hint of dawn but already there is movement at the foot of the Acropolis. Men and women with clipboards scurry, technicians shout for gaffer tape as the arc lights slowly come on and begin to blaze across the marble flagstones. Birds, thinking they have been lamp-posted by dawn herself stretch and screech.

By six, the place will be swarming. Athletes, from all parts of the world milling around waiting for the 7am start of the 30th  Spartathlon, arguably the blue riband event in the world of ultra-marathoning.

Some stretch, others throw exaggerated physical jerks like something out of Monty Python; some gather in groups to exchange stories of past campaigns.

Elsewhere, runners swap cameras for the mandatory photo shoot while others will sit quietly on the ancient stones, glancing up at the crescent moon and contemplating the 246 kilometres of road and dirt path that stand between them and the finishing line in Sparta.

Emily Gelder needed a quiet moment to herself before the start of the 2010 edition: she was the first woman home in a new record time

“I had a solitary moment of calm just before the start where I sat on a bench and surveyed the scene of hundreds of excited runners about to set out on a journey that might make them or break them,” explained Welsh runner Emily Gelder, who was the first woman home in the 2010 race.

You half expect to see a couple sharing a cigarette, brewing up a mug of cocoa and launching into the opening strains of Lily Marlene.

Excitement, confidence, nervousness, uncertainty: each emotion picked out in the eyes and on the brow of each runner.

Just like the pilots who set off before a military mission or soldiers going over the top, they all know that some will not make it. There has never been a 100 per cent completion of the Spartathlon; not even 50 per cent.

Of the 330-odd starters, only around 120 will pad down the high street in Sparta and touch the toes of Leonidas before the 36-hour cut-off point – 7pm on Saturday evening. One year when the sun was blazing down, only 17 made it home, the others scattered like debris across the unforgiving hills of the Peloponnese.

The weather, of course, can help and there will be some anxious glances towards the sky as dawn finally begins to impose herself. A few clouds like smears of mascara across the face of the sky, may promise some protection but there will be an underlying concern that the sun will break through.

During the day, temperatures routinely top 30 degrees. At night it can drop to freezing; rain is a regular companion during the small hours, the time when the mind plays its worst tricks and the body shrieks for rest.

Scott Jurek on the road to victory in 2006, the first of three successive wins for the American

“You really do some incredible soul-searching,” three-times winner Scott Jurek told after his second win in 2007.

“It is like no other experience you will have as you have to go deeper into the soul and find out what one is made of.

“There are times when you have to call on things like meditation. I wish I could say it’s never entered my mind to quit. Of course, I have those feelings of discomfort and pain like everyone else but those are the times when you really have to dig deep.

“It’s hard but it’s part of the challenge. It’s very satisfying knowing you can get through that.”

The American Jurek and others talk of an out of body experience. Perhaps this is what Pheidippidis felt when, according to the historian Herodotus, he set off from Athens in 490BC to try and persuade the Spartans to send reinforcements to fight against the mighty Persian army of Darius I in what was to be the Battle of Marathon.

The runners follow the route believed to be that taken by Pheidippidis in 490BC

Herodotus says that Pheidippidis reached Sparta the day after setting off. After some consideration the Spartans told him they could not come immediately as they had to finish off a religious festival – at which point he set off back to Athens, apparently meeting the God Pan on the way back. Did he really meet Pan or was that one of those out of body, meditative-come-hallucinogenic experiences?

Emily Gelder is another who finds the long distance a zen-like experience.

“I am doing the thing I love to do most in the world. I can only liken it to meditation. A great run for me is one where I have achieved the state of mind that is ‘the void’, when I run and run and the miles just disappear.”

It was British RAF officer John Foden who, having read Herodotus wondered if it was really possible to run 246 kilometres and arrive the following day. In 1982 he put it to the test and proved that it was indeed possible.

The following year the Spartathlon was born. The record for completing the difficult course is Yiannis Kouros who did it in the ridiculous time of 20 hours 25 minutes in 1984 – that is a touch over 13 kilometres an hour for 20 hours.

For most, though, it is unknown territory. Their aim will be to make it within that 36-hour cut-off time.

As the countdown commences, there is a silliness about the smiles. The nervous tension is brimming over…and then they are off.

Ryoichi Sekiya touches the feet of the statue of Leonidas in Sparta to win the 2009 race in just over 23 hours

Waving to the bystanders and – with cheers and “good lucks” ringing in their ears – still smiling broadly, the 300 set off from the Acropolis and down towards Thisseo. From there they would snake westwards out of Athens, down to Corinth and then into the wine country of Nemea.

The winner will arrive in Sparta and salute the statue of King Leonidas somewhere between 4am and 6am on Saturday but how many others will follow him home to enjoy the party later that evening?

The 2012 Spartathlon begins in Athens on September 28 and ends in Sparta the following day.

©Barney Spender 2012