The Rough and Rocky Road to Sparta

TheRoadToSpartaThis is going to be interesting. Very interesting.  A test of mind and body. Sleep deprivation, hunger, inevitable unforeseen problems threatening to derail the best laid plans. At times over the course of the 36 hours, there will be laughter; at others real pain and darkness.

Ultimately though, it will be crowned with the glow of completing a task that once seemed completely beyond our limitations; that Julius Caesar moment of “Veni, vidi, vici”.

I am talking about the Spartathlon, the 246 kilometre ultramarathon which starts 7am in Athens on Friday and ends 7pm in Sparta.

But I am not just talking about the runners. I am talking about those who work the touchlines; the administrators, the support crews and my own team, the men and women who are putting together The Road to Sparta, a documentary about the running of the race.

After 30 years as a sports writer and commentator, I am about to get my first taste of directing a film. It is exciting but, like the runners we will be filming, it is also daunting. Can I do it? Can I tell the story? Can I get the unity of style between four different cameras? Can I match my ambition with talent? Will my runners all finish or will they all drop out? What about Pheidippides?

The Road to Sparta has been a long time in the brewing. I first encountered the Spartathlon while living in Greece in 2006. I loved it. I covered it each year until 2009. Since then, it has been at the back of my mind. It would make a good film. The history. The landscape. The extraordinary deeds of men and women, reaching beyond their known capabilities.


Two years ago, I drew up a treatment but it was lacking in definition and it fell between the cracks. I got a full-time job and it receded further into the background.

Then, in March, a terrible thing happened. An old friend from university days in Dublin, Dessie Kirkpatrick, was diagnosed with cancer and died within a few hours. He was 51. It was an awful shock for everyone who knew him.

Roddy Gibson on location. He is Director of Photography on The Road to Sparta
Roddy Gibson on location. He is Director of Photography on The Road to Sparta

The night before the funeral I stayed with Roddy Gibson. Donald Clarke was there too. And Glenn Johnston. The years rolled away. There was a depth to the conversation that there rarely is with friends made later in life. No explanations were needed for anything.

At the funeral, we rubbed shoulders with many men and women that we had known as students over a quarter of a century before. Beneath the grief lay laughter and camaraderie and a warmth that came simply by being in the same room as these people who had seen each other emerge from the cocoon and take flight.

It suddenly seemed ridiculous that we only saw each other occasionally. And never worked together.

“You know what Rod,” I whispered to him. “We are going to make that film together.”

When we left TCD, Roddy, Don and I shared digs in East Finchley, the grotty ground floor of a house with damp-greased walls and a single-bar electric heater. Donald and I both had jobs in London theatres – Don was in the box office of the Palace while I worked the stage door at the Mermaid. Rod, meanwhile, continued being a student. He went to Middlesex Poly to study film. I would argue that my finest moment as an actor on celluloid – apologies to Clare Grogan for this – came in Rod’s first student film Wednesday, a two-hander where the woman speaks all the lines and the man just reacts. Oh, and downs a pint of milk which spills down his naked torso.

“It’s all in your dimples, Barney,” Roddy would chide kindly.

When he finished his course he set up a small company and for the next gazillion years worked busily on corporate videos, short films, crewing for other people on bigger films. He learnt his trade inside and out. So well in fact that he returned to Middlesex – now a university – to head up their Film and Video department.

He knew about the Sparta film. He had been one of the few I had trusted to discuss it in the very early stages of germination.

A few days after the funeral I read a Tweet from the actor Hugh Laurie. It went like this:

“It’s a terrible thing, I think, to wait in life until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that no one is ever actually ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”

Dr House had nailed it. I had been thinking ahead too much, putting problems in the way of action. Laurie had nailed it. Just do it.

That Tweet led to a late night email to Roddy. He agreed to come on board as Director of Photography – the man who will tell me I know stuff about where to point a camera – and the rest began to slip into place.


I found three runners, three-time finisher Mark Woolley and two guys he was mentoring, Rob Pinnington and Nick Papageorge, who had both tried and failed in the past.

Unfortunately Nick had to drop out through injury but he will be in Greece, operating as support crew for Rob.

There are a lot of women who tackle the Spartathlon and I wanted that to be reflected in the film as well. And so Angela Terzi, an Athenian nurse running the race for the first time, came into view. And then, thanks to one of my New York connections George Stephanopoulos, currently producing Swing Away, a golf comedy in Crete, came the news that Dean Karnazes was running the race for the first time as well.

Dean Karnazes has won Badwater but is entering the Spartathlon for he first time
Dean Karnazes has won Badwater but is entering the Spartathlon for the first time

Karnazes is well known in the ultra world. You name it he appears to have run it. If you want to get a measure of his engine, cop this: in 2007 he ran 50 marathons in 50 states of the US in 50 days. His wife must love him because she could easily have had him certified.

This is a review of his excellent book Ultramarathon Man

We spoke and Dean leapt at the chance to work together on the film, not least because I wanted to bring in the Pheidippides element. He was the runner in 490BC that was sent from Athens to Sparta to try and get reinforcements to face the Persians at Marathon. According to Herodotus “he arrived the next day” thus setting in motion the whole Spartathlon movement.

Dean is writing a book about Pheidippides and intends to run the Spartathlon on the same diet of grapes, olvies, figs, dried meat and water.

At the same time, I was trying to gather crew and raise money. Family members helped; my daughter took the camera as I shot a short teaser trailer which my brother Henry edited (see below). Friends rushed out of the woodwork. My old co-presenter at Athens International Radio, Helen Skopis, began working on the Athens end of the operation while Manos Arvanitis designed the poster you see at the top of this article. Ioannis Melissanidis, the gymnast turned actor, agreed to do a voiceover for Herodotus.

James Phillipson, the herald for the Greek olive industry in the UK, immediately pledged financial support; Michael Lawrence, a painter, I knew from Hydra produced a painting that could be used as bait in the crowd-funding. It is gorgeous. I wish I could keep it. Music producer Clive Martin and the band Old House Playground both signed up to make the soundtrack without a thought for financial reward.

Anyone who contributes on the crowd-funding site has a chance of winning Michael Lawrence's specially commissioned work The Road to Sparta
Anyone who contributes on the crowd-funding site has a chance of winning Michael Lawrence’s specially commissioned work The Road to Sparta

When the crowd-funding opened, the funds began to roll in. One of George Stephanopoulos’ collaborators on Swing Away, Tom Hiotis, came on board as an Executive Producer.

We could still use some funding as the budget is tight so if you are able to contribute go to our crowd-funding page here.

Marketing Greece and Aegean Airlines both helped on the flights while the Spartathlon organisers have bent over backwards to help. It has been thrilling and just a little humbling. A lot of people putting their faith in you has that effect.

Tonight I fly to Athens, the race begins in Athens on Friday and ends in Sparta on Saturday. The 300 or so athletes who will start the race have my full admiration.

As do my crew of volunteers who are only on the first lap of putting together something which I hope will do justice to this most remarkable of races.


©Barney Spender 2014

Follow me on Twitter @bspender