My first encounter with Dean Karnazes came in the early summer of 2014. I was about to embark on my first documentary feature about the legendary Spartathlon, the 246-kilometre ultra-marathon between Athens and Sparta and was talking to my friend George Stephanopoulos, a film producer in New York.
“You should get in touch with a guy called Dean Karnazes. He is pretty well known over here,” said George.
“He has published some books and is the go-to guy for running. I don’t know if he is running Spartathlon but it would be worth reaching out to him.”
Five minutes after our call ended, an email landed with Dean’s contact details.
Before reaching out, I thought best to check him out. The name rang a bell but I really didn’t know anything about this man.
I learnt pretty quickly that Dean was one of the most influential runners in the world. His first book Ultramarathon Man had been an international best-seller and his appearances on talk shows in the US had made him one of Sport’s Illustrated most influential contemporary athletes. He had run and won plenty of tough races, including the Vermont Trail 100 and Badwater, but as far as I could see had never run Spartathlon.
This was slightly surprising. He was in his early 50s, a Greek-American, passionate about taking on the most difficult races in the world. And yet he had never run Spartathlon, one of the most brutal simply because of the relentless nature of the cut-off times.
When I picked up the phone I wasn’t overly confident that he would want to be involved in the film. When I put the phone down 40 minutes later, I was elated. Not only did he like my ideas for the film, which included working in the story of Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon, but he also revealed that he had decided to run it that year for the first time.
“It has been at the back of my mind for some time but my schedule has never allowed it,” he said.
“But I want to write a book about Pheidippides and the only way I can find out about him is to do what he did.”
Bingo! Not only was Dean going to run Spartathlon but he was going to do it on what became known as “The Pheidippides Diet”; cured ham, olives, a honey-sesame combination called pasteli. And water. As Dean would later say: “Gatorade didn’t exist 25 hundred years ago.”
And yes, following our conversation Dean also agreed to be one of the four runners who were to be the focus of my film which serendipitously shares its title with Dean’s subsequent book – The Road to Sparta.
I was surprised to read that Karnazes had spent so little time in Greece prior to running the Spartathlon. The early part of the book peels away layers of Americanness to reveal the Greek boy within.
He finds Silimna, the little village in the Peleponnese where his dad had grown up and the bell that used to summon him to dinner in the house that is now a ruin. Konstantinos (his full Greek name which has been reduced to Dean) then has a problem as he tries to reconcile the romance and beauty of one snapshot of rural Greece with the trash and chaos of another.
We say a road but, as anyone who has run any distance knows, this is a loose term, especially for those who run, walk and crawl from Athens to Sparta.
The road is at times a three-lane highway with trucks rumbling past at 120 kph, at other times a tight and steep mountain pass that has to be negotiated in the middle of the night with only the cicadas for company. One moment you are stepping through olive groves, the next you are winding your way around an oil terminal; the smell of noxious gases and the sight of dead dogs bloating by the roadside give way to the scent of the vineyards and the bucolic pastures of Pan’s own Arcadia.
“It was a very conflicted experience,” he says in the film when he looks back at his time on the road.
Spurred on by the classicist, Professor Paul Cartledge of Cambridge University, and the Pheidippides expert Pamela-Jane Shaw, Karnazes does a good job in tracking the events that led up to Pheidippides’ famous run in 490BC, the precursor to one of the greatest battles in western civilization. The Athenians needed support in taking on the Persians who had landed at the Bay of Marathon.
Pheidippides was a hemerodromos, a professional runner and messenger, a man with enough experience and authority to parlay with a king like Leonidas. He was dispatched to Sparta in a bid to bring back reinforcements and, according to Herodotus, the only half-reliable source on this stretch of history, he arrived in Sparta the day after leaving Athens.
It is that line that has been responsible for a bucketload of blisters since the Spartathlon started in 1983; the runners have to reach Sparta within 36 hours.
Not surprisingly Karnazes focuses plenty on the mental aspect of running such long distances.
“A warrior has confidence, yet he is not blinded by foolhardiness. He knows that victory is never assured, regardless of one’s abilities. Mastering the mind requires an intimate awareness of one’s weaknesses and shortcomings as well as the mindfulness to mitigate and overcome such vulnerabilities. A warrior is humble and unassuming, knowing that despite possessing great strength and discipline, triumph must be earned every day.”
His own quest to reach the finish line is a tough one. Apart from the usual challenges of the distance and the pace, he has to deal with a diet which lends him no favours. Figs can have a distractingly unpleasant and swift effect on the digestive system, the lack of modern runners’ food like gels and electrolyte drinks saw his system start to shut down. The pain is just as real as the option of giving up.
He is also constantly being waylaid by well-wishers, autograph-hunters (“I have a certain notoriety in the running community”) and pesky film crews, especially at the Corinth stop 80 kilometres into the race.
“A large crowd had assembled awaiting my arrival. People were holding books, posters, magazines and mementos for me to sign. It was concurrently heartwarming and horrific. There were a number of reporters there, along with TV crews and newscasters. All I wanted was a few peaceful moments to address my foot and choke down some pasteli, yet all I was seeing in front of me was a sea of adoring fans and followers…The reporters cut a swathe through the masses and demanded that I conduct interviews with their stations first …The deafening noise and commotion was disorienting and I just stood there in a daze like a puppet…All I wanted was to run the Spartathlon and suddenly I had media obligations. I’d never signed up for any of this.”
Well, apart from agreeing to work with me on my documentary, which he did without complaint.
Karnazes associates himself with Pheidippides to the point that he describes himself running to save democracy. And he is humbled and awe-struck by the performance of his ancient Greek forerunner. With all respect to the classicists, Karnazes gets Pheidippides better than any of them. That simple understanding of the pain and demands that such a run makes on a runner is worth its weight in figs on the history front too.
Does he make it all the way to Sparta? Well, no spoilers here; you will have to read the book or see the film for the answer to that one.
The Road to Sparta is published by Rodale Books
©Barney Spender 2016
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