Kissing the feet of Leonidas

Peloponnese doc festWhen a runner completes the 246-kilometre Spartathlon he or she earns a rare privilege. A last stretch of honour up the main drag in Sparta, soaking up the applause of the  crowds, the blisters and fatigue accrued over the last day and a half  forgotten for an instant. And the sight of Leonidas, the statue of the great Spartan king, looking proudly, sternly and defiantly in the direction of Thermopylae, the site of his glorious last stand.

Some runners bound effortlessly up the steps towards the statue, others shuffle steadily towards the great prize. Their name is called out, a young Spartan woman steps forward to present them with an olive wreath for their head and a bowl of cool sacred spring water.

But first they pay homage. This is the moment of truth, when the pain and effort not just of the last two days pays off but of the last few months or even years of dedication and training.

When the runner reaches the statue of Leonidas they lay a hand on his foot. Then they bend slightly and kiss it. And clutch it some more. Some might choose to lay a flushed cheek against the bronze.

No big fat cheque, no multi-million sponsorship deal for completing the greatest race. Just the chance to kiss the feet of Leonidas. It is a beautiful moment.

For the last four and a half years I have dreamed of kissing the feet of Leonidas, of earning that right.

Last month I did it.

The RTS crew in Sparta: Standing Marius, Roddy, Barney. Seated: Tryfon, Andreas, Vasilios (Photo: Marius Ulevicius, 2014)

As some of you may know – apologies for the barrage of articles and tweets you have had to put up with – I made a documentary film called The Road to Sparta. It is a 60-minute feature about four runners who take on the race, interwoven with the tale of Pheidippides and set within the context of an Athens facing the threat not of the Persian but of Austerity.

On a shoestring budget my co-director Roddy Gibson and I shot the 2014 race and then spent the next two years editing before its Athens premiere in October 2016.

The shoot was tough. Not as tough as for the runners perhaps but arduous nonetheless.

We arose at 4am on race day and didn’t sleep again until the following evening.

I lie. As the driver, I insisted on an hour’s kip somewhere near Nestani in the dead of night. With Andreas and Tryfon composing music in the back of the van, we were back and forth up and down the road tracking our runners, lugging kit, setting up, jumping back in the vehicle, taking wrong turns, constantly planning the next move and stressing about the state of Mark, Dean, Angie and Rob, the four guys we were following. Would any of them finish the race? (No spoilers, you can breathe easy).

When we had completed the race shoot and the post-race interviews the following morning, we knew we had the bones of a decent film but we recognised that we hadn’t actually finished our Spartathlon. Hence no one from the crew even thought about kissing the feet of Leonidas.

The Spartans arrive to pay tribute to Leonidas (Photo: Spartathlon)

Pushing the film forward in the post-production was equally tough. Once a month I would hop on the Eurostar in Paris and spend the next four days editing with Roddy in London. It went forward slowly and steadily, like many of the runners. The music came in from the musicians at Old House Playground and the poems from Alicia Stallings. It all took time and patience.

Even after the Athens premiere we weren’t done. Roddy and I spotted some small points that we could improve on, notably the sound. We went back into edit mode and cleaned it up, making a couple of small cuts in the process to help the rhythm and dramatic impetus of the film.

The film went on the road in 2018 with festivals in Europe, Africa, Australia and the US, picked up some prizes along the way – Best Director at the Enginuity Festival in Las Vegas, Best Documentary at Satisfied Eye in Epsom and Best Poetry at the Motion Pictures Film Festival in Lagos – but we closed the circle when we were selected to screen at last month’s Peloponnese International Documentary Film Festival.

We were given two screenings, one to close the festival in Kalamata and the other a day earlier … in Sparta.

This was the moment.

Kyriakos Liarakos was my driver for the day and another director Rajesh James, an exciting young filmmaker from India, came with us for the ride. Rajesh had never been to Sparta and so the three of us strolled through the archaeological site. We strode through the ancient theatre and climbed up to the Akropolis, looking out across the rooftops of modern Sparta to the mountains where the ancients would abandon their children to test their strength.

Kissing the feet of Leonidas
Barney Spender finally gets to kiss the feet of Leonidas (Pic: Kyriakos Liarakos)

There was no feast of Carneian Apollo to whisk us back in time, just sporadic cheers from a lively crowd watching the local junior football team in the nearby stadium.

We had parked close to the statue of Leonidas. I couldn’t help myself being drawn up the steps. I turned to my two companions.

“It has taken over four years to get here. But tonight we screen in Sparta. We have earned this.”

And with that, and on behalf of everyone who has helped with the making of The Road to Sparta, I finally got to kiss the feet of Leonidas.


I would like to offer a special thank you to Aegean Airlines for organising my flights between Paris and Athens and to Gina Petropoulou and her team for their hospitality and friendship during a wonderful festival.

©Barney Spender 2019

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