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The Road To Sparta: The Story Of One Of The World’s Greatest Ultramarathoners

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Snapshot

Part autobiography, part history – the story of one of the world’s greatest ultramarathoners and the one race he wanted to run.

I was at the book launch for The Road to Sparta, legendary ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes’ fourth book at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, California. When I entered the bookstore, the store lady said: “Dean is out on a run, he should be back any time.” What else do you expect the man to be doing, even if it was raining heavily outside and minutes before his book launch? When I finally caught sight of Dean, he was barefooted, sweating (or perhaps a little wet from the rain) and was patiently speaking to everyone who had come for the launch. While his Ultramarathon Man has become the bible for all long-distance runners, The Road to Sparta is perhaps his most extraordinary. As a passionate amateur marathoner myself, I found it insightful, rich, poetic, complex and inspiring.

For Dean, the road to Sparta began with a story he first heard from his father, a story that would haunt him for the rest of his professional running life. The true story of Pheidippides, hemerodromoi – a Greek foot herald who, in 490 BCE, ran for 36 hours non-stop from Athens to Sparta to convey a message about an impending Persian invasion – and then back to Marathon via Athens; an act that would eventually inspire the marathon race as we know it today. The true origins of marathon running lie here, and not, as many mistakenly assume, with the first Olympics in ancient Greece. The marathon as an event would feature in the Olympics only centuries later.

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Pheidippides giving word of victory after the Battle of Marathon (Luc-Olivier Merson/Wikimedia Commons)
Pheidippides giving word of victory after the Battle of Marathon (Luc-Olivier Merson/Wikimedia Commons)

Dean’s book has two parallel narratives: a full and scholarly account of Pheidippides and the tradition of the hemerodromoi set in the context of ancient Greece’s city-state culture, and Dean’s own life story; from his grandfather’s arrival in America as an immigrant from Greece to his own growth as a runner, culminating in his preparing, training and running the Spartathlon – a 153-mile footrace from Athens to Sparta that follows Pheidippides’ route as far as possible. (The race particularly fired Dean’s passion because of his Greek ancestry.)

He also decides to re-enact Pheidippides’ great feat by nourishing and sustaining himself only on the things the ancient ultramarathoner himself did – fruits and cured meats. Road to Sparta takes the reader deep into the extreme-endurance sport that is the ultramarathon, and the inner life of a remarkable athlete who gave up a million-dollar-a-year job to run. While Dean writes about the running life in evocative and poetic tones, he also provides a treat for history buffs, separating myth from reality about Pheidippides’ heroic achievement, which he unfolds bit by bit, in a suspenseful manner, savouring and saving the best part for the last chapter.

To cite only a handful of Dean’s accomplishments – he has run across Death Valley in 120-degree Fahrenheit heat (49C), run in the South Pole at -40 degrees, and has run 50 marathons in 50 states on 50 consecutive days. “My point,” he notes in this memoir, “is that the annals of history have grossly underrecognised the significance of Pheidippides’s superhuman act…For me, the quest was deeply personal.”

In high school, Dean’s coach would tell his runners,

Run with your hearts and your body will follow. If the heart grows weary and uninspired, stop. If the heart remains impassioned and burning with desire, go. It was a simple philosophy, one that made sense to me. My heart was ablaze, so I went with it.

His school was raising money for the library, and since his mother was a teacher, he decided to participate. If you ran five laps, you raised $50. Some ran 10 laps and raised $100. Each lap was a quarter mile. One remarkable student did 40 laps and raised $400.

And then, very casually, Karnazes drops this bomb: “I ran 105 laps.” And raised the most money. He describes the excruciating pain and agony of the last laps. At one time, everything blurs, and he is gripped by waves of nausea. But he completes it, and after that, he begins focusing on extreme athletics.

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Ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes participates in the 10th Annual URBANATHLON  in San Francisco, California. (Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Men’s Health)
Ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes participates in the 10th Annual URBANATHLON in San Francisco, California. (Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Men’s Health)

In ancient Greece’s city-state culture, foot heralds or messengers who relayed vital messages were consciously developed and cultivated to form a means of communication that would not fail. The hemerodromoi were chosen not only for their athletic prowess but also for their lineage and upbringing. They had to be trustworthy, and people of upstanding character. Pheidippides came from a respected Athenian family, and the first message he was trusted with happened to be something that would become essential to the survival of democracy and eventually Western civilisation. It looked like the Persians would conquer the Greeks at Marathon (which literally means “a field of fennel”) and it was vital for Pheidippides to get word to Sparta of the impending invasion.

When Dean discovered he could not literally re-enact the same running course, he settled for the Spartathlon.

The Spartathlon is one of the most grueling endurance contests on earth. To prepare for the challenge, running 100 miles a week or more became the norm…this 153-mile footrace…is an insanely long distance to run, but the rules also impose strict cutoff times between checkpoints…for instance, racers must cover the first 81 km in fewer than 9.5 hours or face disqualification.

For Dean, this is what made the Spartathlon special; ultramarathoning that is not just about personal achievement, endurance or winning, but something beyond the physical. The US Olympian Meb Keflezighi said it best when he wrote that Dean in his memoir “reveals something much deeper about the power of running: the road leads us not only toward the finish line, but toward our true selves.”

When I ran my first half-marathon (21km) at the Airtel Half Marathon in Delhi in 2008, I remember that at the 16km mark, I felt I would not be able to complete the race. My legs were paining like hell, and I wanted to give up.

Then something unbelievable happened. I heard someone breathing heavily, slowly overtaking me. He had a message on the back of his T-shirt: “Mr Roy – Born 1932”. When I read that message, my mind calculated that the man who had just overtaken me was 76 years old! I thought to myself, if a 76-year-old man could complete the race, I too should be able to. I then ran the last 5 km, just keeping my eye on his T-shirt, oblivious of the immense physical pain.

I could relate very well to one of the things Dean said in his talk at the launch: “You run the first half of the race with your legs, the last half with your mind.”