An an­cient race with con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance

Short-listed for UK award, Spar­tathlon doc­u­men­tary ‘The Road to Sparta’ gets to the heart of what makes it such a unique event

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY NICK MALKOUTZIS

When Bar­ney Spen­der ran the Athens Marathon in 2002, he prob­a­bly did not en­vis­age that run­ning in Greece and trac­ing the leg­endary steps of an­cient mes­sen­ger Phei­dip­pi­des would take up more than two years of his life in the fu­ture.

How­ever, Spen­der and his multi-tal­ented team of col­lab­o­ra­tors have fin­ished a years-long project to make a doc­u­men­tary about the Spar­tathlon, the 246-kilo­me­ter race run since 1983 in honor of Phei­dip­pi­des’ great­est achieve­ment – run­ning from Athens to Sparta in 490 BC to seek help in the fight against the Per­sians.

“The Road to Sparta” pre­miered in Athens last Oc­to­ber and was short-listed for the 2017 Bri­tish Sports Jour­nal­ism Awards, fin­ish­ing “Highly Com­mended.”

It is de­scribed as a love let­ter to the race and the as­tound­ing ded­i­ca­tion of those that run it. Per­haps, though, there is more to it than that. Af­ter all, themes such as the long road ahead, en­durance and ex­haus­tion are all very rel­e­vant in Greece at the mo­ment. Spen­der, who spent sev­eral years liv­ing and work­ing in Greece just be­fore the cri­sis broke out, spoke to Kathimerini English Edi­tion about mak­ing the doc­u­men­tary and the unique qual­i­ties of the Spar­tathlon and those who run it.

See­ing it. And cov­er­ing it as a jour­nal­ist. When I lived in Athens (2004-09) I got to see it at close range and I fell in love with the mad­ness of the event. I couldn’t be­lieve that these peo­ple would run 246 kilo­me­ters. And of course it was linked to the Bat­tle of Marathon, which suited my in­ner his­tory junkie. When I moved to France in 2009 I came back to do a ra­dio fea­ture for RFI and just thought even that wasn’t enough. It has to be seen to be be­lieved, this crazy odyssey across Greece. It has so many el­e­ments to it. Only a film could re­ally get into the heart of it.

At the start, for sure. I had in­ter­viewed Scott Jurek, who won the race three times, and the Bri­tish run­ner Emily Gelder and was fas­ci­nated by their sin­gle-mind­ed­ness, this abil­ity to close off the pain and just run and run and run. I was fas­ci­nated by the in­ner strength that en­abled them to carry on. In the film I ask Rob, one of our run­ners, about the prob­lem of blis­ters and he said it wasn’t a prob­lem: “Blis­ters are our friends,” he said. “They keep you awake at night.” That is nuts. I bloody hate blis­ters. To an ex­tent. In some ways it prompt- ed my cu­rios­ity on a cou­ple of lev­els. When I was train­ing to run marathons which are a mere 42 km, I found I could keep go­ing un­til I got bored, which was around the three-hour mark. As I have never been very fast this meant the last 10 to 12 kilo­me­ters was a real slog. So when I heard about Spar­tathlon and run­ners clock­ing six marathons back to back, I was fas­ci­nated. How the hell do you do it? I think where it also helped was that the run­ners them­selves ac­cepted me as another run­ner. And I could see when I could and couldn’t shove a mi­cro­phone up their nose. I loved the Athens Clas­sic Marathon, by the way. I ran it in 2002. I clocked about 4:40, which isn’t ex­actly world-record pace but I re­mem­ber al­most ev­ery step of the way. I spent large chunks of it singing “Men of Har­lech,” which may have alarmed a few of the other run­ners. Com­ing into the Kal­i­mar­maro and slowly tak­ing that fi­nal stretch to the line was eas­ily the peak of my own sport­ing achieve­ment.

The other thing about run­ning Athens in 2002 was Phei­dip­pi­des, I was full of the story about Marathon and him drop­ping dead in Athens etc. I hadn’t read Herodotus at that point and so didn’t know the true story. So when I did dis­cover the Sparta run... well, the Phei­dip­pi­des goal­posts moved. I knew I wasn’t go­ing to run it but I wanted to do the next best thing.

Very much so. They all came into run­ning via dif­fer­ent paths and use run­ning for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Rob started be­cause he wanted to lose weight, Angie started run­ning along­side her dad’s bike and just built up from a 5k, Dean was a suc­cess­ful cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive un­til he had a melt­down on his 30th birth­day and dis­cov­ered he could run a long dis­tance and still feel good. Mark just says he lives for chal­lenges like Spar­tathlon. They all have an in­cred­i­ble fo­cus.

All four of them were out­stand­ing with us on the shoot. Very trust­ing and very open to the warts-and-all treat­ment. From a dra­matic point of view I didn’t re­ally want all four to fin­ish but on a per­sonal level we were root­ing for all of them. When they were go­ing well it was great, when they were hurt­ing it wasn’t pleas­ant. The temp­ta­tion is to back off and be a sup­porter but we still had to get into their faces and show those bad mo­ments. And that goes on be­yond the shoot. It is there in the edit room as well as when you look back at the footage. There is some­thing very raw about a per­son who looks you square in the eye and says, “I failed.” You have to be truth­ful and sen­si­tive at the same time.

Yes, they are un­sung he­roes but I am not sure they par­tic­u­larly want to be sung. I get the im­pres­sion that they like the elite na­ture of the event. Only 350 run­ners get to take part each year – that’s all the ho­tel beds there are in Sparta. It is like be­ing one of Leonidas’ 300. At the start, there is a ca­ma­raderie akin to sol­diers go­ing over the top. The run­ners know that only about a third of them will com­plete the race. You half ex­pect a few strains of “Lili Mar­lene.” There is no cash prize for the Spar­tathlon win­ner, it is purely glory. That is very un­fash­ion­able in to­day’s sport­ing world where suc­cess is largely counted in fi­nan­cial terms. But these men and women just want the glory. Most of the credit for that has to go to the Spar­tathlon com­mit­tee. The or­ga­ni­za­tion and ethos is fan­tas­tic. It is eas­ily the best or­ga­nized sports event I have at­tended any­where in Greece. And, again, per­haps that has some­thing to do with money. The race or­ga­niz­ers are all vol­un­teers, not a gov­ern­ment-spon­sored ap­pa­ratchik in sight.

I have to say, though, that I am de­lighted that the Athens Marathon is fi­nally a proper city marathon. When I ran it in 2002 I think there was a to­tal of about 3,000 run­ners, maybe fewer. It de­serves to be a big event. It is great for Marathon and Athens and it is a fan­tas­tic course.

The Spar­tathlon is al­ready spe­cial. It is one of the great races in the world. But peo­ple can be shocked by the para­dox of mod­ern Greece. Dean Kar­nazes was cer­tainly taken aback. That first stretch past Elef­sina isn’t so lovely and Dean was not ex­actly en­am­ored about the can­cer­ous fumes and dead dogs. And yet you then get this amaz­ing tran­quil­ity of Ar­ca­dia and the run­ners climb Mount Parthe­nio with just the ci­cadas for com­pany. And that is what makes it spe­cial. The run is what it is. This is mod­ern Greece, not an­cient Greece. It isn’t a Dis­ney run. And it is cer­tainly no harder than it was 2,500 years ago when Phei­dip­pi­des did it. He was on his own, car­ry­ing his food, wary per­haps of ban­dits, know­ing that if he slipped and fell and twisted his an­kle, then his wife, fam­ily and friends back in Athens were screwed. He had real pres­sure on his shoul­ders.

(left) and co-di­rec­tor and pho­tog­ra­phy di­rec­tor Roddy Gib­son (right) dur­ing film­ing. Right: Run­ner Rob Pin­ning­ton, who de­scribes blis­ters as ‘friends.’

Bar­ney Spen­der

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