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
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.’