The 2014 US Spartathlon Team
By Andrei Nana
In a recent statistic published by the International Spartathlon Association[i], US participation was listed with a mere 8%, one of the lowest percentages of “Western” countries.
While the Spartathlon is not a very well known race in the US, the rest of the ultrarunning world considers it the most elite ultramarathon on the planet. The race seems basic, 153 miles of mostly road with several miles of trails (the “mountain”) and with a cut off time of 36 hours. But the difficulty is disguised perhaps in the several intermediary cut off points which, if not made, cause immediate disqualification. The most ominous of these cutoff points occurs at 50 miles (80kilometers) which means that athletes have to run the fastest pace during the hottest part of the day. The challenge for athletes is tremendous as the temperatures rise to 90F with high humidity – 60-70% -- during the day and drop to upper 30sF during the night.
But this is exactly what was originally intended when the race was modeled after the epic run made by a Greek soldier to warn the Spartans of the impeding Persian invasion and ask King Leonidas for help. Historian Herodotus writes in his texts that Pheidippides – the famous Greek soldier -- left Athens one morning and reached Sparta before night fall of the next day. With this incredible feat, Pheidippides became a legend[ii]. Yet, for thousands of years thereafter historians and sport enthusiasts debated the accuracy of Herodotus’ story.
To test the accuracy of Herodotus account, in 1982 five British officers/endurance runners decided to attempt the run from Athens to Sparta, in the time made by Pheidippides. After consulting with professors from the Cambridge University - History Department and determining the most likely route taken by Pheidippides based on the descriptive landmarks, they started running. When one athlete – John Foden -- completed the run in under 36 hours, the Spartathalon became a reality, and in 1983, the best ultrarunners in the world were invited to take part in the inaugural race.
Every year thereafter, 350 of the best athletes in the world have received invitations (following an application and qualification process) to participate the last weekend of September in the most elite race on the planet.
Yet while countries such as Germany, Greece, Japan, France, England and others have very well organized teams, for the American athletes, the Spartathlon is still an “unknown” race. Surprisingly, many do not know that Scott Jurek – the author of Eat and Run -- won the race three times. But the American presence at the start line is increasing slowly and this year’s representation – 13 runners – is the largest ever.
So while last year three out of the five American starters, Brenda Carawan, Blake Benke, and Andrei Nana touched the feet of the King Leonidas’ statue in Sparta – the “official finish” this year, 13 Americans will carry the US flag.
The 13 Americans representing the US are:
- Eduardo Enrique Aguilar, bib #3, chiropractor/ultrarunner. Finisher of 6 races of 100(+)miles or 24hrs.
- Maggie Beach, bib # 44, ultrarunner. Finisher of 11 races of 100(+)miles or 24hrs, including the Barzil 135m and Badwater.
- Bryce Carlson, bib # 391, professor/ultrarunner. Finisher of 9 race of 100(+)miles or 24hrs.
- Dean Karnazes, bib # 95, business owner/ultrarunner/writer. Finisher of 28 races of 100(+)miles or 24hrs, including Badwater and UTMB.[iii] Author of the best-selling book, the Ultramarathon Man[iv].
- David Krupski, bib # 341, attorney/ultrarunner/coach. Finisher of 13 races of 100(+)miles or 24hrs, including the UltraMilano-SanRemo 175m and Badwater. Founder of the Zwitty Endurance Training Program[v].
- Katalin Nagy, bib # 235, ultrarunner. Finisher of 3 races of 100(+)mile or 24hrs, including the UltraBalaton 212km and part of the US 24hrs National Team.
- Andrei Nana, bib # 257, attorney/ultrarunner/writer. Finisher of 21 races of 100(+)miles or 24hrs, including the UltraMilano-Sanremo 175m, the UltraBalaton 212km, and the Spartathlon. Founder of the International 100+ UltraRunning Foundation, Inc[vi]. and Race Director for Icarus Florida UltraFest[vii].
- Jonathan Olsen, bib # 324, professor/ultrarunner. Finisher of 24 races of 100(+)miles or 24(+)hrs and part of the US National 24hrs Team.
- Chad Ricklefs, bib # 60, ultrarunner/coach. Finisher of 4 races of 100(+)miles.
- Donna Utakis, bib # 368, ultrarunner. Finisher of 22 races of 100(+)miles.
- William Zdon, bib # 204, engineer/ultrarunner. Finisher of 12 races of 100(+)miles or 24hrs including Badwater.
- Robert Youngren, bib #262, ultrarunner. Finisher of 17 races of 100(+)miles or 24hrs including Badwater.
- Mark Williams, bib # 81, ultrarunner. Finisher of 22 races of 100(+)miles or 24(+) hrs including the Spartathlon.
Living in the US but running under their native flags, is Behnam Kamrani (Iran) and Valmir Nunez (Brazil).
As a side note, Dean Karanzes is planning to attempt to run the race under the same conditions Pheidipides would have had available in 490BC part of research for his future book.
According to the ultramarathon man, “My intention during the run is to rely only upon those foods that Pheidippides -the original Greek hemerodromos (“all-day runner”) who completed this endeavor 2,500 years ago - would have had access to. Basically, this would be a paste made from crushed sesame seeds and honey, figs and other dried fruit and nuts. I am also restricting my fluid intake during the race to water alone, at about the intervals where there would have been a stream to access for hydration. Essentially I am trying to recreate the original run as best as possible. Reason being, it's for my next book which is a historical account of the Battle of Marathon.” – Dean Karnazes
So while Karnazes may want to run the race to emulate the famous Pheidippides crossing, many others see the race as a return to the roots of what ultrarunning really is – which is the ultimate test of physical and mental strength. And all who touch the feet of Leonidas, can attest that there is a profound transformation that takes place on the road to Sparta. And for those who will watch the upcoming movie, the Road To Sparta, which is intended to capture the spirit of the epic race, they will probably agree.
To paraphrase John Foden, the founder of the race, the Spartathlon is the perfect example of a race where people should not wish “Good Luck” to the athletes because if an athlete does not prepare properly for the race, no amount of luck will help them, and if they prepared then they do not need any luck. But for the 13 American athletes lining up on September 26th, we can wish them a great race.
Their progress at the race can be tracked live through the Spartathlon Website.
[ii] The Modern Library edition of Rawlinson's text, published under the title of The Persian Wars by Herodotus, 1942
[iv] Ultramarathon Man: http://www.ultramarathonman.com/web/