Seek Transcendence in Greece
Runners Seek Transcendence in Greece
by Claire Nana
by Claire Nana
Dean Karnazes once wrote, “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra.”
This year, 400 athletes from 56 countries will gather together at the Acropolis, in Athens to toe the start line of what they hope might be their chance to experience something extraordinary.
They will run westward from the Acropolis toward the Corinth Canal on the Isthmus of Corinth that connects the Pelopennes to mainland Greece, eventually traverse Mount Parthenon, and finish, 153 miles later, in Sparta, in a race known as much for its history as for its grueling test of human endurance.
The Spartathlon began in 1982 as an attempt by five Royal Air Force officers to trace the path of Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger sent to Sparta in 490 BC to seek help against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. As Herodotus, a Greek historian accounts, the run would have taken place in less than 36 hours and so part of the test was not only to attempt to complete the course, but to do so in less than a day and a half.
When three of the five – John Foden, John Scholtens, and John McCarthy successfully finished in (37:37), (34:30) and (39:00), respectively, the competition became official a year later in 1983.
To many it is considered the most prestigious race in the world, and one that traverses incredible countryside. To the runners themselves, it is a journey that tours an inner landscape, asking questions of honor, determination, fortitude, and honesty.
In ultrarunning there are no shortcuts, no hacks, and no advantages. No amount of money, fame, or envious collection of sponsors will get you there any faster. There are no masks that can be worn, excuses that can be made, or defenses one can hide behind.
It is simply you and the challenge that lies ahead.
However, it is also a set of conditions that aligns perfectly for what Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience calls growth of the self. He writes, “Following a flow experience, the organization of the self is more complex than it had been before. It is by becoming increasingly complex that the self might be said to grow. Complexity is the result of two broad psychological processes: differentiation and integration. Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration refers to its opposite: a union with other people, with idea and entities beyond the self.”
In flow there is a loss of self-conscious, a merging of action and awareness, an intense focus and concentration, a sense of personal control and agency, a feeling that time dilates – appears to become shorter or longer – and a feeling that one is doing something that is intrinsically rewarding.
To enter flow, the challenge must be high enough that it asks us to reach beyond ourselves, to forgo our doubts, let go of our fears, and move beyond our illusions of safety.
It is a transcendence from what was to what can be. In the words of Steven Kotler, the author of The Rise of Superman, flow is “a rare and radical state of consciousness where the impossible become possible.”
Flow moves us beyond our restricted circle of being, beyond our calculations of our potential, and taps into what philosopher, physician, and psychologist William James calls “our soul’s resources.”
In flow there is an expansion of the self, a sense of unity, a meaningfulness in life, and a feeling that all is as it should be. The experience, says, Abraham Maslow, “lingers in ones’ consciousness and gives a sense of purpose, integration, self-determination, and empathy.”
And it brings runners back year after year to once again take the challenge – to trace the steps of Pheidipiddes, to touch the feet of Leonidas, to lay it all on the line and find out what they are really made of.
For some runners, like Hungarian Andras Law, who completed the race an astounding 22 times, it is race that has earned a permanent place on his calendar. And for others, simply qualifying for the race is a challenge.
With qualification standards for males at a time less than 21 hours in a hundred mile race, or 114 miles in 24 hours, and for females a time of less than 22 hours in a hundred mile race, or 106 miles in 24 hours, the intention is to accept only the few who are truly prepared to complete the race.
Runners must be fast enough to meet the race’s sharp cutoff times – approximately 50 miles in 9 hours, 75 miles in 15 hours, 99 miles in 22 hours, 135 miles in 32 hours and finally 153 miles in 36 hours – and yet patient enough to pace themselves for the arduous task ahead.
Some runners will go out too fast, expend too much energy chasing the leaders, race above their pace and falter early. Some will go too slow, unable to give themselves enough of a buffer, only to miss a cutoff by a matter of minutes.
The race requires no less than a runners best, and in the end, it delivers no less either. It is, as the French runner, Gilles Pallaruelo shared with me, “where I go to become my best self.”
For Bob Hearn, an American runner who will return for the third time, the race requires a “balance of patience and planning.” For other runners, like Eric Spencer, who was unable to compete in 2017 due to Hurricane Irma, gaining a second chance at the race has sharpened his focus and molded him into a better person.
Some runners call the race a rite of passage, and for Dean Karnazes, who will run for a second time, the magic found there is “palpable and undeniable.”
For Andrei Nana, who organizes the US team and will run for a sixth time, the race is home – a place that offers a mirror to the soul to look inside, find out who we really are, and hopefully emerge better for the experience.
This year, 15 runners
from the United States will compete in the Spartathlon.
The 2018 U.S. Spartathlon Team
Claire Nana M.A. frequently writes for many organizations including Professional Development Resources, International Sport Science Association, and Zur Institute. She is also the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks Into Springboards.