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Connecting Ultrarunners Across The Globe

International 100+ UltraRunning Foundation

Runners Seek Transcendence in Greece

by Claire Nana

September 2018

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

31 - Eric Spencer

32 - Andrei Nana

45 - Elaine Stypula

108 - Alex Anyse

121 - Otto Lam

124 - William Corley

125 - Jon Olsen

144 - Will Rivera

145 - John Fegyveresi

170 - George Myers

213 - Olaf Wasternack

236 - Matt Collins

311 - Bob Hearn

359 - Thomas Jackson

375 - Dean Karnazes

The races starts at 07:00 (am local Greece time zone) on Friday, September 28th 2018

For more info please visit the U.S. Spartathlon Team website

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 




twitter: @spartathlon_us

email: [email protected]

“My entire focus in running ultramarathons since my humble start in 2012 has been to hopefully gain a coveted spot in the Spartathlon—to me the world’s most prestigious ultra endurance event. In every training run over those 7 years, the thought of those 153 miles has driven me. It has molded me into a better person. It has sharpened my focus. And I’ve taken on some of the most challenging races around in those years. But they were mere stepping stones to the opportunity that I now have in the 2018 Spartathlon. The immense physical and mental challenge, the history, the camaraderie, the sense of accomplishment if one reaches the statue of King Leonidas—I’m hooked on all of that and more.”

"The Spartathlon is a mirror to the soul. Going through the race one can learn who he/she really is, that truth about ourselves we cannot see when you use different masks part of our social interactions. The race, the history, the pain, the exhaustion makes us receptive to truth, it makes us honest and it humbles us. At the end of it, we came out better versions of ourselves, hopefully better humans. The Spartathlon is the place where I feel totally at home."  

"To me, the Spartathlon Ultramarathon is a rite of passage. The 153 mile race run by Pheidippides in 490 B.C. from Athens to Sparta is legendary. All participants in this historic race have earned their places at the starting line. As a member of Team USA, I am honored to be part of it all."

“Spartathlon represents an event that is so much bigger than myself. Over the years I've participated in just about every type of ultra event that is out there, and in each case I carry with me a collection of thoughts and feelings that motivate me...and drive me to that finish. Some of those motivators are personal goals, stemming from a drive to push myself or simply to experience something new...while some of those motivators are about others, and a goal to run for, or in honor of someone's memory. Spartathlon represents this first time for me that I will truly be running on behalf of my entire country. I will be driven by the thoughts that my participation and my run are not just for, or in honor of a single person, but for all of my fellow country-men and -women (both home and abroad). This is an incredibly humbling feeling and I only hope that I represent and honor both my team and my country well. I look forward to sharing the course with my fellow teammates and with the hundreds of other runners that will also be running for their respective countries.”

“It's been said that Spartathlon should be considered "the greatest footrace on Earth, due to the historical underpinnings of the event, the professionalism of the organisers, and the atmosphere of the race". Having been privileged to have run it twice, I cannot disagree. As I prepare for my third attempt, I eagerly anticipate what is far and away the most inspiring start in ultrarunning, in the shadow of the Parthenon. Here we celebrate the birth of democracy 2,500 years ago, by recreating Pheidippides' incredible run before the fateful Battle of Marathon. It is impossible not to feel a deep connection with the momentous history. Spartathlon is a race that requires respect and rewards planning and patience. It is my kind of race. I have been fortunate to have finished strong both years, improving the second time. But now I am two years older, and the bar is higher. Will I pass the test? I will soon see.”

“I’m excited to take part in a race commemorating such a historically significant event, with other runners from the US and around the world, through lands of profound importance in world history. Though I could never hope to match the courage and determination of Pheidippides in his run, I hope it’s enough to finish this great race.”

“Being 100% Greek, the Spartathlon has special meaning to me. I wrote about this race in my latest book, The Road to Sparta. There’s a magic in the Spartathlon; it’s palpable and undeniable. The experience is like no other.”