A Runner’s Ultimate Challenge “The 300 of Sparta”

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 The 2015 Ultra Distance Challenge from Sparta to Thermopylae will be April 26-May 3rd, and it is only open to a maximum of 300 runners. 

 This endurance race calls devoted runners to go back 2500 years and run the distance traveled by Leonidas and his soldiers, a distance that, at the time, seemed more like a trip to the edge of the world. This was a trip,  a 378 km cross country distance with ascents of 4.233 meters and descents of 4.410 meters, with 8 continuous daily stages, force the runner to run regardless of weather conditions and achieve an average speed of not less than 5.5 km per hour. This is the challenging course where King Leonidas led his 300 Spartans to stem the onslaught of the Persian Army to Europe in 480 B.C. changing the flow of the world history.

The Race takes place in 8 Étape (stages). Étape—translated from French generally refers as a stopping place, a stage or a leg, and is used often in sporting events such as distance running and cycling. Yet, it has a more fitting meaning in this race with regards to the Spartan Army, as it is properly defined as a place where troops would halt overnight, or the distance they marched during a day.

Experience the days of 8-10 hours of running each day in this article “Following in Glorious Footsteps| The 300 of Sparta, Endurance Race.”, an account of the 8 Étape (stages) from ultra runner and race founder, Pavlos Diakoumakos.  This article has been slightly altered from the original post that can be found at http://www.diakoumakospavlos.blogspot.gr/2014/12/following-in-glorious-footsteps.html

(forward by Hellenic Lifestyle)

 

 

Following in Glorious Footsteps

The 300 of Sparta, Endurance Race

by Pavlos Diakoumakos

 

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I still remember… that day.  It was in late May/early June, just a few days after the “Olympian Race” – a 180 km distance race from Ancient Nemea to Ancient Olympia – that we took the decision together with Dino and the team of “Arcadian Trails pc” to start working on the Etapes of “The 300 of Sparta – endurance race”.

The idea was to cover the 378 km of this race within 8 consecutive days, with a pace theoretically based on the limits of the last participating racer.

Our feet were really heavy from the previous race, but nothing could stop us start running again, checking thus, step by step, the route that would lead us to our dream.  A brand-new, unique race, designed on the route that King Leonidas and his 300 Spartan soldiers had followed 2,500 years ago, to intercept the Persian hordes that had already started the invasion of Europe. A race from the city of Sparta to the narrow passage of Thermopylae, at the gulf of Maliakos.

This was our new bet and we were very optimistic that we could make it happen.  An endurance race organized by runners for runners, faithful to one of the most glorious moments of the world history and, due to its historic background and multidimensional route, unique in Europe.

Following, is an account of our experience, full of emotions and thoughts.

 

 

 

Sparta is our starting point. It all begins here. With the exception of a few kilometers, the surrounding landscape is fantastic! Especially in April and May (when the race is scheduled to take place) nature in Greece is at its best. It’s the time of the year that, according to mythology, Persefoni, the daughter of goddess Demeter, comes back from Hades (the underworld) and the joyful mother offers to people the beauty of green leaves, colorful flowers and endless aromas. It is also the time of the orthodox Easter, with its interesting particularities. Therefore, the participating athletes will be the lucky ones to see, smell, enjoy and feel the remarkably enchanting Greek nature that unfolds like a magic carpet full of colors and emotions all the way of this historic route of “The 300 of Sparta”.

ΕTAPE 1   Distance 49 km. Route: Sparta – Tegea

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As it has already been mentioned, the race starts at the city of Sparta, precisely under the statue of King Leonidas. The very first kilometers are easy, on a flat road. The ascents start after the 3rd km. The first 49 km of the race are on tarmac, a quite difficult route with many ascents, the 80% of which are met in the first 19,5 km. On our way, we frequently meet cars and all kinds of other vehicles (-for this exact reason, the organizer has made arrangements for extra support and security.)

 

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Next, we cross the village of Voutiani at the area of ancient Sellassia. On our right, one can see the mountain range of Parnon and on our left the peaks of Taygetos.

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As we continue running up towards Tegea, we feel the characteristic simplicity of the Laconian landscape. In antiquity, all the places around us were the territories of Spartan warriors.  We go up the route that crosses Mount Parnon, the highest spot of the 1st Etape, and then we start descending towards Tegea for our first overnight.

Tegea

Tegea

 

Εtape 2   Distance 44 km. Route: Tegea  – Kandila

Second day of our journey and the route has no great difficulties. We are running on tarmac again, but this time, through calm small streets, rarely crossed by vehicles. Amidst the Arcadian land’s green fields, the archaeological sites and the ancient villages, we feel that our meeting point with history is right here.

The surrounding open view is breathtaking; this landscape of rare beauty gently leads us into a magical dream.  That’s how we start feeling in this Etape.

After a very cold night at a friends’ house in the fir forest of Mainalon –kingdom of god Pan and the Nymphs, according to Greek mythology– and after a good breakfast in the morning, we start the second Etape from Tegea, running through the remnants of the ancient town as well as through traditional modern buildings. We do not miss the opportunity to admire the beautiful local community with its friendly inhabitants, and to reflect on the great history of the place.

Ancient Tegea

Ancient Tegea

 

 

Early Christian mosaic Alea-Tegea, 5th-6th century AD

Early Christian mosaic Alea-Tegea, 5th-6th century AD

 

Leaving Tegea, we pass through vineyards, fields separated by beautiful and neat low stone walls, trees laden with big ripe cherries, and we arrive in ancient Mantinea.  Running through the ancient site of Mantinea, the kilometers go by smoothly and pleasantly.

 

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Green is the dominant color. We are surrounded by it. Leaving the border of Mantinea, we reach the area of Artemissio. The route is calm, covered with many trees. Long straight roads through fields, gardens with flowers and vegetables. With our spirits up and our feet feeling much better than the first day, we are heading steadily for Artemissio, admiring the surrounding landscape that stretches ahead of us, uninterrupted, for a long distance

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We realize that we are running in a vast green basin, surrounded by sharp steep mountain peaks that look  like spikes from the warriors’ spears. This is Mountainous Arcadia, spectacular and wild. Up in the sky, far behind us, there is a big gray cloud, but, judging from the direction of the wind and the small clouds above us, we realize that we will avoid this summer storm. In fact, peace is all around us.

There are no vehicles; we rarely see another person. On our left, we see the village of Levidi. We take the direction towards the right, leaving the village behind us and, always through the fields, we start the great ascent to the historic town of Kandila.

 

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It is here that our support crew reaches us by car and, after asking us whether we need something, informs us that they will be waiting for us in Kandila for a sandwich and a beverage.  As we run through this calm and magical landscape, on our right, a unique monastery caught our sight, standing like a white dove inside the stiff rocks.

 

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On our left, cultivated land, water all around from the Kyllini mountain nearby, a breathtaking scenery that helps us forget the heat of the asphalt under our feet and the ascent towards the mountainous Kandila.  After a while, the village appears in the wild, like a Nymph, with its well-preserved white houses and front yards.

 

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Approaching the central square of the village, the smell of firewood and fresh coffee welcomes us. We sit near a water fountain to eat the food given to us by the support crew, thinking of the pace that we should follow on the next Etape, as we have to endure the great ascent towards the highest spot on the mountain that will lead us through a path, to the descent towards the village of Skotini.

 

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The few inhabitants of Kandila have left their beloved coffee shop to discuss with our support crew the details of the Feat we are trying to achieve.  They cannot believe that we have started from the town of Sparta heading all the way to Thermopylae. Perhaps because they cannot feel that, for us, the beauty of nature that we have preciously gathered in our soul during this day, has been enough to give us the courage to proceed.

 —–

 

Etape 3  Distance 48 km. Route: Kandila – Ancient Nemea

Today’s Etape is one of the most difficult of “The 300 of Sparta” race. Starting from Kandila, we have to endure a continuous ascent on a calm tarmac road that, through continuous twists and turns, leads us to the top of the mountain.  We run amongst blooming yellow weaver’s brooms, stopping every now and then to admire the immensity of the Arcadian land from this 1,240 m peak.

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Leaving Arcadia behind us, we start the descent through a path of unique beauty towards the village of Skotini. It is a smooth and quite easy path among peaceful streams and herds of goats and sheep that are looking for food.  The change in terrain from asphalt to dirt really works miracles for our tired feet, despite the fact that, for some reason, we actually feel relaxed and refreshed.

 

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After a few kilometers downhill, we enter the welcoming village of Skotini, where the support crew is waiting for us with food and water.  Refreshed, we continue towards the village of Platanos. The route here is of rare beauty, as we cross the deep green of mountain Oliyrtos with the continuous change of scenery.

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We run between mountain passes in a forest with unique views, since we are always on a high level. After the village of Skotini, with small exceptions, the route is easier, moving almost constantly among vineyards, until we approach the city of ancient Nemea.

 

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ΕTAPE 4    Distance 53 km. Route: Ancient Nemea -Perachora

Ancient Stadium of Nemea

Ancient Stadium of Nemea

Early in the morning, we leave Ancient Nemea, directing towards Ancient Corinth. The endless blue sea appears in the horizon.  On our right there is the unique image of Ancient Corinth; an image to remember. On our left, there is the village with its small touristic boutiques.

Runners exit from the ancient stadium through a vaulted passage, as in ancient times. (photo from Aethlios Race)

Runners exit from the ancient stadium through a vaulted passage, as in ancient times. (photo from Aethlios Race)

Ancient Corinth

Ancient Corinth

After a few more kilometers, we cross the Isthmus of Corinth, another unique and impressive site, thus leaving Peloponnese behind us and entering the Greek mainland (Sterea Hellada).  We pass the bustling coastal town of Loutraki and, always having the sea on our right, we arrive in the green area of Perachora after 10 kilometers.

Corinth Canal

Corinth Canal

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The distance from Nemea to Perachora is perhaps one of the easiest Etapes of our journey, so we use it to our advantage, to gather some strength and prepare for the difficult Etapes to come.

 

 ΕTAPE 5  Distance 49 km. Route: Perachora – Patima Vilia

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We feel ready for the 5th -and particularly difficult- Etape, as we say farewell to the pine forest of Perachora. Running on a dirt road through the Geranea Mountains is quite tough, but the beauty of these mountains -90% of which are covered by pine trees- makes it worthwhile.  Back on the asphalt at sea-level, we pass the villages of Schino and Vamvakies and we are heading towards Alepochori and Psatha.

 

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The sea now becomes our faithful companion. The only thing that keeps us going for the next 22 kilometers is the beauty of the endless lacy coastline and our eagerness to further explore the route ahead of us.It starts raining, somewhere between Alepochori and Psatha. A summer storm that never lasts for long, but which helps and refreshes us, as it interrupts the monotony of the endless kilometers.  Soon the sun comes back and, with it, the blue sky starts mingling again with the blue of the sea.

 

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However, the rather romantic thoughts soon stop, as, after Psatha we start a new ascent on Mount Kitheron. Looking down at the wonderful view of the coastline we have just crossed, we find ourselves walking instead of running.  We feel exhausted and this steep ascent seems endless. Our only comfort are the continuously alternating shades of green around us. The village of Vilia and the food that is waiting for us there, is more than welcome.

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ΕTAPE 6    Distance 49 km. Route: Patima Vilia – Aliartos

As we approach the mountain pass of Kitheron, we start running on dirt road.  Here, with all the greenery around us and the cool mountain air, we feel “at home”. A wonderful place to run after so many kilometers –our own “Odyssey”.

 

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It is up here –in the middle of nowhere- that we meet a very friendly 80-year-old shepherd with his herd. He has been going up to Kitheron mountain every day, for years and years. Reaching the top of this same mountain ourselves, we are completely compensated by the nature around us and the incredible views from all sides of the mountain.

 

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Erythres

 

The big descent takes us to the impressive town of Erythres, where the support crew is waiting for us with cold water and coffee. The dirt road that we have been following becomes a path and, suddenly, we are back down to the tarmac road. Here we take a left turn, towards Plataea.

 

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Running parallel to the street and adversely from the cars that go really fast, it doesn’t take long to arrive in Plataea, passing from its ancient Acropolis, a monument that emits the sheer beauty of simplicity.

 

Plataea Ancient Acropolis

Plataea Ancient Acropolis

 

After a small stop in a cafeteria by the road for a cold soda and to take a few pictures, we continue our way for the village of Thespies. A quiet trip, with very few vehicles around.

 

Thespies monument at Thespies city

Thespies monument at Thespies city

 

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We reach Aliartos with no more intense moments than we have already experienced during the day. Our feet have become strangely used to to the kilometers and we feel very well.  Surely a good night’s sleep is more than welcome.

 

 

ΕTAPE 7  Distance 55 km. Route: Aliartos – Modi

Seventh day of our journey with many kilometers ahead of us, but all in a flat area. Apart from a small ascent towards the picturesque village of Modi at the end of our route, there is nothing else but an endless plain.

Athens Archeological Museum, arrowheads and spear points excavated from the hillock where the Spartans and Thespians made their final stand at Thermopylae.

Athens Archeological Museum, arrowheads and spear points excavated from the hillock where the Spartans and Thespians made their final stand at Thermopylae.

One could say that these 55 kilometers are easy. It is true, but, at the same time, they are difficult and tiring due to the monotony of the landscape. Today’s journey is one of recollection. As our feet run on the asphalt, our mind wanders to the faces of our loved ones, to our life, to the next day, to our goal, Thermopylae, to the statue of the honorable king, to what makes decisions in life so important.

 

Modern monument to the Thespians who died at the Battle of Thermopylae.

Modern monument to the Thespians who died at the Battle of Thermopylae.

We know that our goal is very close. The historic Thermopylae is a few kilometers away and this gives us courage to concentrate and forget the tiredness, as well as any other distractions around us.The night finds us on the last camp before our “Ithaca”. We have dinner in a very friendly tavern, discussing the unique moments we have lived during this trip, as well as the important “next day”.

 

 

ΕTAPE 8  Distance 31 km. Route: Modi – Thermopylae

 

Last ascents on Mount Kallidromo, before starting the 10 km descent that will lead us to Thermopylae and the statue of Leonidas. This is our today’s route, an Etape of not too many kilometers, but very important nevertheless.

 

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We cross the picturesque village of Modi with its extremely friendly people. It is worth mentioning that all villages around Thermopylae share stories on the battle, king Leonidas and the 300 Spartans. These stories have been going from mouth to mouth, from generation to generation for 2,500 years now.

 

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Modi’s ascent is our last one. The fields are in front of us. Destination: Thermopylae. It seems unbelievable. We are so close! Our feet are not aching, our body is not heavy. Because our soul is flying high on emotion. We run, we walk, we run again towards the memorial of Leonidas. We will see his statue, this time not coming out of a tour bus, but running towards it, from Sparta, for 378 kilometers, for 8 consecutive days! And there we are. Our eyes search for the inscription of Simonides of Ceos:

“Tell them in Lacedaimon, passer-by

That here, obedient to their word, we lie”

(translation from Greek by F L Lucas)

 

Plaque engraved with Simonides’ famous epitaph for the 300 of Sparta. The sea has receded greatly over the last 2,500 years. In 480 BC the water was approximately where the modern highway runs today.

Plaque engraved with Simonides’ famous epitaph for the 300 of Sparta. The sea has receded greatly over the last 2,500 years. In 480 BC the water was approximately where the modern highway runs today.

 

Each one of us bears his own sentiments, thoughts, answers to the question why to go ahead with this endurance race, what each of us has gained, what we feel. Because we surely feel something immense when we find ourselves under the shadow of the great Spartan King.

 

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Epilogue

 

I would like to share my thoughts with you, now that  months have passed from this running expedition, and now that, with a clear mind, I can evaluate these 8 days of our own “Odyssey” that started from my native city of Sparta and ended in Thermopylae, following the historic course.

It might sound a bit extravagant, but now I somehow feel part (albeit a small one) of Greek history. I also feel that our decision to create this race, to re-create part of history, has definitely been worthwhile. This special race, this magnificent and unique journey back in time, will help more people understand the heroes of that era, realize that they were human beings of flesh and blood, just like us. It is this realization that will make us bond with them, love them and, above all, admire them for the immensity of their soul and their self-sacrifice for the common interest. I believe it is precisely through the selfless, magnificent and heroic endeavour of those 300 different personalities that one can find a part of oneself.

 

Thus, by running this historic route, by making this unique and sentimental “pilgrimage”, by following this moral imperative, and by following the traces of those whose destination and destiny was to guard Thermopylae, I undoubtedly feel victorious!

 

      

Leonidas' monument. The monument stands opposite the historical hill of Kolonos and represents Leonidas in full armor. It was designed by B. Phalereus, and was erected in the 1950s at the expense of Greeks living in America.

Leonidas’ monument. The monument stands opposite the historical hill of Kolonos and represents Leonidas in full armor. It was designed by B. Phalereus, and was erected in the 1950s at the expense of Greeks living in America.

Thermopylae 


Honor to those who in the life they lead

define a guard a Thermopylae.

Never betraying what is right,

Consistent and just in all they do

but showing pity also, and compassion;

generous when they are rich, and when they are poor,

still generous in small ways,

still helping as much as they can;

always speaking the truth,

yet with our hating those who lie.

And even more honor is due to them

when they foresee (as many do foresee)

that in the end Ephialtis will make his appearance,

that the Medes will break through after all.

 C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems.  Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992

 

 

pavlos

Ultra runner and race organizer Pavlos Diakoumakos, makes his home in Greece.  His company Arcadian Trails PC has organized for the first time,  ‘The 300 of Sparta, Endurance Race’.   Be sure to read more from Pavlos at his running blog, Journey of a Dream,  www.diakoumakospavlos.blogspot.gr   To learn more about The 300 of Sparta Endurance Race visit www.300ofsparta.com 

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