ATHENS (Reuters) - As extreme sports go, this one is ancient. It is one of the toughest races in the world -- a sport where the body is almost bound to fail and only passion can push the runner forward.
Finish, and you get some laurels and a drink of water.
The Spartathlon is a 246 km (153 mile) race from Athens to Sparta, which organizers say retraces the footsteps of the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides, famous for running from Marathon to Athens to bring news of a victory against the Persians.
Along the way runners face heatstroke, blood blisters, lost toenails and hallucinations from exhaustion. Their reward is a sip of water given by ‘Spartan virgins’, in the tradition of ancient Greek history.
There’s no cash prize, which some say has kept the race clean.
“There are two poisons for athleticism: doping and money,” said Marios Fournaris of Greece, 10-time finisher of the race. “Both kill the spirit of athletics. It’s great to have neither at the Spartathlon.”
The annual Spartathlon, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last month, is one of the more extreme variants of the sport known as ultramarathon, or “ultra” to insiders.
Spartathletes have just 36 hours to cover a route from the Acropolis, along the Aegean coast, through the mountains of the Peloponnese Peninsula, and down into Sparta.
The chief universal attraction of the sport is that age and physical talent may be secondary. When muscles fail, passion and inner drive matter more than raw physical power.
“You have to continuously search inside your body to find signs of problems and must then solve the problems,” said Markus Thalmann, an Austrian heart surgeon and the 2003 winner.
He said the race is 30-40 percent mental strength and self motivation, 30 percent tactics and 30-40 percent about drinking and eating the right things.
Of this year’s 323 starters, only 125 made it to Sparta and even in the best of years, completion rates are rarely over 40 percent. Most finishers come from Europe, Japan or South Korea, but past winners also include runners from Iran and Brazil.
Winners usually need no more than 24 hours to cover the distance but the bulk of finishers will run more than 34 hours.
They face the most grueling challenge at 160 km, climbing the 1,200-metre Mount Parthenion. After a 10 km ascent, the road ends and they have to climb over a mountain pass with no path, no guard rail and gusting winds.
Organizers say the race is based on the accounts of Greek historian Herodotus who described how in 490 B.C. Athenians sent a messenger to their former enemy, Sparta’s King Leonidas, to seek help against a common enemy on the eve of the Battle of Marathon.
Some historians argue that tale was transformed in later accounts and now forms the basis for the modern Marathon myth -- of Pheidippides running back from the battlefield to Athens and dying after announcing victory over the Persians.
Last month’s contest was won by Scott Jurek, a 34-year-old runner from Seattle, in 23 hours and 12 minutes. He has collected just $750 in prize money this year, and keeps a day job as a physiotherapist and coach to pay the bills.
“A lot of companies offered me sponsorship money but I won’t take it, if I don’t believe in it, I won’t do it, I won’t be a fake, I will be who I am,” Jurek said.
Ultramarathoners say running is as much a spiritual experience as a physical one and if there were money involved, it may upset that balance.
“Ultra is a vehicle for me to go deep inside,” said Jurek. “Some people use art, some people use music for soul searching. For me, ultra is that experience, something is driving me beyond mind and body.”
Some have compared the experience to being high on drugs and say ultramarathoning is as addictive.
This year’s runner up, Piotr Kurylo from Poland, shocked even his more experienced colleagues by running to Athens, arriving two days before the start of the race -- he covered over 2,000 km, pulling a cart with his gear.
“You have to be a little crazy to come here,” said Thalmann.