Spartathlon Race Guide: The Historic Ultra from Athens to Sparta

Are you interested in running the historical Spartathlon ultra marathon?

If there’s one thing we know about the ancient Greeks, it’s that they had zero chill. Take the historic Battle of the Thermopylae, for instance. Now, while the movie 300 may have embellished a few details – (we’re pretty sure the Persians didn’t have actual monsters under their command) – the broad strokes are there. They paint a picture of an incredibly badass group of people who weren’t about to let silly, unconquerable odds get in their way.

Sure, the Greeks were eventually assimilated by the Roman Empire, but they’d already left their mark on the world through their art, literature, and of course, sports.

Some people may claim that the Tunnel Ultra in the UK is the most grueling marathon you can partake in today, but those people have obviously never heard of the Spartathlon.

With its unique historical significance and absolutely brutal length of 153 miles (246 km), there’s no doubt that the Spartathlon is a beast that only the bravest are capable of slaying. 

Looking for a Spartathlon race guide? You’ve come to the right place!

History of the Spartathlon Race

The Spartathlon Ultra Marathon
The Spartathlon Ultra Marathon

To understand the scale of this race, it helps to know the history…

490 BC marked the beginning of the Greco-Persian wars. Following the Greeks’ involvement in the Ionian Revolt, the Persian king Darius the Great vowed to burn Athens to the ground. The Ionian rebellion was eventually crushed, and Darius immediately turned his gaze toward Greece. He launched a naval assault on the Cyclades, bringing the islands under his thumb, before beginning his assault upon the mainland. 

Unfortunately for Darius, the Athenians had no intention of backing down. 

The Athenian forces, aided by a small force from Plataea, defended the city of Marathon against the Persians. While the tide of battle favored the Greeks, having a backup plan never hurts. And so it was that Pheidippides was sent from Marathon to Sparta to request the soldiers’ aid there. 

Unfortunately for Pheidippides, the Spartans were in the middle of a banging rave and had no intention of stopping the party early. 

The Athenians won anyway, thanks to some cunning military tactics. Eventually, the story of Pheidippides’ epic trek inspired a modern sporting event: the marathon.

According to Herodotus (who we’re told is someone you can trust), Pheidippides arrived in Sparta the day after he departed Marathon. Despite coming back empty-handed, he at least didn’t waste too much of his own time.

In another (more boring, read: probably real) version of the story, Pheidippides ran to Sparta, delivered the message, and then died the following day. Needless to say, we prefer the first version of the story.

Jokes aside, the distance he covered in such a short time frame is nothing short of bonkers. Pheidippides managed to cover 153 miles (246 kilometers for you imperials) in the amount of time it normally takes to get your mum out of bed. We’re kidding, but seriously, that’s further than most people walk in a year. 

Startling Reality or Just Another Greek Myth?

As we all know, the ancient Greeks were big fans of myth-making. It was common practice for them to portray fairly mundane events as epic sagas, so you’d be perfectly justified in doubting the validity of Herodotus’ claims. 

And you wouldn’t be the only ones.

In 1982, John Fodden, a long-distance runner and officer of the Royal Air Force, decided to take on the challenge set out by Pheidippides. What can we say? The British have always been a little nuts.

Fodden’s gusto paid off. Along with two other officers, Fodden managed to run the entire distance in just under 40 hours. His audacity inspired others a year later when the very first Spartathlon was held. In total, forty-four men and approximately one woman entered the first competition. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

The Spartathlon Today

Okay, the history lesson is over, and everyone reading this can breathe a sigh of relief. We know just what you running obsessives are here for: you want to know what running the Spartathlon is like today. 

The Spartathlon is held every year in September, seeking to retrace the footsteps of Pheidippides. Now, the passage of time has a way of erasing some things and replacing them with others. 

As a result, the current trail that the Spartathlon follows is probably much more challenging than the one ol’ Pheidippides followed. It crosses rough tracks, muddy paths, vineyards, and olive groves. Of course, those obstacles are nothing compared to trekking over Mount Parthenion. 

Not to make a mountain out of a molehill or anything, but trying to climb Mount Parthenion in the dead of night is about as difficult and painful as breaking bricks with your forehead. And honestly, we’d rather try the latter.

Unfortunately, Mount Parthenion is an integral part of the race due to its historical (see: mythological) significance. Here, the Greek god Pan called out Pheidippides, clearly not understanding the urgency of the situation. Pan wanted to know why the Athenians had not paid tribute to him even though he hadn’t leveled their city to the ground in the past year. It was honestly a valid question since Greek gods were notorious for their mood swings. 

As a result, once the Battle of Marathon had been won, the Athenians built an altar at the foot of Mount Parthenion to keep Pan happy. It’s kind of like bribing a screaming child with candy.

Thanks to Pheidippides’ brief encounter with Pan, Mount Parthenion is now an integral part of the Spartathlon. In fact, it’s probably the toughest stretch of the entire race. 

As mentioned, participants are forced to make the 1,200-meter ascent up Mount Parthenion in the dead of night before descending it on the other side. If that’s the kind of thing that gets your heart rate going, then maybe the Spartathlon is for you. After all, it has a reputation as one of the toughest ultra marathons in the world. 

And it doesn’t stop there.

Spartathlon Course Guide

Like any good ultra-marathon, the Spartathlon is divided up into sections, six to be exact. Each section has its own time limits for the runners to meet. Should they fail to complete the sections within the allocated time frame, they are eliminated from the rest and can enjoy the long walk back covered in hot shame. 

The sections are as follows:

  • Athens to Corinth, 50.3 miles/81 km
  • Corinth to Nemea, 26.7 miles/43 km
  • Nemea to Lrykeia, 15.1 miles/24.4 km
  • Lyrkeia to Nestani, 14.6 miles/23.6 km
  • Nestani to Tegea, 14.2 miles/23 km
  • Tegea to Sparta, 31.2 miles/50.3 km

Each section covers different distances, with the run from Athens to Corinth being the longest at 50.3 miles. Additionally, the different sections each come with different challenges for runners, from muddy roads to overgrown trails and more.

Elevation in the Spartathlon race
Elevation in the Spartathlon race, via the race website

Becoming a Spartathlete

Naturally, a gauntlet of this caliber can only be run by the strongest and bravest athletes. Despite what you may think, the Spartathlon is not actually designed to cause you to lose your sanity and destroy your body. In fact, many of the athletes who participate do so hoping to find enlightenment or fulfillment. We’d rather read Eat, Pray, Love, but hey, to each their own.

Before you put your name forward as a contestant in the Spartathlon, there are a few criteria that you’ll have to meet. For starters, you’ll have to be at least 18 years old to participate. If your prefrontal cortex hasn’t fully developed yet, take our advice and use this time to nourish your body by drinking copious amounts of alcohol.

Next, prospective participants must have completed similarly challenging, time-sensitive races, like covering 120 kilometers in under 12 hours. To see a full list of qualifying races, refer to the official Spartathlon webpage here.

Naturally, you will need to provide proof of your past experience. The results of your previous races should be accessible online and will accompany your application upon submission.

Finally, because of Greece’s struggling economy and the dominance of capitalism in the western world, you’ll need to pay a participation fee of €820, which is the equivalent of $895. 

Of course, the application process is a little more complicated than that, but as long as you satisfy these basic requirements, you should be a shoo-in for the next race. 

The Spoils of War

As we all know, the ancient Greeks were suckers for tradition. As a result, rather than receiving a huge sum of gold and maybe a fine vintage bubbly or two, those who complete the Spartathlon are instead presented with laurel wreaths and holy water straight from Belle Delphine’s bathtub.

Wow, that reference was almost as dated as Pheidippides himself. Alongside these prestigious items, winners also gain access to medical tents. Thankfully, those who complete the competition aren’t kicked to the curb and expected to make the return run back to Athens like good ol’ Pheidippides. 

Notable Spartathletes

The Spartathlon has seen many impressive competitors. The record-holder for the fastest completion time is Yiannis Kouros, who competed in four Spartathlons and won each. His record sits at 20:25:00, which must make him feel very good about his masculinity. 

Not one to settle for anything less than greatness, the big man has even completed the full journey of Pheidippides, i.e., from Athens to Sparta to Athens again. This is a feat that many would find difficult to achieve, let alone possible to repeat.

Another notable competitor is Hubert Karl, who holds the record for most finishes at 23. You can’t keep a good German down for long, it seems.

Finishing the Race

Even in today’s world of ultra-marathons and similarly questionable gauntlets, the Spartathlon is still considered the world’s most grueling marathon. It most certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, especially considering that gaining entry requires you to be a remarkable endurance runner already.

But if you’ve read this article and found yourself more excited with each troubling detail, you should probably see a professional. Afterward, feel free to apply for the next Spartathlon. 

Applications are open until the 25th of February, which should give you enough time to turn 18, complete a few other marathons, and make other preparations for the difficult competition awaiting you. 

Whatever you decide to do, we hope you’ll come prepared.

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Thalia Oosthuizen

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Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

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