THE Parthenon is lit, but Athens is still dark. In the gloom, a cleaner is sweeping the pedestrianised road that runs beneath the southern slope of the Acropolis. And in the trees beside the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an ancient stone theatre, Lycra-clad figures are urinating everywhere.
These are the last few minutes before the start of the Spartathlon, one of the world’s toughest ultra-marathons. The 310 runners in this year’s race are doing their final stretches. Energy supplements are being taken; running belts are being checked; caps with neck flaps to protect against the sun are being adjusted. Many athletes have a crew to support them during the race; there is time for some final words of encouragement before the runners edge towards the starting line.
At 7am precisely, as dawn approaches, the race begins. The field strings round the Acropolis and past the agora, the heart of ancient Athenian life, before heading into the early-morning traffic. The pace is gentle: an average runner can keep up for the first kilometre easily. But this race is about distance, not speed. After that first kilometre, another and another and another lie ahead. Everyone in the field has completed at least a 100km (62-mile) race. For this event, they will have to run 245km (or almost six consecutive marathons) within 36 hours. Only 72 of them will end up making it all the way to historical Sparta.
There’ll be lots of vomit, bleeding nipples and hallucinations. Which begs the question: Why would anyone in their right mind run the Spartathlon?
Read some of the reasons at The Economist Online …