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NIEUWS van December 2002
Noot voor de Nederlandstalige lezer. Dit is het eerste artikel van een nieuwe serie die de redactie van UltraNED over ultra-klassiekers wil publiceren. Zowel originele bijdragen als 'herdrukken' van artikelen die ooit ergens verschenen zijn. De meesten gewoon in het Nederlands. Maar dit eerste artikel, van de grondlegger van de Spartathlon, hebben we niet vertaald om ook onze buitenlandse bezoekers met wat leesvoer te gerieven. (NB gezien de lengte van dit stuk: stuur maar naar de printer ;-)


From the Newsletter of the Spartathlon Club of the British Isles, 1998/1999

By John Foden

Athens, Greece - Assembling this newsletter's different subjects has brought home to me how the Spartathlon has changed since five Royal Air Force runners (we did not aspire to the grand title of athletes) set out from the Athens Agora in 1982. I thought it might interest them and earlier competitors to learn how things have changed, and for current competitors to know what earlier runners had to overcome.

It was realising that refreshment points are now almost in sight of each other that really brought home to me that, what had been an adventure expedition to a country whose language none of us spoke, has slowly become an internationally renowned road race. It is now similar in style to the marathon, but many times more challenging. Like the marathon it is based on Greek history, but it is the brain child of foreigners.

In 1982 we started from the Agora, ancient market place where Athens was governed. In the early races competitors started out from the magnificent marble stadium of the first modern Olympics, and brought Athens rush hour traffic to a horn blaring halt. Now the start is the entrance to the Akropolis and misses the worst of the traffic.

For several years afterwards the course was along shepherd's footpaths and stony farm tracks, not so very different to those Pheidippides probably used. Even parts of the road along the coast to Korinthos were so bad it was little better than a farm track. Well over half the course was what the British and Americans would call a trail. Now only the actual pass before Sangas is a trail. Most of the way from Lyrkia to the tunnel is now a well engineered road. The improvement in the road system in Greece during the last decade has been dramatic.

Course debate

Indeed it has caused such a change in the ethos of the Spartathlon that several years ago I discussed with Angelos Papas, then President of the ISA, whether we should not abandon the route the RAF had pioneered. I thought we should seek a fresh one similar under foot to that of 1982, and closer to the trail conditions Pheidippides experienced 2,500 years ago. I had not forgotten that I had not had enough time in Greece to select trails for the whole way. So I used the road from Tegea to Sparti and could not search any more for the ancient military way from Megara to Korinthos.
The sense of adventure has also been reduced in two other ways.

All the RAF runners got lost. John Scholtens took a wrong turning in every town as far as Zeviogation. Difficult to imagine these days with all the notices put our by the race's organisers. But Y-junctions were the bane of our lives as we had only the vaguest idea of Greece's geography, and notices pointing to different destinations meant nothing to us. Moreover we only had an air navigation map, because accurate ground maps had been declared secret as a result of the recent Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

At night I mistook a dried up river bed leading down the valley for the track to Maladrenion. It took a long while for me to work out what had gone wrong. John McCarthy also got lost hereabouts. By then the three of us still running were spread over about twenty miles and when we reached the pass had to individually find our way over it without any aids except the moonlight shining on stones polished by shepherd's boots over the centuries. It was very eerie to be high up a mountain at night in a foreign country and far from certain that we were on the correct path.

Foreigners got lost

I think every foreign visitor got lost on the first Spartathlon. Certainly about 1988 I remember Rune Larsson and Ronald Teunisse mistaking the foundations of the motorway then being built, for the way to Nestani. They ran miles out into the centre of the Plain of Arkadia, followed by several other competitors. Navigational problems are now inconceivable due to the thorough sign posting, except that possibly at night a tired competitor might not seen a sign and go wrong.

Refreshments are another change. In 1982 Ted Marsh had no food all the way to the Canal and tried to buy some in a shop. In those days there were not all the tourist restaurants at the bridge there now are. John McCarthy was so thirsty at Zevgolation he tried to drink from a tap at a petrol station. But the owner set his dogs on John to chase him away.

I ran from Sangas to Tegea on the second morning in considerable heat for about five hours without a drink, because our support vehicle could not find me. I was reduced to a slow walk. In those days the only road to Tripoli and Sparti was via Argos. So our support vehicle had to make a 100 kms detour, during which it lost all contact with the three surviving runners, who were already causing it trouble by being so spread out.


Thinking of dogs. These were a dů. nuisance at all the country villages. So we armed ourselves with stones to throw at the mongrels and skirted the villages to avoid them. This meant stumbling across fields in the dark as the tracks went straight into the villages. These days children run out to guide competitors to refreshment points usually situated in tavernas.

Food and drink has also changed over time. The RAF had compo, or military iron rations, we brought with us. Very sustaining perhaps, but not exactly suitable for ultra distance running. The first time I watched the Spartathlon about 1988 a refrigerated lorry was patrolling the course to make quite sure drink and food meant to be cool was cold, no matter how much the sun was burning. Regretfully that sponsor no longer supports the race.

On the other hand that year the Spartathlon was still something of a novelty. At some mountain villages in the evening I saw farmers sitting in tavernas offering runners kerbabs off their own plates and the brandy or wine that they were drinking ! That hospitable custom has died out.

What puzzled me in recent years was difference in the refreshments at different "water holes", to revert to Mike Callaghan' s name. It is caused by the race organisers distributing the basic refreshments and some of the helpers kindly enhancing what is on offer from their own pockets. Hence the five course feast that is available in generous and friendly Nestani.

Changing presidency

Some of the changes have been the result of changes in the presidency of the ISA. Each president making his own contribution to the development of the race, so that it has continually improved and so grown.

Mike Callaghan under Greek law was not allowed to be the actual president but he was the first race organiser. My idea to have a race would never have taken off if were not for his energy, enthusiasm and talents as a salesman. At the start he might not have known much about running and relied on the advice I gave him during visits to Greece, but he soon became very knowledgeable.

The problem was that in Mike's reign the Spartathlon was controlled by British people living in Greece, with Greece merely in supporting roles. For the Spartathlon to become permanent Greeks had to control the race. This happened when Velios Mantzaris, a Greek Navy commodore, and Toni Kikas, a lawyer, took over full control. They secured the future of the race by making the ISA a powerful supporting organization, though like Mike they started by knowing little about ultra distance running.

Velios and Toni were followed by Angalos Papas, a man with as much ambition as Mike. He had the great advantage of years of interest in running, having himself been an elite athlete who represented Greece in the European Championships reaching the 400 metre finals. He knew the hierarchy of the Greek athletic world (SEGAS), the President of the Greek Olympic Committee and was friends with members of government.

Olympic connection

With these contacts the Spartathlon received official support. Juan Samaranch gave an Olympic flag to the ISA and Olympic certificates to finishers the year he visited Greece. A tenth year celebration was held that involved the ISA's prize presentation ceremony being in the Zapion palace in central Athens.

In Sparti the civic prize ceremony first moved from a muddy football pitch, where competitors sat on rickety seats, to an ancient Greek temple where a laser light demonstration and Greek dancing entertained the runners. The problem was they had to sit for two hours on stone seats, having just run 245 kms ! !

Since then the civic ceremony has been in Sparti's main square in front of the city hall. It has grown more impressive every year and is now an hour long in comfortable seats. Thousands of people watch and make the athletes feel really good.

Now fresh elections have placed Paniotis Tsiarkiris in the presidency. A bank manager by profession he has improved the level of basic administration, evidence of which is the detailed report of times at refreshment points - extracts of which are in the newsletter - and the leader chart. It is he, with Dimosthenis Mattalas, the Mayor of Sparta, who is leading the campaign to have the Spartathlon in the 2004 Athens Olympiad.

Traditions maintained

From the start of the Spartathlon two things have remained the same. Sparti is still as far from Athens as it was for the RAF, or indeed Pheidippides. And Mike Callaghan's imaginative idea of crowning every finisher with a olive wreath like was done to the victors at Olympia. King Leonidhas' statue is now surrounded by the national flags of the contestants and three girls in ancient Greek clothing offer the runners a drink of River Eurotas water, but the essence of Mike's idea that so surprised the RAF runners is still used.

What other race is so long and offers three award ceremonies?


Postscript Martien Baars (

This article was originally written for the 'Newsletter of the Spartathlon Club of the British Isles'. It also was published by Ultramarathon World on 20 April 1999. At the end of 2001, that famous website run by David Blaikie suffered a fatal crash by the provider. This resulted in the loss of all files published by UW up till then, causing possibly one of the darkest Christmas periods in David's career. The whole 'ultra-world' was very happy that David had the courage to start from scratch again during the beginning of 2002. So you could see my retyping of the Foden's article as a tiny contribution to the rescue of the most valuable publications of the former version of UW. One year after, we all are used to the new address and layout of UW, and the editors of UltraNed take the opportunity to wish the editor of our 'big brother' Ultramarathon World a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2003!

Monday 23 December 2002 I phoned John Foden to ask his permission to publish the above article from 1999 on the website UltraNED. He friendly agreed, but when I asked whether there were any photographs taken during their expedition in 1982, there was some embarrassment in his voice. He admitted there were, but he or the other four never cared about these photos. John remembered that he had made a report on their 'military exercise' for the RAF headquarters in Germany, and supposed that the photos (and negatives) to underline the report where also stored in that file. Since years there are no RAF bases outside the UK anymore, but whether all the files on the foreign bases were moved to England or that the non-classified ones ended in the shredder, he really did not know. The five of them came from 'all over the world' (England, Scotland, Australia) and were only very temporarily together at that time in Germany. Contact with some of them had continued afterwards, but there has never been a reunion of the five of 1982. John apologised for being so careless about the photos, but was already loudly thinking about approaching one of the other four, who was still in the army and might start a search for the 1982 file. He also explained that the five of 1982 had never thought that their demonstration would get a follow-up already the next year when the first official run was held. Let alone that they would have dreamed for one moment what a monumental classic the Spartathlon became in a relatively short time.

John Foden is at present 76, and still very active and looking ahead. The recent RRC 100 miles track race on Crystal Palace in London on 20 October this year 2002, to celebrate Don Ritchie's superb 100 mile World Best Performance at the same track 25 years ago (11.30.51; 15 October 1977), was his brain-child ! During the event, he acted as the race director and was very pleased by the intriguing battle and thrilling finish by the Russians, Oleg Kharitonov (11.28.03) and Denis Zhalybin (11.29.32) who thus improved Don's WBP. During the race, Zhalybin broke the 150 km track WBP (setting it at 10.34.30).

His address is:
John Foden
141 Davies Road
West Bridgford
Nottingham NG2 5HZ
Phone and Fax: 0044 115 981 6892


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