Endurance Lessons From the Ancient Runners

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How modern ultrarunner Dean Karnazes learned to run like the original ancient runners

Karnazes at a glance

Winner, Death Valley Badwater Ultramarathon, 2004
Winner, Vermont Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run, 2006

Ran a marathon in each of the 50 states of the USA in 50 consecutive days, 2006

Winner, 4 Deserts Race Series, 2008

Ran 4800km from Disneyland to New York City in 75 days, 2011

The Ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides is known as the inspiration behind the marathon, having supposedly run 40km from Marathon to Athens in 490BC to carry news of Greece’s victory – but he also ran 220km from Marathon to Sparta in the space of two days before that, effectively inventing the modern ultra distance race too. Ultra-running legend Dean Karnazes, inspired by his own Greek heritage, attempted to emulate this hero of antiquity by covering the same journey without the tools available to modern runners like sports drinks and energy gels.

Experience counts

“As a trained professional and the chosen one to undertake a critical mission, Pheidippides was in a constant state of readiness and fully prepared to carry out his duties at any time,” says Karnazes. “It’s likely he was older than the average hemerodromos (‘day-long runner’), because it would have taken time to develop the navigational skills and physical experience, not to mention the diplomatic poise necessary to earn the Spartans’ trust. Even today, ultrarunning is not a young man’s game – it can take years to know your body well enough. I didn’t start seriously until I was in my 30s, and completed 50 marathons in 50 days at the age of 44.”

Train for the right body shape

“Excavations at Eleutherna, a mountainous region of Crete home to many trained-athlete militia, showed that the people who lived there had extremely strong lower legs,” says Karnazes. “From modern analysis we know high-impact weight-bearing exercise – including running – helps develop bone density, while running great distances over prolonged periods of time in uneven and challenging hilly terrain recruits many of the body’s major muscles in the legs, core, upper body and arms. Training in this way will get your the body of a hemerodromos with a high strength-to-weight ratio and a thick, sturdy skeletal structure.”

Build a strong mind

“Having a strong body is only part of the equation,” says Karnazes. “Having a strong mind is equally, if not more, important. Pheidippides would have been under intense pressure, knowing every wasted step meant the Persians would be able to further fortify their position at Marathon. Thoughts of the Persian military laying their hands on his family could paralyse a man with anger – but such emotional discord would have been counterproductive to his mission He must have repressed such thoughts and remained focused. I’ve seen this in ultrarunners: rather than fixating on the consequences of failure, we concentrate on the elation that will ensue as a result of accomplishing our goal.”

Know what you’re eating

“Ancient Greek athletes were known to eat figs, olives, dried meats and a concoction of ground sesame seeds mixed with honey, now called pasteli,” says Karnazes. “During my Spartathlon run cured meat was too rubbery and gristly, so I held chewed pieces in my mouth to extract some of the salty residue from the juices, knowing the sodium would help replenish my electrolytes. The once delectable pasteli now tasted like maple syrup mixed with talcum powder, chalky and repulsively sweet, while figs were terrific on the way in but dangerous on the way out, if you catch my drift. The lesson? Always make sure you’ve thoroughly road-tested your in-race nutrition.”

Related: How Trail Running Can Transform Your Body

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