I apologize for this (cough) marathon post, but I think it effectively sums up Eat & Run, by vegan ultramarathoner Scott Jurek. The book is an account of Jurek’s career as a long-distance runner, and his discovery that the more whole plant foods he ate, the faster he ran, the faster he recovered, and the less pain he had. The link between a vegetable diet and athletic performance may seem like cutting edge sports science, but perhaps, like so many things, the Greeks knew all about it millennia ago. Eat & Run is also about the spiritual, or at least metaphysical side of running, and it seems that Greeks like ultrarunner Yiannis Kouros still understand the human potential that lies beyond all physical limits. Perhaps we need these crazy ultrarunners to remind us that we have more strength than we think we do, and that plants are perhaps our best partners in making the most of our lives.
The Persian fleet was on a roll. They had plundered their way through the Greek islands, sacked the city-state of Eretria, and then had their sights set on Athens. the Athenians sent a small force, commanded by General Miltiades, to seal off the exits from the Bay of Marathon, named after the ancient Greek word for the fennel that probably grew wild there. The ancient historian Herodotus writes that the Athenian generals dispatched Pheidippides to the great city of Sparta to ask for reinforcements in holding off the much larger invading force.
Pheidippides reached Sparta the day after he left Athens, but his plea fell on deaf ears. Although sympathetic to their fellow Greeks’ plight, the religious Spartans were in the middle of a festival to Apollo and could not wage war until the full moon. It must have been a long 152.4 miles back home with the bad news, but luckily Pheidippides had something else to report.
While running through the mountains above the ancient city of Tegea (checkpoint 60 of the modern Spartathlon), he had a vision of the nature god, Pan. The son of Hermes, the divine messenger, Pan ruled over shepherds, nymphs, and rustic places. He was a great guy to have on your side in a big battle, because he could induce a wild fear in mortals called “panic.” This god called Pheidippides by name “and bade him ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, though he was of goodwill to the Athenians, had often been of service to them, and would be in the future.”
If we read it closely, everything we need to know about running is in Pheidippides’ story. He ran over 300 miles—the first half in little over one day—and he didn’t even get what he wanted! If you run long enough, that tends to happen. Whatever quantitative measure of success you set out to achieve becomes either unattainable or meaningless. The reward of running—of anything—lies within us…. Pheidippides kept going, and he ended up getting something even better, something outside the normal realm of human experience. Nature itself called out his name—Pan is nature incarnate—and it gave the great runner a sacred message to bring home to his people. The message was pretty much what nature’s message always is: Pay more attention to me, and I will help you the way I’ve always helped you in the past.
Pheidippides recounted his vision to the Athenian generals, who took it seriously and erected a new temple to Pan after the war. Unable to wait until the Spartans arrived, the Athenians charged the Persians. The Athenians fought with legendary courage, dividing and conquering the Persian force. Their underdog victory at Marathon is considered the tipping point in the Persian Wars, heralding the golden age of Greece.
Fast-forward 2,500 years…
The greatest Spartathlon champion was—and probably always will be—home-grown. Twenty-six-year-old Yiannis Kouros was living a Spartan lifestyle as a groundskeeper near Tripoli when the Johns undertook the first Spartathlon test run in 1982. Hearing of their mission to resurrect Pheidippides, the literary-minded Kouros was entranced. He had run twenty-five marathons at that point, with some modest successes and a personal record of 2:25; he was about to find his niche. In 1983, Kouros burst onto the ultramarathon scene with a Spartathlon and ultramarathon debut in an astounding 21:53. His margin of victory was so great—more than 3 hours ahead of the runner-up—that the race director refused to award him the trophy for two days—until it could be proven that he had not cheated.
He went on the win the Spartathlon three more times, and these remain the four fastest times ever for the course, ranging from 20:25 to 21:57. Pheidippides couldn’t have done better….
Now semi-retired from ultras, Kouros is undefeated in any continuous world-class road ultramarathon competition beyond 100 miles, and he still holds world records on the road and track for almost all distances and durations beyond the 12-hour event.
Kouros is a philosopher-athlete in the ancient Greek tradition. His results seem to stem from an overflowing energy of spirit. He paints, writes poetry, records songs, played the role of Pheidippides in the movie A Hero’s Journey, and delivers motivational talks “to get people inspired and alert, so they can discover and utilize the unconditional abilities of human beings, in order to bring (beyond personal improvement) unity, friendship and harmony to the world.”
Ultimately, Kouros teaches us that the ultra is an exercise in transcendence. He explicitly defines it as a test of “metaphysical characteristics,” as opposed to inborn athletic gifts or level of conditioning. Only a continuous run of 24-plus hours will do, “as a runner has to face the whole spectrum of the daytime and nighttime and be able to continue. Doing so, he/she will prove that he/she can run beyond the effectiveness of genetic gifts and fitness level, as these elements will have gone from the duration of time and the muscular exhaustion.” While respecting the athleticism of such events, he disqualifies 50-milers and stage runs from the category of ultra, as they will favour athletes who are well trained and gifted. The true ultrarunner must endure sleep deprivation and complete muscular fatigue. Only then can he or she “find energy after the fuel is gone.”
I’m convinced that a lot of people run ultramarathons for the same reason they take mood-altering drugs. I don’t mean to minimize the gifts of friendship, achievement, and closeness to nature that I’ve received in my running career. But the longer and farther I ran, the more I realized that what I was often chasing was a state of mind—a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus. I don’t think anyone starts running distances to obtain that kind of vision. I certainly didn’t. But I don’t think anyone who runs ultra distances with regularity fails to get there. The trick is to recognize the vision when it comes over you.
Now to the race…
Every time I saw someone—a villager, a vintner, and old lady sitting in a patch of shade—I yelled, “Paghos nero parakalo,” which means “ice and water, please,” but no one seemed to understand. Finally, emerging from a chalky, lonely taverna, a bent old woman in a long, navy blue dress shuffled toward me. “Paghos nero parakalo,” I called, and miraculously she seemed to understand. She yelled something to a man standing in the doorway as she mimed drinking.
She had thick arms, thick ankles, and a rough, weather-beaten face. Her husband handed her a large glass of water filled with chunks of ice, and she gave it to me. The ice could have come from keeping freshly caught fish cold. I could not have cared less. To me, the chunks were more valuable than glittering diamonds. She also picked a handful of basil leaves from the garden at her feet and thrust them into my hands. I was trying to drink and thank her at the same time when I saw her motioning to the basil leaves and then to my small waistpack, where I carried my gels and food. She was telling me to put the basil in there. When I took the pack off, though, she pulled one of the leaves out and stuck it behind my ear. Then she kissed me on the cheek.
Suddenly I felt a lightness and a strength. Whether it was her kindness, the water, or the basil (which I discovered later is the king of herbs, the word basil deriving from the Greek word basileus, which means king; it is revered as a symbol of strength and good luck in Greece), my mind shifted. It was a moment in an ultramarathon that I have learned to live for, to love. It was that time when everything seems hopeless, when to go on seems futile, and when a small act of kindness, another step, a sip of water, can make you realize that nothing is futile, that going on—especially when going on seems so foolish—is the most meaningful thing in the world. Many runners have encountered that type of crystalline vision at the end of a race, or training run, that brings with it utter fatigue and blessed exhaustion. For ultrarunners, the vision is a given.
At 100 miles, a man gave me a flower. He was crying as he handed it to me. Almost every person I met in Greece seemed to radiate a passion for life. I think it was inextricably linked to the land, the water, and the plants. There’s a myth that when Athens was founded, the gods argued over who would get to be the patron of the beautiful new city It came down to Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the sea. Zeus declared that the two should each create a gift to give to the mortals of the city, and whoever gave the better gift would be its patron. Poseidon made water gush out of the Acropolis, but it was salty and so not of much use. Athena invented the olive tree, which could give the people fruit, oil, and wood. As a plant-based athlete, it was moving to see a culture where plants retain symbolic power and where people still use herbs to heal. It’s in their history, after all. Greece was the homeland of Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, who singled out diet and exercise as important components of health and wrote “let food be thy medicine.”…
In Greece, I filled up on pomegranates and figs, wild greens from the mountains called horta, and lots of olives. It was a foraging paradise. On almost every training run I passed through vineyards of grapes and almond and citrus and quince trees (often grabbing fruit and eating it as I went). The Greeks had a simple diet—and an exceedingly healthy one.
—Scott Jurek with Steve Friedman, Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness
Olives, basil, flowers, pomegranates, figs… Greece has been blessed with an abundance of nutritious and healing plants that fuelled and inspired the exploration of the furthest limits of human potential—political, philosophical, medical, scientific, artistic, and athletic. There may be many explanations for why Ancient Greek civilization reached heights not seen again for many centuries, but what if it was the plants?