Yiannis – Part 2 – His Rise from Obscurity

by Sami Vaskola 

He knew that the only way to silence his doubters was to be better, stronger, a hero of those stories about which he has always read.

The following year he crushed his own Spartathlon record, by finishing at the astounding time of 20h 25min., leaving no one in doubt about his capabilities. People then knew that there was something extraordinary about this “raw” young boy from the outskirts of Tripoli.

“I was taught how to survive”, he always said, “I will not give up.”

That was something he thought from a very young age and that was to become his golden rule of running, even though he was in unknown territory with no one to teach or coach him.

His friends had different jobs and could not fit to his running schedules. He had to train alone most of the time and simply discover new abilities. On many occasions when leaving for a long run, he drowned himself in the stories that he created for his books and songs. As in his early life experiences and being alone, running in those rugged hills were experiences that made him discover that in life and in sports, there is not one level, there is multiple levels.

There were times he toured Greece selling records to support his running passion. He kept running alongside his bosses’ car and had no idea how to perfect his running, so he just ran based on how he felt physically and mentally.

He never trained all 12 months of the year. Often a notice or call for a race came just two or one week beforehand. There was no time to prepare properly for the race, but that never stopped him in participating. Yiannis´s determination to be a legend, a hero of his own story kept his heart and mind focussed on pushing forward.

As the years passed, Yiannis´s fame grew, as he kept astounding the running world with new achievements. He became one of the biggest names in the ultra-running community, participating nearly every ultra-race available.

But then Exile…

The race organisers noticed his success and celebrated him as a hero, a Greek God.

But when as their business grew, they got greedy, and once a greeted hero, became an unprofitable runner.

Yiannis, who singlehandedly had elevated ultrarunning to a global phenomenon, now was a person who fought for ultra-runner’s rights to be professionals, like thousands other athletes around the world.

Before his time, ultra-runners where the ultimate heroes, paid athletes. It was a sport that was never supported by governments, and one that few took this seriously. Most sport spectators just focussed on the more “flashy” sports of short distances, the stuff we see at the Olympics. There was also another challenge – race organisers did not know how to support ultrarunner athletes.

A New Life

Early 1990, Yiannis travelled to Australia, where he found himself accepted as an honoured athlete. Once again, he dominated the Westfield Run – Sydney to Melbourne 1008km, winning by a margin of nearly half a day.

Then was followed by a 24h Challenge Race, where he completed over 280km distance. The following month, he stood at the starting line of Spartathlon, where all began. This time he finished just 4 minutes shy of his own record, 20h 29min.

Where mind overtakes the physical pain and suffering, there was no one in the world better to overcome those challenges than Yiannis. He had become an Icon of ultra-running.

As a “rebel with a cause”, Yannis decided to run the course and finished well before other competitors. As one of the largest companies in Australia it was shamed by greed and never organised that race again.

Once again, he felt let down by the organisers, so Yiannis decided to go back to his other passion in life, art, music, and poetry. Then in 1994, he was granted Australian citizenship started to train his physical and mental abilities as a runner once more.

He Became a Hero

Many people doubted if he could make a comeback, but little they know that he was ready!

Like a surgically designed race car, he awoke the world like a tsunami. At the start of the season in April 1995 he ran nearly 283km in a 24-hour race. Just four weeks later he went to France for a 48h race. Later that day he discovered that the track was not exactly 400meters long – it was 301m and made with gravel, so it was extremely difficult to calculate the correct pace. Despite these odds he ran a new world record of 470.78km in a 48-hour race, remarkably covering 285.4km at the 24-hour mark, which was a new track 24-hour World Record, even as a split!

The following year, in 1996, saw one of the most important ultra-running achievements in the sport. We must look back 12 years to 1985, when the 29-year-old boy from Tripoli broke the 24-hour and 48-hour World Records.

It took 12 long years for Yiannis to master the challenge he faced in that staggering year.

In April 1996, Australia and the world was set to be astounded by Yiannis with a new world record 24-hour run that completed 295.5km.

Three weeks later, in France, he was to challenge his own World Record again. One can say a lot about a person’s mental capacity. A day before the race, Yiannis accidentally broke four ribs, causing terrible pain.

Nevertheless, his extraordinary abilities to isolate himself from his surroundings allowed him to shatter his 48-hour World Record of 473.5km – and that still stands today!

“During my 48-hour race and many others, I did have physical problems, but I was able to focus on positive thoughts and isolate the negative physical pain away…”

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