Yiannis Part 1 – The Fastest Long-Lasting Legs

The Beginning

This remarkable story begins in a small village outside Tripoli, in Greece. It was then no more than a scattered and isolated hard-working farming community, a community that barely had enough to keep themselves and families alive.

In the 1950s, Greece was a country that had barely survived from the hardships of World War II and the Greek Civil War. The whole country had suffered significant losses and damage to infrastructure was beyond imagination…

At dawn as the sun was rising on February 13th, 1956, a healthy boy was born to the family of five. He was the family’s second child and was named Yiannis Kouros.

At that time, the nearby city of Tripoli was a mix of long-time residents and new migrants from the other parts of Greece because of the wars. Growing up in that era was hard for everyone. Manual labour was required from a very young age, and that was hard for poor parents to see their young ones exhausted at the end of the day.

In the 1960s Tripoli was a vibrant cultural and social centre. That provided entertainment and local traditions for the lives to residents. As a young boy, Yiannis was fascinated with all these artistic influences, and he found a passion for writing poems and stories…

Many boys played basketball, and, as Yiannis said “Life is a game”–so he tried different sports. He was particularly interested in the long jump, but very soon he realised that he was not fast enough for long jumping, so he decided to try running instead. At the age of 15 he tried out running 300m and next year 800m and 1500m like the other lads – this was his first running experiences.

By the time he was 16, his P.E. teacher persuaded him to take part of some races. But before that he focused on getting stronger and faster for two years. But the right-wing military dictatorship, the Greek Junta, removed the sitting President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III from office and installed their own leaders in the Presidential Palace in Nicosia. Young males were conscripted into the army, and Yiannis was one of them. Just before he entered the army, coup ended, but all the young conscripts were on their toes and afraid what may come.

Army discipline and endurance suited Yiannis, and at the time his service time ended, he had decided on ending his running career, which he wanted to finish off with a marathon.

It was the summer of 1977 with the hottest weather ever recorded in Europe. Greece experienced 48.0 °C (118.4 °F) in the shade at noon in Elefsina. It was a boiling hot summer, but Yiannis had set his goals to participate that fall.

Closer to the day of the race the weather cooled down. Rain showers dissolved some of the heat and it felt almost enjoyable to be standing at the starting line. Without any high expectations, he felt the excitement of being surrounded by hundreds of international runners. He left without any fear of losing because he was thinking that this would be his last marathon!

Finally, he turned into the entrance of the Athens’ Stadium and crossed the finishing line at 2:43.15, coming 25th and 4th among his compatriots. The relief rushed his entire body, “I really liked that…” he said to himself!

The Discovery

Young Yiannis was celebrated among his friends from Athens and in no time some of them started asking Yiannis to coach them as he now had a right experience of long-distance running.

For seven years he mastered his endurance and studied from his mistakes, as well as often running marathons and finishing in front of his friends. To inspire them, he would just run back to help them to finish well. That practice led to a discovery that he can run longer without feeling like a hero, that he had read about in books.

The urge of wanting more and going further bubbled inside of him, but there were no longer distance runs, called ultras in Greece as in some other European countries. He searched everywhere and finally came across an article about of ultrarunning. Ultras were more popular in England, America, and France.

In those early days, most ultra-runners were professionals – they were paid to run and that felt like a dream. Yiannis was seriously worried that nobody would take a marathon runner if he was a non-professional runner.

But giving up dream was never an option, and finding somebody to coach him for ultrarunning was not possible in Greece because all the coaches were for middle distances and few up to 10.000m!

Yiannis kept searching, when he finally heard about this ultra-race been organised around his own running grounds called the Spartathlon.

He signed up, not knowing and never even running races more than marathon distances. He had only one thing in his mind, “I need to earn my place” …

Yiannis had never put any limits on how far he could go, so he decided to test himself on a 100km circuit around Tripoli. SEGAS, the Hellenic Athletics Federation, was curious to see if another middle-distance runner from Tripoli could complete the 100km circuit in a reasonable time. For one who has never done anything like this before he performed an astonishing official record time of 7h:35min.

That result gave the young Yiannis the confidence to stand alongside those ultra-running professionals – legends who can go further and longer. For him they were the true-life heroes participating in this event – he tingles with excitement seeing these big names and reading their heroic results.

Early on September 30th, 1983, at 06:00h the runners started to move Panathenaic Stadium of Athens, where the start of the race was located. There were 45 brave runners from 11 countries, facing, what was described as the world’s most gruelling race.

At the crack of dawn, all the runners were lined up with white t-shirts with some wearing summer hats. Yiannis sought out these experienced runners: Dusan Mravlie, from Yugoslavia, a master skier and military man with many records; Marvin Skagerberg, a 6-day record holder, Michael Newton, the world’s best runner for 200km, Allan Fairbrother, the world’s best in 12-hour races, Alfons Everzat, Patrick Macke, Edd Dodd, Gerard Stenger, John Dowling, Dan Coffey, Malcolm Cambell, and Edgar Paterman – this link opens up many stories:

https://ultrarunninghistory.com/spartathlon-2/

A few minutes before the 07:00h start, Yiannis calmed himself and isolated his thoughts from the activity around him. He focussed all his attention on himself to show that he could earn his place among these champions.

At the start Yiannis followed the leading pack, and unexpectedly at around 44km, he moved to first position.

As day unfolded the heat was burning. Many top runners were forced to stop. Fearlessly, well beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, he passed the 100km mark at 6h:50min and then went through Ancient Nemea and Artemision Mountain arriving just a few minutes before midnight to Tegea, an ancient settlement near the city of Tripoli.

His body was hurting and tired, but he kept telling himself, “This is what I need to be better”.

No one expected Yiannis to run down the last hill to Sparta before sunrise, but he was so far ahead that only handful of onlookers were awake to witness this monumental feat.

A few minutes before 05:00h with an official time of 21h:53m:42s., he crossed the finishing line and was offered water from the terracotta cup from museum, like Pheidippides in ancient times.

A few hours later, Yugoslav’s Dusan Mraclse finished at 24:39.13, followed by Britain’s Allan Fairbrother and West German Alfons Everzat 27:39:13. Another 12 runners finished within the 36-hour limit, including the only woman, a 35-year-old Briton, Eleanor Adams.

This unknown young boy did something that no one, even their wildest dreams, was expecting. Many top runners could not believe one can run so far, so fast, and his success marked the birth of one of mankind’s greatest athletes.

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