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General News Athens, Greece

Distance runners track ancient legend in punishing race

Derek Gatopoulos for AP

Athens, Greece - Following the footsteps of an ancient Greek messenger, 190 runners set out from the foot of the Acropolis at dawn Friday on a punishing round-the-clock contest from Athens to Sparta, nearly six times the distance of a Marathon race.

The athletes from 27 countries, many with bottles of water strapped to their back, will run along old highways, dirt tracks and up steep mountain passes, covering 245 kilometres to arrive in the southern Greek town of Sparta by a deadline at nightfall on Saturday.

Dutchman Wim Epskamp, 45, was leading the race at Corinth, 83 kilometres west of Athens, after the Greek favorite and two-time winner Costas Repos dropped out with stomach cramps.

Japan's Kimie Funada was leading a dozen women, ahead of the favourite, Ann Trason of the United States.

The race, known as the Spartathlon, traces the legendary course run by the messenger Pheidippides nearly 2,500 years ago to enlist the help Sparta's warrior kingdom which had allied with rival Athens against a Persian invasion. The run was recorded by the ancient historian Herodotus.

The Spartathlon has been held every year since 1982, when five officers from Britain's Royal Air Force put history to the test, running along the route described by the historian.

About half the runners typically abandon the race with blisters or exhaustion. For those who finish, the prize is decidedly Spartan: the athletes get a drink of local water and an olive wreath placed on their head.

"This race is not about speed. It's endurance and determination," said John Foden, who led the British team in 1982 and is here to watch this year's race. "The most difficult part is the climb up the mountains in the dark over rough track. Sometimes it can be very cold."

The Spartathlon record, 20 hours and 25 minutes, was set by Yiannis Kouros of Greece in 1984, and is three hours faster than any other athlete has completed the race. Kouros broke a long string of ultra-distance records in the 1980s.

Foden and other race organizers are campaigning to have the Spartathlon staged as a one-off exhibition event before the start of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Pheidippides' run to Sparta may have been unnecessary. The advancing forces from the vast Persian Empire were defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., before the Spartans arrived.

But not all his efforts were in vain. According to Greek legend, Pheidippides fought with other Athenian soldiers against the Persians and ran from the battleground to Athens to announce: "we have won!" - before dropping dead with exhaustion.

His last 42-kilometre (26-mile) run inspired another race, the marathon.