Four runners. Four stories. One Greek drama.
Sometimes, as any poet will attest, you just have to scratch. You have an idea and it nags at you for hours, days, months, years. You know it is a good idea, but you aren’t sure how to make it happen. You fret that you cannot do justice to this great idea. You worry yourself out of doing anything about it.
And then one day you just settle down and scratch.
Such was the case with The Road to Sparta. I first came across the Spartathlon in 2006 when I was living and working in Athens. Until then, I had thought the marathon was the ultimate in running, and that the tale of Pheidippides running to Athens to deliver news of the victory in Marathon, only to drop dead on arrival, was little short of magnificent.
Spartathlon, however, was a nastier beast altogether, 153 miles that the runners have to complete in 36 hours, starting in Athens and ending in Sparta where they kiss the feet of the statue of the mighty King Leonidas. This was the path that, according to Herodotus, Pheidippides took to try to persuade the Spartans to join forces with the Athenians against the Persians.
Six marathons back to back. No time to sleep. The heat of the day, the cold of the night; the tranquillity of the olive groves and mountain tracks of Arcadia and the carcinogenic roar of the six lane highways; the rhythmic twitching of the cicadas and the bestial groan of the blunt-nosed trucks. It is an epic race. You need a tough mind as well as a tough body to get through it.
The itch for me began in 2006 when I interviewed an American runner called Scott Jurek. He planted a seed. I had no desire to run the race, but I loved everything around the race; the history, the romance and the runners. I had grown tired of the preening peacocks of professional sport. It was refreshing to come across the humility of these elite athletes whose only material reward for winning or finishing the Spartathlon would be a medal and a laurel wreath.
Having covered the race in print and on radio, and having been met by blank indifference, I felt that perhaps the best way to tell the story was visually. I had never made a film, so I roped in an old friend from university, Roddy Gibson, who had scores of documentaries under his belt, and a Greek band called Old House Playground who were charged with providing a score.
It needed crowd-funding and a couple of people, Tom Hiotis and James Phillipson, who came on board as executive producers. And, of course, Alicia Stallings. We found four runners, one of whom is the Greek-American Dean Karnazes who went on to write a book about Pheidippides and the run. We built our team and made our film.
It premiered in Athens in October 2016 and The Road to Sparta has since screened in places as far afield as Lagos and Las Vegas, Dublin and Derby, Melbourne and, we are keeping our fingers crossed on this one, Montreal. We have picked up a few awards along the way as well for the direction, the music and, at the Motion Picture Film Festival, the poetry.
It has been a long journey. As with the runners there has been no financial reward. But when the film screens in Sparta at the Peloponnese International Documentary Film Festival in January 2019, I will walk to the statue and kiss the feet of Leonidas. Our run will then be complete.