A 246km race that traces the footsteps of ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2015, 6:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2015, 6:03am

Venturing into the unknown takes courage and perseverance. This month we track three brave women who've tackled extreme adventures across the land, ice and sea.

These days, it seems like everyone has run an ultramarathon. But Janice Leung Wan-yee is the only Hongkonger who can claim she has run the original ultramarathon.

The 246km Spartathlon race traces the footsteps of ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides. He's famous for inspiring the modern marathon, but it was his two-day jaunt from Athens to Sparta in 490BC to request help against the invading Persians that inspired the race.

"When I first read the history of Pheidippides and found out about the Spartathlon, I was hooked," says Leung, 39, a government worker who took part in the event last September. "There's no major sponsor or commercial intent behind the event; the race started because someone wanted to recreate history."

Runners must complete the journey - roughly six marathons back to back - within 36 hours. Hundreds of runners start; less than a third make it to the finish. "I had to run the first 90km in 9½ hours," says Leung. "I wasn't even sure I would make the time cut-offs until I had run 200km. It was a very emotional moment when I knew I'd be able to finish."

Halfway, runners must ascend the 1,215-metre-high Mount Parthenion (slightly more than double the height of Victoria Peak) and continue on more undulating hills before a long downhill to the finish.

Just making it to the start requires years of training. Leung began hiking in the mountains, then climbed Mount Blanc and mountains in China and Japan. Over the years she gained speed and switched to ultrarunning, completing 100 mile (160km) races in the mountains and finally a 200km ultramarathon in South Korea in 2013 to qualify for the Spartathlon.

Prior to the event she was running up to 140km a week, including 80km over the weekends.

"It was so hard, but, honestly I can't remember the pain now," she says.

"Surprisingly, you don't think about it when you're out there; you just think about getting to the finish as fast as possible. I just tried to shut out the negative sensations and keep running."

Her strategy worked. She finished in 33 hours and five minutes; 74th overall and seventh among the 27 female finishers.

The Spartathlon was the hardest thing I'd ever done. During the race I was in great spirits. But it was stressful; the time pressure was immense. You never have much time to rest. You're constantly moving and racing against the clock. I ran the first marathon in under four hours and the first 90km in eight hours, 15 minutes - well below the cut-off. But even then I couldn't relax. You never know what's going to happen. Heat stress, stomach troubles or injury - anything can happen over that distance. I suffered from stomach problems around the 100km mark, but was able to keep going.

I suffered from all sorts of troubles: blisters, black toenails and alignment issues. But what can you do? You can't stop for something like that. You just have to keep running.

I kept reminding myself that it was the opportunity I had trained for. It was the experience I wanted. I was quite positive all the way. No one likes pain but it's part of the experience. You deal with it logically. It's like problem solving.

I was never confident that I would finish. Most runners who run the Spartathlon are sub-three-hour marathon runners who train 300km a week. They've run big races like Badwater [217km through California's Death Valley, one of the hottest deserts]. I'm not that class; my marathon personal best is three hours, 26 minutes. I thought it would be a very difficult race. But I knew I had to give it a try.

My motivation helped me finish. I just wanted to finish the race so much and do my best. I love this race - it's the original ultramarathon. I was attracted to the uncertainty and the purity of it. The whole way you feel a part of history. I just wanted to know if it was possible.