road-to-sparta-review-book-coverI’m a reader, always have been.

And, no surprise, I enjoy reading about running in general and ultrarunning in particular. So, with a week of vacation last week, I found some time to dive into a couple of books on the Kindle including Dean Karnazes‘ latest effort, The Road to Sparta: Running in the Footsteps of the Original Ultramarathon Man.

This is not the first book by Karnazes that I’ve read. I’ve got a paperback copy of Ultramarathon Man around the apartment here that I pick up from time to time, and I have read 50/50 and Run, too. He has a very accessible style and it’s easy reading. Most of the books would be interesting to people who aren’t quite as obsessed by running as I am. I’m sure that this is a big reason why Karnazes gets mail from people who cite him as an inspiration in starting to run for the first time.

For me, The Road to Sparta is a story in three parts.

The first part is the story of Karnazes, the son of Greek immigrants and a proud Greek-American. He dives into his family history, visits places where he is known by the shape and size of his calves (!), and discovers what the Greece of his grandparents has become in an age of austerity, economic collapse, and in the midst of a refugee crisis. These sorts of stories are interesting but not always enough to keep me interested for a couple of hundred pages. Luckily, though, it was just one of three main threads in the book.

The second part of the story is the story of another Greek ultrarunner, perhaps the most famous ultrarunner of all time. No, not Yannis Kouros, but Pheidippides. The hero day-long-runner who ran messages between Athens and Sparta and helped ensure the success of the free, democratic Greeks over the invading Persian forces is told well. Karnazes draws on expert sources who are both educated about and fascinated by the story of Pheidippides and his ultrarunning exploits and the research shows.

The third part of the story is about the race that Karnazes ran that, in many ways, is a tribute to Pheidippides: the Spartathlon. For Karnazes, qualifying for this race is not a big deal as he has the ultrarunning bon fides to make the grade. For a mere mortal like myself, however, even getting to the start line would be a challenge. Hell, I’d have to run 120km at the Saint Fons 12 Hour race just to qualify to enter, let alone be selected and actually make it to the race. Karnazes tells the story of his run which, in a nice twist, was completed with the nutrition that would have been available to a runner in Pheidippides’ time. No gels, no gu, no Tailwind – just real, traditional food.

It’s a well written book and I think I prefer it to Run and 50/50. It’s well-structured, well-balanced between the different parts or threads of the story, and a great read. It won’t teach you much about ultrarunning, but it’s not meant to, either. It will, however, inspire you to run a little bit further and a little bit faster, and God knows that if I have six minutes to go and I’m at 119km at Saint Fons, I’ll be busting my butt to nail that qualifying kilometer and maybe one day toe the line in Athens like Dean Karnazes.

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