ATHENS, Sept. 24 (Xinhua) -- Around 300 runners of various ages and professions from 46 countries and regions embarked on their journey of the Spartathlon, an ultramarathon race, at the foot of the Acropolis hill here on Friday morning.
Following the footsteps of ancient Greek soldier Pheidippides, athletes will try to finish the 246-km race from Athens to Sparta in southern Greece within two days.
In 490 BC, ahead of the battle of Marathon against Persian forces, Pheidippides was said by historians like Herodotus to have been sent from Athens to Sparta to ask for support, making the journey on foot nonstop within two days.
"About 40 years ago [in 1982] three British men [headed by Royal Air Force Wing Commander John Foden] set off to test whether Herodotus' references were correct. They ran the course climbing the tough terrain of Artemisio mountain and indeed reached Sparta the following day. This is how the Spartathlon was established," Polymeris said.
Thousands of runners of various ages and professions from across the world have followed in their footsteps ever since, testing the limits of human stamina and mental strength.
The target is to reach the statue of ancient Spartan King Leonidas in Sparta within the 36-hour time limit, with successful participants awarded an olive wreath and a sip of water from the nearby Evrotas river.
The Spartathlon runs over rough tracks, crosses vineyards and olive groves next to archaeological sites and climbs steep hillsides, and only around one third of participants complete the grueling event each year.
"We started with about 30 athletes in the first year and currently we receive more than 800 applications," Polymeris noted.
The organisers accept about 400 runners each year based on qualifying criteria.
"This time 334 athletes start in front of Herodion [Odeon of Herodes Atticus] in the morning, among them 10 coming from China," Polymeris told Xinhua.
About 20 percent of participants are women, while the oldest this year are two runners aged 66, from South Korea and Germany.
Last year, for the first time in its history, the Spartathlon was canceled due to the pandemic. This year, it has resumed under strict safety measures, Polymeris stressed.
Fredrik Forsstrom, 50, from Sweden, was among participants warming up by the Acropolis this Friday for his first Spartathlon attempt.
"It has always been in the back of my mind for 20 years maybe. I think this is the jewel of the crown for me, when it comes to running," he told Xinhua.
Amy Mower from California is returning to the event for a second time. She finished her first attempt in under 34 hours.
"It is a unique race. It is a chance to run across a country with incredible beauty and incredible history with a crowd of athletes from all over the world. There is nothing else like it," she said.
Greek runner Yannis Kouros, who won the first Spartathlon, still holds the record time of 20:25:00.
This year's 39th Spartathlon is held under the auspices of the Greek Ministries of Tourism and National Defense.