An Ultra-Runner for the Ages
“If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra.”
– Dean Karnazes
I recently learned of Yiannis Kouros.
If you haven’t heard of him before, Yiannis Kouros is an ultra-runner, poet, musician, artist, and according to his site, a philosopher. He also played Pheidippides in The Story of the Marathon: A Hero’s Journey in 1991.
But what sets him apart from anything else is his running feats. And being a runner myself, I find them almost too hard to believe.
In fact, in his first Spartathlon in 1983 at the age of 27, it was believed he cut the course because he finished it in such an unbelievable time. The race organizers had so much trouble understanding how someone could finish so fast, they held the trophy from him for two days until they could prove he didn’t cheat. **(This account is disputed — see comment below story)**
And the next year in 1984, he was the subject of intense scrutiny. Yiannis was followed by race officials the entire way to verify he completed the course with no shortcuts. Not only did he complete it, but he beat the previous year’s time.
Here is why they didn’t believe him — in 1983, he ran the 152-mile (246 km) course in a staggering 21h:53m:40s. His nearest competitor was over 3 hours behind him, a feat in and of itself. That is an 8:39 per mile (5:20 per km) pace for over 150 miles.
In 1984, he ran it in 20:25:00. Almost an hour and a half better than in 1983, a record which still stands today. That translates into an 8:04 per mile (4:59 per km) pace. For over 150 miles.
Let’s put that into perspective.
The average finishing time for a marathon (26.2 miles, 42.19 km) in the United States is 4:22:07 (9:59/mile, 6:13/km) for men. For women, it is 4:47:40 (10:58/mile, 6:49/km). Combining the two, we get an overall average of 10:29 per mile.*
Of course, elite runners finish much faster, but even then, they are done after a little over 26 miles.
Yiannis Kouros beat the average pace of all marathon runners in the United States by close to 2 1/2 minutes per mile for almost 6 times as long.
He competed in the Spartathlon four times and won all four. The race is still run today, but Yiannis’ times are still the four fastest.
And that is just one race he has competed in.
According to his site, he has broken over 160 world records in long-distance running.
While all of those records are something to behold, there are several which stand out not only for the time but for the distance.
- 100 miles road (160.93 km) — 11:46:37 (7:04/mile, 4:23/km)
- 1000 km track (621.4 miles) — 5 days 16h:17m:00s (13:10/mile, 8:11/km)
- 1000 miles road (1609.3 km) — 10 days 10h:30m:36s (15:02/mile, 9:20/km)
- Timed race (road) — 12 hours — completed 162.543 km (101 miles)
- Timed race (road) — 24 hours — completed 290.221 km (180.3 miles)
- Timed race (road) — 48 hours — completed 433.095 km (269.1 miles)
- Timed race (road) — 6 days — completed 1028.370 km (639 miles)
These are just a small portion of the accomplishments of Yiannis.
I also want to compare the 100-mile race in bold above to myself. I am nowhere near elite, but I’m a pretty good runner for my age. I have won many age group awards and consistently finish in the top 10% of all runners in the races I take part in.
In my last race, I finished 11th out of 235 people and 2nd in my age group (45–49). It was a 5k (3.1 miles) and I finished it in 22:05 (7:06/mile, 4:25/km).
And I was completely exhausted. There was no way I could have continued that pace for much longer.
If you look at his pace per mile, you will see it is 7:04. For km, it is 4:23. For 100 miles. He ran two seconds faster than I did and maintained that pace for 97 more miles than I ran.
To me, it is mind-boggling.
But it shows us what the human body (and mind) are capable of if only we would harness it and use it to the best of our ability.
Yiannis Kouros is revered in the ultra-running community and is known as “The Running God”, “Golden Greek”, and the “Successor to Phiedippides” among other names.
With all of his records, he has certainly earned those nicknames.
Not only does he bring reverence with his running, he also does with his words. Here are just a few of the quotes he has provided over the years:
“Each horrid event should equip you with the necessary provisions so that you can confront the next one; it shouldn’t make you yield. The continuous confirmation is that despair and hopelessness supply you with means — inconceivable at first, and they make you discover hidden unexpected powers.”
“Without patience, you will never conquer endurance.”
“Like a tree that grows stronger with more branches and roots, you need to find more and more ways to be inspired.”
He not only has inspired me, but countless others.
I learned of Yiannis Kouros from Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. I highly recommend it!
*Assuming the same number of men and women which is probably not the case, but I couldn’t find those numbers. Either way, it doesn’t make the accomplishment any less incredible.
Disclosure: The link to the book above is an affiliate link, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will make a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
**“It is not true that the Spartathlon winners trophy was not given to Yiannis Kouros in 1983 because the organizers doubted his performance. The trophy donated by the Financial Times newspaper was still in Greek customs. There was no doubt about the performance expressed by the organizers. Some of the other athletes didn’t trust the performance, especially some of the British ones. The story in Scott Jurek’s book is absolutely false. I tried to contact him a long time ago but had to go through his agent who did not respond.” (Comment on the original article written on Medium by Patrick Kimura-Macke who states he was present at the race.)**