By Karolos Grohmann
ATHENS (Reuters) - From a daring attempt by a group of friends to one of the most iconic endurance races in the world, the 246-km Spartathlon has defied the downturn in Greek sports, drawing record numbers as ultra marathons become more popular.
In a country that has seen international events wiped off the calendar amid a ravaging economic crisis, this race has captured the imagination of runners the world over making it a rare example of how to succeed in difficult financial times.
First completed in 1982 by a group of British friends and now with a budget of less than 250,000 euros, organizers have created and cultivated an event whose international market value far exceeds that of its cost of staging.
Up until a few years ago the budget for the race was just half that before a private Greek foundation pitched in as the race's sole sponsor.
Retracing the steps of ancient Athenian messenger Pheidippidis, who also ran from the Marathon battle ground to Athens to announce victory over the Persians, when he ran to Sparta to seek help against the invading army, this race takes runners on a highlight tour of ancient Greece.
Elefsis, Corinth, Nemea, Megara and Sparta -- landmark cities and city-states in ancient Greece, lie in the runners' path on the way to the Peloponnesian heartland.
Through citrus orchards, vineyards and olive tree groves along the sparkling Aegean sea, and up the 1,200m high Parthenio mountain at night with temperatures dropping to single digits, this race is equally picturesque as it is grueling.
For Danish long distance runner and coach Claus Rasmussen, who will attempt to run it for the first time this year, the Spartathlon was always on the top of his list.
"For me it is the first time although I have been running ultra marathons for a few years now. But it is one of the most iconic races. It is on every ultra marathoner’s bucket list."
For Rasmussen and most of the runners who compete in it, the race is neither the toughest, nor the longest. Yet more sign up for it every year amid a expanding calendar of long distances races around the world.
"This is because of the historical aspect. The race built around a legend," said Rasmussen, who is attempting to become the first athlete to complete the race in sandals.
"There are hundreds more scenic races, longer ones, more challenging ones and definitely with more history around them. But this one has history within itself."
A record participation of 380 athletes from 42 countries for this year's event that ended on Saturday with Italian Ivan Cudin touching the statue of Spartan warrior king Leonidas first in the town center, underlines the race's growing popularity.
"This is extremely attractive for me because you can always find a mountain to run around it. You can plod 100 miles and run them but this race follows in the footsteps of the legend," Rasmussen said.
As for running with just sandals, the Dane said: "I cannot think of any more appropriate footwear for this race. That is what he would have been wearing at the time."
Among the runners this year was also American Dean Karnazes, one of the world's most renowned ultra marathon runners and best-selling author, who made his maiden Spartathlon attempt, albeit on a diet Pheidippidis would have had as a documentary crew follow him around.
American Jan Olsen, the 2013 24-hour world champion of the International Association of Ultrarunners, was also another big-name participant.
Race organizers, whose strict rules and qualification criteria have sparked a smaller Sparta-to-Athens run organized by runners who fail to make the cut for the Spartathlon, say they cannot keep up with the demand.
"At the moment we are basically limited in our growth by the amount of hotel rooms in Sparta. We just cannot sleep all the people wanting to compete," Spartathlon organizing committee member Takis Alikaniotis told Reuters.
This growth is partly due to a current boom in ultra marathon races worldwide with more and more athletes eager to tackle longer distances.
But more importantly it is also due to the fact the race is offering athletes and potential sponsors a unique proposition, unlike anything else on the calendar, Simon Chadwick, Professor of sports business strategy at Coventry University, told Reuters.
"This is a very crowded and very dynamic marketplace for any event to stand out and to make commercial sense for sponsors to invest, there has to be a unique proposition," Chadwick said.
"It (Spartathlon) is almost as if it is symbolic of Greece, of what went before and the challenges facing now sport."
"We are operating in an environment where sport does not just happen. Sport is more commercially market-driven and so the ultra marathon is a symbol of what Greece has been and what Greece needs to become."
For the first time this year the race is under the auspices of the country's Tourism Ministry as Greece looks to improve its image abroad after years of bad press.
"Greece must take it (sports events) more seriously in strategic and commercial terms and drive economic activity," Chadwick said.
"Clearly in terms of brand Greece there is an incredible sporting heritage there that the government could take advantage of. The country is looking for opportunities."
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)