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Yiannis Kouros: The Greatest Ultramarathon Runner of All Time

Yiannis Kouros running
Yiannis Kouros: The Greatest Ultrarunner of All Time. Credit: AURA

Greek ultramarathon runner Yiannis Kouros holds many world records and has been dubbed “The Running God,” “The Golden Greek,” “Modern Pheidippides,” “The Master of Pain,” and “The Unstoppable” by his peers, running experts, and the public. All these epithets are more than well-deserved.

According to the website “Ultrarunning History,” the seasoned Greek athlete is the greatest ultrarunner of all time.

Ultrarunning experts have also calculated the miles the 63-year-old Greek runner has run since high school and come to the conclusion that Kouros has covered the distance from the earth to the moon.

According to his website, Kouros has broken more than 160 world records up to now, but, perhaps most astoundingly, all of these remain unbroken. One of his peers, Canadian Trishal Cherns, has said, “There’s the elite, the world-class; then there’s Yiannis.”

Kouros was born in Tripolis, Arkadia in Greece on February 13, 1956. Born into a poor family in which there was strict discipline, he experienced a very tough childhood. He was only five when he was forced to perform manual labor to contribute financially to the family.

He began running in a systematic manner at the age of sixteen and soon devoted himself to long-distance running after his coach told him he was “too slow.” The hardships he had suffered as a child made Kouros a naturally tough, disciplined athlete who excelled in the punishing pursuit known as ultrarunning.

However, young Kouros had other interests and talents, too. He wrote a thousand poems and became involved with music, as well. He studied Byzantine and European music and took voice lessons.

He has released four records (two instrumental and two with vocals), writing all the lyrics and music himself. His poetry and music were inspired by Greek heroes such as King Leonidas and Greek Revolution fighter Theodoros Kolokotronis.

Yiannis Kouros, “The Running God”

But Kouros’ true calling is undeniably ultramarathon running. He ran his first marathon at the age of twenty-one in 1977, clocking in at the very respectable time of 2:43:15. His times continued to improve, down to 2:25 in 1981.

Yiannis won the Athens Marathon in 1981. By 1983, the Greek runner had completed twenty-five marathons. Soon, however, he discovered that he excelled far more at ultra-distances, which are even longer than traditional marathons.

It was that year that the Spartathlon began. The first such race—the distance from Marathon to Sparta, or 156 miles (251 km)—was run on September 30, 1983 with forty-five starters. This was Kouros’ very first ultra-distance race. Event officials had estimated that the winner would arrive at Sparta in approximately twenty-seven hours.

Kouros won with an official time of 21:53:42.

The Greek runner said that the English event sponsors refused to give him the cup since they thought it was humanly impossible that a distance of 250 km could be covered in 21:50. However, as ultrarunning pioneer Dan Brannen declared, “He is the only runner for whom an accusation of cheating eventually became an honor.”

Kouros definitively proved that he had not cheated by returning to the race the following year, during which he ran even faster, finishing in 20:25. This has stood as a course record through to the present day.

In 1983, he also ran a three-day Ultramarathon in Austria, and, in 1984, he ran a six-day race in New York, covering a punishing distance of 635 miles (1,030 km).

The Greek runner wrote about his experience in the New York race in his book The Six-Day Run of the Century. I had a fear of remaining a vegetable for the rest of my days, as after 24 hours, I felt my body no longer operating and I was carrying it without its consent,” he wrote.

“I thought I would not be able to walk again, though I made a conscious decision to write history,” he explained. “To expiate myself, I saw it as a sacrifice in an ancient drama. I knew I was leaving something behind me.”

He then wrote about finishing the effort: “I was running very fast, and because my toes were bleeding very much, many believed I would have to drop out. There, I experienced how important the mental attitude is.”

“I come to a point where my body is almost dead,” he wrote. “My mind has to take leadership…I reached the stage to look at my body from above, from outwards, I mean like an out-of-body experience. I mean that your body has surrendered and you see yourself from above and behind and you somehow guide your body ahead. I am talking about incredible moments.”

In November 1984, he went all the way to Australia to run a six-day race in the city of Colac and finished first there. He repeated his victory by winning the Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon in 1987, 1989, and 1990.

By 1990, Kouros had run in almost every ultramarathon held around the world. It was in that year that because of the Greek state’s unwillingness to support his athletic endeavors, he was forced to emigrate to Australia, where he lived for ten years.

The ultrarunner returned to Greece to live in 2000 and continued running with great success both in Greece and abroad. It is indeed remarkable that in 2005 at the age of forty-nine in Australia’s “Cliff Young” six-day race, he broke his own world record set twenty-one years earlier.

“In ultrarunning there are no real limits,” Kouros explained to interviewers. “One can go on and on. I try to achieve something special in each race…What Pheidippides did, going to Sparta just for a message and [bringing] back a message to the Athenians…I’d like to think of myself as a messenger.”

The iconic Greek runner adds that he wants “to inspire, to give the message that something is doable. Everything is possible as far as I am concerned as long as you go for it.”

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