Best gift books: The Road to Sparta


“An investment in sports equipment is an investment in life,” once said a great man of my acquaintance. This holiday season, I’ll be giving (and receiving, I hope) not just gear, but also maybe tickets to a few games – and perhaps a new sports book or two.

An avid athletics fan, I’m always interested in the best new writing about running. Much of this naturally focuses each year on the top track stars of the day – e.g., there have been great books on Steve Prefontaine and Usain Bolt – but once in a while, we see a departure from the here and now into something more timeless – like today’s selection, Dean Karnazes’ The Road to Sparta.


The Road to Sparta is the story of the 153-mile run from Athens to Sparta that inspired the marathon and saved democracy, as told – and experienced – by ultramarathoner and New York Times best-selling author Dean Karnazes.

In 490 BCE Pheidippides ran for 36 hours straight from Athens to Sparta to seek help in defending Athens from a Persian invasion in the Battle of Marathon. In doing so he saved the development of Western civilization and inspired the birth of the marathon as we know it. Even now, some 2,500 years later, that run stands enduringly as one of greatest physical accomplishments in the history of mankind.

Karnazes personally honors Pheidippides and his own Greek heritage by recreating this ancient journey in modern times. Karnazes even abstains from contemporary endurance nutrition like sports drinks and energy gels and eats only what was available in 490 BCE, such as figs, olives, and cured meats. Through vivid details and internal dialogs, The Road to Sparta offers a rare glimpse into the mind-set and motivation of an extreme athlete during his most difficult and personal challenge to date.

Brilliant: the author eats only figs, olives, and cured meats, then goes and runs a 153-mile mega-marathon. Like other modern-day authenticities of the past (standouts include Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki excursions and Neville Marriner’s recording of the Brandenburg Concertos using only period instruments), Karnazes’ run will be a success even before he starts, through his honouring of the past.

This book combines sports and mythology, two of my enduring passions. Looking forward to unwrapping it Christmas morning, settling back under an olive tree with a flagon of retsina, and floating back two and a half millennia to the Peloponnese.


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