Feature: Spartathlon strengthens ideals of sportsmanship and friendship

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At the foothills of Taygetus Mountain in the south-eastern Peloponnese peninsula in Greece, Sparta welcomed dozens of modern heroes from all over the world this weekend to the 32nd edition of Spartathlon.

The number of participants who crossed the finish line was unprecedented in the race's history. This year, 349 runners from 43 countries and regions took part and 207 of them made it until the end.

In 2013, the runners were 322 from 36 countries and regions, and 147 runners finished the 246km ultra-marathon.

With the power of their soul, the runners tested their limits in the race which kicked off from the Acropolis hill in Athens on Friday to the statue of ancient Spartan King Leonidas in the center of Sparta, proving that the real value of Spartathlon is not about winning the race, but collaborating.

"There is no financial prize in this historical race and that is the meaning. They are not competitors in this race, but all runners support each other to cross the finish line and do their best," President of the International Association Spartathlon Panagiotis Tsiakiris told Xinhua.

Last year's Spartathlon winner Portuguese Joao Oliveira proved that once again this year. He stopped and helped Spanish ultra-marathon runner Eva Esnaola, when he noticed that she was facing problems with her leg during the last few kilometers of the course.

He could go after the first rank or a better time, but he slowed down to encourage Esnaola to continue. They reached Leonidas' statue together on Saturday.

Esnaola, who ranked third among the women, said that she feels like Joao is her companion after that. They did not know each other before. Now they are best friends.

Running an ultra-marathon is not a lonely sport, Irish Eddie Gallen, who ranked 65th, told Xinhua.

"I met several people here from all over the world, we are like a community. Even the great champions are modest. Ivan Cudin is a typical example of that," Eddie added.

Cudin, winner for the third time in Spartathlon, was next to other runners in the first aid tents as the lights at the finish line switched off. He arrived first but stayed there to support and encourage them.

"It's not about winning but taking part and finish in the end," he said with a big smile on his face.

For him everything has to do with motivation. "There are difficulties and we know that you may suffer, but you definitely enjoy the race," Ivan said.

He attributes part of his success to his psychologist who helped him look inside himself and find motivation for the difficult moments during the race.

Search for your inner strength and not give up is the secret for Hungarian Szilia Lubrics, who ranked first among women, as well.

"I'm really tired, but I feel very happy. I had difficulties for 3 hours with my stomach, but I overcame everything," she said.

The Spartathlon, which is the revival of the epic feat that ancient Athenian soldier Pheidippides achieved 2,500 years ago, is considered the toughest ultra marathon along with the Sahara race, according to National Geographic.

Athletes run over rough tracks, crossing vineyards and olive groves, steep hillsides and, most challenging of all, the 1,200 meters ascent and descent of Mountain Parthenio in the night.

"The difficulties are those that attract the participants. They want to go beyond their limits, it is a challenge to succeed the impossible," Tsiakiris explained.

Portuguese Fernando Fernandez, who ranked 13th and took part for second time, told Xinhua that he challenged himself to beat his previous record.

He made it, he finished 6 hours and 30 minutes earlier than the last time.

The historic context of the race is also a major factor in the decision of several runners to take part in Spartathlon Robert Youngner, a PhD student in the University of Alabama who ranked 304th.

"It goes way back to Pheidippides. It gives you the feeling that you follow his footsteps. It is very exciting to see if we can also do it," he said.

The feeling is overwhelming, when one reaches the end. "I was crying when I made the final turn," Youngner confessed.

Apart from the runners, the volunteers share the same emotions. Among them was pensioner Anna Koneta who has taken part as volunteer since the beginning of the Spartathlon in 1983. She feels like it's her ethical duty to contribute.

"We help the runners keep up their efforts and succeed their goal," she said. Endit

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