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Yiannis Kouros: The Making of a Legend

Yiannis Kouros: The Making of a Legend

By Andy Milroy

23 January 1998
Yiannis Kouros is a Greek-born ultra-marathon runner, who became an Australian citizen in 1993. He holds many world running records, most notably his 24 hour recordof over 300km in 1997. He could well be Australia's greatest competing athlete.

Yiannis Kouros' recent superb performance in running 303.506 kilometres (188 miles, 1038 yards) in Adelaide, Australia, was, for many, just one more extension of an already stellar career. For many present day ultrarunners Kouros has always been part of the ultra scene. I thought I'd take the time to tell the tale of how this remarkable athlete emerged, in controversial style, and how he has come to dominate the ultra scene beyond the 100-kilometre event.

The first Spartathlon race between Athens and Sparta in Greece took place on September l0th 1983. A strong field of established international ultra runners took part, and it was taken for granted that the winner would come from among this fraternity. Before the start the organizers went to the assembled group of runners and asked if two additional runners could take part, despite the fact they had arrived after the deadline for entrants. One was a well-knovvn British runner, and for this reason the assembled runners agreed to the request. The other runner was an unknown Greek called Yiannis Kouros. If the assembled runners had not been willing to bend the rules for a friend, then it is possible that Kouros would never have run an ultra. When this unknown Greek won the race by over two and a half hours naturally great scepticism was expressed by the experienced rumners, particularly as much of the race had been run in darkness' and rumours were rife of competitors taking rides in cars. In the opinion of third placed Alan Fairbrother (GBR), Kouros did not "have the experience or class to get anywhere near Dave Dowdle's 274 km world track best over a good flat surface in good climatic conditions."

One of the ffeld, Austrian Edgar Patterman, was not quite so sceptical. He arranged a multi-day stage race along the Danube in April 1984 and invited a large group of international runners to compete, including Yiannis Kouros. The first stage was 114 kms. Kouros took the lead after 16krns and the international runners had the chance to judge the mettle of this unknown performer. Was he for real, or a fraud? He won in 7:55:28, ahead of Dusan Mravlje and Alfons Evertz who had finished in second and fourth behind him in the Spartathlon. The second day was 122 kms and ended in an even more emphatic win for the Greek, who finished an hour clear of the second placed runner. He also won the third stage of 84 krns, but this was only by 36 minutes. He covered the 320km total distance in a combined time of under 24 hours, two and a half hours ahead of Dusan Mravlje. His critics were silenced.

But just how good was this Greek phenomenon? He had yet to tackle a standard ultra event. In July, that year he was invited as a late entrant to the New York Six Day Race. I was kept in touch with the race by Bruce Slade (GBR), who telephoned the standings at the end of each day. Kouros ran 262.668 kilometres in the first day, 46 miles ahead of the very experienced Don Choi (USA). Bruce and I agreed that he "had blown it." The question was, "How long would he last?"

At the end of Day 2 we still bemoaned his impetuosity. He had run 429.614 kiometres, a great new world best, but this was no way to break a 6 Day Record. On Day 3 the Greek slowed to cover a more reasonable 146.200 kilometres. It was more reasonable pace but as it too late, we wondered. Perhaps we were not the only ones to think that. When Day 4 came, nd Kouros came out to run yet another fast session, he as amazed to discover that his hitherto obedient body had stiffened up. Moreover his revious efforts had taken a substantial toll and his feet were bleeding. It was to take some time before he could move freely again. Despite this, 143 krns were clocked off on Day 4.

The possibility now began to be raised that Kouros could threaten the awesome and venerable 96-year-old world 6 Day record, set by George Littlewood GBR), in New York in 1888. A total of 289 kms on the last two days were required to match he mark of the remarkable old-time pedestrian from Sheffield.

Day 5 saw Kouros rally to cover 151 kms; just 138 kms more would set a new world best. But the Greek runner was not content to ease past the old record -- he smashed it with 1022.068 kms. The result made news around the world. Yiannis Kouros had arrived as an ultra superstar!

Later that year he travelled to New York for the Sri Chinmoy 24 hours race. (He had first met the Sri Chinmoy organizers at the 6 Day Race, where they had officiated.) Blasting out the miles he eached 50 miles in 5.27.45; 100 km in 6:54:43 and 100 miles in 11:46:37, surpassing the listed orld best for the latter distance. After that, 200 kms was reached in 15:11:48 and 284.853 kms in 24 hours, despite only covering seven miles in the last two hours. He had gone seven miles further than the listed world 24-hour road best! The top 6 Day runners wanted another crack against this upstart. Was the New York run just a lucky break by a runner who didn't know what he was getting himself into? But at Colac, Australia, in November he again beat a world class field, covering over 1022 kms again.

In 1985, Yiannis Kouros began to explore other ultra events, even moving down to l00kms, an experience denied to most runners who generally like to progress cautiously upwards in distance as their experience grows. He started with a more familiar event -- the 48 hours. In the first IAU World 48 Hour Championships at Montauban, France in March, he broke Dave Dowdle's 24 Hour Best by nearly 10 kms en route. He also disproved earlier opinions by covering 283 krns in 23 hours before taking a break. He reached 400 krn and then walked to the end of the race and still set a new world best of 452 kms. He then travelled to Torhout, Belgium, in June and won the 100 km on an unverified course with 6:25:06, the second fastest time recorded that year.

Later in the year he was to return to New York for the Sri Chinmoy 24 Hours Race. Despite hurricane winds during the first half of the race he ran strongly to surpass his previous best mark with 286.463 kilometres, the greatest distance achieved until that time. In the space of just over a year, he had set new World Bests at 24 hours and 48 hours, a new 6 Day best and was ranked number two in the world at 100 kms. Not bad for a runner completely unknown twelve months before.

He had not just contented himself with the standard events. In April he entered a race that was to subsequently change his life -- from Sydney to Melbourne. He won by a huge margin in just over 5 days for the 960 km course. Returning to Greece in October he showed how much he had gained in a year by knocking an hour and a half off his controversial inaugural Spartathlon record run from Athens to Sparta.

Kouros was to miss much of 1986 with a broken toe, which hampered him for much of the year. He had started the year well with a new world indoor best of 251 kms, set in Chicago in February, but it was not until October that he was able to reassert himself with another comfortable win in the Spartathlon. P> In 1987 he returned to Australia to run the Sydney to Melbourne. He covered the 1060 kms in 5 days, 14 hrs, 47mins, reaching 272 kms in 24 hours, 452 kms in 48 jpurs, reputedly taking just six hours sleep. The following year, the organizers sought to make the race more interesting by asking Kouros to give the rest of the field a 12-hour start. Despite this he still emerged the winner.

It was in that year he extended his range upwards, entering the IAU 1000 Mile Championships held at the Sri Chinmoy races in New York. Taking very little sleep during the opening days, he set a new world road 6 day best of 1028.370 kms. Despite problems, he covered the 1000 Miles in 10days, 10 hours, 30 minutes and 36 seconds, averaging 153 kms a day.

In August he travelled to Japan, to the first Hiroshima to Nagasaki 430 km race, winning convincingly with a time of 56 hrs, 28mins, 40secs. In February 1989, Kouros became involved in controversy when he ran in the Stellenbosch 100 km in South Africa. Despite the problems arising from this he was able to compete in the Sydney to Melbourne Race. The 12 hour start he gave the rest of the field proved to be decisive. Australian, David Standeven, fought off exhaustion to cross the finish line thirty-two minutes ahead of Kouros. However Kouros had run the 1011 kms in .5 days, 2 hrs, 27 mins.

The 1990 season started later. A win in the Sydney to Melbourne Race, (with his delayed start reduced to eight hours), took him .5 days, 23hrs and 55 mins. He finished ahead of Australia's Bryan Smith. In June he ran in the Torhout 100 km, recording a respectable 6:44:49 on a certified course. In August he returned to Australia and ran 280.469 kilometres in a track 24-hour race in Melbourne. Just over a month later he again won the Spartathlon, in 20:29:04, just short of the course record, and two and a half hours clear of Patrick Macke (GBR), who was second. World Cup 1990

He then moved on to run in the World 1001an Cup at Duluth, Minnesota, where he was to face Don Ritchie for the only occasion thus far that the two greatest ultra performers of modern times had met in competition. Although operating below what seems to be his best distance, Kouros was unlucky to finish just outside the medals in fourth place with 6:43:34. The year 1991 was to mark a major turning point in the Greek's life. In January, he ran 257.817 kms at Wyong, Australia, a relatively mediocre performance by his own high standards. Later that year he was unable to agree terms with the organizers of the Sydney to Melbourne Race. He chose instead to run solo for a rival company. His finishing time was faster than that of the winner of the race, but that run was to mark the start of a break in Kouros' ultra career.

Disenchantment with the Greek Federation, as opposed to the warmth of the welcome shown to him by the large Australian Greek community, plus greater competitive opportunities in Australia, meant that Kouros was spending more and more time away from Greece, living "down under". He moved to Australia in 1990 and, after a year in Sydney, moved to Melbourne. In 1992 he became a full-time student at La Trobe University, studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music and Modern Greek Literature. He is currently studying for a Master's degree in Greek Literature, and has become an Australian citizen.

Kouros returned to Ultrarunning late in 1994. A tough seven-day stage race across the Australian Island of Tasmania was proposed, and he was invited. The difficult, cold conditions and his own lack of fitness told. Russian, Anatoly Kruglikov contested the event with great determination and finished comfortably ahead of the Greek.

His defeat had whetted the competitive juices of the Greek-Australian. At Coburg on April 1of the following year, he ran the second greatest distance in a track 24-hour to that point in time. But this was to be only a warm-up for the Surgeres 48 Hours in France in May. There he set a new world 24-hour track best of 285.362 kilometres before reaching a final 48-hour distance of 470.781 kilometres -- also a world best.

The following year he repeated the same competitive pattern. He ran a new world track best at Coburg in April, and then in Surgeres focused on the 48 hours, slipping past 24 hours in 285 krns. His finishing distance for 48 hours was 473.797 kilometres, placing him 40 kms ahead of the next best performer. Later he confirmed his allegiance to his new nationality by becoming the inaugural Australian 100 km champion with a solid 6:54:46 at Shepparton.

In 1997, he went for the same double of 24 and 48 hours early in the year. He wanted to achieve his long expressed wish of running 300 kms in 24 hours. The very wet weather conditions in Canberra in March were to thwart this ambition, but he still set another world track best of 295.030 kilometres. Not satisfied with this total, and on hearing of better weather conditions for the Coburg race six weeks later, he made another try. He was moving well until the 200 km mark, but then back and knee injuries began to affect him and he was reduced to finishing with 266.180 kilometres.

Kouros was still carrying these injuries when he travelled to Surgeres in May -- and 10 hours into the race he was holding his hip. He reached 275.351 kilometres in 24 hours, well below his usual standard, and by 36 hours his record attempt was finished. He was reduced to a walk. He finished with 422.829 kilometres.

Fortunately he took time to recover from these injuries, and spent a period in Europe during the summer. By the time the Sri Chimnoy organizers put on their annual 24-hour event in Adelaide in October, Kouros felt he was as ready as he would ever be. At the age of 41 there is a limit to the number of times one can force one's body to the limits.

The race began on Oct 4th. The rest is now history. He has stated publicly that he will never run another track 24 hour race again and that he expects the 303.506 kilometres he ran to be a mark that lasts for centuries. His new targets are the 48 hours, the 1000 miles and the road 24-hour event. So just how good is Yiannis Kouros? His dominance at 24 hours is in the region of 9% -- possibly comparative to running 2:06 for the marathon when the best of your competitors are running 2:18. But the 24-hour is not the marathon, and has not been subjected to the same kind of sustained competitive pressure that has drawn the best distance runners in the world into marathon races over the last 100 years.

The first man to cover 100 miles/160 kms in 24 hours as an athletic feat was probably John Hague (GBR) in 1762, and by the 1790's Foster Powell (GBR) had upped the total to 112miles/180kms. But it was not until the 6 Day era that standards really began to rise, with substantial sums being on offer, and bets being made on daily totals.

George Hazael ran 133 miles/214 kms in the first day of a 6 Day event in 1879, a mark that was to be surpassed by Charles Rowell's 146miles/235 kms and later 150 miles/241 kms in the early 1880's. Again both these marks were set in the opening day of 6 Day events. In the latter race, Rowell deliberately stopped after 22:28:25 to rest. Had he continued, as his later running shows he was well capable of doing, he would surely have covered 256 to 258 kms. Also remember this was no flat-out 24 hour run. Rowell was husbanding his resources, and had subsequently enough in hand to set new 48 and 72 hour records.

Rowell's 24-hour record was to stand for over 50 years. In 1934 Arthur Newton organised an Indoor 24 Hour race at Hamilton, Ontario, in which he surpassed Rowell's performance with 245 kms. Although Newton had improved on Rowell's distance, his performance was not intrinsically superior to that of the nineteenth century pedestrian.

It took another 20 years before Newton's mark was threatened. South African Wally Hayward was persuaded to attempt the 24-hour run in 1953, and although he talked of covering 170 miles/273 kms beforehand, a misjudged stop caused him to stiffen up and he struggled from 100 miles onwards. His final total of 159 miles/256 kms at best only intrinsically matched Rowell's mark. For the next twenty years Hayward's mark remained an athletic curiosity, with the 24-hour only being attempted by a couple of solo runners. In 1973, the 24-hour event was revived and races were held in Italy, South Africa and Great Britain. In the British race, Ron Bentley squeezed past Hayward's mark, then the weather reduced him to a slow walk. His final distance was just 259kms.

The first concerted attack on the 24 hours really came from Jean-Gilles Boussiquet (FRA). He ran 261 kms and 264 kms in 1980. Park Barner (USA) had surpassed Bentley's mark the previous year but no lap times had been taken. In 1981, Boussiquet set a new world best of 272 kms. Dave Dowdle (GBR) was to ease past this mark the following year to become the first person over 170 miles with 274.480 kms.

Thus the history of the 24 hour to that point had been of disjointed progress to say the least. Prior to 1934, the event had not been subjected to any competitive pressure, other than that generated as a by-product of 6 Day Races. After 1934, the record was in limbo for twenty years, before being contested once by runners unfamiliar with it's demands. Thereafter, it was ignored again for another twenty years. Since 1973, however, the event has gradually gained in stature and popularity. But it was as late as 1980 before it came of age as an international event.

Effectively by 1980, the event had improved by 10 miles in a century, a 6% improvement, as compared with the mile, which had made an 11% improvement over the same period. A comparison of the current best marks with their Victorian counterparts is interesting. Kouros' latest efforts equates to a 15% improvement. The mile has improved by 35 seconds in the same period' -- a 13.5% improvement (1880s to 1997). P> Taking into account the fact that, unlike Kouros' current mark, Rowell's estimated 1.59-160 miles was not a flat out effort, it looks like the Geek-Australian has done a fine job of bringing the event bang up to date. His single minded drive has managed to compensate for a century long absence of competitive pressure. It is now the intention of the lAU to develop this competitive pressure on the event and to sustain the progress that Yiannis Kouros has made. Now the 100 Km World Challenge has attained such status and success that a move to the next level of competitiveness, Official IAAF Championships and perhaps Olympic status, can be sought, it is natural for the 24 Hours to become a World Challenge event. The European 24 Hours Challenge has taken place five times. Potential venues able to host a World 24 Hour Challenge are invited to contact the IAU.

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