Book review – The Road To Sparta by Dean Karnazes

It’s fair to say I read quite a lot of books. Most of them have a strong element of physical and mental endurance, and I gain a lot of inspiration from reading them. As one of the most popular posts I’ve written is The Most Inspirational Books I’ve Read,  it seems that you guys like a good read too! So I thought it made sense to start to share my thoughts on the books I’ve read with some more detailed reviews. First up is The Road To Sparta by Dean Karnazes…

Before I start, two quick points. Firstly, I’ve not been sent a copy of this book to review. I bought it with my own cash. Secondly, the links to the books on this page are affiliate links. If you like what you read on my blog, please consider buying through those links. It won’t cost you anything, but Amazon will give me a small commission from your purchase. Every little helps to pay for the running costs of this site. Thank you 🙂

The Road To Sparta book review

Why did I buy The Road to Sparta?

Dean Karnazes’ book Ultramarathon Man was the first one I read that introduced me to the world of Ultra running. After reading it, my mindset shifted completely. I’d go so far as to say it really has altered the course of my life. So I was keen to know what Dean’s latest book could offer my hungry eyes and fertile mind. Also, I read it just before embarking on my first attempt at a triathlon – a Half Ironman distance event, the swim of which frankly terrified me. I thought a dollop of the Karnazes gung-ho attitude would be good for my mindset! It definitely helped in that regard.

A rough outline of the story…

Aptly named, The Road To Sparta is really two stories interwoven into one. On the one hand, it tells the history of Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon – some of which I knew and lots of which I didn’t. With the help of Cambridge University Professor of Greek Culture Dr. Paul Cartledge and Dr. Pamela Jane Shaw, Karnazes unravels the past to show Pheidippides in his true light – that of an incredible athlete and supremely brave man.

I’m a bit of a rookie geek when it comes to ancient Greek history (I’ve been fascinated ever since I read Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, still one of the best novels I’ve read!), and Dean’s research filled in a lot of gaps, significantly correcting some of the ‘facts’ I’d taken to be stand-alone truths. He adds context to those facts, clothing them in detail, and, on occasion, creating small fiction to fill in those tantalising historical gaps. It all adds up to an incredible tale and one that really did alter the course of history. What would the world look like today if Pheidippides hadn’t run that marathon…?

Karnazes also digs deep into the role of long-distance runners (known as Hemerodromoi) in Greek society as a whole. I found this aspect particularly fascinating. It’s interesting to see the parallels with other ancient cultures – such as the Inca – who also relied on the speed and physical endurance of humans to relay messages across vast distances and hostile terrain.

On the other hand, we journey with Dean as he explores his own family history in his home country of Greece. The two story threads are tied together well through the telling of Dean’s attempt at running the iconic Spartathlon Ultra – the gruelling 153-mile (246km) race from Athens to Sparta. Via the race, Karnazes follows in the footsteps of his hero Pheidippides. His experiences there are really raw, and I think he conveys both his feelings and the emotions of that race really very well.

What I loved about this book…

The wealth of historical information adds a rich depth to the story of Pheidippides. Told in a very engaging style, The Road To Sparta is eminently readable. He may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but Dean Karnazes is raw and honest in what he writes. I loved that he was transparent enough to admit that such an accomplished runner as himself can struggle like the rest of us and have to click down the gears when necessary to just get round a course.

I also found interesting the insights offered into what life is really like for him. Jet-setting around the world and running ultras sounds pretty cool to me, but it definitely comes with a price. A price I’m not sure I’d be able to pay…

And I especially loved the way Dean captured the feel of the Spartathlon. I’ve never run this race (although I’d love to!) but feel that Dean has really brought it to life in my imagination. The magnificence, the dirtiness, the hardship – it’s all there, seeping up out of the pages and drifting into the imagination. There to work its magic until the day I can hopefully go myself. To finish that race at the feet of the statue of King Leonidas must be an incredible feeling. It certainly seemed to be that way for Dean.

What I wasn’t so keen on…

I’m not sure if it’s the fact that I’m English, but it took me a while to get the tone. Some of the passages in the book initially got my back up. For example, when Dean talks of running the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, he says:

‘Twenty-six point two heart-pounding, music-pulsing, sweat-drenching miles later, I arrived at the finish line. It took 3:16 to complete the race. Decent, considering I’d run 700 miles to get there.’

Now, I’m an experienced runner and would be over the moon to get a 3.16!  I struggled to figure out whether there was a slight hint of elitism coming through, or whether it was just his sense of humour. It was only after listening to an interview with Dean on TalkUltra that I realised what a really genuine bloke he seems to be. So I re-read those bits that had irritated me with a fresh perspective and decided he wasn’t being elitist after all.

Why should you buy this book?

Buy it if you are looking to find out the true story of Pheidippides and the history of the Marathon. If you want to know what the Spartahlon race is like, The Road To Sparta will give you a real, honest insight. Lastly, buy it if you want a good race story and a great example of carrying on even when things don’t go according to plan. Which in my experience, is quite often…

If you’ve read The Road To Sparta already, I’m keen to hear your thoughts. Share in the comments below. If you fancy getting hold of a copy, you can grab one from Amazon. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

One thought on “Book review – The Road To Sparta by Dean Karnazes

  1. Thanks Tim. I have never read any of Karnazes’ books before, despite my interest in him. Your concise and honest review is brilliant, so I will certainly check this out.

    It appears that despite our modern technology and superior academic knowledge Pheidippides’ accomplishments are still the bedrock and holy grail of distance running.

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