The Golden Greek

Written by: Stephanie Nelson
Prof. Davis' Ultramarathon Running Seminar
Final Paper
1:46 a.m.!

  One April morning Spring became intoxicated
  She is intoxicated and is singing and is dancing madly
  She has become intoxicated by her joy, by her flowers
  the bee hive too has buzzed, oh! this spring intoxication.

  One afternoon in April, you fell in love, oh heart!
  You fell in love and you are weeping, you're ashamed but don't admit it
  You became intoxicated by the moon and your intoxication does not subside,
  you became intoxicated by the nightingales by the sweet swallows,

  One eve in April I will turn into a night bird
  so that I can see your shadow and all your carryings on.
  So that I can become intoxicated with you and discover your soul
  so that I can remember your gaze and the taste of your kisses.
-y kouros

"There's the world class, the elite, then there's Yiannis."

-- Trishul Cherns

For those of you out there who know who Yiannis Kouros is, but cannot believe a normal person could do what he has done (so you call it talent) open your eyes right now and realize that Yiannis is a man who has overcome many things throughout his life and has learned from each of them, has made something good out of virtually nothing. He is just a man, he is not a "Greek God," but he has done many great things which many of us cannot even comprehend. The funny thing is that Yiannis couldn't comprehend them before he did them, either. Yiannis is a very special person who has a deep understanding of his own existence. That understanding is why he can run as he does, as a Golden Greek gone Australian.

Yiannis Kouros holds world records for 12, 24, and 48 hours, 6 days, and 1,000 miles. He is also the owner of many Greek and Australian records, along with the many course records he has set along his way. To state it this simply tells nothing of Yiannis himself. One can say, for lack of understanding, that it is pure talent that this man has. That each of his records was set by him with complete ease, as if he were exempt from experiences every runner goes through in any ultra race. Yiannis obviously has talent, as do all of the world class ultra runners. It is what is in his mind that pulls him so far above that level. Yiannis doesn't just run. He dances. He sings. He loves. He endures. Each time he crosses the finish line, he does it not as running machine, but as a soul that has mastered his body, as an iron will independent of his corpus-self. His achievements and success have come as a result of his love of running. "Achievements and records are coming on their own way as results of a long time relationship with running, the same way as the kids are born after a long relationship and love with somebody," Yiannis wrote. Running to him, as to many of us, is a "kind of spiritual ecstasy." I asked him if he considered it a spiritual journey, and of course he replied with, "I do consider it a spiritual journey, but not a journey that has a necessary goal or end: We are spirits running from one type of life to another without stops or ends. To me what counts is the freedom to act and the joy it gives you when you try. Because the contest and our devotion to an attempt is more drastic, valuable and effective than the result or the success itself."

Yiannis made himself known to the world in 1983 in the Spartathalon, a 250 km race from Athens to Sparta. This was Yiannis' first ultra, and the thought of the distance made him quite weary. To prepare himself for it, he spent three months prior to the race searching for pieces of motivation to keep him going though the race. He found that music and songs -- any kind of rhythm -- together with thinking would allow him to survive. He also felt that the strength he had already acquired throughout his life would push him to the finish line. Many world class runners from overseas were entered in that race, and Yiannis believed that most would finish ahead of himself. He wanted to break the 100 km, 200km, and the course distance pan-hellenic records, and to finish as the first Greek. Obviously he did all of that, but not only that -- he won by over three hours, covering 250 km in 21:51'.(Y.K.) After the Spartathalon, there were many doubts of Yiannis' credibility. People thought he cut the course because his time was so fast. Speaking of his finish, Yiannis stated, "People expected the athletes to come in at 10 a.m.. I came in at five. Nobody believed me. I had to wake up the officials. I was surprised the good runners from overseas were so far behind me. The officials had to wake up the mayor to perform the presentation ceremony."(Rafferty '95) And thus began Yiannis' legendary career.

A year later, Yiannis completed his most memorable race ever, the New York Road Runners' Club Six Day Race. He entered this race only wanting to run for twenty-four hours, to break the world record. He felt he had an extremely good possibility of doing it, as indicated by his Spartathalon, and a three-day stage race that he won in Austria. He chose to break the 24-hour world record in the six-day race because he was in good form and felt that his speed was depleting with age, and he knew of no other race in which he would have a chance to do so. Yiannis had no intentions of continuing on for the entire six days. "I could never comprehend the fact that people who ran continuously for six days and six nights existed, nor from what stages their psychosomatic balance and mood passes through," Yiannis writes, contemplating the "monsters with tremendous records" in the six-day race. Yiannis ran at a sub 7:00 pace, putting stares on the spectators faces and whispers in their mouths. People could not believe what was happening. This guy was flying! Most of them did not realize that he was only going to run for 24 hours. They didn't know whether he could actually continue at such a pace, or whether he was going to crash. His competitors were anxiously awaiting his crash. It seemed impossible that he would continue on.(Kauff 79) Even Yiannis himself started to doubt. He felt the disbelief and skepticism of the crowd, and it reached him too deeply. They were as inexperienced as he was at such distances. He needed some kind of stability that wasn't there. He reached 24 hours without a world record (163.5 mi), but he felt, although his feet were covered in blisters, that what if he was able to continue on and break the 48-hour world record?(Y.K.) To stop while he was ahead seemed a waste, so he continued on. He passed the 48-hour mark with 266 miles, a world record. He continued on. Again, and again. Finally, the stability he was yearning for came in the form of Sri Chinmoy. Yiannis wrote, "With Sri Chinmoy I think it was a two-way communication. 1st, I had the ability to psyche out him and automatically and unconsciously I gave credit and key weight to his entity and to his words. 2nd, he knew by his own way to read my mind and he knew how to feed my will. He also knew I was unique for a particular task."(Y.K.) Sri had taken Yiannis aside, given him his hand, and said to him, "You will win!" Yiannis thought, "He must know it. He read it from my eyes and he saw it in my face that I wanted to win. I very strongly started to believe it. I always wanted to win but I had no security. Every day I was afraid that I would have to stop. But after Sri Chinmoy was there I had such beautiful feelings; insecurity and my fear were gone. Sometimes I even ran very fast I danced from joy. From that moment on I was sure to make it."(UR 19) Yiannis went on to break George Littlewood's 99 year old record with two hours remaining. He finished with 635 miles, 1023 yards. (Kauff '95) Yiannis did achieve his 24-hour world record goal in 1984 and again in 1985, in New York, during Hurricane Gloria. With his crew, friends, Sri Chinmoy and his followers there, Yiannis felt a security that wasn't present during the first few days of the six-day race. "They were inspiring me telepathically," Yiannis wrote. "I had a lot of confidence and will to achieve my goal, even against nature's will."

The 1000 mile world record went down in May 1988 at Flushing Meadow in New York. En route to achieving this, Yiannis bettered his six-day world record to 639 miles, 622 yards. Yiannis recalls this race as his best ultra, which is quite an understatement. Tarak Kauff got in touch with Yiannis four weeks prior to the race. Yiannis hadn't run at all since the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne earlier that year. He was not in very good condition for that race, and was still trying to get over a few injuries. His achilles tendon was hurting him, along with his knee which had been operated on the previous year. Despite all of this, he finally decided to run it. This would be the farthest Yiannis had ever run.(Kauff '95)

The first day, Yiannis covered 144 miles. By the fourth day, he had 456 miles put away. He had not slept at all. "I didn't sleep for the first four days because of low flying jet aircraft taking off and landing every few minutes close to the circuit." (Rafferty {UR}) The first sleep he took, he wanted only one hour and forty five minutes, but, "I came to the point when my body was almost dead. Every day I was afraid I would stop. At other times I ran fast and almost danced with joy [again]. There was a war going on between my body and my mind. My first sleep was ten minutes only." He finished the race in 10 days, 10:30'35". He hit the wall on the ninth day, running only 69 miles, but still was able to break the world record by over 34 hours.(Kauff 95)

In 1994, Yiannis ran the 650 km Telecom Tasmania run, which was a stage race. The temperature never rose very high above zero, the wind and snow scarcely ever ceasing. He was actually beaten in this race by 37 kilometers, by Anatoli Kruglikov. Before the race had even begun, Yiannis felt that the stage-style race favored his opponents. "I like the continuous racing, which is more sustained -- the Tasmanian race probably suits the genuine marathon runners who are faster."(Mercury '94) After day three, Yiannis was the race leader. However, at day five, Yiannis fell behind. Nature had threatened him, his life, and he realized that "life and family are much more important than winning races." (Y.K.) Yiannis felt he came very close to death in that fifth stage. His quote "I didn't want to leave my bones in those hills," earned him many headlines in Australian running literature.

Yiannis' running history dates back to his high school years, when he was of the top boys in the 1500m and 3000m races in Greece. After joining the army, he began training for and running in many marathons. But, he says, "At the finish I always felt I could go farther."(UR) So he can. As stated earlier, the Spartathalon was his very first ultra. He has completed more than thirty ultras since then.

In almost all of his early races he obtained numerous world records. Many times he has achieved multiple records in the same race. In the first few years, he ran four to five ultras each year. He has tapered down since, as he has gotten married and now has children, has earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and Greek literature, has built his own house in Tripoli, Greece, has written his book, and done numerous other things. Still, he broke his own 24- hour record in April of 1996 at the Coburg races by close to 10 kilometers -- 294.5km. En route to that, he established the Australian records for 12 hours, 150 km, 100 miles, 200 km, 150 miles, and 250 km(more than 1:40' better than his '83 Spartathalon). So although he is not racing as avidly as he was in the beginning, his fears of his speed diminishing have been diminished themselves. Or perhaps he has realized that moderation works better than speed. Ultramarathon World made a comparison chart of Yiannis' 24 hour runs in New York in '84, Montauben in '85, Surgeres in '95, and Coburg in '96, for the 50 mi, 100 km, 100 mi, 200 km times, and final 24 hour distance. In both '84 and '85, his 50 mi times were sub 5:30', while his '95 and '96 50 mi times were close to 6:00' exactly. Each of his other splits in '95 and '96 were 20 to 30 minutes slower than those in '84 and '85, but the final result was improved in '95 by 555 yards, and in '96 by more than five miles.

For all of us who live, or like me, lurk, in the ultrarunning world, Yiannis Kouros is a mystery. Everyone wants to know what it is that keeps this man going. In every article I read, the author pondered Yiannis' accomplishments, and felt it their duty to say something of Yiannis, to understand him in their own way. Tarak Kauff describes him as "one of those rare people who makes an impact on others, even when spending just simple time together. He is certainly one of the most remarkable people I have ever known . . . He says, quite sincerely, that he has no special talents as a runner. That there are many who are better runners, stronger and faster, than him." Tarak was head of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon team in New York, where Yiannis ran his best races.

Tony Rafferty was a runner in 1984 NYRRC Six Day Race, who later took an interview with Yiannis. " With a spirit of steel, physical grace and his legs pumping like well-oiled pistons, Kouros ran with a flow of power that seemed effortless," Rafferty stated. This description is quite ironic, as Yiannis has written that he wants to "demolish the myth that wants people to believe that long-distance runners run mechanically." Rafferty visited Yiannis at his home in Melbourne, Australia. He noted Yiannis' studio where he writes and composes music. Filled with philosophy, music, sport, fitness, and nutrition literature, bookshelves line the walls. Yiannis told Rafferty that his goals in high school were "mostly to the arts. I wanted to paint, to sing. The artistic world is like being in heaven. I recorded two LP's." When Rafferty asked Yiannis who his heroes were, he told him: "I believe in the individuality of the personality. I am inspired by Greek history, mythology, ancient Greek athletes like Pheidippides, and modern runners, Zatopek, Kuts. I don't really have any heroes. Each person has something special to give." Rafferty ends his article with his portrayal of Yiannis. "This athlete, artist and musician is a courier with a message of Discipline, Desire, and Belief."

When I was speaking with Trishul Cherns, he of course had his own understanding of Yiannis. Trishul is also a world class runner, and has raced with Yiannis many times. When I asked him to talk to me about Yiannis, he was quite happy to do so. He told me that pain is irrelevant to Yiannis, that he has this amazing talent to be able to overcome the pain -- it's a part of who he is, within him. "God has given him this tremendous talent, and he can just do it." He says that Yiannis is simply living in a higher level. "Yiannis is mentally the strongest in the world." Trishul eventually referred me to Yiannis himself, for I was asking him questions that he just could not answer. Only Yiannis has the answers. When I asked Yiannis the wide-open question, "What went through your mind in your first ultras?" He wrote that that is the "key to my success and it's a long story, so that I can write a few books. There is a theory that says we need positive thinking to surpass the hard situation of our lives. In my life, because there is nothing positive to be remembered, I had to create energy, enthusiasm and inspiration from all the negative happenings that I had."

The line between his talent and the power of his mind is very thin, and so many of us outsiders are tempted to simply believe that no matter what Yiannis says, it's all talent. But all world class runners have talent. Obviously, his mind is what puts him in the higher level that Trishul described. It is apparent through his Telecom-Tasmania run and his world record through Hurricane Gloria that his mentality is the factor of his success. I asked him why he feared death in Tasmanian race, but not in Hurricane Gloria in 1985. It was a hard question for even Yiannis to answer. He replied:

"That's a hard question! When the Hurricane Gloria struck, I had a lot of confidence and will to achieve my goal, even against nature's will. Maybe I gained that confidence from the environment; I mean the people who surrounded me, my crew, friends in mind - who were inspiring me telepathically, Sri Chinmoy and his disciples. In the Tasmania run I had some doubts and a feeling of insecurity, created by my inexperienced crew and the long absence of running for three years. Also, the very low temperature, in which I avoid to race ( and maybe I was somehow superstitious from that), brought me face to face with death, causing my heart to beat more than 200 beats per minute - I didn't count them, but that's how I was feeling, and only with walking in that particular day and state I felt saved. Another factor is that in '85 I didn't have any children, but when the Tasmania run was held, I had two children for whom I had a lot of worries. This thought came to mind very strongly in that moment, and, then, I said to myself that life and family is more important, than winning races."

I believe that without his talent, he would never be able to do what he has. But more importantly, without his philosophies and understanding of life, he would never be able to do what he has. And perhaps the most important thing that has allowed Yiannis to be so successful is his mental strength, which he has built on throughout his lifetime. Yiannis believes:

"Each horrid event should equip you with the necessary provisions so that you can confront the next one; it shouldn't make you yield. The continuous confirmation is that despair and hopelessness supply you with means - inconceivable at first, and they make you discover hidden unexpected powers. Later, an unhoped -for tranquility and sobriety should follow so that you may pursue your goals with precision."

I believe Yiannis holds within himself the secret to life, which after all is not really a secret, it's just that so many of us refuse to acknowledge it. He has acknowledged it and he is living it. Yiannis is an artist -- but not only does he compose music, not only does he write, and not only does he paint -- he creates life. His own life. Out of what he was given to work with, Yiannis has created a masterpiece.