Q&A With Legendary Ultramarathoner Yiannis Kouros: “I Don’t Believe in Long Runs and I Am Against Doing Them”
August 31, 2021
In 2019, LetsRun.com did a month-long exploration of the ultramarathon scene during which we spent a lot of time searching for the greatest ultramarathon world record. At the end of the exploration, we declared Yiannis Kouros’ 24-hour world record of 303.31 km (188.68 miles) to be the greatest ultramarathon record in history. After all, no one else in history had even come within 21 kilometers/13 miles of it. That all changed last weekend as Aleksandr Sorokin of Lithuania broke the record by running 309.40 kilometers (192.25 miles).
It reminded us that we never published a fantastic emailed interview that Robert Johnson did with Kouros in 2019. We didn’t publish it at the time as there was a delay in getting the responses back — Kouros had some problems with his eyes as he had been busy welding iron as he worked on his house. By the time we got the responses, our ultramarathon exploration was over and Robert had stopped looking for the reply. Thus it was AWOL in his email inbox for many months until being discovered. Since then, we’ve been waiting for an appropriate time to publish it. Now is that time.
Note: Because English is not Kouros’ first language, there are a few words here and there that may have been lost in translation. But his English is still a thousand times better than our Greek.
LRC RJ: 1) You accomplished so much in your career, set so many records. What do you view as your greatest accomplishment? Which of your world records is the best – 24 hours, 48 hours or 6 days? We said the 24-hour record is the best in the sport. Do you agree and do you still believe that the 24-hour record will “stand for centuries”? Why will it last so long?
YK: Thank you so much for approaching me to talk about all these issues! You are probably right about my 24h, but I also consider the 1000 miles as another great performance. Well, I said that because, as I was in that race of 24h in Adelaide and, especially towards the end, my mentality and my performing level was so high, that I was so much confident that nobody could do that using my way of natural running, the everlasting ideal of athleticism/following the fair-play rules and my inspirational mind.
I think that my records last so long because the majority of runners believe in fitness. Ultra-running is a mental sport that touches metaphysical aspects of the human [being] and this is the main reason why it is not for the masses. Organizers who leave it open and accepting everybody –regardless of their abilities – are wrong, using people who love running, while in those of the participants who do not belong to the sport, there is lack of self-knowledge.
Also my records remain I suppose because those who try to better them, they believe that they can improve themselves by doing longer or faster trainings. The secret does not lie in anything measurable. Another reason could be the fact that there are ex-marathoners or hyper-marathoners who find it difficult to see the difference in the term “ultra-running” and “hyper-marathon”/”super-marathon”: Ultra-running –with “running” as (μετοχή) form of the verb that describes the way we approach running, meaning running beyond physical limits, while hyper-marathoning means running with fitness only.
But most important factor in this sport that plays a crucial role is that runners can’t be successful if they are not self-sufficient and autonomous in their personal life, and there is probably lack of enough tragedies in their life to build inner stamina.
LRC RJ: 2) Pacing/ Strategy: What do you think is the ideal way to race the 24-, 48-hour and 6-day races? Later in your career, you took a more conservative pacing approach to 24 and 48 hours. Do you think that’s the way to do it or was that because you were getting older? How much would you sleep (if at all) during these races? What’s different about a 48 versus a 24 and a 6-day versus a 48?
YK: Getting older you learn that more conservative pace supports the overall result in any distance beyond the marathon. I think that 6 day and 48h races have more relation as we enter the multi day notion, where we face the lack of sleep and severe muscular fatigue, so extra mental strength is needed, while the 24h is easier from this point of view, but is more demanding in terms of speed, strategy and fitness on top of the above.
There is no logic in this sport and using Western minded settings usually become a disaster. You have to take advantage of your feelings at races and be more secured at trainings.
LRC RJ: 3) Regrets: Do you have any regrets about your career? Anything you think you could have done better? Or any record that you really think should have been a bit further?
YK: You make me laugh! There is no distance or time-limit event in which I performed with -not just ideal, but not even- good conditions, either personal or weather/course conditions. In any single event there is a big story behind [it], but I will summarize some with few words:
- for 24h in Adelaide (1997, 303.5km), I was tired and stiff due to my participation in the 10km Australian University Championships, the same week just a few days before my 24h. All runners in the 10km were 19-23 y.o. except me who was 41. This is the reason I had my slowest ever marathon split during my 24h attempts! On top of that the track had no lights and some volunteers stand inside the inner line carrying torches fueled by kerosene, a fact that bothered my lungs for the entire night hours…. A few months earlier, in Canberra, when the track was better and I was prepared for 312-320km I had stomach troubles after 12 hours, had to stop many times after 15 hours and then I end up with 295km WR, just 1km longer from what I had done previously in Melbourne, where I was running in the 2nd-4th lane due to a heavy rain and other competitors who were walking in the inner lanes….!
- For 48h in ’96, Surgeres (France) (473.797km), I fell down and broke 4 ribs, just in the last training before I flew from Athens. The gravel track was only 301 meters and we had to face the sun for 3 days, facts that kills you completely. Going back to Melbourne, where I was living, it took me more than 40 days to be able to walk or sleep without pain. I don’t know what could be my performance if the track was 400 meters and I was free from injury, but my plan was to pass 510km.
- For the 6day race 2005 in Colac, Australia (1038.5km), where at the age of 49 I bettered my record, done 21y earlier, at the same bad track, my crew did numerous of faulty things with my shoes and soles and due to the bothered particles of the gravel surface that entering my foot I had to stop very often –in some cases every lap- wasting my time to try different running gear without solution from such mess and not right track which caused me lots of blisters, plus we had a hurricane on 4th or 5th day and I also had a hamstring injury on the last day that didn’t allow me to run, but I managed to run metaphysically in the last couple of hours in order to better my record, a fact that cause me more damage to my leg. And a strange thing was that the lap-counting staff missed -I suppose from tiredness- lots of my laps, which I ran but wasn’t credited to my performance. Considering all these odds, it is obvious that having the experience of 2005 I could pass the 1200km mark back in 1984 in New York, or 1150km in Colac the same year or even in 2005. The leader of my crew said to me just after the finish: “I apologize, you lost at least a couple of marathons just from our mistakes.” Thinking only that one year I covered the Sydney to Melbourne 1011km in 5d 2h 27’ it says a lot. Also that my split in the same course for 48h was 463km passing from many up-hills and down-hills that makes you stiff and exhausted.
- For the 1000 mile race in Flushing Meadow Park (NY) when I was ready in ’87 to run it under 10 days, my knee become swelled during my flight from Athens to New York! So I diagnosed with knee cartilage damage and they decided to put me to a hospital for an operation, but I ran the first day of the event about 150 miles to please the organizers for inviting me there. The day after the operation took place. So I came the year after, when I wasn’t so well, but I broke the record in 10d 10h 30’35”. That was my only attempt.
LRC RJ: 4) Keys To Success: What do you think made you so good? Can you tell us what the keys to your training were?
I’ve been told by Robbie Britton, the 2015 bronze medallist for the 24-hour Worlds, that you ran no more than 80 mpw and often did reps of 6 x 2k, 4 x 3k and always around 12k of volume and that you used long races as long runs. Is that accurate? Can you tell us what a typical week would be like? Were there several days of just easy jogging?
YK: It is accurate only in a way. I mean that I use to apply this tempo training of maximum 12k only 2-4 weeks prior my races. Before that and after races I may had periods of 3 to 9 months with complete pause from running, unless there was a schedule of a few back to back events. Very rarely I had some conservative runs of jogging 2-8km and this only when I wasn’t involved with other activities. I am against the idea of training for 10-12 months per year. In other sports you could do that, but in ultra-running, doing so it may make you disappear from the scene after a few years.
I believe that what revives me is exactly the same thing that also kills me at the same time and I call it “eusiginisia,” meaning becoming moved very quickly and from many sources. Beyond that it is an amalgam of my philosophy about life, the way of thinking, my national and local-country heritage, my love for poetry, my unique musical sensitivity and my ability to play with different rhythmic cells and modes, but also my experiences and memories-good and bad ones.
I was doing very rarely long runs at the beginning of my career, but I am sure this is the reason I became slower and weaker. Afterwards, when I change my opinion, even I was older, I was doing again well and even better without them! I don’t believe in long runs and I am against doing them, as there is nothing to gain. No, I do not use races as long runs, because they both are bringing damages and injuries. But, when I am racing –no matter what the distance is- I am racing.
LRC RJ: 5) Diet: Can you tell us about your diet? It’s been reported that you were a vegetarian during your competitive days but are no longer? Is that true? Do you think your diet was a key ingredient to your success? What was your fueling strategy like during races?
YK: No way! People who think that my diet –or any diet- is the key are completely wrong. In this sport, there is no ideal diet and not ideal training, as both lie to earthy parameters. These are personal issues and individuality plays its role. Of course, there are mistakes to be avoided, but not something that suits everybody. So, in my opinion, using animal products during my competitions, I put it to the category of mistakes. I am also against getting energy from gels etc, and I prefer real food and could be anything crossing my mind, except animal products. I had gastropathy in ‘82 and ‘84 and since then I decided to avoid to perform with empty stomach. Again, it’s a personal issue, while I prefer to carry extra kilos, rather to act with liquids/artificial means of technology.
LRC RJ: 6) Sleep: Is it true that you barely need to sleep even when you aren’t running? How much do you sleep per night now? What about when you were competing?
YK: It depends on the level of the will, importance and priorities. When I did my studies in music and literature I was sleeping about 30’ per 24h, because I wanted to give my best and finish as soon as possible. Before that, when I was building my house in Greece and at the same time I had to be trained for races I used to sleep about two and a half hour per 24h. Now I sleep between 4-6 hours. My opinion is that this is not an ability, but a decision you have to make every time you face something. In my competitions, I was planning to sleep every day from the second day to the last one, by adding time each day, but this has nothing to do if I finally sleep or not, because it depends on what is in pain, the atmosphere and noises…
LRC RJ: 7) Spartathlon: Your performance at the the first Spartathlon was so shocking that people accused you of cheating. What was your strategy at the first Spartathlon, particularly the trail section? Did you scout the course? Did you ever struggle (because you certainly made it look easy)?
YK: I knew part of the course, especially the last third of it. I made a plan that I should cover it between 21 and 22 hours, in which I was in (21.53’). But I thought that those experienced runners who had also world records and great performances should finish in less time. I only had the confidence that I will be the first of my compatriots, as I knew them and I also had a test run of 100km the year before. The first half of the course we had seen a few days before – all runners by bus. I never thought it will be easy. In contrary, I considered it seriously but also heroically. But I was very upset when after Ancient Corinth the course was going north, and I realized that this has nothing to do with the road that Pheidippides took. I had strange feelings about the falsification of the history that was taking place once again in my country and at the same time, I had to work hard to find thought to make me keep going.
LRC RJ: 8) Current: Do you pay attention to the current ultramarathon scene? If so, who are your favorite runners? What do you think of the recent boom in popularity of ultrarunning and the new focus on trail runs? Speaking of trails, did you ever train on trails? Do you think you could do well in trail races if you focused on it?
YK: In the last few decades may they came some good runners in the scene, but I don’t follow as they really [race] based on fitness.
LRC RJ: 9) Current life: What is your current situation like? Are you doing any running these days? Still making music? What music is your favorite? Will your book ever be translated into English?
YK: I am still a hard worker, renovating old buildings. I am not running, unless I have an invitation to do so and I am attracted from an idea. I compose when there is an inspiration from a melody or rhythm that crosses my mind, but not as used to do in Melbourne, where I didn’t have a house to worry about. I hope I will be more productive in the field of music and painting when I will prepare a place for each of those activities. My favorite music is “entechno” with some characteristics of modulating from one mode to another and from one rhythm to another using a combination of instruments. Hard to understand if somebody has not such tradition.
My book is already translated into English and needs just a good publisher overseas.
LRC RJ: 10) Favorite: What was your favorite race or place to run?
YK: My road 24h record done in Basel, Switzerland, had a nice environment, but the course had sharp corners that slowed my performance, which looks lower than my track one of 303.5, but in terms of effort was much higher than that. I liked New Zealand as a place to run, most places of south part of Australia, Ohio, and Greece -but not throughout the year.
LRC RJ: Bonus: What other ultrarunners that you competed against did you most respect?
In the early years, I met great runners and good characters. Amongst them are Dusan Mravlie (Croatia), Tomas Rusec (Czech Republic), Don Ritchie (Scotland), Richard Tout (NZ), Brian Smith (AUS) Rune Larson (Sweden), Stu Mittleman (USA), and many others good fellows.
More: LRC GOAT: Yiannis Kouros’ 24-Hour Record of 303.306 KM (188.68 Miles) From 1997 Is The Greatest Ultramarathon World Record.
*MB: Aleksandr Sorokin (100 miles world record holder) is running close to Kouros pace in a 24 hour race!!!
*LRC Month Long Ultramarathon Exploration Full Coverage