They are an almost-impossible exam of the human body and heart, yet the number of ultramarathons has increased 1,000% over the last decade. Adharanand Finn asks whats behind this rapid increase and whether racing 100 miles or more is actually good for you
A while ago, I was standing at the agency tea point when a colleague who had heard I was a runner asked me if I did ultramarathons- the word for any foot race longer than the 26.2 miles of a standard marathon. He looked disappointed when I told him I didn’t.
“Triathlons?” he asked.
I shook my head.
” Oh, just marathons ?”
In words of impressing work colleagues, family and friends, it seems marathons no longer cut it. We are in the post-marathon age, when everybody knows somebody who has operate a marathon. Now, it seems, a genuinely impressive accomplishment has to be something longer and more extreme. Fifty miles is OK, but it’s better if you can reel off numbers in the hundreds, and preferably over an insanely steep mountain range, a desert or some perilous jungle. With more and more narratives of ultra races circulating, you have to feel sorry for the person go looking for sponsorship for a little marathon jaunt.
But what is behind this inflation? Why is becoming increasingly people taking on races than can last days rather than hours? And is it any good for us?
Steve Diederich runs the Run Ultra website which lists the world’s biggest ultramarathons. He says that when he set up the website 12 years ago he found 160 races listed globally. This year he has over 1,800 races on the site- an increase of over 1,000%. The German ultrarunning website DUV additionally lists the results of many smaller ultra races, its database going all the way back to the first 89 km London to Brighton footrace in 1837. Over the last 10 times it plots a similar 1,000% increased number of the number of races.