Outdoor World

When 26.2 miles just isn’t enough the phenomenal rise of the ultramarathon

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.

Mass start … 2,300 athletes set off from Chamonix in the 170 km Ultra-Trail de Mont-Blanc, 1 September, 2017. Photo: Jean-Pierre Clatot/ AFP/ Getty Images

Ultra Running publication in the US collates figures for north America, and again they tell a similar narrative of a rapidly rising athletic, with the number of races and finishers increasing every year since 1981. In 2003, for example, nearly 18,000 people in north America finished an ultramarathon. Last time the number was 105,000. And Asia, too, has ensure an detonation in the number of races. Nic Tinworth, a race administrator in Hong Kong, said today 10 years ago there were six ultra races in the territory, but that now there are more than 60.” In previous years ,” he tells,” you could just turn up on the day and enter, but now the more popular races sell up in minutes .”

Many of the world’s most oversubscribed races, such as the Ultra-Trail de Mont-Blanc in France and the Western State 100 in the US, have had to implement gamble systems to be dealt with the numbers wanting to take part. Diederich manages the enters for the Marathon des Sables– one of the most iconic ultras, traversing 156 miles of the Sahara desert. Despite the PS4, 250 entry fee, Diederich mentions the race sells out in minutes.

So why are ever more people putting themselves through challenges that for most of us are barely imaginable? Since that conversation at the tea point, I have actually completed a number of ultramarathons. The intial attraction was the call of the wild. I had run six marathons when someone suggested I run the six-day, 165 km Oman Desert Marathon. As a runner the race held little appeal, but as a life experience, an adventure, it was exciting: to intersect a vast stretching of scarcely mapped ground with only myself and a backpack of energy saloons to maintain me running, was a thrilling prospect.

A competitor spanning the Moroccan Sahara desert during the 257 km Marathon des Sables. Photo: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/ AFP/ Getty Images

Extreme athlete Karl Egloff knows the seem. The Ecuadorian has run up and down both Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua( the most important one mountain in the Andes) quicker than anyone in history. He mentions the appeal of racing up the mountains, rather than hiking up them, is the sense of liberty:” When I go up a mountain travelling sun and moving quickly, it’s different. I seem free, like flying, like a condor .”

While adventure has always appealed to the human feeling, Diederich puts the boom down to the growth of social media, which spreads the word and fires people’s imaginations:” People read their friends’ depicts and run,’ Wow, I want to do that ,'” he says.

Some in the ultra world, however, are disdainful of the social media influence, saying it is rising people looking for kudos by calling themselves ultrarunners, and the sport has lost its edge as a result. Race director Mark Cockbain tells:” So many races have popped up to capitalise on people’s desire to be ultrarunners and organisers make it so easy for runners to achieve this’ status’ with’ everyone-that-enters-is-a-winner’ and finisher-hand-holding events. Once all ultras had a sense of hazard .”

Extreme runner Karl Egloff of Ecuador after winning a race to the western summit of Mount Elbrus in Russia. Photo: Denis Abramov/ TASS

Paul Albion, who organises Big Bear ultra events in the Midlands, agrees that social media has played a role, but realise the inclusivity as a positive.” With greater exposure to these sorts of events, people see that not all of the finishers are whippet-like men who climb like mountain goats ,” he says.” Our finishers come in all shapes, sizes and ages .”

Diederich feels there is a natural race inflation behind the rise in ultras.” So many people have done a marathon, that now if someone tells you they’re running one, you ask if they’re doing it in a panda getup or something. Just running a marathon doesn’t mean much .” Another race administrator, Melissa Martinez, who puts on events in North Carolina, agrees.” As people continue to see the marathon as more achievable ,” she tells” the human spirit will ever crave more. It will always crave that sentiment of pushing itself to the edge, and then continuing on in spite of the suffering .”

I often hear ultrarunners talking about ache and observing their restrictions. At the Self-Transcendence 24 -hour trail race I ran in south London last year, the race administrator told me it was to witness that instant when person or persons observes the strength to carry on, when they thought all was lost, that keeps her putting events on year after year. And I can say from experience that to be forced to dig deep inside yourself, to face suffering and uncertainty, and yet to come through it, can be a life-affirming experience.

Ultrarunner Shannon Farar-Griefer in Death valley for the 135 mile Badwater Ultramarathon. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/ REUTERS

Lindley Enclosure, chairman of the Trail Running Association, tells the ever-growing contrast between our normal, sedate lives and the sentiment you get in an ultra of being fully alive and on the edge is key to the sport’s growing appeal. As the world becomes ever more sanitised and automated, where even vehicles drive themselves, a deep stir develops to get out of our convenience zone, to feel something of our wilder selves.” As our regular, mundane lives become ever more sedentary ,” he mentions, “we have a need for something more.”

It was this need that first drew me to the desert in Oman, and it was there, on the start line on the last day, that I met a German pair in their late 60 s. They looked completely shattered after five days pushing themselves on through the sear hot.” Why do we do this ?” Gudrun asked rhetorically.” We have such a nice home .” Her husband, Hansmartin, looked at her and said simply:” Because “were having” such a nice home .”

In the brilliant documentary The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats Its Young, one competitor in the 100 -mile race puts it more bluntly:” Most people would be better off with more suffering in their lives .”

The Spine … Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm, Scotland. In January. Photo: Yann Besrest-Butler/ Spine Race

Getting through the ache obstacle, the wall, pushing beyond your limits, was once part of the appeal of standard marathons. But, according to ultrarunner Nick Mead, the seem you get, the fabled runner’s high, is proportionally bigger in an ultramarathon. After completing his first ultra, Mead wrote:” The race pounded me almost into submission before I transgressed through and was lifted on a wave of euphoria unlike anything I’ve ever experienced … an virtually spiritual high .”

In his autobiography, ultra legend Scott Jurek describes being driven by a similar thought:” The longer and farther I operated, the more I realised that what I was often chasing was a state of mind- a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus .”

The euphoria of running has indeed been proven to help relieve stress and alleviate depression, but does operating further feel even better? Catra Corbet is a former addict who took up ultrarunning after she got arrested for medication dealing.” I’m always high out on the trails ,” she mentions, when I fulfilled her at a roadside Starbucks somewhere near her home in San Francisco. She’s 53 but seems about 28, with red whisker, tattoos cascading down her limbs and legs, and piercings all over her face. She has run 100 miles( in one run) over 130 hours.” I like to do one or two 100 -milers a month ,” she mentions, as though they are trips to the beach.” Running saved “peoples lives”. People go to AA or whatever, but I don’t. My recuperation is out on the road .”

Yet, while it may bring a feeling of wellbeing, can running a hundred miles or more, often through the night and through challenging terrain, actually be good for your body? In 2012, cardiologist-runners Carl Lavie and James O’Keefe induced a stir when they released a research paper that found that while moderate running was clearly healthy, those health benefits began to tail off and possibly even overrule if you ran “excessively”. Initially they defined that as more than 2.5 hours a few weeks- though after farther research Lavie revised it to five hours a few weeks. Ultrarunners, of course, undertake much more than that, often in a single day.

‘ I was lifted on a wave of euphoria … an nearly spiritual high’ … Nick Mead in the 155 mile-Gobi March across the Gobi desert and Altai mountains. Photograph: Zandy Mangold/ 4 Deserts

Lavie and O’Keefe’s main concern was nerve damage and a hardening of the tissue around the heart brought on by extreme workout. In a TED talk on the subject, O’Keefe used to say while exercising was one of the best drugs for good all-round health,” like any medication, there’s an ideal dose scope. If you don’t take enough, you don’t get the benefits. If you take too much, it could be harmful. Maybe even fatal .”

Mark Hines is a professional adventurer, author and training exercises physiologist. He shares the health concerns about ultrarunning.” The biggest issue is permanent scarring of the heart tissue ,” he mentions.” Anyone middle-aged operating a marathon or more is likely to develop some degree of scarring, and it is irreversible .”

Lavie and O’Keefe were accused of putting people off running, and are now keen be pointed out that any exercising is better than no workout. Dr Andrew Murray, a sports and exert drug consultant at the University of Edinburgh, who once ran 4,300 km over 78 periods from John o’Groats to the Sahara desert, emphasises the level:” There is a ceiling[ in the amount of running you do] beyond which you start to lose the sweet spot healthwise. Nonetheless it is very difficult to do enough to return you to a greater hazard than couch potato .”

The problem with relating O’Keefe’s study to ultrarunning is that he conflates severity and duration of exercise to define “extreme”. Ultrarunning may, on the surface, seem to be extreme, but in practice you typically undertaken at a very low intensity- with strolling forming a large glob of most ultra races for most challengers. Indeed, Hines says he has started operating longer races since he learned about the risk of heart scarring, because, he tells, they are generally safer due to the lower intensity of effort.

How far? … runners in the Sri Chinmoy 3100 in Queens, New York city- the longest footrace in the world. Photo: Mike Segar/ Reuters

In 2014, Dr Martin Hoffman, prof of physical medicine and reclamation at the University of California, ran a more specific learn on health issues related to more than 1,200 ultrarunners. He concluded that they were healthier than the non-ultrarunning population, with a low prevalence of nearly all serious medical issues, and that they had fewer sick periods off work.” At present ,” he told me,” there is no good indication to prove there are negative long-term health outcomes from ultramarathon running .”

But are ultramarathon runners doing it to be healthy? No one I spoke to cited that as the reason. Hoffman followed up his research with a fascinating topic posed to another 1,394 ultrarunners:” If you were to learn, with absolute certainty, that ultramarathon running is bad for your health, would you stop ?” Seventy-four per cent of runners reacted: “no”.

* Adharanand Finn is the author of a forthcoming book on ultrarunning, to be published by Guardian Faber in May 2019.

Five of the most extreme ultra races

Taking on The Spine … 268 miles of the Pennine Way. Photo: Yann Besrest-Butler/ Spine Race

The Barkley Marathons is a 100 -mile, unmarked trail race in Tennessee inspired by a 1977 prison escape. The brutal course and oddities of the race, such as an unknown start time, making such race so tough that in its 33 times only 15 people had already been finished.

The Sri-Chinmoy Self Transcendence 3100 Mile Race loops around a single block in Queens, New York city- that’s 5,649 laps. This is officially the longest race in the world, and one of the least scenic. The fastest-ever winning time was 40 days and 9 hours.

The Tunnel Ultra is 200 miles back and forth through the UK’s longest foot passageway, situated under Bath in Somerset. Race director Mark Cockbain calls it” a mindbending test of extreme endurance and sensory deprivation “.

6633 Arctic Ultra calls itself the” toughest, coldest, windiest ultra distance footrace on countries around the world “. Crossing the Arctic Circle and traversing 350 miles of snowfall, ice and temperatures down to -5 0C, it is limited to 12 starters, of whom all but a pair will drop out before the end.

The Spine is a self-supporting, self-navigating race along the full route of the 268 -mile Pennine Way from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm, Scotland. In January. While the majority of members of the running day takes place at night, runners often have to contend with snow, sleet or driving rainfall. The course record is 95 hours 17 minutes.

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ lifeandstyle/ 2018/ apr/ 02/ ultrarunner-ultramarathon-racing-1 00 -miles

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