Running an ultramarathon is a profoundly gruelling task. Unlike its traditional counterpart, the “regular” marathon (42.2km or 26.2 miles), which is still no small athletic feat, ultras are designed with a certain element of twisted masochism in mind, something that modern runners are drawn to more than ever before…
What is an Ultramarathon?
The shortest distance that someone can call an ultramarathon is 50 kilometres (31 miles) with some races exceeding over 500km in length, which as someone who has a little bit of experience in distance running really just boggles the mind. The most common and prestigious races you’ll hear people talking about in the ultra running community are the: 100km (60 miles) or the 100 miler (164km). These races require the average competitor to run for approximately 20–30 hours at a time with very limited rest.
To be very clear: ultramarathons aren’t just a bunch of runners enjoying a leisurely 2 day stroll around a local running track. Most of the time, athletes are traversing insanely steep and rugged mountain trails, slogging through deserts in the middle of summer or trudging deep into the bowels of dense and humid jungles…
Before we dive into the emerging phenomenon of the ultra, let’s have a look at where the idea of the marathon came from in the first place.
A Very Short History of the Marathon
The marathon we know today was inspired by the ancient Greek soldier Pheidippides who ran approximately 25 miles from the battle of Marathon to Athens to announce a greek victory, where, legend has it, he collapsed and died from exhaustion upon delivering the following message:
“Nike! Nike! Nikomen! (Victory! Victory! We have won!)”
However what is little known about Pheidippides is that he was not just a regular citizen soldier of the military but rather a hemerodromos: a messenger used by the Greek military also known as ‘day-long runners’ who routinely ran hundreds of miles as quickly as humanly possible to spread information between the ancient Greek city states.
Now, if we are willing to go along with the legend, which is most likely a fairly embellished story passed down by different Greek historians and satirists, then, it probably wasn’t running the 25 miles that caused Pheidippides to die from exhaustion. It might have something more to do with the fact that just 3 days earlier, Pheidippides had run from Athens to Sparta, a distance of 150 miles (6 consecutive marathons) in under 48 hours to gather troops for the battle at Marathon… He did all of this without nice running shoes, lightweight water bottles or hydration vests. He wore canvas clothing and leather “shoes”, ate fruit off the side of the road and filled some form of animal bladder with water wherever he found it.
Much has been written about the preparation of athletes for the Olympics, yet little is known about the elusive hemerodromoi, except for small passages of text that describe their relationship to running as something that surpassed patriotic duty and merged into something more akin to a sacred art. I think it is this sort of emotional and spiritual aspect of endurance running that the hemerodromoi and modern ultra runners share despite the thousands of years between them.
Every year more people finish Ultramarathons
So WHY are More People Running Ultras?
Most ultra-runners will tell you that at some stage of a race they will experience states of suffering that exceeded what they thought was even possible. So why is it that hundreds of thousands of people every year are voluntarily putting themselves in positions where they will experience more pain than they were capable of imagining?
“Comfort is the disease of civilisation” — Nassim Taleb
Ultimately there’s no singular reason that explains why more people want to try their hand at ultra running, although my half baked explanation is that this newfound desire for intense suffering springs from the vacuum of comfort provided by modernity. In a society where any slight inconvenience can be conquered with a few swipes on the screen of a smartphone, there’s very little that actually presents itself as some form of existential challenge. Now I’m not saying that there’s not plenty of difficult things to overcome in modern life, I’m simply saying that there’s so many easy and affordable ways to avoid discomfort. The ultra marathon signifies the ultimate middle finger to comfort and taking the easy way out.
From a “celebrity” point of view, there have been a number of iconic figures such as Rich Roll (a recovered alcoholic turned vegan endurance athlete) and David Goggins ( a certified masochist who ran his first 100-miler with zero training) who have spread the word far and wide among the general population about the elusive and seemingly transcendental undertaking of endurance sports.
They espouse messages of the psychological benefits of pushing against discomfort and how endurance athleticism ultimately acts as a conduit for self transcendence and an ailment to suffering in other aspects of life.
It’s also about the strange relationship that humans have with pain. Echoing the words of David Goggins:
“In order to achieve anything in this life, you have to be willing to suffer”
We have a deep evolutionary tendency to want to push limits, set records and be the first person among their peers (or the world) to do something radical. UK race director Melissa Martinez on the website Run Ultra said that:
“As people continue to see the marathon as more achievable … the human spirit will always crave more. It will always crave that feeling of pushing itself to the edge, and then continuing on in spite of the pain.”
And because social media is ultimately a competition for attention, it intrinsically incentivises bold and eye catching stimulus, so as a result, we can see that “ultra-inflation” is partially just more and more people coming into contact with the idea that ultra running is something that is possible for anyone to achieve.
Another huge element of the ultra’s strange appeal is that most races are far from monotonous.
In a regular marathon you’re most likely running along a flat piece of pavement for 26.2 miles. On an ultra you’re conquering little known mountain trails along some long forgotten ridge line. You’re descending into the bellies of vast deserts and trudging through parts of the world you’d never normally come into contact with.
Ultras are at their core a rekindling of the human sense of adventure and a willingness to bring danger back into your life. On most runs you’ll start early in the morning and keep running long into the night. It doesn’t even remotely resemble a traditional marathon, with bright coloured sports clothing, flashy sneakers and support cars. On an ultra you can go hours without seeing another soul and it’s in those moments you realise that you’re competing against yourself, constantly resisting the messages from both body and mind that beg you to stop.
Personally my love for endurance running is hard to pin down. It changes whenever I lace the shoes up for a long run. Sometimes it’s about making sure I get out of my comfort zone after a long day of staring at a screen. Other times it’s about testing the limits of who I am and finding new ways to overcome the voices of weakness that are quick to appear the second a strange pain occurs. Sometimes it’s purely adventure: I’ll go out with a few friends and we’ll tackle a trail that we’ve never come across, in a place we’ve never been.
But often it’s a mix of everything. Last weekend, whilst the local news announced that emergency service crews were being mobilised because of severe weather, I ran 40 kilometres with a flared-up hip and a head cold in torrential rain.
It required every ounce of willpower to keep going, to keep pushing against my body’s numerous aches and pains. After a few hours I got into the swing of things. My aches and pains disappeared, my blocked nose and pounding headache cleared and I enjoyed braving the elements with my friends as we charged up and down hills, along closed roads and through flash floods on the trails…
In this I found solace and a sense of pride.
I understand that a lot of this seems counterintuitive and borderline masochistic, but ultimately, this is what draws people to the sport. Pushing your limits, rekindling adventure and finding that you can earn a sense of accomplishment when you embrace a voluntarily pursuit of suffering.
Now, if you’re reading this and thinking there’s no god damn way I could ever run 10 miles let alone 100, then that’s perfect! When I ran 5 kilometres for the first time (two years ago) I really thought that I was going to die. My heart was in my throat immediately and my lungs burned with every breath. But I felt truly proud of myself when I finished.
No one ever started off running 100 miles, except for David Goggins who ran 100 miles with no training and ended up with a kidney failure, breaking most of the bones in his feet and defecating all over himself in the process (hardly a good strategy).
Every other athlete on the planet built up their running slowly over time. All of these people that you may have heard about are only exceptional because they keep showing up. I didn’t know that I’d love running until I started doing it… So maybe it’s time put those shoes back on and see if you can find a way love it to?
In the meantime here’s a list of a small list of races that will either inspire or terrify you:
A 135 (217km) mile run through Death Valley, Arizona in the middle of summer time. Runners can expect to endure temperatures of 122 degrees farenheit (45 degrees Celsius) and will conquer 13,000 feet of elevation. The course record is 21 hours and 33 minutes.
The largest and most competitive 100 mile ultramarathon in the world. Runners traverse the outside of Mont Blanc, in Chamonix, France and will tackle 31,500ft (10,000 metres) of elevation. The course record is 20 hours and 19 minutes…
A 240 mile (386km) ultramarathon through the MOAB Desert, Utah. The course record is 61 hours and 43 minutes.