Rise of the Ultra Runners: Long-distance journey to the centre of the self

Review: An epic account of the ultra-running phenomenon that becomes a personal journey of struggle and triumph

Competitors in the first stage of the 34th edition of the Marathon des Sables (also known as Sahara Marathon) between El Borouj and Tisserdmine in the southern Moroccan Sahara desert earlier this year. File photograph: Getty

Competitors in the first stage of the 34th edition of the Marathon des Sables (also known as Sahara Marathon) between El Borouj and Tisserdmine in the southern Moroccan Sahara desert earlier this year. File photograph: Getty

Ultra running is running, sort of, and that’s not being pejorative. Rather, ultra running involves putting one foot in front of the other for upwards of 40 hours at distances exceeding 100 miles in one go, or over days, and always in inhospitable places, be they deserts or ice-capped mountains.

The elite average 8:30 per mile over tortuous terrain, so even for them, it’s less about speed than endurance and a journey into what ultra-runners dub the Pain Cave – a confluence of psychological doubt and physiological exhaustion that can break the body and soul of a runner. Sound appealing? Seemingly, to hordes of runners, novices and elites alike, it is!

Ultra running’s appeal lies in part in that it has eclipsed what was formerly the recognized limit of human endurance – the marathon and so-called wall. Hardly anybody discusses the wall anymore. For all our alleged sloven lifestyle, newspapers regularly document a Lazarus of the couch phenomenon, as the most unsuspecting characters, the pack-a-day smoker and drinker, the grossly overweight, transform themselves through diet and exercise over the course of some reality TV show.

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