Marathons are for the lazy: the rise and rise of the ultramarathon
Why are so many taking on races than last days rather than hours?
A while ago, I was standing at the office tea point when a colleague who had heard I was a runner asked me if I did ultramarathons – the term 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 terms 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 run a marathon. Now, it seems, a genuinely impressive feat has to be something longer and more extreme. Fifty miles is okay, 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 stories of ultra races circulating, you have to feel sorry for the person looking for sponsorship for a little marathon jaunt.
But what is behind this inflation?
Why are more and more 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 site 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 per cent. The German ultrarunning website DUV additionally lists the results of many smaller ultra races, its database going all the way back to the first 89km London to Brighton footrace in 1837. Over the last 10 years it plots a similar 1,000 per cent increase in the number of races.
Ultra Running magazine in the US collates figures for north America, and again they tell a similar story of a rapidly rising sport, with the number of races and finishers increasing every year since 1981. In 2003, for example, almost 18,000 people in north America finished an ultramarathon. Last year the number was 105,000. And Asia, too, has seen an explosion in the number of races. Nic Tinworth, a race director in Hong Kong, says that 10 years ago there were six ultra races in the territory, but that now there are more than 60. “In previous years,” he says, “you could just turn up on the day and enter, but now the most popular races sell out in minutes.”
Many of the world’s most oversubscribed races, such as the Ultra-Trail de Mont-Blanc in France and the Western States 100 in the US, have had to implement lottery systems to cope with the numbers wanting to take part. Diederich manages the entries for the Marathon des Sables – one of the most iconic ultras, traversing 156 miles of the Sahara desert. Despite the €4,850 entry fee, Diederich says 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, 165km Oman Desert Marathon. As a runner the race held little appeal, but as a life experience, an adventure, it was exciting: to cross a vast stretch of barely charted land with only myself and a backpack of energy bars to keep me going, was a thrilling prospect.
Extreme athlete Karl Egloff knows the feeling. The Ecuadorian has run up and down both Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the Andes) quicker than anyone in history. He says the appeal of racing up the mountains, rather than hiking up them, is the sense of freedom: “When I go up a mountain travelling light and moving quickly, it’s different. I feel free, like flying, like a condor.”
While adventure has always appealed to the human spirit, Diederich puts the boom down to the growth of social media, which spreads the word and fires people’s imaginations: “People see their friends’ pictures and go, ‘wow, I want to do that’,” he says.
So many races have popped up to capitalise on people’s desire to be ultrarunners
Some in the ultra world, however, are disdainful of the social media influence, saying it gives rise to people looking for kudos by calling themselves ultrarunners, and the sport has lost its edge as a result. Race director Mark Cockbain says: “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 danger.”
Paul Albion, who organises Big Bear ultra events in the Midlands, agrees that social media has played a role, but sees 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 outfit or something. Just running a marathon doesn’t mean much.” Another race director, Melissa Martinez, who puts on events in North Carolina, agrees. “As people continue to see the marathon as more achievable,” she says “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.”
I often hear ultrarunners talking about pain and finding their limits. At the Self-Transcendence 24-hour track race I ran in south London last year, the race director told me it was to witness that moment when a person finds 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 pain and doubt, and yet to come through it, can be a life-affirming experience.
There is no end to the challenge some are willing to take on. The Atacama Crossing is a gruelling week-long, 250km race over the driest place on Earth. Competitors battle against brutal climate conditions, terrain compared to Mars, and altitudes that average 8,000ft. Last year two Tipperary sisters, Heather and Gemma Gordon, took on the challenge. And they completed it using a strict vegan diet.
Lindley Chambers, chairman of the Trail Running Association in the UK, says the ever-growing contrast between our normal, sedate lives and the feeling 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 cars drive themselves, a deep stirring grows to get out of our comfort zone, to feel something of our wilder selves. “As our regular, mundane lives become ever more sedentary,” he says, “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 couple in their late 60s. They looked completely shattered after five days pushing themselves on through the scorching heat. “Why do we do this?” Gudrun asked rhetorically. “We have such a nice home.” Her husband, Hansmartin, looked at her and said simply: “Because we have 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 pain in their lives.”
Getting through the pain barrier, the wall, pushing beyond your limits, was once part of the appeal of standard marathons. But, according to ultrarunner Nick Mead, the feeling 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 broke through and was lifted on a wave of euphoria unlike anything I’ve ever experienced – an almost spiritual high.”
In his autobiography, ultra legend Scott Jurek describes being driven by a similar feeling: “The longer and farther I ran, 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 running further feel even better?
Catra Corbet is a former addict who took up ultrarunning after she got arrested for drug dealing. “I’m always high out on the trails,” she says, when I meet her at a roadside Starbucks somewhere near her home in San Francisco. She’s 53 but looks about 28, with red hair, tattoos cascading down her arms and legs, and piercings all over her face. She has run 100 miles (in one go) over 130 times. “I like to do one or two 100-milers a month,” she says, as though they are trips to the beach. “Running saved my life. People go to AA or whatever, but I don’t. My recovery is out on the trail.”
Yet, while it may bring a feeling of wellbeing, can running a hundred miles or more, often through the night and through challenging terrain, really be good for your body? In 2012, cardiologist-runners Carl Lavie and James O’Keefe caused 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 reverse if you ran “excessively”.
Initially, they defined that as more than 2.5 hours a week – though after further research Lavie revised it to five hours a week. Ultrarunners, of course, undertake much more than that, often in a single day.
Like any drug, there’s an ideal dose range
Lavie and O’Keefe’s main concern was heart damage and a hardening of the tissue around the heart brought on by extreme exercise. In a TED talk on the subject, O’Keefe said that while exercise was one of the best medicines for good all-round health, “like any drug, there’s an ideal dose range. 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 an exercise physiologist. He shares the health concerns about ultrarunning. “The biggest issue is permanent scarring of the heart tissue,” he says. “Anyone middle-aged running a marathon or more is likely to develop some level of scarring, and it is irreversible.”
Lavie and O’Keefe were accused of putting people off running, and are now keen to stress that any exercise is better than no exercise. Dr Andrew Murray, a sports and exercise medicine consultant at the University of Edinburgh, who once ran 4,300km over 78 days from John o’Groats to the Sahara desert, emphasises the point: “There is a ceiling [in the amount of running you do] beyond which you start to lose the sweet spot healthwise. However it is very difficult to do enough to return you to a greater risk than couch potatoes.”
The problem with relating O’Keefe’s study to ultrarunning is that he conflates intensity and duration of exercise to define “extreme”.
Ultrarunning may, on the surface, seem to be extreme, but in practice it is usually undertaken at a very low intensity – with walking forming a large chunk of most ultra races for most competitors. Indeed, Hines says he has started running longer races since he learned about the risk of heart scarring, because, he says, they are generally safer due to the lower intensity of effort.
In 2014, Dr Martin Hoffman, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of California, ran a more specific study 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 virtually all serious medical issues, and that they had fewer sick days off work. “At present,” he told me, “there is no good evidence to prove there are negative long-term health consequences 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 question 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 responded: “no”.
FIVE OF THE MOST EXTREME ULTRA RACES
A 100-mile, unmarked trail race in Tennessee inspired by a 1977 prison escape. The brutal course and quirks of the race, such as an unknown start time, make this race so tough that in its 33 years only 15 people have ever finished.
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.
Two hundred miles back and forth through the UK’s longest foot tunnel, situated under Bath in Somerset. Race director Mark Cockbain calls it “a mindbending test of extreme endurance and sensory deprivation”.
Calls itself the “toughest, coldest, windiest ultra distance footrace on the planet”. Crossing the Arctic Circle and traversing 350 miles of snow, ice and temperatures down to -50C, it is limited to 12 starters, of whom all but a couple will drop out before the end.
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 most of the running time takes place at night, runners often have to contend with snow, sleet or driving rain. The course record is 95 hours 17 minutes.