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Published in the Financial Times, 2007

The Superhuman cult of Ultradistance running

What is the limit of human endurance – taking gold in the Klagenfurt Ironman, climbing all 14 of the world’s 8,000m mountains or persevering through an entire series of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here?

The superhuman cult of ultrarunning, defined as any distance longer than the standard 26mile marathon, reveals all those to be deeply effete challenges. Some of the feats of eminent “ultra” enthusiasts make the  knees hurt just by thinking about them. America’s Dean Karnazes recently ran the North Face Endurance50 in association with the outdoor apparel brand: 50 marathons on 50 consecutive days, finishing with a time of 3:00:03 in the New York Marathon. Two days later Karnazes decided to run home – he lives in San Francisco. Rory Coleman, who operates the annual six-day, 175m Marathon Of Britain, ran from London to Lisbon, covering 30 miles a day in 43 days – approximately one twentieth of the earth’s circumference. Last year Glyn Marston beat the Guinness World record for the longest distance run on a treadmill over seven days, covering 300 miles.

Globally around 70,000 exceptionally fit individuals are thought to participate in a fast-growing sport that is pushing for recognition at Commonwealth and Olympic level. In this country the International Association of Ultrarunners are lobbying UK Athletics to recognise the two key two “ultra” disciplines – a 24hr race judged according to distance covered, and a 100km race where rankings are decided by time.

At elite competition level the sport is dominated by French and Italian runners, but Britain’s is emerging as a leading nation, says Norman Wilson, the GB ultra squad coach. ‘People are becoming more aware of ultradistance and are starting to compete. We feel it should be instated into the Olympic games. We’ve got a lot of talent in the UK, people who are moving up form marathon to 100k. We’ll be winning medals in two years’ time.’

At the amateur level ultra culture is the logical next step for a generation of runners who feel that a mere 26 miles through London in the company of Jade Goody or Gordon Ramsay just isn't enough. Races vary in distances, times and extreme terrains that give mere Marathon untermenschen and gym treadmill plodders pause for thought.

50K, 100k and six-dayers are relatively common. Hardcore ultras aim for events like the annual Sri Chinmoy 3100 Self-Transcendence event, officially the world’s longest running race, in which competitors achieve a blistered form of enlightenment in 51 days of continuous running across 3,100 miles. Then the Keihl’s Badwater ultramarathon – one of the orginal ultra events – starts in at the lowest point on earth in Death Valley, California where competitors brave temperatures of up 55C to run 217km to the top of Mount Whitney. The six-day, 243km Marathon des Sables pits runners against the Saharan dunes, while in the UK emerging fixtures on the ultra circuit are the Marathon of Britain – where stage lengths increase daily to 56 miles before an 11 mile ‘sprint’ finale – and the West Highland Way: the 95 mile hiker’s classic reimagined as a 24-hour run.

All of which begs a question – why? Answers tend to reflect Sir Chris Bonnington’s enigmatic response as to why bother climbing Everest: ‘Because it’s there,’ the mountaineer famously replied.

‘Some people are running away from something, some are running toward something,’ says Rory Coleman, whose company Ambition Events organises a range of ultra ‘adventures’ (rather than strict ‘races’) across the UK. ‘For most people, running a marathon is a huge barrier. My personal best was 3hr24, and I knew I wouldn’t get any faster than that.  I’m better over 150 miles. It becomes mind over matter. If you want to do it, you’ll do it. If you don't, you won’t’

Competitors say the appeal of ultra is less about the competition for the podium than the experience of participation, which is naturally enhanced by the distances involved. For many, argues Dean Karnazes, to complete the challenge is to win. ‘Ultra people do it more for themselves rather than for bragging rights. Marathon is all about beating your PB times. Something like Badwater to most people is just incomprehensible. Even though I won Badwater, I prefer to say I survived the fastest. Anyone who crosses the finish line in a winner because there are so many elements to overcome.’

Ultra is a more technical discipline than would at first seem obvious. Key training techniques include LSD (long, slow distance) runs of up to eight or nine hours and the vital art of managing hydration and nutrition on the hoof. Dean Karnazes calculates he will consume 28,000 calories on a 40-hour run – often carbohydrate and transfat-heavy foods like pizza and Pringles (to the dismay of dieters he claims he will still lose a couple of pounds). The fabled ‘wall’ at mile 17 of the Marathon, where blood sugar levels dip dramatically, recurs at other intervals during ultra races, each requiring a coping strategy.

With an emphasis on distance rather than speed, Ultra returns running to an Olympian ideal that has been lost to the obsession with infinitesimally small wins in time. Equally, it demands an iron will and brute endurance even more than pure aerobic fitness, which in part explains why the core ultra demographic tends towards the older. ‘The age range is primarily 35 to 45,’ says Rory Coleman. ‘A lot will have been running fast and are now looking at running long. Distance running improves with age.’

In common with triathlon, road cycling and Ironman, Ultra has an avid participant base of employees from corporate and financial institutions. Rory Coleman estimates 75 per cent of his clients are City folk. A determination to overcome difficulty transfers well from the day job to this strange world of leisure. But for goal-oriented boardroom tyros accustomed to success, fortune can face both ways. ‘Some events will take people who always succeed and it will destroy them – force them to change their lives,’ Coleman says. ‘It may cause them to leave their jobs or their homes. The running part of it is almost incidental.’

Amid the complexity of motivations, the pure submission of the ego into a gigantic physical challenge appears part of the appeal. ‘One of our clients is a director at Microsoft,’ Coleman notes. ‘He said, ‘I spend all my time telling people what to do.’ With the 6-day Marathon Of Britain, he is saying “just tell me what do to.”’ The attitude is reflected in the Sri Chinmoy organisation’s tantric-olympic ‘run and become’ mantra (though what becomes of your feet after 3,100 miles probably isn’t worth comtemplating too closely.)

As he runs back home across America, Dean Karnazes lectures on motivation in schools and to corporates, and sees many parallels between what makes for successful ultrarunning, and running businesses successfully. ‘I talk about perseverance, dealing with adversity and overcoming obstacles – the symbolic things in running which relate to business. My advice is you have to be passionate, throw yourself wholeheartedly into it and enjoy it – don't lose sight of the experience.’

Karnazes feels he has yet to reach the limits of his endurance. In 2005 he completed a three-day, 350 mile run with no sleep that found him hallucinating across the finish line. ‘The great curiosity is to see how far you can go’ he says. ‘It’s quantifiable. But I still don't think I’ve found the limit. The human machine is so far beyond what I thought it was capable of. You learn that you are better than you think you are.’

Many British hopefuls aiming to complete next year’s Marathon Des Sables will train at the Tring2Town event in January, a comparatively modest 45-miles jog from the commuter town to central London.

Ultraruns across mountains, jungles, arctic wastes and deserts have failed to conquer the astonishing but baffling human will to run long and hard. Perhaps if Nike’s considerable R&D budget finally delivers the rumoured Air Messiah range of shoes, perhaps the seas will be next.

© Kevin Braddock, 2007


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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