Words: Jon EdwardsFor a growing band of runners, completing a marathon is no longer enough. They search for more, and they find it in ultrarunning. But what is it that has fuelled the growth of this most gruelling of physical challenges?
'A life-changing experience’ is how most participants describe it, and it is easy to see why. In the last few years, ultrarunning has seen a massive surge in popularity reminiscent of the marathon boom of the early 1980s, as distance runners have started to ask themselves: ‘Can I go further?’
The answer has been emphatically ‘yes’. A new breed of runner is spurning the traditional 26.2-mile distance, opting instead to run hundreds of miles across deserts, ice caps, up mountains, through jungles - in fact, over pretty much any terrain, anywhere on the planet - as they continue to redefine the limits of human endurance.
THE ULTRA BOOM
An ultra-marathon is defined as any distance beyond the standard marathon length of 26 miles 385 yards and can usually be split into two basic types - a fixed distance, like 100km, or a fixed time (e.g 24 hours), although there are other formats such as continuous events or multi-day races.
There are now thousands of races across the world and demand has exploded with places filling up months before the event. Arguably the toughest endurance race of all, the infamous Marathon des Sables, a six-day 150-mile endurance race across the Sahara Desert, is booked up until 2014.
According to the sport’s governing body, the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), participation in endurance races is at an all-time high. IAU Director of Communications, Nadeem Khan says: “The number of ultra races around the world has increased significantly in recent years and so have the number of athletes who participate in these events. We constantly have over 30 countries in our 100km and 24-Hour World Championships. The latter is moving up fast in popularity and is slightly ahead of the 100km distance at international level. Trail running is gaining quite a following too and is popular in North America, Europe and Australia.”
The big question is why? Aside from the huge physical and mental demands, in terms of time and commitment, ultrarunning can literally take over your life.
THE INTERNET AGE
“One of the major reasons for the ultra popularity is due to the fact that it is the next logical move from the marathon,” says Khan. “The 26.2-mile distance has increased in popularity in the last couple of decades. Now ultrarunning is seeing the ‘graduates’ move on to the next challenge after completing the marathon.
“The 50km, 100km, 24hr ultras are not the unattainable goals anymore. If you have completed the marathon distance, you are looking for new challenges and the world of ultrarunning seems quite attractive. This is particularly more enticing since you have a choice of different terrain, distance and times.”
However, there’s more to it than simply wanting to run further and for longer. In the 1990s, ultrarunning had a largely underground following of hardcore extreme athletes for whom the sport was a way of life. It was about pushing the limits of human endurance and racing each other over increasingly arduous terrains and distances. But outside of the ultrarunning community, little was known about these seemingly superhuman athletes.
The arrival of the internet changed all that and opened up a whole new world of possibilities for runners of all ages, levels and abilities. In the process, the exposure turned some of those pioneering endurance runners like American duo Dean Karnazes and trail king Scott Jurek, into ultra celebrities.
Rory Coleman, one of Europe’s top ultrarunning experts, who has completed over 660 marathons and 165 ultra-marathons, says: “Really, the explosion in popularity of ultrarunning in the last few years is down to the internet and the information that is now accessible to everyone. In 1981/82 there was the marathon running boom and everyone was joining running clubs etc. Then they got a bit older and thought ‘I’m gonna do a triathlon’ and bought all the gear. Then people started looking at these extreme athletes on YouTube, and thinking ‘I can do that.’”
PUSHING THE LIMITS
Coleman was a heavy drinker and smoking 40 cigarettes-a-day when he decided to use running to change his life 17 years ago.
“I came into running quite late,” he says. “It was an early mid-life crisis at the age of 31 when I decided to clean my act up. I started going running and found out that for a club runner I was quite quick, but not quick by the standards of top runners. But I discovered that my body was good at going long distances. Part of running is finding what your limits are. So all the time you keep pushing those limits; you try one mile, then five, then 10 before doing a marathon. If you think you can do 50 miles, maybe you can do 80 - and so it goes on.
“It is life-changing. Most of my life is about doing great big, long runs.”
Coleman has never looked back. A few years ago, he started a company ULTRArace (www.ultrarace.co.uk) designed to help ultrarunners of all abilities, regardless of their level of experience. The company also organises races and events with what Coleman describes as “a twist of ultra madness.”
The response has been phenomenal. Currently, he estimates that he works 20 hours a day, replying to hundreds of emails from runners wanting advice on all aspects of ultrarunning, sharing information on everything from training programmes, heart rates and nutrition to buying the right footwear, motivation and preparing for your first race.
A WAY OF LIFE
Coleman and other race organisers have noticed that these ultra-marathons are most popular with, but not exclusive to, middle aged professional men, who are swapping the traditional mid-life crisis cliché of a Ferrari and a young blonde secretary on their arm, for a pair of running shoes and a search for a life-changing experience.
“The people who are competing in these races are all having some sort of mid-life crisis,” says Coleman. “We’re now being sponsored by companies who are interested in the sort of people who do the races because most of them are accountants, teachers, middle management etc - people with desk jobs who are all coming to ultrarunning because they are bored witless at work every week and wish they were doing something else.
“Back in the 90s, ultrarunning was for a hardcore group of likeminded people who wanted to race and compete. What’s happened now is people are doing it for life experience. It’s not home, it’s not work, it’s about you doing something for you. With all the training as well as the racing, it’s a 12-month way of life for some people. So it is life-changing.”
This search for a goal, for a purpose in lives that have become bogged down by the ever increasing demands and stresses of a lopsided work/life balance is a recurring theme among runners, coaches and organisers. So the recent surge in popularity of ultrarunning is not a huge surprise, according to Coleman.
“Hopefully, I’ve been responsible for a lot of it,” he laughs. “You name anywhere in the world, you can go and run an ultra-marathon. Self-achievement is, to a certain degree, the ultimate goal. But professionalism is also coming into it now as well. We’ve got two races this year where runners can win a new Chevrolet car and we’re attracting ultrarunners from all around Europe to compete in races. Fifteen years ago, you would have found it difficult to do two or three ultras a year. We staged 35 last year.”
So can anyone run an ultra? Coleman believes they can, if the desire, dedication and determination is there. “I would say, anyone can do an ultra-marathon, they really can,” he maintains.
“I would say, come and get proper training advice; it’s not all about running, it’s about nutrition, your equipment, training your mind. We do a lot of talking. People come to me for two and a half hours, and afterwards they walk out with a completely different attitude about themselves and how they are going to approach the next challenge.”
Many ultrarunners agree that finishing an ultra is as much, if not more, a mental challenge than a physical one - the resilience and determination to pound out mile after mile, often in extreme conditions, while your aching limbs are screaming out for rest.
How can you train your mind to override the sheer physical exhaustion? “It’s about the limits you impose upon yourself,” says Coleman. “You have enough fuel in your body to carry you 120 miles, the only thing stopping you is your brain.
“The mental side is more important than anything else. If I said to you, ‘okay let’s go and do 26.2 miles, it’s going to take four hours or whatever, how do you feel about that?’ Most runners would say ‘yeah okay, I could run a marathon.’ But if I said, ‘let’s go and run 100 miles right now,’ you would perceive that completely differently.”
GETTING INTO THE ZONE
He continues: “It all depends how determined you are. I am one of those people that has to complete what he’s started. I’ve never dropped out of a race or stopped because I always want to finish the race.
“You have to have the confidence and a clear idea of what you’re doing and where you are going. Hour after hour when you’re running, you only have to think about the next step; your mind is clear and you then get into a rhythm. You find people get into the zone, almost a hypnotic state.”
There is no doubt that as long as runners are able to continue pushing the boundaries of human achievement, ultrarunning’s popularity and participation will continue to increase. It’s about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, about runners of all shapes and sizes realising their dreams. There are further distances to cover and more difficult terrains still to cross.
“There are boundaries to human endurance obviously,” Coleman considers. “I’ve been to races where you are severely tested; you run 150 miles at 15,000 feet across the Chilean desert, it’s pretty scary stuff. But these ultra-marathons stand out because they’re like a framework you hang the rest of your life on. And there’s a complete community of likeminded people. Going back to these races each year - it’s just like coming home.”