Running into oblivion and beyond
There is something of an ultra-running boom but trying to understand why people run extreme distances is complicated
A friend recently ran a race in the wilds of northern Canada. “You can literally disappear,” James Stevens tells me. “And you’re warned to look out for bears.”
He doesn’t mention how long the race was, but I know it would have been monumental. Stevens is one of a special breed of runners whose perceptions of distances have blurred, defying bland comparisons of measurement. Is 50km a radical distance to run, or does that definition only kick in from 100km? Not hardcore enough? Add a desert environment, a jungle, oxygen-deprived altitude — or the frozen Arctic.
In a new book, The Rise of the Ultra Runner (Faber & Faber), Adharanand Finn delves into many aspects of immense distance running: the psychology of elite runners, the challenges faced by the tier below them, different forms of the sport, and his own personal journey into the unknown as he tries to answer the question, “why do people push the envelope of extremes, and how does this affect their bodies, minds and emotions?”
You can literally disappear and you’re warned to look out for bearsJames Stevens, ultramarathon runner
Ultra-running isn’t new. The ability to run longer and further than other land animals was a crucial evolutionary adaptation that enabled hominids to migrate from forests to plains and savannas precisely because they could chase down prey. An eon later, mega-distance challenges were the major spectator sport at the turn of the 20th century.
But today there is something of an ultra-running boom. Partly, this is attributable to enhanced medical and scientific understandings around technique, diet, hydration, recovery and radically improved technologies — not least in running shoes. A wider spectrum of people now also have access to the sport, the time to train, and money to invest in the paraphernalia of their pursuit.
But something else is at play; perhaps the 21st century’s shadowing dystopia, urging us to do something with our time. Stevens puts it simply: “Life is mundane. People are looking for a rush, something that sets them apart and represents an expression of self.”
Trying to understand why people run extreme distances, though, is complicated. It helps that many runners have themselves written about this, including one of the world’s best current extreme athletes, SA’s Ryan Sandes who, in the last decade, has won no less than 15 prestigious races, and set the fastest-known time (FKT) on the Great Himalaya Trail in 2018. Gulp before reading: this is a distance of more than 1,500km. Sandes ran it in 24 days (the few extra hours and minutes seem inconsequential). That’s 63km each day, at altitudes reaching 6,000m.
For people such as Sandes, then, running is foremost about breaking boundaries. “Runners have been shown to score higher on psychological scales that measure needs for thrill and adventure,’’ Tim Noakes wrote as long ago as 1986, in Lore of Running. There is unsurprising confirmation, too, from Beth Taylor, professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, that personality traits among extreme athletes include a high tolerance for pain.
But she has tracked other, more surprising character biases, such as spirituality and a lower reward-driven extrinsic. Taylor believes the question, “do you develop through running, or are you driven to run because of your personality?” is unresolved.
Interestingly, while there are fewer women who tackle these events, at monumental distances the physical gender differences evidently count for nothing. Women triumph fairly regularly, such as Courtenay Dauwalter’s victory — by 10 hours — in the 2017 Moab 240-mile. And Camille Herron holds the overall 24-hour and 100-mile trail world records.
Medical specialist Anthony O’Driscoll has run the Marathon des Sables, one of many marketed as “the toughest footrace on Earth”, covering 250km in the Sahara desert. A six-day stage event in which, except for water and accommodation, runners must be entirely self-sufficient, O’Driscoll admits to hallucinations in an environment where the sand, wind and 50-degree heat take a toll. “I’m always amazed at what humans can do,” he says.
A study by Duke University, released in June, tried to pinpoint the boundary of human endurance. Based on data from the 4,956km Race Across America in 2015, the researchers calculated the limit of energy expenditure as 2.5 times a person’s resting metabolic rate. Essentially, we cannot burn calories beyond the 2.5x multiple for sustained periods without feeding upon our bodies — the sensation of “crashing” or “hitting the wall” we feel as glycogen stores get depleted.
In acknowledging that it assesses the “physiological limits on energy expenditure,” the study impliedly admits it cannot address factors of the mind or spirit. Which, it seems to me, are the drivers of people who run extraordinary distances, as they reach meditative plains and plateaus which transcend the physics.
O’Driscoll is definitely aware of the trance-like mode he achieves during mega-runs. “I slip into a different thought-spectrum, an alpha brainwave, meditative state.”
This must be what happens to participants in the Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile event around (and around, and around…) a block in Queens, New York. Officially the world’s longest certified footrace, only 43 people have completed the endeavour in its 22 years of existence. The runners have 52 days to finish, necessitating 6am to midnight motion for the 96.5km slog an average day.
The mind and the body are so forgiving. Within five or six days of completing an ultra, despite knowing that I’m shattered and that I went through hell, I’m ready for the next oneJames Stevens, ultramarathon runner
This is, surely, running towards either enlightenment or insanity.
Is there a price to pay? “Yes,” says Stevens, “but the mind and the body are so forgiving. Within five or six days of completing an ultra, despite knowing that I’m shattered and that I went through hell, I’m ready for the next one.”
Taylor is reluctant to generalise by categorising this attitude negatively, as an obsession. “Humans as a species are unusually habit-forming.” As a scientist, she understands running as a form of spirituality: “There are times when running changes you, and times when you change running.”
A clear conclusion is that ultra-running facilitates the Holy Grail of absolute self-awareness, exposing your fallibilities, stripping you to your core. This must be what extreme runners mean when they say an event breaks them; my interpretation is that at those moments their entire life is distilled into a physical sensation combining agony and euphoria, and a meta-feeling amalgamating all shades of desperation, fear and hope.
Even in my immature involvement in running, doing distances nowhere near those described in The Rise of the Ultra Runner, I occasionally experience some kind of journey. Sometimes, paradoxically, it includes a surfeit of snot but a drying up of saliva, making breathing difficult and speech impossible. Or, a sudden surge of involuntary tears.
This could be a catharsis, or a purgatory meditative plain, a metaphor for life, “with all its ups and downs, its struggles and revivals”, as Finn writes. Or is it simply exhaustion, triggering a rail-and-rattle of emotional release: confusion, despair, elation, a rush of endorphins and then a descent into a fog of senselessness?
In discovering one’s soul this way, maybe extreme running brings some as close to God as they can get in real life. Literally, ultra events become a test of one’s earthly limits.
A few weeks after reading Finn’s book, I meet Stevens again. He rambles on about his training, upcoming events, injuries, new goals. And all the benefits. By now, I’m only half-listening, dreaming about doing this myself. Wondering if I can.
Want to try a local extreme running event? These are three of SA’s best:
The Puffer. Ryan Sandes won this in 2010, but doesn’t bother to mention it on his website. Probably because it’s only an 80km traverse of the Cape Peninsula’s mountains and forests. There’s also a roundtrip “Tuffer-Puffer” of 160km, and a “fun-run” of 56km.
The Munga Trail. A five-day, 400km challenge through the forests, dirt tracks and trails of Mpumalanga, ending at the Blyde River Canyon. Stopping is discretionary — but you’ll need to sleep at some point if you’re doing the equivalent of a Comrades Marathon every day.
Three Peaks Challenge. Lung-bursting climbing — and knee-jarring descending — to Devil’s Peak, Maclear’s Beacon, and Lion’s Head, returning to Cape Town city centre after each peak. It’s only 50km, and the cut-off is 14 hours, but a third of the entrants don’t finish.
Five of the world’s most extraordinary extreme races:
The Badwater 135. Marketed as “the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet”, the course starts in California’s Death Valley and ascends three mountains. It’s the temperatures, nearing 50ºC, which mark the race as near-insane.
Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc. The most prestigious ultra trail race, 170km around the entire base of the Mont Blanc, including 10,000m of climbing. Run across Swiss glaciers, through Italian forests, and French villages. Cut-off is 46 hours, ending at Chamonix, the ultra-running capital of Europe.
The Spine. Seven-day self-sufficient race down the 430km Pennine Way mountains in north-central UK, in the middle of British winter. The winner in 2019 was Jasmin Paris, beating 125 men in a record time of 83 hours.
The Barkley Marathons. Through Tennessee woods, backwaters and mountains, this 160km single-stage race has been completed by just 15 runners in 23 years. The ascent and descent changes are the equivalent of going up and down Mount Everest twice. “The race that eats its young”, or “where dreams go to die” are some of its monikers.
The World Marathon Challenge. Each run is only a standard marathon. But competitors must run seven of them, on seven consecutive days, on all the different continents. The next challenge starts at Antarctica’s Novolazarevskaya research station on February 3 2020. The entry fee: a trifling €39,000.