Running is in. Our streets and parks are full of sweaty joggers, faces contorted with New Years’ resolve. Nearly half a million people applied for a coveted place in this April’s London Marathon. Even our politicians are at it: Johnson, Gove and Hunt are all frequently spotted wheezing along in a way it would be hard to imagine, say, Wilson or Thatcher.
But you might have noticed some subtle changes over the past few years. A few of those runners are now sporting headtorches, carrying oversized water bottles and shuffling along at a more pedestrian pace. Completing 26.2 miles no longer draws the same awe from friends, colleagues and relatives. And there are regular news stories of people recounting how simultaneously fun and miserable it was to run across/around various countries and continents. These are the ultra-runners.
Technically an ultramarathon is simply any foot race longer than a marathon but practically, they tend to begin at the 50km mark. There is no upper limit with some races stretching into the hundreds of miles spread across multiple days. (You can tell a British ultrarunner by their ability to switch seamlessly between metric and imperial measurements – it is not uncommon to hear someone talk of running 100km and 10min/mile pace).
Terrain is often as important as distance in ultramarathons. Many participants relish the challenge of inhospitable environments from the scorching heat of the Sahara to gruelling Alpine climbs. At the other end of the spectrum are track races where competitors battle mind-numbing tedium to complete as many laps as possible within 24 hours.
Towards the front of the field ultramarathons can be a highly competitive affair with mental and physical battles fought out over hours or even days. For most people however ultramarathons are only races in the loosest sense of the word and might be better described as a shared endeavour.
Who is running ultra marathons?
From Pheidippides supposed 150 mile run from Athens to Sparta (now the route of an annual Spartathlon race) to the competitive ‘pedestrianism’ on which the Victorians loved to bet, ultramarathons have a long history. Only recently however have they begun to become mass participation activities.
At the turn of the century only a few hundred Brits finished an ultramarathon in the UK each year. This has now risen to more than 20,000. When I ran my first London to Brighton race in 2010 there were a couple of dozen of us and the vibe was amateurish bordering on cult. Today popular races can attract hundreds or even thousands and are slick, professional events.
While it can be dangerous to generalise, the participation is far from diverse. Men almost always outnumber women and often by a ratio of more than three to one. Maturity trumps youth with 60-year-olds more common than 20-year-olds. Most are university educated and solidly middle-class. And it would be hard to find a paler crowd outside the royal family. Essentially the typical ultra-runner is a balding, white, male professional.
Even as a dedicated participant describing the rise in popularity of ultramarathons is much easier than explaining it. Plodding along for hours on end can be a soul-destroying experience not to mention the toll that it takes on the body. Far from being healthy it can often look more like self-harm.
Runners often cite their love of nature and their desire to escape. But these explanations don’t always stack up. After ten hours of exercise one is rarely able to admire the scenery and training, planning, self-discipline and will power required can seem more like a replica than a contrast of the pressures of modern life.
That ultrarunners tend to be affluent suggests that the novelty of physical struggle plays a part. Put simply, comfortable people like uncomfortable hobbies. There certainly aren’t many people heading out for voluntary 50 mile runs in my home country of Uganda.
One-upmanship is another inescapable factor in the rise of ultramarathons. Although races are low-key there can be a broader form of competitive suffering in which ultrarunners strive to outdo each other in endurance and pain. And describing 42km as a training jog can be a great way to distance oneself from the vanilla marathon crowd.
It’s not immediately obvious why running is seen as worthy. Perhaps the self-deprivation appeals to our puritanical routes or the endurance aspect has replaced the lack of other physical demand in modern society, but ultra-runners are accustomed to a level admiration and praise that would be unlikely for endurance golf or competitive saunas.
Any form of exercise can easily become more of an obsession than a hobby and the more extreme the exercise the more extreme the risk of dependency. For repeat ultra-runners it can begin to look a bit like an addiction. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find recovered food, drug or alcohol addicts for whom endurance running has replaced their substance abuse.
On a more positive note the close-knit community remains a draw for many runners. Despite its recent growth the sport has retained a niche feel. Many events are still staffed by volunteers and the sense of camaraderie and support is often striking.
Where do I sign up?
So if you’re overpampered, have an addictive personality, enjoy condescending others, are suffering from mid-life crisis and need some new friends then you should be ready for your first ultramarathon. Here are some suggested entry-level races while you work your way up the endurance pecking order:
- Endurance Life – a series of spectacular costal races around the UK with 10km and half-marathon options as well as entry level ultra-distances.
- Centurion – organisers of probably the most popular races in Southern England including 50- and 100-mile events on the North Downs and South Downs.
- Go Beyond Ultra – another good option for low-key, well-organised races for those looking to step up from marathon distance.
- Ultra X – offering a fantastic selection of international multi-day races that combine exciting destinations (including Sri Lanka, Jordan and Mexico) with great atmosphere and reasonable prices.