The Phenomenal Rise of the Ultramarathon

ultramarathonThey are an almost-impossible test of the human body and spirit, yet the number of ultramarathons has increased 1,000% over the last decade. Adharanand Finn asks what’s behind this rapid increase and whether racing 100 miles or more is actually good for you

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 OK, 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 that can last days rather than hours? And is it any good for us?

Steve Diederich runs the Run Ultra website which lists the worlds 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%. 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% increase in the number of races.

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