An ordinary woman's fascination with an extraordinary sport ... and the extraordinary people who take part

Friday, 3 June 2011

Why Run an Ultra?

Every weekend, throughout Britain, tens or even hundreds of thousands of runners line up at the start of races.  The London Marathon alone has a field of nearly fifty thousand.  And for the vast majority of these people, a marathon is the ultimate challenge, "The Big One".  There's no arguing with that - twenty six point something miles is a damn long way; even to walk it would take an average person between seven and nine hours.

Rightly we celebrate those who take on this challenge and become world class.  Probably 90% of the British population have heard of Paula Radcliffe, Haile Gebrselassie is known around the world and famous beyond the world of athletics.

So what makes someone keep going beyond the marathon?  At what point does twenty six miles become a routine training distance as opposed to an event to be trained and planned for over a six month period?  How does it become reasonable to run thirty, fifty, a hundred miles or more?

Long distance running as an organised activity has been around for a lot longer than you might imagine.  A hundred and thirty years ago, multi-day races were one of the biggest draws in the Victorian sporting scene with maybe ten thousand punters paying to watch top class events, massive sums changing hands in betting and the best athletes earning prize pots equal to modern day footballers.  Some of the records set during that time still stand today.

During the 1980s I read a novel - half a century old even then - by Nevil Shute called An Old Captivity.  Woven amongst the story of a 1930s pilot was the tale of two Scots captured by Vikings and finding themselves part of Leif Ericson's voyage of discovery to North America centuries prior to Columbus.  Both have an ability to run for hours and are sent off as Leif's scouts into this new land, thereby becoming the first Europeans to see large tracts of the continent.  After all these years, I can't remember if they made it back to Scotland, but I can assure you their spiritual descendants are alive and running well in the lowlands and highlands to this day.....

Every ultra runner worthy of the name has read Christopher McDougall's Born to Run, and devoured the story of the Indian tribe who run for hundreds of miles barefoot and in pleasure, as they have for centuries.

The Spartathlon is a 245 kilometre race aross Greece, following the legendary run of Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta in the Battle of Marathon in 490BC.  Now that truly is a run at the end of which a messenger might drop down dead.

So for millenia, men and women have run distances that defy logic, sometimes with a country's fate hanging in the balance, sometimes for hunting and sustenance, sometimes for the challenge of trying to find their personal limits and sometimes for sheer joy.

Maybe it's the wrong question.  Maybe it's not "why run an ultra?" but "why not?"


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