Ultra running is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. In the last decade, the number of races longer than a marathon has increased both in the UK and globally by around 1,000 per cent.
For many people, marathons no longer cut it. We have reached a point in the natural inflation of things – accelerated in part by the endless need to stand out on social media – where to be really impressive, feats of endurance now have to come with the overblown prefix “ultra”.
As a keen marathon runner, I was intrigued by this new world of ultra running. Why was this seemingly crazy sport booming? While it coincided with the corresponding rise in social media, surely there was more to slogging yourself to death for days in the mountains than a few likes on Facebook?
So I decided to find out – by entering 10 ultra marathons in two years.
THE PAIN CAVE
The influence of social media can’t be denied, but it’s odd that the ego plays a role in getting people on to the start line of an ultra marathon, because few sports can crush the ego so completely. I started off in the sport thinking that as an experienced runner I would soon conquer it. But I lost count of the number of times I found myself sitting by the trail, dejected, whimpering to myself about how stupid it all was and vowing to never run an ultra marathon again. But I kept coming back.
It turned out that these breakdowns were part of the appeal. It was finding yourself in these dark places, all hope and will lost, and then overcoming, pulling yourself back up and hauling yourself onward, that was why we were out there in the first place. In every video advertising an ultra race, it shows people struggling, close to tears, hobbling. That’s the advert. That’s what people want.
Seasoned ultra runners call the dark place you go to in an ultra marathon the pain cave. And the ones that do well, they relish the pain cave.
In my first few races, whenever I got within sight of it, all I could think was: “They’re mad.” The pain cave ate you up, it tore you apart. Why would anyone want to experience this level of tiredness, this
aching of every limb, seasoned with the thought that you still had 50 miles to
go? But it’s what you find if you go in further, dig deeper, that makes ultra running so compelling.
In the end it wasn’t the satisfaction of overcoming the crisis and making it to the finish that was the real appeal, but the process itself. It is in the depths of the struggle that the magic happens. In the numbness of having run for so long everything starts to melt away and it’s just you and the running. And in that moment of resurrection there is a profound sense of peace. You feel alive and in the present moment. It’s a powerful feeling.
Some of the world’s longest races are called self-transcendence races and are organised by the spiritual group Sri Chinmoy. I ran their 24-hour race around a running track in South London. Whenever I told people about it, the usual response was: “God, that sounds boring.” But the truth was, while it was hard, it was never boring.
The atmosphere was so charged
The initial hours passed by easily. Then, in the depths of the night, I found myself slumped on a chair, my feet burning, watching the others struggling by, some singing quietly to themselves, others like survivors of some terrible catastrophe. One runner stopped to see how I was. I told him I was going to quit. I couldn’t carry on.
“It would be a shame to stop now,” he said. “Just as it is getting interesting.” He was right. I hauled myself up. I carried on. It was self-transcendence, right there. On the other side, as dawn broke, was a sense of great strength, but also a peacefulness, and a powerful energy. My wife, who had planned to spend the night sleeping somewhere, ended up staying to watch the whole thing. “I couldn’t
leave,” she said. “The atmosphere was so charged.”
People digging deep within themselves and finding something incredible, well, it’s hardly boring.
The Big Issue magazine is read by an estimated 379,195 people across the UK and circulates 82,294 copies every week.
Ultra running is full of fascinating characters, pursuing incredible distances and going through life-changing experiences again and again. It hurts, but for those who do it, the feeling becomes addictive.
Geoff Oliver, who is 85, summed it up when, after running 77 miles at the same 24-hour track race in South London, was asked why he did it. “We should always be struggling to know,” he said. “Know,
Ultra running, ultimately, brings you face to face with yourself. And that’s a rare and wonderful thing. The Facebook likes are just the hundreds and thousands sprinkled on top.
The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance by Adharanand Finn is out now (Guardian Faber, £14.99)
Illustration: Joseph Joyce