Ultramarathons: Why?

Post by
Jonathan Life, PhD
The sport of ‘ultrarunning’—generally defined to include any footraces longer than the 42.2km standard marathon—has seen a recent surge in popularity. The allure of this sport seems to be pushing one’s physical endurance to the absolute limit.

Some examples of ultramarathons include: The Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race with 14,600 feet of ascent, run in the hottest month of the year in a dry, dessert-climate area called ‘Death Valley;’ The Barkley Marathons, a 100-miler on an entirely unmarked wilderness course in Tennessee that only 14 of around 1,000 participants have finished in the race’s 20 year history; and The Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race, a distance run on a half-mile loop around a school in New York City that runners have a maximum of 52 days to complete (about 60 miles a day), meaning, as with The Barkley, that many who attempt to finish don’t.

Considering races like these provokes one question: why?

As a runner myself, I have some understanding of the mentality behind the apparent madness. While I have only run further than the official marathon distance once – and even then, only for a ‘mere’ 50km – I have run many marathons (and other races) with specific time goals, and I have experienced both the satisfaction of meeting those goals as well as – probably more often – the disappointment of failing to do so.

In testing one’s physical endurance honestly, the possibility of success requires the possibility of failure. Races can be long and unforgiving, and, as Ultrarunner, Scott Jurek put it, ‘distance strips us bare.’

At the risk of admitting to clickbait, I’m not sure there’s really a rational explanation to fully explain why runners run. In Running with the Kenyans, Adharanand Finn perhaps puts it best:

“the times and charts are merely carrots we dangle in front of our rational mind, our over-analytical brain, to give it a reason to come along for the ride. What really drives us on is something else, this need to feel human, to reach below the multitude of layers of roles and responsibilities society has placed on us, down below the company name tags, even the father, husband, son labels, to the pure, raw human being underneath. At such moments, our rational mind becomes redundant. We move from thought to feeling.”

My sense is that’s what ultrarunning, and much of serious running in general, is about. Seeing the faces of agony runners make at 40km (or 80, or 200), however, one can’t blame folks for wondering if maybe disc golf or lawn bowling might move them from thought to feeling just as well.

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