When writer Adharanand Finn was asked by a magazine editor to run the Oman Desert Marathon and then write an article about it, he refused. It’s easy to see why; it’s a 165 km race across a desert.
After giving the idea some thought however, he began to see it less as a race and more as an adventure. On this basis, he decided to take the challenge on. It became the first of many ultra runs for the writer. He’s part of a fast-growing global interest in ultra-running, with around a 1,000% increase in the number of people who take part in these events over the past 10 years.
A real-life Forrest Gump
There are some amazing stories attached to ultra-runners. Take for example veterinary surgeon Rob Pope, who completed the Marathon des Sables in April this year. Often termed “a real-life Forrest Gump”, Rob has been running to raise funds and awareness for charities WWF and Peace Direct since 2001. In 2016 he set off from Alabama to run 15,000 miles through the United States, paying homage to the route taken by Tom Hanks’ character in the film.
What is an ultra-marathon?
Any race longer than a marathon is an ultra-race, so there is a lot of variation between events. Each brings its own challenge. The Marathon des Sables is a self-sufficient race, meaning that you carry all your own food and equipment for the 6-day expedition on your back as you cross 250km through sand dunes and over rocky “jebels” (mountains or hills). In contrast, the longest certified footrace in the world is the Annual Self-Transcendence 3100-Mile Race. Participants in this ultra-run must cover an average of 59.6 miles every day for 52 consecutive days. They do this by circuiting a .5478-mile loop around a sports field, playground, and high school in Queens, New York City.
Why do it?
We all have a surprisingly similar physical capacity for endurance activities like ultrarunning. Scientists have found that there is a biologically determined ceiling on performance, of around two and a half times our basal metabolic rate. Beyond that, the body burns calories faster than they can be replaced with food and must dip into fat reserves for energy. Ultrarunners train to maintain their activity around or below that ceiling for extended periods of time.
Adharanand Finn finds that ultrarunning is a meditation in movement. When you become tired but keep on going, everything else just melts away. He says he comes to a strangely peaceful place where he is fully present in the moment. Ultrarunning becomes a journey to self-discovery.
With enough training and preparation, it seems that ultrarunning is possible for many of us, although it takes a lot of time and commitment and may not be everyone’s cup of tea! If you don’t currently run and would like to set a more modest goal, the Couch to 5K provides an excellent plan. Alternatively, you might walk your way to self-discovery.