Day 388: The Ultramarathon – Not For The Feint-Hearted Or The Sound-Minded

originally published January 22, 2013

The list of things I will never accomplish in my lifetime keeps getting longer and longer every day. There was a time when I thought I might climb Mount Everest, float down the Amazon, or expose my nipple during a Super Bowl halftime show. But as the whirlpool of middle-age sucks me deeper into the salty brine of complacency, I’ve come to accept that my loftiest ambitions may need to be tweaked just a notch or two.

For the record, I’m still not giving up on the robot butler or the flying car. I’ve dreamed too damn long about those.

One thing I can safely cross of my list is the possibility of ever running in an ultramarathon. It’s not because I’m particularly unathletic – I am, but that isn’t the reason. I’ve done my time following athletic pursuits, playing football, baseball, basketball and poker (hey, if they’re going to show it non-stop on our national sports channel, then I’m calling it a goddamn sport). But I never liked running. Running is what you do to escape a bear. Running is how you catch a bus that arrives at your stop a little too early. Running is what you do when you’re a teenager, and you need to beat your parents home so they don’t find out you’ve been faking an illness.

An ultramarathon is any footrace that is longer than the traditional marathon: 42.195 kilometers, or 26.2188 miles. The thought of a marathon already has me winded. I get tired driving 26 miles. Running that far is out of the question. But for those who have the personal discipline, the physical stamina, and that little smack of crazy to push beyond the marathon’s envelope, there are lots of options.

Some ultramarathons are simply greater distances to cover. Some are 50km, some are 100km, some are 50 miles, and others are 100 miles. One hundred miles. That’s a footrace from Philadelphia to New York City. There are over 70,000 people who participate in sanctioned ultramarathons each year. That’s 70,000 people who are probably in much better shape than I. 70,000 people who probably don’t get winded when they have to walk up the stairs into the kitchen for another beer.

To each of you, I offer my congratulations.

Europe claims to be the birthplace of the ultramarathon. Here in North America, there are literally hundreds – and I mean literally literally, not that blasphemous use of the word ‘literally’ when you really mean ‘figuratively’ – of ultramarathons each year. And because America is America, they hold claim to what appears to be the longest footrace held in the world, the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race.

No, that’s not a frantic typo, caused by my body rejecting the very idea of such a feat. The Self-Transcendence is a multi-day race. Some ultramarathons of this variety simply lay out a set time-frame (usually 6 or 10 days), and runners see how far they can run in that time, usually around a track at a fixed location. The Self-Transcendence 3100 has a set distance, but it takes days to pull it off.

This doesn’t happen in an IAAF-approved stadium. This is the track:

That’s a city block in Queens, New York. Starting every year in June, runners have 52 days to run around that block 5649 times, averaging about 60 miles every day. First one to hit 3100 miles, wins. This race doesn’t get a whole lot of takers, mainly because there aren’t a lot of people insane enough to take it on. The 2012 race was won by Grahak Cunningham from Australia, who finished his 3100 miles in 43 days, ten hours, and 36 minutes. Only five others who finished made the full distance. Another six tried, but came up short.

The record for this event was set by German runner Madhupran Wolfgang Schwerk in 2006, when he finished in 41 days, 8 hours and 16 minutes. That’s almost six full weeks of running over 75 miles per day. That’s like jogging from Los Angeles to New Orleans.

Also, did I mention it starts in June? These people are running through New York’s hottest weeks. This is an ultra-ultramarathon.

If pure distance isn’t enough to curl your knuckle-pubes, then how about a trek through the Amazon? The Jungle Ultra Marathon sets runners loose on a 230km track, which features a delightful 90km stage after day four. This isn’t just a fight against one’s own musculature, but it’s a battle against the seventy-three quadrillion creatures in the Peruvian rainforest who want to kill you.

Runners are expected to pack their own supplies, including water, food, hammocks, first-aid kits, anti-venom, anti-crocodile spray, cannibal-detector and blood-stained machete. You have to be a special breed of crazy to try this one.

Over in Europe, you’ve got a voluminous menu of insane to choose from. Like the Bucegi 7500, which thankfully doesn’t get its name from the number of miles it covers. This is only a 90km race, but it’s held in the Bucegi Mountains of the Southern Carpathians, and over the course of those 90km, you’ll experience 7500 meters of elevation gain. If you’ve ever wanted to race someone up a mountain on foot, this is the competition for you.

To do it right in Europe, you may want to dive into the race that simply covers the entire continent. The Trans Europe Foot Race has been held twice: in 2009, from Bari, Italy, to North Cape, Norway, covering 4485 kilometers (2787 miles), and back in 2003, from Lisbon, Portugal, all the way to Moscow, Russia, covering about 5100 kilometers (3200 miles).

I don’t know, if you’ve actually got an ultramarathon in you, this might be the one to go for. The scenery would be lovely, and if you’ve got the muscles to sling a bag over your shoulder, you can scoop up some great souvenirs along the way.

Lastly, if you really want to test how far your legs will take you before they throw up, then sign yourself up for the 4 Deserts race. This covers four separate events, each 250km (155 miles) in length, spread over several months. You start by racing across the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Crossing in Chile. The next race blasts through the Gobi Desert in China. Then runners suit up for the Sahara Race in the hottest desert in the world, beginning in Egypt. Any survivors can then vie for the final leg, a 250km race across the ‘Last Desert’: Antarctica.

Me, I’d get winded just watching these races on TV. Think I’ll turn on some poker instead. Or maybe I’ll re-watch the highlights from this past weekend’s football games. Seems to me those vile New England Patriots were playing…

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