Words by Debika Ray.
“It’s one of the sports that can destroy your ego more devastatingly than anything else—on top of a mountain, in the dark, after 25 hours of running.” Adharanand Finn is talking to me about the subject of his 2019 book, The Rise of the Ultra Runners, which charts the growing popularity and appeal of extreme races that take place over hundreds of kilometers in some of the harshest conditions on earth. He recalls the first time he participated in one—a six-day, 165-kilometer run across the Oman desert. “Initially I was doing quite well, but then I completely fell apart—mentally and physically—and I was nearly last toward the end,” he says.
Finn came to ultrarunning on a journalistic assignment, after having competed in several marathons and shorter endurance races. Since then he has done several more and, while he doesn’t consider himself a true convert, he has started to understand the appeal. As he puts it: “The experience you get by spending 15 hours at a time running, often in extreme environments, can lead to quite intense feeling of highs and lows.”
Trekking miles across hostile environments—whether on foot, horseback or water—is as old as humanity itself, but the popularity of such races as a leisure pursuit has grown rapidly in recent years. Listing websites such as Run Ultra have reported a 1,000% jump in the number of these events—from a 24-day, 850-kilometer slog across the Nepalese Himalayas to a 6-day, 236-kilometer jaunt across the Costa Rican rainforest—over the past decade or so. In February, running shoe review website RunRepeat and the International Association of Ultrarunners published the State of Ultra Running 2020 report, which they claim is the largest of its kind. It revealed that participation in ultramarathons has risen by 1,676% over the past 23 years and 345% in just 10 years—to 611,098 runs each year. Similarly punishing events that include sports other than running, such as the Ironman Triathlon and Tough Mudder obstacle race, are also booming.1
It’s a phenomenon that has partly been fueled by social media, where those who succeed in finishing inspire others to reach the starting line. “When I’ve asked people how they came to ultrarunning, many say they saw it on Facebook,” Finn says. But the dopamine rush from online likes is not enough to keep you going through a race. Interestingly, its popularity isn’t attributed to the wider growth of wellness culture—not least because excessive exercise isn’t particularly good for your body. In fact, fitness does not seem to be particularly relevant to ultrarunners: In a 2018 study, 1,394 people were asked if they’d quit the sport if they knew for sure that it was bad for their health and 74% said “no.”2 This chimes with Finn’s experience. “The motivating factor for an ultramarathon is not health,” he says.
So what is? Perhaps some light can be shed by considering the type of people who seem to be attracted to ultra-endurance events. The State of Ultra Running has some numbers: 77% of participants are men, compared with 62% in standard marathons; the average age is 42, compared with 40 in marathons. Most runners come from France (12.4%), the US (12.1%) and South Africa (6.7%). In Finn’s experience, they tend to be white—an interesting observation given the dominance of East African countries in more conventional long-distance events.
There’s another trend: the popularity of endurance events among affluent white-collar workers. Races such as the 254-kilometer UVU Jungle Marathon in the Amazon, the 4 Deserts Series of runs across deserts around the world and the Grand to Grand Ultra 268-kilometer race from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas, for example, are believed to draw 20% to 30% of participants from the financial sector. Meanwhile, organizations such as Ironman run specific challenges for business executives. “Somebody described these to me as a holiday for CEOs,” Finn says.
Some of this is quite simply down to money—the notorious Marathon des Sables, for example, costs more than $5,000 for the privilege of lugging your own food and belongings 251 kilometers across the Moroccan Sahara for six days. The appeal may reflect a yearning to disconnect in our highly networked world. “I don’t take a phone with me, so there are roughly nine days where I have no contact with the outside world,” says 48-year-old Martin Mack, president of construction business Concord Homes in Canada, who is gearing up for his sixth Marathon des Sables.
For these runners, modern life is a state of continuous comfort, as they yo-yo between warm, clean shelter and safe, efficient transportation. In the Sahara, Mack says, there’s none of that. “There are just three types of terrain: sand, rock, and sand and rock mixed. There’s little vegetation and no escape from the sun—when you’re out there for six or eight hours a day, there’s no shade to hide under.” Unlike in the business world, there is no prospect of control: “You’re at the mercy of the weather, the terrain and your body. It doesn’t matter how good a shape you’re in—sometimes you can mentally fall apart. The most appealing part is pushing yourself to your breaking point, then going beyond that.”
“We have a sense of being removed from the world.
Sometimes you need a bit of physical suffering to feel like you’re fulfilling your body’s expectations.”
Finn believes this yearning for a rawer form of human experience is why people who have attained material success gravitate toward such events. “As humans, we’re born with an expectation of dealing with our environment, and when we don’t have to, we have a sense of being removed from the world and missing out on something. Sometimes you need a bit of physical suffering to feel like you’re fulfilling your body’s expectations,” Finn says. The punishing impact of these races seems to be central. “People talk about descending into ‘the pain cave’ and struggling to get through that—they really relish that moment of suffering,” he continues.
To reinforce the point, Finn recalls running an ultramarathon with a Kenyan professional athlete, who called it a day when he hurt his toe. “He wasn’t there to suffer—he was there to feel good and strong and the moment that stopped, he stopped.” It’s an incident he feels illustrates a difference in motivation between people for whom running is mainly a professional sport and those who have taken it up as an extreme test of body and mind.
There are parallels between the logistical challenges posed by extreme endurance events and the control-and-conquer mentality of the corporate world. “It’s essentially management and problem-solving—you manage your food, your water intake, your salt intake, your pace,” Mack says. Ultrarunning and capitalism also share a belief in continual human progress—that greater success is attainable and that we can always have more, if only we crack the formula. The question is, how much further can we push ourselves?