For many people, running a marathon would be the feat of a lifetime. Recently, however, running those 26.2 mile races has begun to be treated like the beginners’ feat, an entrance into the running world. Running for just a few hours doesn’t seem nearly as impressive when there’s something else out there that pushes even the most extreme athletes to their absolute limits. These so-called “ultramarathons,” or simply “ultras,” have become increasingly popular in recent years, with the number of ultras run worldwide having increased by over 1000% in the last 15 years or so. An ultramarathon is any race that is over the standard distance of a marathon, 26.2 miles, and has either a specified distance, mostly between 50 kilometers and 100 miles or more, or a specified allotted time, with shorter ones being around six hours and longer ones taking multiple days, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations.
The idea of ultrarunning began in the late 1800s, shortly after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. People wanted to cross the continent by various means, including by train, horse, wagon, and foot. This fascination with traveling long distances by walking or running was termed Pedestrianism, and the most notable walk across the United States was accomplished by the famous Pedestrian Edward Payson Weston in 1909, when he walked from New York to San Francisco in 104 days at the age of 71. Weston’s journey inspired more walkers, and eventually runners, around the world to see just how far the human body could go.
Since the time of Pedestrianism, ultrarunning has developed into its own sport and has created a new type of endurance athlete. There are thousands of ultramarathons around the world that challenge this newer breed of athlete to run longer, farther, and harder over all types of terrain and in all conditions. The world’s oldest 100-mile trail race is the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, whose course runs from Squaw Valley, California to Auburn, California. It has been challenging athletes since it was created in 1974 and has become one of the most prestigious trail races in the country. Tyler Green, a Franklin alum from the class of 2002, recently qualified for the highly competitive race. “You can qualify through a very unfavorable lottery system or you can get an automatic qualification by running one of five ‘Golden Ticket’ races around the US and placing in the top 2. I’ve placed third in 2017 and 2018, but this year I finally qualified by winning [the Bandura 100k],” says Green. The former Franklin cross country runner has been running ultras since 2014.
Another famous ultra is the Barkley Marathons, which has been recognized as the toughest trail race in the world. The race consists of five loops on a nearly marathon-length, unmarked course through the Tennessee wilderness, totaling over 120 miles and over 54,000 feet of elevation gain. Competitors have only 60 hours to complete the five loops, with only a compass and a map allowed. Each year, 40 runners are selected out of a pool of hundreds of applicants that discovered the secret application process. Since the race began in 1986, only 18 runners have completed the full five loops that make up the infamous Barkley. Completing just three loops of the Barkley is the accomplishment of a lifetime for most competitors, but is known as just a “fun run” by the race directors and those in the Barkley community.
Although ultramarathons aren’t for the faint of heart, they are not reserved solely for the most elite either. “It’s not as crazy as it might seem. The people who do it are normal people who really love a good challenge,” says Green. Running ultras does take a lot of training, endurance, and grit, but if an athlete is ready for an adventure and wants to test their abilities, they should consider participating in an ultra. “As much as it’s an athletic, physical pursuit, mountain/ultra/trail running (MUT running) is all about using your imagination to create new routes and trips to see things you’ve never seen,” says Green. “I’ve covered so much ground and seen so many beautiful views, met incredible people, and learned about myself all because I discovered this [sport].” Ultramarathons can take athletes on incredible adventures and push them to new heights. Ultras are an extreme athletic endeavor, but are something that every runner should get the chance to experience.