For many casual runners and weekend road warriors, surviving the 26.1 miles of chaffing, exhaustion, and the constant “why did I do this again?” of a marathon is a great water cooler story and “fun” way of exploring cities and landscapes. However, some folks run marathons and think, “I should go…further!” Thus, the invention of a true original: ultramarathons. These 50K, 100K, and 100+ mile races test physical and mental endurance and take runners through all sorts of terrains and elevations. Ultramarathons have become more popular in the last couple decades, and intrepid adventurers are taking up this extreme sport that even regular marathoners think is crazy.
The modern history of ultramarathons is often dated back to around the 19th century when exploits of runners covering large distances were breathlessly reported as heroic stories of daredevil deeds and bravery. People like Edward Payson “The Pedestrian” Weston—who walked from Boston to Washington, DC in 10.5 days for Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 and from New York to San Francisco in 100 days in 1909—were made into celebrities across the US.
One of the first official ultramarathons in the US took place in 1911, in Bellingham, Washington. The 50K race sent runners 10,000 ft up Mount Baker and back. In 1926, a 100K ultramarathon was part of the Central American Games in Mexico. The winners—two members of the Tarahumara (or Rarámuri) people indigenous to Mexico known for their long-distance running ability—finished first in a time of 9hrs 37min. The popularity of the race has since gained traction across the globe with numerous world sanctioned races of 50K and 100K as well as timed races (24hr and 48hr) set up by the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) founded in 1984.
The IAU organizes world championships in 50K, 100K, 24hr, and Trail distances, as well as European, Asian, and Americas championships, and other qualifying races around the world. There are also many popular ultramarathons that occur yearly. One of the oldest is the 55-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa that’s been run since 1921. The world’s oldest 100-mile trail run is the Western States Endurance Run in California that’s been held every year since 1977.
One of the most well-known—and infamous—races is the yearly Barkley Marathon in Morgan County, Tennessee. This trail course weaves a 20+ mile loop through hilly woods with participants tasked with doing 5 laps of the trail in 60hrs or less. The first race was held in 1986, but it wasn’t until 1995 that someone actually finished all 5 laps with a time of 59:28:48—just 11 minutes and 12 seconds short of the time limit. Since then, the race has been completed only 21 times.
It takes a certain amount of grit and determination to run an ultramarathon, but the payoff can be extremely satisfying (we assume). If you’re crazy and original enough to want to do it, here is a link for some gear tips, and just find the nearest race to start training. Godspeed. We’ll be along the trail cheering you on from our lawn chair and waiting with a beer at the end.