They're a race apart

Distance scenery ... the Marathon des Sables.
Distance scenery ... the Marathon des Sables. Photo: AFP

Susan Greenwood meets a new breed of runner exploring the world through ultra-distance challenges and extreme events.

The red, sandy mass of the Simpson Desert stretches across 176,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory, and into Queensland and South Australia. The landscape is relentless. In parallel lines from north to south dunes stretch as far as the eye can see - some ridgelines continuing unbroken for 200 kilometres, with peaks soaring to 40 metres.

There are no maintained roads, no escape routes and, with summer temperatures reaching 50 degrees, no second chances for the unprepared. It took Samantha Gash four days to run across it.

"There's a huge sense of space in the Simpson," Gash says. "There were only two turns to be made in the whole 379-kilometre route. You can see for miles and that sort of environment puts a lot of things in life into perspective."

The 27-year-old lawyer has run ultra-marathons all over the world (although her epic Simpson run was not an organised event). To qualify as an "ultra", a race has to be longer than a traditional marathon (42 kilometres), with the most common distances for single-stage races being 50, 80, 100 and 160 kilometres. Multi-stage races take this a step further. In 2010, Gash became the first woman and the youngest person to complete the infamous 4 Deserts series, racing 250 kilometres in four stages across the Atacama, Sahara and Gobi deserts and Antarctica.

Another desert race, the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 243-kilometre race across the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco, is considered by some to be the toughest on Earth.

"I just love deserts. Running is a way of exploring the world: that's why I do it," Gash says. "Once you tackle something bigger than you've done before, you break down boundaries and that's so powerful. How can you deny yourself the opportunity to find out how strong you are?"

It's a question people are trying to find their own answers to with growing fervour, as the bog-standard marathon loses its reputation as the pinnacle of running endeavour.

"I did my first ultra in 1995," says Rory Coleman, a performance coach specialising in training people for long-distance races. "Back then it was a few oddballs looking for a different challenge. Now I think ultras are seen as the new triathlons and the ultra race scene is exploding."

Together with his wife, ultra racer Jen Salter, Coleman organises events in Britain. "We had 300 enter our Cardiff ultra this year," he says. "Next year we'll easily have 500."

Despite the growing interest, the organisation of ultras is disparate, with independent races popping up all over the place. There's a comprehensive list of events at marathons.ahotu.com. Some of these, such as the 64-kilometre Dukeries, which took place in May, are billed as a gentle introduction to ultras. Others, such as the recent Whistler's Meet your Maker, with the winner finishing in eight hours, 31 minutes, make no bones about what they are: 80 kilometres of undulating single-track alpine terrain. If you want to run across US national parks, there's an ultra for you. If you fancy tackling 4600 metres of altitude gain in Luxembourg's Little Switzerland, you're in luck.

"Running has seen tremendous growth in the past 20 years," says Topher Gaylord of Mountain Hardware, an outdoor equipment company. "There's been a tenfold increase in trail events, and the events have seen a massive rise in participation because it's such a natural way to engage with the environment."

Gaylord was one of 2743 runners who took part in the recent North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (ultratrailmb.com), a single-stage race that begins in Chamonix and takes in 160 kilometres of alpine scenery, three countries, 400 summits and almost 10,000 metres of altitude gain. It was won by a British runner in 12 hours 32 minutes.

Trail-based, or off-road, ultras are becoming the norm, with runners speaking of the enjoyment of being part of the landscape. But city-based challenges still have a part to play in this embryonic sport.

"My all-time favourite is the 3100 [Mile Race]," says the editor of Ultrarunning World magazine (ultrarunningworld.co.uk), Abichal Sherrington. This is the longest certified foot race in the world, with runners lapping an 878-metre course around an extended city block in Queens, New York City, until they clock up 4960 kilometres in 52 days.

"It's as close to heaven as you can get. It's like meditation. You enter a different realm. It's not boring because you're completely focused on that moment, on what's going on inside your body. "

While pounding out 160 kilometres might seem like an activity reserved for elite athletes, competitors generally agree that ultras are for everyday people. What they share is a desire to push boundaries.

Badwater Ultramarathon, US

Beginning at 85 metres below sea level in Death Valley, eastern California, and ending 216 kilometres later, 2530 metres above, at Mount Whitney, Badwater is considered one of the toughest ultras going. Temperatures of up to 55 degrees don't help. This year, Mike Morton won the race in 22 hours, 52 minutes and 55 seconds. Next year's dates to be confirmed. See badwater.com.

Highland Fling, Scotland

An unsupported 85-kilometre race along the West Highland Way from Milngavie near Glasgow to Tyndrum, the Fling is fast becoming one of Britain's most popular ultras, with 363 people finishing this year. The shores of Loch Lomond offer plenty of scenery to contemplate on the way. Next race takes places on April 27. See highlandflingrace.org.

Yukon Arctic Ultra, Canada

If you fancy upping the ante, try running on snow — for up to 690 kilometres (there are 160-kilometre and 480-kilometre options for lightweights), from Whitehorse to Dawson City. You can run, cycle or ski it but you can't argue with the organiser's declaration that this is the world's coldest ultra — it can drop to minus 50 degrees. Next race is from February 3-16. See arcticultra.de.

Norseman Xtreme Triathlon, Norway

Sometimes going wild for one sport isn't enough. The Norseman takes three to their extremes, dropping competitors off the back of a ferry 3.8 kilometres offshore in the Hardangerfjord. After swimming to shore, they cycle 180 kilometres followed by a 42.2-kilometre run — uphill. Next race is August 2-3. See nxtri.com.

The Dragon's Back, Wales

This five-day stage race starts at Conway Castle and traces the spine of Wales, finishing 320 kilometres later at Carreg Cennen Castle. It's fully supported, meaning hot tea and a tent with sleeping bag will greet you every night. Next year's dates yet to be confirmed. See dragonsbackrace.com.

Amazing Maasai Ultra, Kenya

Kenya's only ultra began in 2010 as a way of supplying scholarship funds to sponsor Maasai girls through secondary school. A mix of locals and international runners follow a 75-kilometre dirt-track course through the foothills of Mount Kenya. See amazingmaasai ultra.org.

- Guardian News & Media

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