In the age of fast food and expanding waistlines, the completion of a marathon is quite an accomplishment. After all, the ability to struggle through 26.2 miles without keeling over short of the finish line is pretty impressive, right?
Not to some.
One group of running enthusiasts, dubbed “ultrarunners,” looks at the traditional marathon as just a warm-up. Here are six fun facts about this extreme, but growing, sport.
More: Are You Ready to Run an Ultra?
What Is Ultrarunning?
Ultrarunning is the long distance running sport that has taken shape around ultramarathons or ultra-distance races. An ultra distance race is typically a race of any distance beyond 26.2 miles.
The most common races begin at 50K, or 31.069 miles, and can span up to 100 miles long. Ultra races can take place on roads, trails or tracks, and due to their recent popularity, more than 70,000 athletes compete in ultra races each year.
When Did the First Ultra Race Take Place?
It’s believed that the first ultrarunners were native peoples, and there are stories in ultrarunning circles of tribal men who could run for days through harsh conditions with little food, and sometimes without shoes.
Ultrarunning competitions in the U.S., however, initially began as displays in “ultra walking” in the 1700s. Wagers would be placed on the distance men could walk in 24 hours. The winners would grow to test their skills in more challenging feats, or at greater and greater distances.
The first serious attempt to develop the sport of ultrarunning as we know it today took place in 1928 when sports promoter Charles C. Pyle held a footrace across America from coast to coast. The winner, Andy Payne, finished in a little over 573 hours!
More: Ultra Running Gear Must-Haves
Who’s the Best Ultrarunner of All Time?
Greek ultramarathoner Yiannis Kouros is widely regarded as the greatest the sport has ever seen. Also known as the “Running God,” Kouros holds every outdoor road world record for men from 100 to 1,000 miles, and every road and track record from 12 hours to 6 days.
What Are the Fastest Ultrarunning Times?
Two of the fastest recorded times ever in the sport belong to Thompson Magawana, who completed a 50K road race in 2:43:48, and Takahiro Sunada, who was able to finish a 100K road race in 6:13:33.
Though with four major world events, and thousands of elite athletes entering the sport each year, it’s possible these record times may soon be eclipsed
What is the Hardest Ultrarunning Race?
Most ultrarunners generally agree that the title of hardest ultrarunning race belongs to the Badwater Ultramarathon, where participants climb 19,000 feet through 135 miles of desert. Winding through Death Valley, considered to be the hottest place on Earth, competitors try to run on the white line in the middle of the road to keep their shoes from melting in the 120-degree heat!
Honorable Mention: The Marathon des Sables
Taking place in the Sahara Desert, this race asks runners not only to contend with sand, rocks and heat over the course of 151 miles and 6 to 7 days of grueling competition, but also to carry their own camping gear and prepare their own food. This is definitely not a race for the faint of heart.
Where are the Most Exotic Ultrarunning Locales?
Several decades ago, ultra races were limited to just a few. Today, the ultrarunner has his/her choice of hundreds of races in varying terrain and locations. Serious competitors might select a race through the Alps in Switzerland, the jungles of Madagascar, or even across the ice of Antarctica.
Want to learn more about ultrarunning? Check out these resources:
International Association of Ultrarunners
More: How to Train for Your First Ultramarathon
Looking for something else? Search for aultra race.