A new breed of endurance runner is taking ultra-running to greater lengths. Fiona Russell finds out what drives some athletes to race ‘ultra-ultra-marathons’.
Running a marathon used to be considered to be a major achievement. Then athletes started taking on longer races and the ultra-marathon boom was born. Now, there are an increasing number of runners aiming to complete longer and longer challenges.
The latest endurance sports trend is what people are calling the ‘ultra-ultra-marathon’. What defines an ultra – and an ultra-ultra – is open to opinion. An ultra-marathon is classically described as an organised footrace extending beyond the standard 26.2-mile (42km) marathon.
However, some runners state that an ultra must be at least 30 miles, or 50km.
For experienced Scottish ultra-runner Debbie Martin-Consani, the distance is still further. She says, ‘In my opinion, an ultra is a race that is 50-miles plus. Therefore, I consider an ultra-ultra to be at least 150 miles. I think it also needs to be non-stop and with runners still on the go into a second night. An ultra-ultra is a race that really pushes the boundaries of human endurance.’
Time not distance
For Matt Hunter, an ultra-runner and coach, an ultra-ultra is ‘a challenge that can’t be completed by anyone, not even the best in the world, in less than 24 hours.’
He agrees that it should test the mental endurance of a runner. ‘For me, it’s not so much defined by distance as the magnitude of the task. The Barkley Marathons is a good example. It’s “only” 100 miles long but it’s considered the world’s toughest ultra run. Only 15 people have ever finished the five laps.’
Ultra tough for days
Stage races, where runners complete long distances over multiple days, are not considered to be ‘ultra-ultras’ by both Debbie and Matt ‘because you get to sleep in between the running’.
Yet, others believe the accumulative effect of fatigue and the required mental and physical fortitude day after day can earn such challenges the title of ultra-ultras.
Derek Stewart, 58, who has completed many ultras and multi-day races, says: ‘A lot of stage races have only around a marathon distance to run each day. But there is a massive endurance element to running that, day after day, having slept in a tent and eaten basic rations that you’ve carried on your back.
‘Usually race organisers throw in a double marathon in the middle of the event, too, and that makes the whole race both physically and mentally very tough.’
Typically, ultra runners begin their journey with a progression through longer and longer race distances. Many start with a marathon and then look towards a 50K race.
After recovering from a skiing injury, Andrei Gligor, from Romania, decided to train for his first long-distance running race, the Athens Classic Marathon, in 2011. He enjoyed it so much that two weeks later he ran another marathon in his home country.
He says: ‘It was clear very quickly that I loved long-distance running. After the first marathons, I gradually started to increase the distance, changed the road for trails, moved on to more difficult and challenging races, until I discovered multi-stage self-supported races, which are now my passion.’
The 42-year-old dad, who will this year launch the Ultra Race Romania, says: ‘Once you feel like 26 miles is easy and you can do it even in training, then you look for the next challenge. You want to know how it would feel to run 50k, 100k and then more.’
Debbie’s first ultra race came about 12 years ago because she was looking for an alternative to a road running race. The 44-year-old marketing manager chanced upon the 42-mile Devil o’ the Highlands Footrace in the Scottish Highlands.
She says: ‘I was already keen on hill and trail running and I’d done a few road marathons, so I thought the Devil would be pretty manageable. In reality, I was completely broken at the end, but I was absolutely hooked on ultra-running. I signed up for the 95-mile West Highland Way Race the next year.’
Today, Debbie, who has a 10-year-old son, is an accomplished ultra-runner. She has ticked off a long list of iconic ultra races in Europe and continues to push the boundaries.
She was the outright winner of the 145-mile Grand Union Canal Race in 2020 and has also won the Lakeland 100, the Thames Path 100, the South Downs Way 100 and the North Downs Way 100. In 2015, she was fifth lady in the 153-mile Spartathlon and in 2017 she completed the 330km Tor des Geants in 127 hours.
She says: ‘I enjoy new adventures and I like to push the boundaries of what I think I’m capable of. I feel a big sense of achievement from each race.’
Pain – and desire
Repeatedly, we hear of ultra runners declaring they were ‘broken’ or ‘pushed to my limits’ by an ultra-ultra race. Why, then, would they want to do another when they already know it will be both physically and mentally painful?
Derek, who has raised more than £70,000 for cancer charity Maggie’s Centres through his many ultra races, says: ‘I think we are interested in seeing just how far we can go.
‘Our minds give up before our bodies and I’ve always believed we’re capable of so much more. I have treated my ultra running journey as a personal experiment.’
Mind over matter
Dr Philip Clarke, a performance psychologist at the University of Derby, explains that while athletes obviously require physical fitness to complete an ultra-distance race, it’s their mental mindset that is key to crossing the finish line.
He says: ‘Once runners start to progress to distances of more than a marathon and then to the so-called ultra-ultras, they need to be able to cope with many mental blocks. These include thoughts of how fatigued they are, how tired their muscles are, how far they still have to go and also boredom.
‘Most successful ultra-distance athletes are those that have experience of previous longer distance events. Usually they have built up through longer and longer races.
‘They know that they can overcome perceived barriers, both physical and mental, and they have the confidence in their ability to keep going.’