Having run 50 marathons on 50 consecutive
days last year, finishing with a time of three hours and three seconds in the New York Marathon, there was only one thing left for Dean Karnazes to do. So, two days later, he began to run home - to San Francisco.
Just thinking about the feats
of some eminent "ultrarunners" is enough to make your knees hurt. When Rory Coleman ran from London to Lisbon in 43 days - at about 30 miles a day - he covered approximately one-twentieth of the earth's circumference
. Last year Glyn Marston beat the world record for the longest distance run on a treadmill
over seven days, covering 300 miles.
Defined as any distance longer than the standard 26-mile marathon, ultrarunning is so extreme it makes other endurance challenges look a little tame. Climbing all 14 of the world's 8,000m mountains, for example, seems like the kind of thing Karnazes might enjoy on a day off
The most frightening thing is that Karnazes is part of a fast-growing band. About 70,000 exceptionally fit individuals are thought to take part in "ultramarathons" around the world and the sport is pushing for recognition at Commonwealth and Olympic level.
At the amateur level, ultra culture is the logical next step for a generation of runners who feel that a mere
26 miles in the company of celebrity joggers isn't enough. These races vary in distance, duration and terrain with 50km, 100km and even six-day races relatively common. Hardcore ultras aim for events such as the annual Sri Chinmoy 3100 event, at 3,100km officially the world's longest running race, in which competitors
achieve a blistered
form of enlightenment through 51 days of continuous running. But it is the six-day, 243km Marathon des Sables through the Sahara, commencing this weekend, that has emerged as the world's toughest foot race.
The Sahara presents unique challenges of terrain and environment to runners. "Very few northern Europeans can get a top 50 time," says Simon Williams, who is competing this year. "Preparation is very difficult because we have to train in the cold and wet through winter, rather than in 50°C heat and low humidity
Rory Coleman, who has completed
the MDS five times, says: "The Marathon des Sables is all about hydration and looking after your feet. The feet get hammered. Plus you have to respect the distance - the race is fast growing in popularity but a lot of people can be quite green. Some think of it as the London Marathon in the sand. But it gets seriously hot out there." Competitors are provided with salt tablets and nine litres of drinking water a day.
All of which prompts the question: why? Most answers to this are variations on the enigmatic
response British mountaineer George Mallory gave when asked why he wanted to climb Everest: "Because it's there."
For Coleman, however, there is more to it. "Some people are running away from something, some are running towards something," he says. "For most people, running a marathon is a huge barrier. My personal best was 3hr 24min and I knew I wouldn't get any faster than that. I'm better over 150 miles. Then it becomes mind over matter
. If you want to do it, you'll do it."
This suggests that the appeal
of ultramarathons is less to do with competition for the podium and more to do with the experience of participation, which is enhanced by the extreme distances involved. Karnazes argues that to complete the challenge is to win. "Ultra people do it more for themselves than for bragging
rights. Marathon is all about beating your personal best times. Something like Badwater is to most people just incomprehensible. Even though I won Badwater, I prefer to say I survived the fastest. Anyone who crosses the finish line is a winner because there are so many elements to overcome."
Key training techniques include runs of up to nine hours and the vital skill of managing hydration and nutrition
on the hoof. Karnazes calculates he will consume 28,000 calories on a 40-hour run. The fabled "wall" runners hit in the 17th mile of a marathon, when blood sugar levels dip dramatically, recurs at intervals
during ultra races.
With the emphasis on distance rather than speed, ultra demands an iron will and brute endurance
above pure aerobic fitness. This partly explains why the core ultra demographic is, according to Coleman, "primarily 35 to 45".
Safety is a key concern for race organisers. "We insist on people having an ECG before the Marathon of Britain," says Coleman, whose company Ambition Events organises 'ultra adventures' in the UK. "Our race doctors look at the results, take blood pressure, find out which prescription drugs
they are taking, and then we make the decision whether they can race." Testing is similarly stringent on the Marathon des Sables.
As he runs back home across America, Karnazes feels he has yet to reach the limits of his endurance. In 2005, he completed a three-day, 350-mile run with no sleep and found himself hallucinating as he crossed the finish line. "The great curiosity is to see how far you can go," he says. "It's quantifiable. But I still don't think I've found the limit. The human machine is so far beyond beyond sth.
what I thought it was capable of
. You learn that you are better than you think you are."
The Marathon of Britain takes place from September 2-7.
The Marathon of Spain takes place in Andalucia from July 23-27.