Ultra Runners Are Leaving Marathoners in the Dust; Forget Marathons. Brutal Long-Distance Races Have Become an Indelible Part of American Summer Sports

By Walters, John | Newsweek, July 15, 2016 | Go to article overview

Ultra Runners Are Leaving Marathoners in the Dust; Forget Marathons. Brutal Long-Distance Races Have Become an Indelible Part of American Summer Sports


Walters, John, Newsweek


Byline: John Walters

When, or if, the Summer Olympics commence in Rio de Janeiro in August, a worldwide audience will be reminded that the Olympic motto is "Citius, altius, fortius," Latin for "Faster, higher, stronger." There is no longius ("longer") in the Olympic charter, but someday there may be. Events involving endurance have become an indelible part of the summer sports landscape, particularly in the United States.

Marathons? Bah! Longer. Much longer. On June 25, Andrew Miller, a 20-year-old sophomore at Northern Arizona University, won the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in Northern California. Two days earlier, Pierre Bischoff of Germany, after pedaling coast to coast (3,069 miles), cruised across the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland, to win the 35th annual Race Across America.

Coming later this summer is the now-iconic Badwater Ultra, a 135-mile footrace through Death Valley, California, where surface temperatures often rise above 120 degrees. In August comes the legendary Leadville Trail 100, a footrace that takes place almost entirely above 10,000 feet in Colorado and where fewer than half the altitude-addled runners who start the race finish within the 30-hour time limit.

For those athletes seeking less adventure yet more mental masochism, there is the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. This mind- and leg-numbing spectacle of stamina happens in Queens, New York, around a half-mile course for 18 hours per day, each day, from June 19 to August 9. As Lloyd Braun once told Queens native George Costanza on Seinfeld: "Serenity now, insanity later."

There's more: You may not think of no-limit Texas Hold 'em as an endurance sport, but beginning July 9 more than 6,000 participants will convene in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker Main Event, playing upward of 12 hours daily until the field is winnowed down to a final table of nine. That should take at least one week, or as many as 500 hands for the lucky few who retain their chips. It is only the Main Event that ESPN deigns to televise annually.

Ultras are nothing new in the U.S.--Madison Square Garden used to hold six-day bicycle races as early as the 1890s where, as The New York Times explained, "participants 'go queer' in their heads, and strain their powers until their faces become hideous with the tortures that rack them." In the past four decades, however, ultras have blossomed. That time period coincides with the running boom of the early '70s, but experts say the growing popularity of extreme racing--as opposed to mere jogging--perhaps speaks to a void in our everyday lives where danger, or at least physical risk, once resided. "This year, there was a 37 percent increase in applications from the year prior," says Craig Thornley, race director of the Western States, the granddaddy of 100-milers. "We had 3,500 people vying for just 270 spots."

The race, which winds mostly through backcountry trails in the Sierra Nevada range not far from where the Donner Party met their demise, is certainly demanding. But now almost midway through its fifth decade, it has become a lot like Harvard: The hardest part is getting in.

It was not always that way.

"I've never been a great runner," says Gordon Ainsleigh, the Neil Armstrong of 100-mile endurance runs. "The only reason we have the Western States is because I didn't have a horse."

In 1955, Wendell Robie, a prominent lumberman from Auburn, California, rode the Western States Trail from Tahoe City to his hometown on horseback, proving, as the Western States website says, "horses could still cover 100 miles in one day." Sixteen years later, Ainsleigh, at age 24, first took part in what had become an annual ride and revealed his ignorance. "I rode bareback and without stirrups," he says. "A friend advised me to drink milk and honey for energy, and I vomited for 6 miles straight."

Against the expectations of his fellow riders, Ainsleigh completed the 100-mile ride on his horse, Rebel, though both man and beast would spend the next 10 days largely incapacitated. …

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