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(Eric Foss/A pair of runners in the midst of training for an ultra-marathon.)
(Eric Foss/A pair of runners in the midst of training for an ultra-marathon.)

Rory Gilfillan

Ultra-marathon? Underwhelming Add to ...

Californian Julie Weiss is only the latest incarnation in a phenomenon that was best illustrated in the film Forrest Gump. Ms. Weiss is in the process of attempting to run 52 marathons in 52 weeks. If this sounds familiar, it is. In 2006, another American, Dean Karnazes, “accomplished the seemingly impossible” by running 50 marathons in 50 U.S. states in 50 consecutive days. Not inclined to rest on his laurels, Mr. Karnazes proceeded to run 3,000 miles, beginning in California and ending, not in Greenbow, Ala., as Gump did, but in the city of New York, finding time along the way to talk to kids about the value of exercise and eating a balanced diet. Michelle Obama would later honour Mr. Karnazes’s “tireless commitment to help the country get back into shape,” by permitting him to run through the White House.

In a sedentary culture there is certainly something refreshing about previously ordinary people camping out on the extreme end of the endurance spectrum, but it’s worth considering the societal value of running 52 slow marathons or covering thousands of kilometres in events that are, largely, made up. Perhaps most underwhelming isn’t that Ms. Weiss’s average pace in the Duluth marathon was a sluggish 6:40 per kilometre, but that her weekly mileage would constitute a rounding error in any serious marathon runner’s training log.

Ms. Weiss hopes her ordeal will raise money for pancreatic cancer research, certainly a noble goal, but beyond a treasure chest of participant medals and race T-shirts that form the detritus of today’s marathon culture, it’s questionable as to whether dozens of plodding marathons should be considered significant athletic feats worthy of notice.

Mr. Karnazes’s feats initially appear more impressive, but again – racing essentially against the wind, on a course where there are no time standards because no one else has bothered running a marathon in every state in the union – it takes the notion of “personal best” all too literally.

Mr. Karnazes’s marathon results stand out not simply because of their sheer volume, but in an era where the average runner completes 42 kilometres well north of four hours, his occasional three-hour marathon generates the illusion of incredible speed. At least, in his case, standardized times exist. For ultra-runners like Canadian Ray Zahab and Spaniard Kilian Jornet, meaningful results are much harder to find. Both Mr. Zahab and Mr. Jornet stay well away from events that don’t ascend a high pass in the Alps or cross the Sahara. Yet even these arcane events haven’t protected Mr. Jornet from getting run over by former 2:17 Kiwi marathoner Jonathan Wyatt. Despite the occasional incursion of fleet-footed marathon burnouts, the odds of climbing the podium remain markedly better when lining up against 300 or so runners in the Leadville 100-miler as opposed to being one of 40,000 attempting to cross the George Washington Bridge. Last year, Leadville boasted 350 athletes in the 100-mile trail run, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, 316, and for the Badwater Ultramarathon, arguably the most gruelling of all three, 94 athletes finished.

Even the idea that races such as the Western States and Leadville constitute running is fraught with the kind of complexity only a professor of postmodernism could appreciate. Leadville race director Karen Jayne confirms what pictures from their website imply – walking is an essential part of the race: “It is possible but not probable for more than a handful of participants to avoid walking during the ultra running experience.”

The Western States 100 is faster due to less demanding geography. However, race director Greg Soderlund is quick to point out that although some athletes complete the course without walking, all of them, at some point, stop at aid stations for indeterminate lengths of time. In Badwater, there is even the possibility of breaking up the race by sojourning at the Panamint Springs Resort, located halfway through the 135-mile course. It’s hard to imagine a Boston marathon where the leader stopped to walk or had a layover at an aid station, but this is par for the course in ultra-distance running.

Run far enough and the “loneliness of the long-distance runner” moves from metaphor to reality, and the further you go past 26.2 miles, the less the competition and the less coherent the results. Undoubtedly, running 100 miles or back-to-back marathons represents some kind of athletic accomplishment, but until more elite distance runners choose to contend in ultra-events, luminaries of the sport will continue to be big fish in a very small pond.

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