Ultrarunning Across the Continents --- Pick Your Surface!
Ultrarunning has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Some claim that we can trace the origin of the sport to the times of the Homo species as it started exploring this new form of travel.
Time and distance were immaterial at that time and other necessities took priority on when to start and stop one’s journey.
The fairytale story of ultramarathon is made famous by the recount of Pheidippides who travelled to Marathon, Greece covering 240kms in 2 days. That led to the birth of the marathon, the event that we all have learned to love and admire.
Ultrarunning, that was once an inconceivable distance, has quickly developed into the next graduated move for marathoners. Today there are hundreds of thousands of runners that participate in numerous races around the globe. The sport has begun to get its due recognition, partly due to the outstanding performances of several international athletes and partly due to the increased recognition of ultra races across the continents.
Having had the privilege of witnessing and overseeing several ultra races around the world, I have always been intrigued by the different courses, terrain and the environment that the athletes prefer. It is true that the “sentiment” of ultrarunning knows no boundaries and transcends countries, culture and languages. However, there is favouritism amongst the ultra enthusiasts when it comes to the topography.
The continent of Australia, for instance, is slowly moving towards trail running. According to Ian Cornelius, President of the Australian Ultra Runners’ Association, the prime reason for this transition is the fondness of runners to break away from suburbia. This has been proven by the recently established 100km trail race in the Blue Mountains that has quickly grown in participation to close to quadruple digits.
Europeans have added their own unique blend to ultrarunning by combining it to their long time passion of mountain running. This has been confirmed by Stefano Scevaroli, National Team Manager of the Italian Ultramarathon team, who says that Ultra Trail du Mount-Blanc and Serre Chevalier are prime examples. Road running remains a mainstay with events like Night at Flanders and the Spartathlon.
North America has been quietly divided between trail and road ultramarathons. Where there are popular races like the Western States and the Canadian Death Race, there are also the very competitive Badwater and Hanley to Harrison 100km runs. At one time we would be hard pressed to see trail runners on the road and vice versa. However, in the recent past, finding hybrids in races is not an unusual sight. Jill Perry, the record holder at Umstead, is also the current US 24 Hour Champion on road.
The African continent has once again given us a glimpse of the additional terrains that are available for athletes to mix their running. Marathon Des Sables and the Atlas ultra are primarily run in the desert. The International Association of Ultrarunners Representative for the Africas and Oceania, James Evans suggests on some events on “off-road” terrain. These include dirt paths and gravel. He also suggests that given the variety, road races like Comrades are very well-liked, because of the reputation of the event and the ease of organization.
The multi-day ultrarunning adventures are becoming very popular in South America. With picturesque forests and vegetation, the trail races in this part of the world are second to none and have become popular destinations for ultrarunners. Like in the rest of the ultrarunning world, South America has a good mix of trail, grassy terrain and road races.
The Brazil 135 Ultramarathon and the Inca run are quite popular choices spanning challenging terrain.
Asia is currently the hot spot of competitive ultrarunning in the international circuit. The Japanese teams have become a force to be reckoned with in world competitions. The athletes there continue to prefer both road races and mountain trail events. The sport is slowly making its way westward towards the Indian subcontinent where trail running is enticing runners. The Himalayan Stage Race being one of the more popular ones for the western crowd. The Middle East is picking up the sport now and organizing more multi-day events in the desert.
Athletes pick up the sport of running for the solitude and also for the camaraderie. As we get caught up in the busyness of everyday lives, putting our shoes on, and heading out the door becomes our solace. Some find this comfort on a busy city sidewalk while others discover this in the calmness of the trails.
In my humble opinion, I believe that trail running (or off-road given the topography), is becoming an attractive alternative, to the constant pounding on the road. In the future we will see even more trail off-road races emerging and more runners participating in these events. However, the road events, including track-timed competitions, will be around for the duration of the sport and it will keep attracting huge numbers to the races.
Having taken the tour around the ultrarunning world, one cannot help but appreciate the diversity of this sport. Whether one runs on roads, trails, track, gravel, off-road, sand or any other surface, the basic element will remain the same… to push the limit on any given day and achieve the inconceivable!