I was first attracted to running very long distances when a friend rang me up out of the blue and asked me if I would partner him in a long distance orienteering event in the local mountains at the weekend. One day later we had our hearts in our mouths in a spectacular mountain race where I think we ran something like 80 – 100 kms that weekend and in an instant I had fallen in love with the game. I used to mountaineer and rock climb in those days and after the race all I would wish for at the weekend was bad weather so that I could go and run. Good weather obliged me to go climbing.
There was no organisation, there was no training plan, no specialist equipment, just pure unadulterated anarchy and lots and lots of fun. It was in the day that the term “Ultra running” hadn’t yet been coined, at least not where I lived and played. There were just a couple of organised races a year and we would wait eagerly all year long to take part and then we would run our little hearts out in the hills. There was no strategy to our races; we would simply run as fast as we could and for as long as we could without wiping out. We would buy the cheapest shoes we could find and any hint of technical kit was where we had stitched something together ourselves, or to simply stop what we had from falling apart. Sometimes we would actually win a race but the driving force behind us was simply the immense fun that we would have whilst running. Don’t get me wrong, we were tremendously competitive but the fun was in the competition and much less so in the result. We always tried hard to win, it was that urgency of the competition that gave me such a buzz but if we didn’t win we were the first to congratulate our friends on their victory. In those days we were all close friends, there weren’t actually that many of us and we didn’t give a flying f*** as to what anybody outside our little insular world thought of us.
That was in 1989 and our little world has grown a bit since then. Initially I enjoyed the growth as there were many more friends to go out and play with. The same raw passion was there and then, being a seasoned mountain runner with some experience I derived a great deal of pleasure in advising the youngsters that were coming into our sport. They delivered a raw energy that us older folk no longer had and we too, were part of their success.
But as the sport grew in numbers the closeness that was prevalent in the early days gave way to a kind of dumbed down group think that betrayed its soul. People started to appear that were only concerned with winning, or being overly obsessed with their rank in a race. People started to become more obsessed by the trivia and with the details of the kit they had than simply getting out and running. “World records” started to appear that clocked the fastest time to do some local distance with some quirky addition. But above all, what most appalled me was the beginning of a kind of ultra-running fascism where people were declaring that their way of doing things was the only way and that anything else was invalid. On top of that people even became aggressive with it. Whilst I have always got along well with pretty much everyone, this new brand of “Ultra” runner certainly wasn’t my brand and so I sought out that pioneer atmosphere elsewhere in longer and more difficult races. The mainstream “Ultra” races had become corrupted.
I have found what I am looking for in the big, big races. The edge had simply moved along a bit and at the edge lived the pioneers. Badwater, Spartathlon, The High. The people that got to take part in these races were pure in spirit, and I had the enormous privilege to rub shoulders with not only some of the world’s best athletes but also some of the world’s purest athletic souls and some whom I now consider amongst my closest friends. The “big” races it would seem continue to attract people with the sporting values that I admire.
An “Ultra” run or race is technically considered to be anything longer than a marathon of 42 kms. So a 50k is indeed a legitimate “ultra” race and anyone that finishes can indeed call themselves a legitimate “Ultra” runner. And that sounds just so really cool. The problem is though that it is just too easy. To complete an “Ultra” these days all you have to do is run a bit longer than a marathon and you can give yourself a cool title that will impress your friends. With just a few days training a week and being moderately fit you can take part in, and have a reasonable chance of finishing one of these races. Now, don’t get me wrong; I have absolutely nothing against this and I have every respect for anyone who takes part in any event of any distance.
But the problem radiates from the “Ultra” word. The word “Ultra” suggests extreme, it suggests beyond the norm and it suggests special. It suggests that the person that has finished an “Ultra” is out there, on the edge and is pushing the limits of human endeavour. This is clearly and often not the case, especially in races with generous cut offs. Now I am going to say this again; I have no problem whatsoever in people doing this, people who push their own limits, finding their own edge, finding just how far they can go have my every respect. These people are pure in soul and I identify with you.
But amongst the masses there are now a considerable number of people that are not actually in love with the sport but in love with their own image. The barrier to being an “Ultra” runner is simply too low and with minimal effort you can paint a public image of yourself that is far removed from the genuine sacrifice that is needed to reach your own true edge of human endeavour. Not only that but with “World records” being set simply for doing obscure runs under obscure circumstances “Ultra” running is even losing its credibility.
So then, I say we take the “Ultra” out of ultra-running. We just call it running and we stop pretending that we are cutting edge athletes because we have “Ultra” in the title of a race we just did. The truth is that the majority of us are far from the cutting edge, we are mediocre at best and to use the word “Ultra” to describe what we are doing is to blur reality into making us look better than we really are and that ladies and gentlemen is tantamount to a lie.