Shameless self-promotion

September 23, 2010

Here are a couple of things I recently posted at other sites:
Why do people run ultramarathons?
Saving Kids With Science

To follow the first link, you’ll have to create login at “Big Games” website. I recommend this site, which is run by Williams College philosophy professor Will Dudley, but if you don’t want to register there, you can instead read my essay below.

* * * * *


This post is sort of an add-on to Chris Kirwan’s post about participating in a 24-mile swimming relay, or, to be even more specific, to Will Dudley’s comment on that post, in which he asked, “What is the appeal of events that push the limits of endurance to such extremes?”

Maybe I can help answer that question. I’ve been hanging out with ultramarathoners for about a decade, and I’ve been an ultrarunner myself for the last six years. (Ultramarathons, or “ultras,” are generally defined as races longer than the marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards.)

In figuring out how to frame my ideas, I thought back to something Will said at a gathering of Williams College alumni several years ago. One possible benefit of sports, he argued, is that they provide a fun, frivolous escape from the many serious issues confronting us in everyday life. In other words, “they’re important because they’re not important.”

In that playful and paradoxical spirit, I offer the following reasons why people choose to run ultramarathons. (The ones that apply best to me are 1A, 2A, 5A, and 5B.)

1A: Ultras are hard. Some people just want a challenge beyond that of marathons. That may sound ridiculous to nonrunners, but it’s true.
1B: Ultras are not hard. This viewpoint is more difficult to justify, but in the United States, most ultramarathons are held on trails, and trail running is considered easier on the body than pounding the pavement.

2A: Ultras offer unique competitive opportunities. Virtually nobody makes a living as a professional ultrarunner — the winner of a prestigious race may be awarded a few hundred dollars, or perhaps a free pair of shoes or a shiny trophy — so the playing field is relatively level in that sense. It’s also level in the sense that older runners can compete successfully against young ones, since endurance fades more slowly with age than raw speed does.
2B: Competing against others is downplayed in ultras. Reason 2A notwithstanding, the competition at ultras is arguably less cutthroat than at shorter races. When you share the roads or trails with fellow athletes for several hours or more, you tend to develop a sense of common purpose and mutual respect. Ultrarunners generally want each other to succeed.

3A: Ultras provide a strong social network. Marathons often include thousands of runners, whereas most ultras have fewer than 100. This, along with factors mentioned in Reason 2B, results in the ultra community being relatively small and tight-knit. This is appealing to many of its members.
3B: Ultras provide a retreat from society into nature. There’s something about spending an entire day moving through the natural world under your own power that makes you feel extra-connected to it.

4A: Ultras don’t attract mainstream attention. As hinted at in Reason 2A, ultramarathoning is not a huge industry dominated by corporate sponsors and race management companies. This has both plusses and minuses, but the “grassroots” values of the sport have plenty of advocates.
4B: Ultras are a good way of attracting attention. If you want to raise money for and awareness of a particular cause, simply running a marathon may not draw much interest. If you run all the way across the United States, media coverage is more likely.

5A: Ultras offer more variety than other races. You may encounter rugged single-track trails full of rocks and roots, mountainous climbs above elevations of 10,000 feet, night running, snow, river crossings, desert heat, an absence of clear directional markings…. The sheer variety of these challenges not only makes ultras hard (Reason 1A) but also makes them interesting!
5B: Ultras reward consistency and single-minded perseverance. Running an ultra can be much more complicated than running a marathon, as Reason 5A suggests. Because of this, many people require several attempts to get the hang of it. While this is undoubtedly discouraging to some, it keeps others coming back for more, determined to nail their next ultra, or perhaps the one after that.

I like this list, and yet its usefulness seems limited. Will it convince outsiders that ultras are good use of time and energy? Probably not. Does it explain how the enticing aspects of ultras are distinct from those of other sports? Only somewhat. Does it represent a genuine consensus among ultramarathoners? Not necessarily….

I guess we have yet to arrive at a unified theory of ultras.


  1. hey, thanks for this! I identify most with 1a, 3b, 5a, and 5b. But if there is something missing from your list (in my humble opinion!), it's the raw visceral aspect of ultra-running. I read this quote recently online, and it expresses my feelings exactly:"Perhaps the genius of ultrarunning is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of space ships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runners know this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being — a call that asks who they are." — David BlaikieLove your blog, by the way!signed,a back-of-packer who is continually in awe of you guys at the front! 🙂

  2. Holly: Thanks for the comment and the quote, fellow White River finisher! I hope you don't mind if I cross-post it to the Big Games site.

  3. Absolutely, go for it.ps: White River was my first 50 miler… what an incredible introduction! 🙂

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