For decades, the only long-distance race that the general public had ever heard of was the marathon – a 26.2-mile long race founded as a signature event when the first modern Olympic Games were held in Greece in 1896.
The name of the race and the race itself was an homage to a story from a battle that had taken place in Greece in 490 BC when a small Greek army had defeated a numerically superior army of invading Persian troops on the plains of Marathon. According to legend, a Greek messenger had run 26.2 miles from the battlefield to the city of Sparta to announce the victory and then died of exhaustion immediately afterward.
For non-runners, this story originally leant a soupçon of danger to the idea of running a race of 26.2 miles – it was a distance that pushed a man to the limits of his endurance…and as for women, they mustn’t even attempt it.
However, the allure of the marathon was too strong, and to this day marathon races are extremely popular. Women were able to break into the marathon ranks in the early 1970s, and today about half of all marathon runners are women.
Since at least the 1970s, dedicated runners around the world have been participating in races longer than 26.2 miles. The races are called ultra-marathons for that reason, with the athletes who participate in them, ultra-runners.
Ultra-running has two main competition types – those that are set for a specific distance (such as 50 km, 100 km and or 50 and 100 miles) and those that take place for a specific amount of time – with the winners being those who cover the most distance during the allotted time.
Of all the ultra-marathons, the most difficult is the Sri Chinmoy 3100 Mile Self-Transcendence Race. Founded in 1996 by Sri Chinmoy, the New York Times termed it the “Mount Everest of Ultra-Marathons”.
As with most timed races, the participants run around a course of a specific length. In the case of the 3100 Mile Self Transcendence Race, this multi-day race run around one city block – covering at least 60 miles a day to complete the race in 52 days.
Women, as well as men, compete in this Self-Transcendence run each year – and many have done so in multiple years. A documentary of this iconic race, 3100: Run and Become, directed by Sanjay Rawal, was released in August 2018.
The title echoes a statement from Sri Chinmoy on the spirituality that can be found in long-distance running: “Run to succeed in the outer world, become to proceed in the inner world.”
How Can an Ultra Runner Run 60 Miles a Day?
Just as running marathons is not for everyone, so becoming an ultra-runner is not for all marathoners.
But for someone who is already fit enough and has the mental desire to be a marathon runner, transitioning to an ultra-runner in many ways simply requires a change in mindset.
For example, no one had ever run a mile in under 4 minutes until Roger Bannister did it in 1954. Within two months of his accomplishment of that feat, another runner did it, and then another and another. Once others had shown that it could be done, athletes knew it was possible for them to achieve that time as well.
The “mental fitness” – knowledge that running these tremendous distances can be done is only part of it, however. “Physical fitness” is only part of it.
There are several other essentials.
Ultra-running requires planning. Runners need to get all the gear they anticipate they may need, they need to remain hydrated sometimes in triple-digit heat, and they need to be able to eat, or “fuel” themselves, to keep their energy up. All this requires planning.
Ultra-running requires patience – even more so than marathon running. Set a pace too fast, and the runner may well “blow up” or “burn out” well before reaching the finish line or the finish time.
Ultra-running requires respect for the process. As Sarah Lavender Smith, author of The Trail Runner’s Companion, puts it so eloquently, “An ultra-marathon often unfolds like a Greek tragedy, in which the runner, as protagonist, pays for the sins of arrogance and pride through suffering. Nothing cures hubris like an ultra-marathon or an extra-long training run.”
Running a marathon is difficult, running an ultra-marathon more difficult still. But with planning, patience, respect, and lots of training, the athletes who dedicate their lives to this sport achieve their goals, and transcend their lives.