Ultra-marathons – egregious and unnecessary?

Susannah Gill recently ran 7 Marathons in 7 days on 7 continents, in an average time of 3 hours and 31 minutes.

She did so as part of the intercontinental marathon challenge and is one of only an estimated 200 competitors to have completed the challenge, and she actually made history by winning this year as she was the first woman to win the competition.

I am a bit of a fan of ultra-endurance events. I’ve never taken part in one, but I do ‘get it’: I can see the appeal of doing an Iron Man triathlon, dragging yourself through the pain to run 100 miles, do circuits of an obstacle course for 24 hours or, as in this case, run several marathons over the course of a set number of days.

There has been a phenomenal increase in popularity of ultra-events in the last decade especially. This Guardian article cites a 1000% increase in ultra-marathon events in the last 10-12 years, and in specific number-terms: 105 000 Americans finished an ultra-marathon in 2017 compared to just 18 000 in 2003.

How do we explain the increasing popularity of ultra-marathons?

When you see stats like this, such an increase simply cannot be down to 1000% more people just spontaneously deciding to take up ultra-events, they really are just the perfect fit for our late-modern society…

  1. These events are ‘individualistic’ and yet social at the same time…. They can suit the lone-runner who just wants to train on their own, with a little bit of socialisation during the occasional training session and/ or at the beginning and end of events: you chat to other people outside of your little family and friendship group, but not too intimately. They’re the perfect events for our privatised society.
  2. Training for them is a relatively easy way to feel as if you’re making progress towards something, something positive you can do a few times a week: going for a run and tracking your progress. Running is also a good antidote to a stressful job.
  3. It’s a good way of staying thin, and lord knows there’s plenty of anti-fat pressure out there!
  4. They’re a good way of killing a lot of time for not a lot of money. Good for the lonely, and the relatively poor.
  5. They’re great for advertising on social media and public tracking sites – I honestly don’t think ultra-marathons would be anywhere near as popular if it wasn’t for this combination of Garmin tracking devices and social affirmation.
  6. For anyone who loves structure, they tick that box, you have to train for these events on a regular basis, and structure provides a useful sense of order in an otherwise uncertain world. You can cling to yer running in the midst of political and economic chaos!

So yes, everyone has their individual reasons to do these events, but at the same time, they tick so many pro-social boxes, individual reasons cannot alone explain their huge rise in the last decade.

Ultra-endurance events –unnecessary and egregious?

As a runner, and someone built for endurance (rather than strength), I do tend towards celebrating ultra events, but there is part of me which thinks they are not only completely unnecessary but also egregiously excessive.

In some ways ultra-events are to physical endurance what roman food orgies were (are?*) to eating – they are ego-driven events which are really only open to the affluent and they more likely to do harm rather than benefit the individual.

I mean running, swimming, cycling, walking, they’re all good for you if you do them for a few hours a week, but a marathon and upwards, that’s ‘grinding injury’ territory, think of the resources such events demand – not only food but also the fuel etc. to get to such events. And honestly, whose wife and kids want them to do marathons?

Egregiousness is also especially true of multiple-continent events such as the one Susannah Gill entered – where the competitors are flown in a charter plane from one continent to the next – I mean honestly, how many people can afford that, and if we take into account the environment, we can only condemn these people – planet earth certainly didn’t need these particular people (or any group of people) to run a marathon on 7 of its continents in 7 days!

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