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Endurance racing: Second Leg, Ultra-Marathons


R is the RUNNER who tears round the track ..., Digital ID 408369, New York Public Library

My last post focused on an early example of endurance racing, the Bunion Derbys of 1928 and 1929. Lest you think that such unusual endurance races were one-time pranks typical of the fad competitions of the 1920s and 30s, I’m happy to be able to say that endurance running as a sport is alive and well. There is a vibrant American ultra-marathon community, with hundreds of “ultras” run in the United States alone.
What, you may ask, is an ultra-marathon? Well, an ultra is anything longer than a marathon. And to set the record straight, a marathon is a race of 26.2 miles in length; anything less is just a race. Ultras tend to come in 50k (kilometer), 50 mile, 100k, 100 mile and even 135 mile distances! That’s right, 135 miles run continuously. And you thought you were having a tough day!
Not one to limit themselves to a set mileage, some ultra organizers have established races that are run for a pre-established period of time, with the runners determining the distance by their speed (FANS 24 Hour Run). The challenge then becomes, “How many miles do you think you can run in 24 hours?”
Unlike with the Bunion Derbys, when the top 10 finishers could expect to win a cash award, the winners today rarely see any money. The coveted prize in modern races is often a large silver or bronze belt buckle with the race name and distance emblazoned on it. While this may seem a bit disappointing for the physical effort and sheer test of will required, I have a feeling most ultra-runners aren’t doing it for the awards; they’re doing it for the challenge.
Trail ultra-marathon racing really caught on in the U.S. in 1974 with the famous Western States 100, which began as a horse race in California. When Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse went lame prior to the start of the 100-mile Tevis Cup, he decided to run the race himself, on foot. He finished that race in 23 hours and 42 minutes.
And with that, the concept took off!

Death Valley, Digital ID 1640863, New York Public LibraryDeath ValleyToday there are ultra road races (Nashville Ultra), trail races (Mountain Masochist 50 Mile), a race that crosses Death Valley (Badwater), and a race covering some of the most beautiful parts of my home state of Colorado, aptly named the “Hardrock 100.”

For those mountain goat runners out there, this race climbs up and over a 14,000-foot mountain peak, hitting above 12,000 feet an unlucky 13 times!

Rocky Mountain Goat., Digital ID 823096, New York Public LibraryMountain goats

Among some of the other interesting races are an Alaskan race run in—brr!—February, (Susitna 100), and there’s even a 3,100 mile race that covers a half-mile loop in Queens, NY repetitively for months (Self Transcendence 3100 Mile Race).

As you can imagine, ultra-marathoners are competitive folks, and so they’ve established a “Grand Slam” of ultras. You know, just in case running 100 miles once is too easy. The Grand Slam is achieved through running the original big four trail races in one season:  the aforementioned Western States 100, the Leadville Trail 100, the Vermont 100, and the Wasatch Front 100.

If you’d like to learn more about long-distance running, and even get an inside scoop on the experience of some of these races, the library holds several books you’ll want to investigate. While researching this post, however, I found lots of books on marathons (search the subject “Marathon running”) and blogs by ultra-marathoners, but an order of magnitude fewer books on ultra-marathons. I suspect the athletes are just too busy running! 


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A Flock of Seagulls

Maybe the band "A Flock of Seagulls" sang it best: And I ran, I ran so far away I just ran, I ran all night and day I couldn't get away Don't forget to check out the documentary on the Badwater Ultra!

The Distance of Truth

Thank you for the link!

Trivia Upon Trivia

Now that we know who ushered in the era of ultramarathon, let's go one layer deeper. What was Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse name who is responsible for causing this dramatic point in running history?

For Want of a Nail...

After unsuccessfully searching high and low for this information, I decided to go to the source and contacted Mr. Ainsleigh directly. He reported that the horse’s name was, rather ironically, "Win For Me." Once he bought her he called her "Rattlenose," for the snorting sound she would make when startled. Rattlenose went lame on the 1973 Tevis Cup ride, and so he decided to make a run for the 1974 race, quite literally. Interestingly, he trained himself for the race the same way he had previously trained his horses. It seems to have worked pretty well, I’d say!

Fascinating and Thank You

Great! Thanks for your hard work. You librarians sure are good detectives! What an ironic name -- which just adds to the story! Surprised that little piece of info had been lost to history since no other sources seemed to make mention of it.



Interesting Radiolab segment

Interesting Radiolab segment from April about ultra-runner Diane Van Deren

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