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Ultra-Marathons, Limit of Human Endurance

Updated on January 14, 2013

How far can the human body really go?

Many of us have friends or even have personally run half or full marathons, but have you ever heard of an ultra-marathon? Until a week ago I had not, but this past weekend I not only learned more about it I experienced it first hand. This awe-inspiring sight showed the limits of the human spirit and endurance. Learn what these marathons on steroids really are to a cult like group.

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What is an ultra-marathon

Technical an ultra-marathon is any marathon that is longer than the traditional marathon of 26.2 miles. In practicality they tend to be 50miles, 50 kilometers, 100miles or a whopping 100 kilometers. These runners start usually early in the morning and then will run non-stop for hours until they finish their race. Majority of the time this means running all day and then all night long, sometimes for as long as 38 straight hours.

Other ultra-marathons are completely time based and not based on distance. In other words they will run for 24 or 36 hours and as long as they go longer than 26.2 miles they have accomplished an ultra.

This was my first time working an ultra-marathon

I volunteer with the American Red Cross as a medic to support community events such as festivals and sporting events. In this case we were asked to provide medical support for this organization that was running an ultra-marathon. This weekend I watched over 80 runners start running a 2 mile trail in the foothills on Saturday at 6am. While they were quite serious about the run, making sure they played the national anthem on an ipod with speakers, they also knew how to have fun. Many runners were in costume including jester hats and wings. They began the run and with each lap of 2 miles would do a little victory yell. Over the course of the day we were quite busy with blisters the size of golf balls, and yet they never stopped their run. When their feet would swell up in their sneakers, they would change out their shoes to flip-flops or sandals, which we could not believe, and keep running. All day and into the night they kept running/waking. Tents sprouted all along the main area manned by friends and family who shouted encouragements and supplied fresh dry clothes to the runners, not to mention energy drinks and food.

Then the sun sets and while the weather dropped from over 90 to 60 degrees in just a couple of hours, they were no less determined. All through the night as the temperature dipped ever lower closer to 45 degrees, they kept running. One woman trying to stay awake at 3am starting to sing the melodies from "It's a Small World" over and over. Most of us struggle to even stay awake all night, let alone keep running all night long, and yet that is exactly what they did.

As we came upon the early morning hours we saw some of the strongest runners begin to finish their races. One 16 year old who had friends supporting him all day and all night on bikes and roller blades finished his 100 miles in just under 24 hours (which was his goal all along). With 30 minutes to spare he crossed the line to a huge round of applause and cheers. Later a man who holds the Guinness world record for most number of marathons run in a year (over 100 if you are interested) crossed the line with a flourish and a fist-pump. This was the celebration that comes after accomplishing a life changing race.

So why do an ultra-marathon

Most of these finishers ended up in our medical station at some point to have their feet worked on, not to mention active re-heating and re-hydration, some almost to the point of collapse. One first time ultra runner lost two toenails and was barely able to walk back to his car with his friend and father half carrying him. Another who has run frequent ultras was told by his doctor that unless he had surgery on his foot the repeated running is causing a compression in his ankle and could potentially mean losing feeling in his feet. A 70 year old man who has run several ultras had some chest pain and after being checked out, would not be kept off the track. And they keep running.

While not a marathon runner myself, I saw something in those runners all night long. I saw a determination and a spirit stronger than I thought possible. I saw the human spirit that pushed these individuals farther than others thought possible, and potentially farther than they ever thought possible. It demonstrated that when they put their mind and soul into something they could accomplish remarkable feats. I tip my hat to these amazing athletes who demonstrate it is just as much a feat of the mind as well as a feat of the body.

Story of the badwater ultra-marathon, closest to hell for most runners

What do you think of these ultra-marathon runners?

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    • Kumar P S profile image

      Kumar P S 5 years ago

      Great lens ! Thanks for sharing.