The Rise, and Rise of the Ultra

We’re no slouches when it comes to distance running in South Africa. The Comrades legacy is as deeply ingrained in our country’s tapestry as braaivleis. But it’s without a doubt that, both locally and globally, the rise of the ultra-marathon has changed the game. A marathon goal used to be a perfectly acceptable dinner party brag. Now we’re talking 100-milers like they’re a second helping of milktert. Have we lost our collective minds?

In this article by The Guardian Steve Diederich, who runs the Run Ultra website which lists the world’s biggest ultramarathons, says that when he set up the site 12 years ago he found 160 races listed globally. This year he has over 1 800 races on the site – an increase of over 1 000%. The German ultrarunning website DUV additionally lists the results of many smaller ultra-races, its database going all the way back to the first 89km London to Brighton footrace in 1837. Over the last 10 years it plots a similar 1 000% increase in the number of races.

In South Africa, we are now able to choose from a growing list of 100km and 100-mile events. Whilst we are nowhere close to the oversubscribed Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc or Western States 100, we have had a waiting list for the Cape’s quirky PUFfeR (approximately 80km depending on who you ask!) for many years and Comrades actually sells out in a matter of weeks!

So what is driving us to seek out races that take longer than 24 hours, or span several days? What drives the human spirit to want to conquer the mind games, training regimes and physical suffering that goes hand in hand with ultra-running? While adventure has always appealed to the human spirit, Steve Diederich puts the boom down to the growth of social media, which spreads the word and fires people’s imaginations: “People see their friends’ pictures and go, ‘Wow, I want to do that,’” he says.

Certainly, there is much to be said for accessibility. We can watch the thrills and spills of the finish line at Western States from anywhere in the world – live via Facebook. We can track our friends via addictive little red dots at just about any race in any country. It’s easy to get caught up in the “if she can, I can” thought process. Much like some swoon over the Instagram images of a friend swanning about on a beach in the Seychelles and feel compelled to book their next holiday right there and then, we are fed endless enticing images from gruelling races around the world. Take my money, race organisers, take my money!

So too are we offered, via social media, direct access to the lives our top ultra-runners around the globe. They share their training tips, smoothie recipes and strength exercise ideas directly to your Instagram feed. They make themselves sound so… human!

Humans have always been driven to find their limits, and rise above them. Running an ultra is one of the surest ways to push your limits out beyond self-inflicted boundaries, and experience a forever-altered sense of self. It’s not really about the dinner party brag, or the medal hanging in your office. It is about discovering that you CAN, when you thought you could not. It’s about feeling fully alive, completely spent, and totally immersed in a journey that takes a combination of head, heart and partial stupidity to complete. There are very few runners who regret the start line of an ultra, and none who regret the finish.

Upcoming Ultras in South Africa:

PUFfeR 80km – 18 August 2018

Karkloof 100 Miler – 21 September 2018

Marloth Mountain Challenge 55km – 7 October 2018

Cederberg 100km – 12 October 2018

Sky Run 65km & 100km – 16 November 2018 

Ultra-Trail Cape Town 65 & 100km - 2 December 2018

Addo 100 mile & 76km – 15 March 2019

Ultra-Trail Drakensberg 160km, 100km & 62km – 26 April 2019