Running Through Walls - Who goes Beyond the Ultimate?

 

In 20 days’ time a group of runners will set off from a starting line over 10,00ft up in Peruvian cloud forest to take part in this year’s Jungle Ultra.  Ahead of them are 230 kilometres of staggering beauty in thick jungle, on mountain roads and through river crossings (more than 50 in fact).  They will each carry their own food, equipment, hammocks and sleeping bags through 5 days of intensely hard running in suffocating humidity.  It would be easy to call them crazy.

Such races are rapidly gaining popularity.  There are more than 300 ultra-race events in the UK and Ireland alone in 2015 (an ultra being any race more than 26.2 miles).  Most are in scenic locations and range from 30mile trail runs to the 17 day John O’Groats to Land’s End event.  Increasingly diverse groups of people are being drawn to this supremely challenging sport.  Perceived by many to be of concern to an elite few; the ultra-running scene in the UK in fact already boasts numbers into the thousands. 

Still, for many of us it is hard to conceive what it means to run these incredible races.  What does a runner go through during this type of event?  We have a team from Kent University who will be using the Jungle Ultra 2015 as a research gathering expedition as they look into a condition referred to in running parlance as the ‘open window’, a period of time after an endurance event where the body is so tired that the immune system is supressed.  Research in this area exists already but studies haven’t covered ultra-endurance events and the research team hopes to collect new data which will help practitioners to provide better advice to competitors. 

Corinna Kehaya, a PHD student working on the project had this to say, ‘the athletes in this race have got a tough time ahead of them.  They are going to have to cope with being on their feet carrying kit, sometimes over 13 hours a day.  The additional weight of their kit, and the duration of stages will increase the amount of energy required to keep moving at a constant velocity’. 

To keep up this pace on the Jungle Ultra 2015, runners will need to keep their calorie intakes high.  In contrast to the healthy eating regimes most would think would be required to compete in such an event, our runners will need to consume anywhere up to 4 or 500 calories an hour.  In his book, ‘Born to Run’, Christopher MacDougal refers to Ultra Marathons as ‘Eating and Drinking contests with a little exercise and scenery thrown in’.  This underplays the physical stress a little, however, as Corinna Kehaya goes on to explain.  ‘They are likely to experience sores and blisters where packs and shoes start to rub.  This can quickly lead to injuries, making the task all the more difficult.  At times there will also be very little time for recovery which will have knock on effects for the next stages. Add into the mix the environmental stress of humidity, sometimes reaching 100%, and you’ve got conditions which are going to test the athletes to the max. They’ll need mental toughness.’

Few of these races offer any sort of a prize, none of the runners are going to the Olympics - so what attracts them?  Is mental toughness all that keeps them running when they’re in pain?  Many point, not to any idea of glory in victory, but a sense of purpose, a feeling of humility in the beautiful environments that most races are located in and, very commonly, a fascination with how far the human body can be pushed. 

In his autobiography ‘Eat and Run’, ultra-running legend Scott Jurek, 7 Times Winner of the Western States 100-mile Run, talks of chasing the ‘zone’; he describes this as the ’instant when we think we can’t go on but do go on.’  Jurek states ‘The longer and further I ran, the more I realised that what I was chasing was a state of mind – a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus.’

Kris King is Race Director for Beyond the Ultimate.  In 2014 he navigated the entire British coastline undertaking 22 x 100 mile bike rides and 12 Marathons with no rest days.  He was nominated for a Pride of Britain award in 2014 for his advocacy work for Huntington’s Disease and he believes many runners have similar emotional reasons for running.  He also believes Ultra-Marathons attract people like himself who are not necessarily racers, but are competing with themselves.  ‘It’s meditative’ he says ‘if anyone finishes in front or behind it doesn’t matter, we’re all just in the distance together.’  Kris also cites a story about Kilian Jornet; currently considered to be the world’s greatest trail and ultra-runner, who once recently stepped down from extreme distances for an organised fun run.  Coasting along he watched a woman finish the relatively short race in agony.  She was emotionally overwhelmed and crying and Kilian realised that is what he was chasing; that she was the winner.  That woman had the feeling that Kilian and many other runners are chasing all the time, what Kris describes as the ‘biggest high ever’.  ‘It’s emotional, you’re tired and it’s a little bit crazy but you forget all the pain.’

Having overcome the blisters, lost toe-nails, aching muscles, emotional stress and sleep deprivation many runners point to such a feeling of euphoria and peace when running long distances.  The so called ‘runner’s high’ has been the subject of many studies.  During intensive physical exertion the human brain produces greatly increased amounts of chemicals which could be behind the feeling that Tim Noakes, professor of sports science at the University of Cape Town once described as ‘touching heaven’.  In reality, academics are still unsure of the physiological cause and the effect in ultra-runners is often reported to be even stronger, something Beyond the Ultimate believe is borne out in the testimonies of past Jungle Ultra runners in their new trailer below.

In 20 days’ time a group of runners will set off from a starting line over 10,00ft up in Peruvian cloud forest.  They will win no prize.  But each and every one of them will achieve feats most of us would deem superhuman.  They will laugh and they will cry, but they may well feel a jubilation beyond that which most of us have ever experienced, having pushed against the extremes of human limits against a beautiful backdrop of Amazonian jungle that few of us will ever get to be a part of.  Perhaps it’s not so easy to call them crazy after all.

 

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