Ultra Running is a type of footrace which is considered generally longer than the standard marathon length (42.195 kilometers). This is the reason why this sporting discipline is often known as ultra marathon or even ultra distance. The history of ultra running is likely more complex than you probably imagined, and most definitely, even a lot older than you thought.
One could trace the history of ultra running back to thousands of years, particularly in the North American continent, as walking and running where not merely a sport or an endurance test, but essential ways to actually get around!
If you needed to deliver some supplies, alert a neighboring village or escape pillagers through a mesoamerican jungle, long-distance endurance running would probably be your absolute best bet at getting there. A good example? Check out Mel Gibson’s groundbreaking film, Apocalypto, which focuses on a group of Mayan fleeing a hostile tribe through epic jungle trek.
However, long distance running goes even further back in history: humans are built for it, as our ancestors used this particular ability in order to survive. Even as far back as 15.000 years ago, early humans were excellent long distance runners, and being able to withstand the fatigue and physical stress meant…food on the table.
Humans might not be as strong as a mammoth or as fast as an antilope, but we certainly have the ability to outperform these animals in long distance runs: while an antilope or a mammoth will sooner or later succumb to fatigue and be exhausted, our ancestors were able to keep their pace and run, getting to their prey with enough energy to attack and secure a meal for themselves.
Ultra running is indeed a very important piece of human history and evolution, and it is undoubtedly one of those skills that allowed us to get to were we are now.
In the 19th century, long distance running made headlines, as it became a true celebrity affair: the exploits of long distance runners were an absolute hit with the crowds, as these athletes acquired fame and public notoriety for their endeavors.
They had a very special way to appeal to the public, as they were often portrayed as adventurers, daredevils who would defy the limits of nature and explore exotic places. To offer another cinematic example, don’t miss the movie Sahara, starring famed actor Viggo Mortensen. This particular movie actually relates to endurance horse riding, although it does a great job at illustrating the unique popularity and relevance of endurance sports at the time.
Many runners of that era, including Edward Payson Weston, managed to become quite legendary. This particular long distance runner was nicknamed “The Pedestrian”, after he claimed that he could easily walk from Boston to Washington in just 10 days, so he could be there just on time to attend the inauguration of legendary US president Abraham Lincoln.
Nonetheless, Weston managed to get there just half a day too late. He still managed to impress the then newly elected president so much that Lincoln ended up offering to pay for his trip back to Boston. However, Weston respectfully declined, and decided to simply…walk back to Boston! This particular character is important for the world of long distance running, because he was one of the first people who decided that ultra running could become a profession.
By the year 1867, Weston was a professional long-distance walker, and he even managed to develop a recognizable personal brand: he was mostly known for his black velvet knee breeches, a blue sash, gloves and a lavish white hat, made of silk, which truly defined his public image and became instantly recognized by fans throughout the country, who followed his endeavors.
This legendary character was up and running, even in his winter of life. When he was 72, he planned to walk from Santa Monica to New York, with a 90 days deadline: however, he surprised everybody when he managed to get there in just about 76 days.
People like Edward Payson Weston are absolute pioneers of long distance running as a sport, and because of people like him, ultra marathons started to take off in the following years, becoming popular and even more exotic, often featuring tantalizing exotic settings such as in jungles and in the arctic ice.
In the early 1920s the famed Comrades Marathon became a popular South African event. The first edition attracted about 34 runners, while the event still endures to this day, attracting tens of thousands of runners worldwide, eager to participate this amazing historical celebration of long distance running.
Overtime, running became more and more of a sporting discipline, with its popularity apex ranging from the 1920s to the 1950s, when running events where actually huge national affairs and received significant media attention.
Ultra running events were popular, although most of them where not quite official: this was the case of the well-known London-To-Brighton ultra marathon, which was made official in 1953, although it had been around for at least 50 years.
When a runner from any specific country would score a record or win a race, it was considered a true matter of national pride and had a huge impact on people. Overtime, running has sort of lost the massive media appeal that is now associated with massively “entertainment-sports” such as soccer or perhaps basketball and rugby, but it has certainly grown steadily as a true-to-heart sporting discipline.
Today, running has its steady and important place within the celebrated and iconic Olympic Games, and it is steadily capturing the interest of more and more professionals and aficionados alike.
Other major media appearances of ultra running? Since I have been quoting a few films in this article, it would be impossible not to mention the extremely well-known and critically acclaimed film Forest Gump, starring Tom Hanks, portraying a fictional character with an incredible story. When Forest Gump decided to become a long distance runner and explore the United States, he managed to create a true movement of followers, who would join him in his runs through the states.
Nowadays, we might no longer needs to stalk our preys to get a hot meal, but our ability to run the long distance is still something we retain, and cultivate in the form of a sport.
Ultra running has grown into a popular discipline that attracts people from all over the world, and its popularity is quickly on the rise. It is also a great way to travel and experience the outdoors in a rather unique way: many long distance runners travel throughout the world in search of the best ultra marathon experiences!
Ultra running is becoming more popular than ever before, garnering more and more dedicated followers and practitioners, whether they are aficionados of this particular discipline or professional athletes.