‘These races are epic’: why ultrarunning is soaring in popularity
John Stocker hadn’t slept in three-and-a-half days when he finally crossed the finish line after running more than 337 miles in an ultramarathon event in Suffolk, stopping only at brief intervals for food and rest.
Of the 123 people who started the race in Knettishall Heath on 5 June, he was the last person still running 81 hours later on Tuesday evening, and had to summon all of his physical and mental strength to get around the last lap.
“Your tiredness just takes over. And then I clipped my toe and went down on the concrete. I laid there thinking I wasn’t going to be getting back up,” the 41-year-old personal trainer said, as he recovered at home in Bicester. “But the whole reason I do these ultras is to show my kids that they should try to achieve as much as they can, and not be told by anyone that they can’t do something. That’s what kept me going.”
Ultrarunning has soared in popularity, with a report in May showing a 345% increase in participation globally over the past 10 years and thousands of events taking place annually. Meanwhile, participation in 5Ks has declined since 2015, and participation in marathons has levelled off.
The term broadly refers to any race over the length of a marathon, and can come in many shapes and forms – including the six-day, 251km Marathon des Sables across the Sahara, and the Spine Race across the Pennine hills covering 431km.
“It has been an explosion. When I came to ultrarunning about 14 years ago, I did a Google search and found about 60 races. Now we estimate there’s probably about 10,000,” said Steve Diedrich, the founder of the website Run Ultra. “The pandemic put people into two categories: the people who sat on the couch and the people who got off the couch. And those who got off the couch have pushed themselves further and become ultrarunners.”
Adharanand Finn, the author of The Rise of the Ultra Runners, said: “Generally as running has got more popular and more people have done marathons there’s a natural inflation. To tell people you’ve run a marathon is maybe not as impressive as it once was.
“These races are so epic and so huge, people are so impressed and it’s easy to get sucked in by that.”
The UK has a long history of ultrarunning in the form of fell races, but races specifically labelled as ultras are on the increase. The “back yard challenge” races, which originated in the US, are particularly gruelling; at the Suffolk event participants had to run a 4.167-mile (7km) route every hour until they could no longer carry on. If runners complete their lap early they can take a short break to sleep, eat and use the toilet before heading back to the start line.
“It’s like Groundhog Day. Because you get back to the tent and you’ve got a few minutes and then all of a sudden it’s your next loop, it starts all over again,” said Stocker. “I still have nightmares now of them blowing the whistle over and over again.”
Along with his fellow runner Matthew Blackburn, he beat the world record for the event previously held by Karel Sabbe, a Belgian dentist who ran 312.5 miles (502km) in 75 hours in October. Now the pair will head to Tennessee to take part in the back yard ultra world championships and compete against the best in the field.
The races are not without risk. The ultrarunning community is still reeling from the deaths of 21 runners in an ultramarathon event in China last month after high winds and freezing rain hit the course. The country has suspended all long-distance races and an investigation into the tragedy is being carried out.
“Through the history of ultraracing there have been issues with floods, cold exposure, heat exposure, a range of everything depending on the location,” but deaths are very rare, said Diedrich. In its 35-year history, two people have died taking part in the Marathon Des Sables.
“We have to have some sort of a safety net, because you’re asking people to push to the absolute limit of their exhaustion,” said Lindley Chambers, the owner of Challenge Running, which organised last week’s Suffolk back yard ultra. He said the route was carefully mapped out to avoid risk of injury and staff were on hand to aid runners at all times.
“You need to be sensible, and manage the risks as best you can,” he said. “But then on the other side, the runners want it to feel like an adventure, they want to feel like they’re challenged. They don’t want you to hold their hand all the way round.”