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Ultra-running: A step beyond

By Dean Irvine
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- For most of us taking on a marathon is enough of a mental and physical challenge, but for a growing number of athletes wanting to push themselves to the limits, 26 miles is a mere warm-up for an ultra-marathon.

Ultra-marathons are classified as anything longer than the normal 26.2 miles of a marathon. Races can either be set distances starting at 50 km, or timed events that more often than not are measured in days, not hours. Apart from having to be a good physical shape, anyone wanting to undertake such a challenge of endurance is recommended to train for nine to 12 months before the race.

But why would anyone want to?

"You might speculate that these people could almost be a defiance of the human condition in undertaking these ultra-marathons," said Phillip Hodson, Fellow of the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy.

Distance running of any length puts huge stresses on all parts of the body, the knees are the most vulnerable to injury while anyone who has run a marathon will tell you that blisters and feet that feel like mush after the race are par for the course. Take part in a race that lasts ten days and most people would think that they would not physically be able to cope.

"The person on the street has no real concept of how hard it is to prepare for and run an ultra-marathon," says ultra-runner Bernd Heinrich in "A Definitive Guide to Ultra Running."

"That being said, neither do they have a concept of what is possible. They see only a mystery in their minds that paints ultra-runners as being a bit weird."

For him it's about tapping into the primordial human instinct of running for survival that lies dormant in all of us, which does indeed sound a bit weird.

But for many ultra-runners linked with the physical exertion is a deeper spiritual reward.

Veteran ultra-runner Marshall Alwick offers other reasons for this life-consuming pounding of the streets: "It's an intense sport, but it's a very elegant sport, it's the body in motion and it's finding out more about yourself and what your capabilities are. When people suffer they learn things about themselves. "

Coupled with the physical test is the mental release and meditative quality. Many endurance runners can relate to the feeling of the body being on autopilot with the mind just taken along for the ride.

Most people might think that 26 miles is plenty in order to transcend the physical state, but transcending everyday life is another reason why ultra-runners compete.

"I think of it as a vacation, because there's no mental stress other than having to keep going," said 26-year-old Shishaldin Hanlen, who competed in a six-day ultra-marathon in Queens, New York earlier in 2007.

"Last year when I ran this race, it was the hardest thing I'd ever done. Now it just seems natural," she said.

Perhaps the most extreme of ultra-marathons is the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3,100 mile race, recognized by the International Association of Ultra-runners as the world's longest foot race, and organized by the Sri Chinmoy meditation center.

The latest of these extreme races began on June 17, 2007,and competing for the seventh time is Smarana Puntigam.

"What makes this race so special for me is that you can learn so much about yourself in a relatively short time," he said.

"Everything gets very intense in this race. For 51 days you have to be very focused and endure rain, heat, humidity, injuries and lack of sleep. You are really pushing the limits and you can learn day by day, how to tackle problems in a better way. The longer the race is, the fitter your mind has to be."

Rather than running from one point to another - 3,100 miles is the distance from London, UK to Accra, Ghana -- the race takes place in New York with competitors running thousands of laps of a half-mile course. The average daily mileage for competitors is an astonishing 70 miles.

So for the next 40 or so days they'll be no trips to the movies, no lie-ins or lazy mornings spent idling in cafes. The competitors of the 3,100-mile race are certainly the extreme of the extreme and the motivation for undertaking such as task can be hugely personal.

"At one level its admirable, at another it's ridiculous," says Hodson.

"Obviously there's the physiological payoff as well. You might suffer the burn, but you'll also get the highs from endorphins. Races such as these attract a certain type of obsessive personality type - those people who find they're good at certain things and enjoy the rewards that they bring. They end up focusing entirely on taking this route in the pursuit of excellence."


Keep on running: Is the pain worth the pay-off?

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