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Can Extreme Endurance Races Be Mainstreamed?

The inhospitable Patagonia. (Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty)

Runners competing in the second annual Ultra Fiord 100 trail run in Patagonia waded through a chest-deep glacial stream early on, then faced hours and miles of steep, technical climbs, harrowing descents, freezing temperatures, thigh-deep mud, leg-snapping boulder fields, blowing snow and fierce winds, to say nothing of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Running through the night, some of this terrain was navigated via the narrow beam of a headlamp.

Extreme weather, extreme distance, remote, technical, exposed—those were the selling features, not the cautionary fine print, that lured well over 500 challenge seekers total, 90 in the 100-mile race and the rest in the 100k, 70k, and 30k events. Ultra Fiord was billed by race organizers as wild and magical, an opportunity to, “push your limits through a unique experience that is both rewarding and self-transcending.”


About 40 miles into the 100-mile race, 57-year-old Mexican runner Arturo Hector Martinez Rueda stopped running, apparently succumbing to hypothermia. “Martínez Rueda was last seen alive by racers who passed him at the highest point on the route,” according to Canadian Running Magazine:

It was snowing, and the wind was described as ‘fierce.’ Martínez Rueda was seated on a rock, dressed in running shorts, with his head bare. His location was between two checkpoints a mere 5K apart (although five extremely challenging kilometres). At the moment, it is unclear what information the racers who passed him gave to checkpoint personnel, and why race personnel did not go to his assistance. Another hypothermic racer survived thanks to the aid of two Argentinian racers. They reported on Facebook that they helped her to an aid station, at a cost to their own race times. ‘She wanted to sit down, if we hadn’t helped her she would have been another victim.’

Rueda died sometime on the night of April 16, 2016. The location was so remote and the weather so hostile, rescue personnel could not recover his body until April 19.

The tragedy sparked strong opinions in the trailrunning community, blame falling about evenly on the runner himself and the race organization, but what’s indisputable is the shift in thinking about running 100 miles, about pushing one’s limits, about what’s to be expected and what’s, well, stupid. As a commenter posted to a report of the incident in Trailrunner, “Getting drenched in water and mud and then climbing a glacier is a *life-threatening activity* for a person of any fitness level.”


So, why did 500 people at Ultra Fiord, and hundreds more in similar “world’s toughest” races, sign up for life-threatening activities? When they signed the waiver, did they truly accept the possibility of death? Has the rapid influx and sheer number of people running ultras—average athletes, most from a road running background—blunted the inherent risks? As race organizations answer the demand for ever tougher courses—100 miles, 200 miles, at altitude, across the Arctic—are the ultrarunners flooding the ranks truly aware of the necessarily greater risks and slimmer margins of safety? If testing one’s limits is the clarion call of ultras, how do you know you’ve reached it, until you step over it, as Martinez Rueda did?

How did we get to this point?

Running 26.2 miles on the road was considered an extreme activity in the 1960s, practiced by a few hardcore types, lunatics by average American standards. Now running a marathon is mainstream—50,000 people enter the NYC Marathon alone. Risks that in the 1960s seemed life-threatening have been minimized by methodical preparation and well-organized races.


Ultrarunning, any race longer than 26.2 miles, has taken a similar route. In 1974, Western States 100 in California was one of the few ultras in the U.S., established and entered by a very few, very fit runners who took full responsibility for their admittedly “crazy” pursuit. Leadville 100, in Colorado, kicked off in 1984 with 45 entrants, and Hardrock 100, still considered one of the world’s toughest challenges, saw 42 starters and 18 finishers in its inaugural year, 1992. In 2009, fourteen-hundred runners signed up for Leadville, and this year, Hardrock had 1,539 applicants for its 152 spots.

The first marathoners were hardcore, experienced, well-trained runners. Now, elite marathoners make up a tiny portion of the masses at the start line, some of whom have not even run 10 straight miles in preparation. Similarly, the new wave of ultrarunners swelling the ranks are less experienced, average athletes. A 2015 Runner’s World article entitled ‘Is 100 Miles The New Marathon?’ explained: “100–mile finishes in the United States have increased from 1,378 to 7,029 since 2003. In 2014, the number grew by 17 percent.” In the same article, a running coach said of 100-mile races, “Normal people who have children and 40–hour–a–week jobs, they do it.”


Accomplished mountaineer, extreme athlete, and self-described “adventure thrasher” Seth Wolpin described to me his progression from gateway road races to ultras.

“I was sedentary in my 20s and 30s, overweight, and frustrated with my life,” he said. “In 2006, I’d recently moved to Seattle, so I decided to get off my ass and do something about it. My older sister signed up for a marathon, and my best friend was running, so I thought, if they can do it maybe I can. I ran a marathon, got hooked, and started signing up for multiple marathons, one a month. Stress melted away, I was losing weight. ... A friend was getting ready for a trail ultra so I signed up for the same one. I was full of myself; it was one-upmanship. That first one was brutal, one of the hardest things I’ve done.”


“It becomes a weird slippery slope—a half-marathon begets a marathon begets a 50K begets a 50 mile. Fifty-milers are 19 miles more than 50K—it’s a much harder thing—but the benefits you get when you finish are huge. It builds confidence, you see more trail than people see walking for five days, and if your goal is just to finish, there’s a herd support system and sort of groupthink to continue to push yourself.”

“Addiction is a strong term, but … I still enjoy running a 50K—they can still kick my ass—but I know I can get through. I don’t get butterflies before a 50K anymore. When it’s a 100-miler or something really extreme, I don’t know if I can do it. I can’t sleep the night before. It’s exciting. There are people out there who chase that feeling, and the industry feeds into it.”


Like most in the sport, top competitive ultrarunner Krissy Moehl also came from a road running background, but she started running ultras when it was still considered a fringe, extreme event. “When I started [running ultras] I didn’t understand mountains—how the weather can change so quickly, how mountain terrain and weather can impact running,” Moehl said by phone. “I was lucky to grow up in the sport with people who came from more of an alpinist background.”

Moehl is also the race director of the Chuckanut 50K in Fairhaven, Washington. Normally restricted to about 300 entrants, in 2012 she opened it up to 600 in honor of the race’s 20th anniversary. “Luckily, the course is urban mountains, very accessible, so safety is not much of an issue, but that year we got a lot more needy runners, road runners with not a lot of awareness of trailrunning. They were showing up in tank tops. There are so many ultrarunners out there but not enough trail runners. We really encourage the education bit.”


While they may not know much about trail or mountain running, freshman ultrarunners have thoroughly internalized the number one precept of endurance racing—that the key is in not setting limits on oneself. Believe anything is possible. Suspend rational thought. Being mentally tough means pushing through pain and exhaustion, that suffering is to be expected and endured. Those who are better at enduring are not only praised for being tough, they are more successful—they finish, they win, they improve their times.


Endurance culture glorifies suffering. It revels in ignoring physiologic signals like aching muscles, exhaustion, nausea, and confusion. Push your boundaries. You can do more than you think you can. Endurance athletes are held up as inspirations; challenging oneself is a positive thing. But this is the first time that large numbers of casual athletes have applied endurance principles to increasingly risky scenarios. If you’ve entered a super-tough 100-mile race that’s built around the idea of pushing your limits and enduring more fatigue and altitude and weather and sleep deprivation than you’ve ever endured before, it might be hard to know when you’ve crossed the line from badass to dumbass.

The other precept of endurance training—diametrically opposed to the first—is to listen to your body. That’s tricky. As anyone who’s run a marathon knows, you have to specifically ignore some physiologic messages to finish. Listening to your body usually infers doing less. Quitting. Hardly inspirational stuff. Endurance athletes don’t listen to their bodies, they push their limits. As runners stream by, spectators don’t yell, “Listen to your body!” They yell, “Go! You can do it!” No, listen to your body is only brought up when injury or catastrophe has already occurred. Martinez Rueda was, harshly, criticized post-mortem for not listening to his body. For pushing too far.


“I think people get off a bit on how tough something is,” said Wolpin. “It helps them self-validate and brings secondary gain with the admiration of others, whether via social media or at the water cooler.”

Endurance blogs are full of graphic descriptions of physiologic symptoms that sound patently dangerous. Suffer bragging is practically a new literary form. For example, Mimi Anderson, the course record holder of the 352-mile 6633 Ultra across the Arctic circle, gave this picturesque description of her suffering while running 840 miles across Great Britain:

Towards the end my body was swollen up to above my waist, my feet were 2.5 sizes larger than they had been at the start and the tops of my hands looked as though they had tennis balls under the skin. Every step I took was agony and I would find any excuse to stop in order to give myself 30 seconds with no pain. With only 2 miles to go and the finish in sight I stopped and told my husband who was with me that I couldn’t take another step – I had reached my limits but from the depths of my body I found strength I didn’t even know I had and crossed the line to become the new Female Guinness World Record Holder.


To someone who has finished 50 miles, 100 miles can seem doable, not extreme. And along with the miles, the fatigue of running through the night, hallucinations, nausea, diarrhea—symptoms that ordinarily signal one to stop—are accepted as normal. Running over a glacier soaking wet seems like a challenge, not insane, and there’s comfort in numbers. Four-hundred-ninety-nine people have run over the glacier soaking wet and lived! It can’t be risky—lots of people have done it, are doing it right now.

“I rarely felt in danger in a 50K,” said Wolpin. “They can be done in five to seven hours, all daylight. A 50-mile takes me between nine and 11 hours, so I’m pushing darkness. Add in elevation gain and that’s another potential layer of danger. For a 100-miler, I’m running all night. The entry requirements may be one or two 50-milers, but it’s a huge step up to 100 miles. Of course, there’s a big range in hundreds: a course that’s 20-mile loops has very little inherent danger. If you do one or two or three [loop course hundreds] and nothing bad happens, you start to feel invincible. I think runners tend to minimize the inherent risks—physiologic, weather, altitude, terrain—of being exposed for more than 24 hours.”


Wolpin is clear-eyed about the risks he takes. “Last summer, I ran a 100-miler,” he continued. “It was icy with a cold rain. The margin of safety was really reduced. If I’d gone off trail and twisted an ankle, it could have been tough. I’ve made plenty of stupid decisions—running over mountains with shorts on. I’ve been lucky.”


In an ultra endurance event, knowing when to quit can be the hardest part. This past spring, Wolpin abandoned a bucket-list 100-mile route that combined trail running and alpinism in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Only six people had completed it, and only one of those unsupported, as he planned to do.

“I carried snowshoes because I worried about postholing. After 16 hours I had to go through a cold rain, then climb up an exposed ridge. I realized I could get soaked and be in deep snow by myself, my communicator was not working—the margin of safety didn’t look very good. I probably could have pushed on but I wasn’t willing to risk it. Nonetheless, dropping out was hard. It was the first time I’ve really quit. I wondered, will I be more likely to quit next time? I thought about letting people down, people who’d been rooting for me. I do things with a margin of safety not everyone would be comfortable with, but what people don’t realize is I’m the most fearful fearless person out there.”


Generally, ultrarunners are a savvy, well-trained bunch and, despite harrowing talk of suffering and badassery, serious injury and death are rare. But large numbers of runners have only been competing in “world’s toughest” races for a couple of years. “That may be changing. My concern is that mountain-inexperienced runners will try to get away with less gear, be over-reliant on a fully stocked aid station every five miles, and assume nothing bad is going to happen,” said Wolpin. “Frankly, even if you did carry all the required gear, an insulated layer and a space blanket are not going to do a lot for you if you’re immobilized in inclement weather.”

Along with new trail runners in the sport, there’s been an explosion of new races that answer the demand for ever wilder, tougher challenges. For example, the director of the Bigfoot 200 and Tahoe 200—the first single loop race of that distance—has plans for a 200-mile trail race series in 2017. Races, like Ultra Fiord, market themselves as a graduate level challenge, super tough, not for the beginner. It’s difficult to know whether such language is marketing hyperbole, fair warning, or an abdication.


And as ultras get longer, more technical, and more remote, the number of things that can go wrong increases, and the ability of organizers to prevent tragedies decreases. Criticism of the Ultra Fiord seemed to indicate a grey area of risk that both runners and the race organizer assumed the other party had covered. On the Trailrunner race report, a commenter named Alex explained that while he accepted being self-sufficient, others would not have signed up if they’d known checkpoints lacked food and water, that there were deep water crossings, that they were solely responsible for their safety, even if they decided to quit.

Dropping out is usually understood to be a wise, safety-conscious decision, one that’s always an option. But on truly remote courses, there may be no way for crew or race officials to reach an exhausted or injured runner. Not being able to quit is a startling reality in some ultras.


Jeff Browning, who won Ultra Fiord 100-mile in its inaugural year, found that dropping out was not an option. “It was the hardest race conditions I’ve ever been in,” he told Competitor. “You can bail just about anywhere in the Hardrock 100. The thing about Ultra Fiord is once you commit to that section, you’re in. It’s all wild in every direction. There’s just no roads.”


Krissy Moehl also ran the inaugural 2015 Ultra Fiord, and said that even though she had significant alpine and trail experience, “I was just on the cusp of having the right skill set for Ultra Fiord. I had to draw on all my race experience and all my mountain experience to get through. What scared me was that some were running it as their first ultra. I would say at least 75 percent of the runners that year did not have the skill set I did. Why did they sign up for such an extreme race? I don’t know.”

Despite reservations about the Ultra Fiord organization’s lack of accurate communication, Moehl said ultrarunners need to take responsibility for their own safety. “I think it falls on runners to make decisions for themselves,” said Moehl. “We have to take responsibility for our own bodies as far as limits and personal safety goes. As a race director, I try to give runners enough information, but you should never assume the race organization is going to provide everything.”


The inherent risks of running 100 miles in one go are the same as they were 40 years ago. It is still an extreme activity. What has changed is the attitude toward extreme endurance events, the mainstreaming that has ushered thousands of average athletes into the sport. It remains to be seen if, like road marathons, an extreme sport can be mainstreamed.

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