Since when is a marathon not long enough? Why athletes continue to push the bounds of endurance

Over the course of time there have been a modicum of long distance events that have served to inspire awe in participants and observers alike. Perhaps best known is the marathon distance, inadvertently carved out by the soldier Pheidippides who ran from a battlefield at the site of the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 B.C., bringing news of a Greek victory over the Persians. Legend has it that Pheidippides delivered the momentous message "Niki!" – meaning "victory", then collapsed and died, but his fateful run would transfix the running world for many, many centuries to follow.

Fast forward to 1977 during an awards banquet for the Waikiki Swim Club in Hawai’i, John Collins - a Naval Officer stationed there - began playing with the idea of combining the three toughest endurance races on the island into one race. He decided to issue a challenge to see who the toughest athletes were: swimmers, bikers, or runners. On February 18, 1978, 15 competitors, including Collins, came to the shores of Waikiki to take on the first-ever IRONMAN challenge. It involved a 2.4mile swim, a 112mile bike ride, capped off by a 26mile run. And so the legend of ironman racing was born.

While perhaps not as hyped, many other permutations of endurance sports have organically evolved over time as people seek ways to experience the indefinable joys of punishing their bodies and challenging their minds over vast distances; randonneur cycling (think RAAM) ultra-distance running (Does the name Killian Jornet sound familiar?), and open-water endurance swimming (The English Channel) to name but a few.

But what exactly is the allure of going long? Why is the marathon, for eons a standard barometer and benchmark of human sporting endurance, no longer long enough for many? Why has the ironman distance become a stepping stone for others, a platform from which to propel into even longer, more demanding distances? And why the fixation from individuals upon setting themselves physical challenges of almost unfathomable distances, extreme difficulties, and potentially mind-warping scenarios?

As if life is not already hard enough as it is. But therein, perhaps, lies one answer to the question of why go long?

Prolific endurance sport author Matt Fitzgerald was quoted as saying, “In endurance races, I feel that I come face to face with my naked soul in a way that I never do in everyday life. Everything is stripped away; only bare consciousness remains. But it's a divided consciousness, an urgent desire to quit pitted against a tenacious will to continue. I discover myself in these moments. I don't know if I can intellectualize their benefits. All I can say - as many others do - is that they are somehow purifying. And I keep going back for more.”
This vision of a naked soul, of bare consciousness, of a sort of purification runs deep through the DNA of individuals who pursue long distance sporting endeavours. It is an intangible, mysterious, almost ghostly allure, but one of unequivocal power and life-changing capacity.

Some equate endurance sports with managing the inevitable mental and physical suffering and anxiety associated with everyday life, adopting life credos such as remaining patient in the face of adversity, not getting too attached to things, trusting the process, staying relaxed, and letting the outcomes take care of themselves.

Ken Bonner, a 73-year-old runner and cyclist from Victoria, BC, lives and breathes the going-long ethos. Humble and quietly-spoken, but with the body, mind, and spirit of a much younger man, he is well equipped to tackle the question of why go long. He has run 174 official marathons to date, including all of the Victoria Marathons, two Boston Marathons and many in Vancouver, and has been – for the past 29 years - a mainstay of the randonneur cycling scene in North America and Europe. He has tackled forty nine 1000k brevets (with fastest times under 39 hours), and forty nine 1200k + brevets including the Ultimate Island Explorer 2000k which he created in 2008. He has ridden the 1200k Boston-Montreal-Boston event eleven times and the 1200k Paris-Brest-Paris on six occasions. Bonner candidly explains, “In randonneur cycling, I’ve always had a ‘wunnerif’ perspective. In other words, I wonder if I can…” 

With candour, he adds, “One year I wondered if I could complete a 600k brevet and a running marathon within that 40 hour time limit for the 600k ride. As it turned out, the Vancouver Island 600k - from Victoria to Tofino & return - was scheduled for the same weekend as the Coast to Coast running marathon from Ucluelet to Tofino. So, I left Victoria in the late afternoon, rode through heavy rain from Port Alberni to Tofino in the night, I had a support vehicle meet me in Tofino and drive me to the Ucluelet start of the running marathon with only 15 minutes to go before the start. After about 5 miles, both my calves cramped up and all I could do was shuffle the rest of the way; to that date, it was my slowest running marathon at a little over 5 hours. Back into my cycling gear, I started riding home to Victoria, which was like riding in a Cadillac compared to running. I finished the whole thing in a little under 37 hours – my slowest 600k brevet ever.”  

Bonner talks of riding in the dark for nights on end without sleep, the rain pouring down, and no shelter for the next 100kms or more, of bear and elk encounters, tornados and lightning storms, of sleeping in ditches and culverts and knocking on strangers’ doors for respite from the elements, and, with a bit of good luck, a cold or hot drink and a bite to eat. “Just ordinary folks accomplishing extraordinary distances on bikes,” he says, if you choose to believe him.

On why he chooses to drive his body and extend his mind like this he adds, “Throughout history, there have always been folks who feel there is something more to explore, accomplish, know, etc.  Like early explorers each of us are exploring our personal horizons.  The stories of overcoming adversity remind me of these early settlers enduring incredible hardships to establish themselves in their new homelands.” As an afterthought, he adds, “Exploring limits resides in all human beings. Some of us just go further than others.”
Bruce Grant, 50, is an accomplished ironman distance athlete turned ultra-runner who has completed over 150 ultramarathons of various distances. These include the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (4 iconic 100 milers in one summer - Western States, Vermont, Leadville, and Wasatch), three finishes at the 330km Tor des Geants, two self-sufficient 6-day stage races, and twenty-two 100-mile finishes including five times at Hardrock. The latter has made him the only Canadian 5-timer there. For 2016 his goal is the 900km TransPyrenea event, crossing the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

“I feel that there are two broad categories for many who do endurance events,” says Grant. “The bucket-listers who have extrinsic motivation, and the boundary-pushers who are motivated intrinsically. For the boundary pushers, we are motivated by the activity itself, the feeling of action and self-reliance, and seeing how far or how long we can go. Finish lines are arbitrary things, and the fixed distance only represents what level of effort and supplies are required to get there. A finish line also is an indicator of what is attainable, not of an end. Once that distance or time is achieved, it is really letting you know that you are capable of going further/longer. In some sense, this is a natural evolution of growth and confidence: you finish 5k so you try 10k; then comes the half-marathon, then a marathon, then 50k, 50 miles, 100 miles and then.....”

“The horizon,” he goes on, “is no limit.”

Grant explains, “Our capabilities are initially restrained primarily by our minds, being limited by thoughts like "I could never run that far!" To go long, it is absolutely essential that you believe in yourself every step of the way; a moment of self-doubt can easily lead to stopping. It is looking at things as possible, not what is impossible, so small steps of success build on each other to climb great mountains.”

On the proliferation of endurance sport, Grant taps into a similar sentiment as Bonner. “One thing that I feel is driving the exponential growth in endurance sports is the influence of the pioneers and early adopters who smashed the walls of possibility and set examples for what can actually be done.”

Grant then touches on a subject that has relatively recently transformed so many facets of modern life, including endurance sports; social media. “The timing of the rise of this particular sport (ultra running) with the advances in social media and broadcast technology is no coincidence; what began with an obscure Internet news group and a paper magazine in black and white has morphed into journalist websites, podcasts, videocasts, high-def videos, and streaming Twitter feeds. The hype whipped up over events by media outlets, the celebrity-style attention to high-profile runners, and play-by-play event coverage leads to more and more people wanting a piece of that experience.”

And while this may be good for the sport, it has spawned an unintended consequence. “I feel that a lot of us are moving away from the now-crowded and hyped-up race scene towards more pure forms of the sport and experience that we crave as boundary-pushers. Many are getting into "adventure running", planning a route over an appealing trail or towards a destination - not a race, just you, your shoes, some water and food and a couple of friends. Fastest Known Times on long-distance trails are becoming something to attempt. There are a lot of other things boundary-pushers are doing, but you don't hear about it because they aren't Instagramming it all, they are just doing it for the sake of enjoying how far they can push themselves, and loving every step along the way.”

It’s that concept of purification. The naked soul, the bare consciousness. Getting out there because you can. Allowing such daring physical feats to provide a very worthy challenge, to rise to the occasion, fighting tooth and nail to honour your self-belief in a quest to the ‘arbitrary’ finish line. An old cliché comes to mind. Something about the finish line is not important, it’s the journey that counts. It speaks of the learning curve, the moments of profound analysis and reflection, the joys of being metaphorically stripped naked.
In amongst the busyness of our lives, fending off stresses both real and imaginary, there is great solace in simple acts of movement, whether they be running, riding, swimming, or other. And the positive forces at play are yet intensified when the going gets long. Some may scorn this behaviour as representing a pointless act worth nothing to no-one. Bleeding, sunburned, chaffing, dehydrated meaningless repetition.

I implore such folk to go and watch the happenings at some nearby endurance event and witness, firsthand, the magic in everyday people’s eyes when the day is done. These people may have finished but in a sense they will now never stop. For going long creates a certain magic, a beautiful limitless horizon, and that is why we do it.


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