There seems to be more and more about ultra running in the media these days. Jasmin Paris, Kilian Jornet, Cactus the dog, all household names now. But I still get excited when I see a new book about the subject because despite the occasional news coverage, it is still quite niche. And when you do see it covered in the mainstream media it’s still often treated as a sort of novelty – ‘can you believe what these crazy/superhuman people/canines have done?’. And it often totally misses the point. We had heard that Adharanand Finn (author of Running with the Kenyans and the Way of the Runner) was writing a book about ultra running some time ago and actually met him a couple of times along his journey. So we were very much looking forward to reading The Rise of the Ultra Runners.
Adharanand approaches the topic from the point of view of an experienced (mostly road) runner. His main interest in running has generally been around how to run faster. He kind of fell into his first experience of ultra running for a magazine article, but it set him off on a journey to discover why people do it and how far he could push his own limits.
As he says in the book, he finds ultra running to be a broad church. And he really does explore a lot of branches of it. From Comrades, to 100 mile mountain ultras, from small races to the glitz and glamour of huge ultras, and from the UK and Europe to the US and Africa, he leaves few ultra stones unturned. This is one of the reasons I think most runners would really enjoy this book – you’ll definitely find something that chimes with your own experience.
There is a narrative which runs through the book and that’s Adharanand’s quest to collect enough points to get into the UTMB and then actually run and finish the race. Much like an ultra, this quest doesn’t always go smoothly. There are highs and lows along the way. The lows include lying in a sleeping bag in a sports hall, dirty, shivering and trying to prevent himself from whimpering out loud. The highs include some glorious descriptions of running downhill in full flow and finishing Lavaredo, feeling pretty good, like he’s getting the hang of this ultra running thing.
But usually, in a way that will be familiar to most who have run ultras, the highs and lows come one after the other in a race. In what is a bit of a theme for Adharanand, he finds himself feeling utterly spent and mentally defeated, only to bounce back and find himself flying along the trail again an hour or two later. And it is in these moments that he finally really ‘gets’ it. He needed to experience the worst of the lows and then find that reserve within himself, to truly understand why people do it. He needed to get away from the battle with the watch or against others and just focus on the personal challenge to finish. And this is the journey which makes this book such a great insight into ultra running.
Along the way Adharanand examines themes such as running form, whether Kenyan runners could dominate the world of ultras as they have with marathons, FKTs, prize money and sponsorship (and inequality therein), and doping. It’s a very interesting read and it’s been well researched.
So does he ultimately achieve his goal of finishing UTMB? I can’t tell you as it might spoil the book, but what I will say is that there are some very big highs and very humbling lows. If you have run an ultra and questioned why you put yourself through it, or if you’re thinking of running an ultra, I would highly recommend that you read this book.
The Rise of the Ultra Runners will be published by Guardian Faber on 16th May. You can reserve a copy at Amazon now.