I have a new favorite book; The Rise of the Ultra Runners, written by Adharanand Finn. It’s one of those books you start reading and don’t want to put aside. Even when you have to go to bed. Adharanand Finn is a sports journalist, specialized in athletics. A purist, in his own words: ‘To be fast, really fast, that took skill, dedication, the careful honing of a precious talent over many years. To watch athletes like Mo Farah, David Rudisha or Eliud Kipchoge in full flow was to witness something poetic, at once combining the depths of human effort with incredible grace, balance and power. It was running made beautiful. Ultra running, on the other hand, was bludgeon running until it was close to death. Backpacks, poles, food, head torches – they all muddied the water. It became something else. … Mad and insane, perhaps. But it was no longer running.’
Deep dive in the ultra world
And then … he gets a request to do an ultra run for a story. It’s the beginning of Finn’s deep dive into the world of the ultra runners. Although he first refuses: ‘It was my wife, Marietta, who got me to rethink. “Don’t people pay a lot of money to do races like that?”, she said. “And you’re getting invited to do it. I thought you liked running?” … The more I thought about what it actually entailed, the more I realized that, while perhaps as a runner this wasn’t my kind of race, purely as an experience it would be an amazing adventure: to run across the desert; to sleep under the stars; to cross a hundred miles of wilderness under my own steam. Put like that, it felt suddenly enticing, epic even.’
In The Rise of the Ultra Runner Finn weaves facts, interviews, handy information into his personal story; his quest to participate in the UTMB Mont-Blanc, the biggest race in ultra running. The race everybody wants to run now-a-days: ‘Over the last decade, ultra running as grown at a staggering rate, becoming one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. The website runultra.co.uk lists most of the word’s biggest marathons. Its founder, Steve Diederich, tells me that when he set it up twelve years ago he found 160 races listed globally. He now (2019; jk) has over 1.800 races on the site – an increase of over 1.000 per cent.’
Finn starts his journey, as probably most of us. Full of doubts. ‘I remember being struck by a photograph I saw of the Spanish ultra athlete Azara Garcia, who has a tattoo on her leg that reads (in Spanish): The Devil whispered in my ear: ‘You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm’. I whispered back: ‘I am the storm.’ Is this the appeal of ultra running? To push ourselves to a place where we stand face to face with the Devil, the depths of the struggle, but then to rise up to overcome it?’
Interview after interview, but especially race after race he digs deeper into the world of ultra running and slowly he gets it: ‘In that moment when you finish, when you cross the line, something strange happens. Emotions bubble and rise to the surface. You feel like you’ve been through something intense out there, like you survived something.’
And at the end of the book he concludes: ‘After the dawn broke on the second day, I did begin to experience a sense of peace, a oneness with the world. I felt then as if I could go on for ever.’
Overcoming our demons
I think this is what we all look for in ultra running; the flow, the silence, the peace, but we only find it, if we’re able to face and overcome our demons. And on an ultra run there is no hiding from them.
Finn faces his demons in The Rise of the Ultra Runner. He goes from non-believer to believer. I think his book is inspiring to read and can help all of us on our path to overcome our demons.