Ultra-Running: A Brief History of a 15,000-Year-Old Sport


To the uninitiated, ultra-running may seem like a new concept — extreme marathoning that is the running world equivalent of the X Games or football’s XFL. In actuality, however, the notion of pushing your body beyond the traditional 26.2 miles is as old as recorded history.

Photo Credit: Ultra-Running: A Brief History of a 15,000-Year-Old Sport

References to men pushing themselves for multiple days, often through harsh weather conditions, date all the way to the natives. Stretching back thousands of years to the Ice Age, when the exposed Bering land bridge allowed passage between Asia and North America, groups of people were known to trek into the great plains, across mountain and desert territories and even into the jungles of South America. Since horses wouldn’t be introduced as a transportation alternative until the sixteenth century, Native Americans built much of their lives around walking and running.

Meanwhile, records from 1009 A.D. reference two Scottish runners named Haki (a male) and Hekja (a female), who worked with the Vikings to explore new lands. Supposedly faster than deer, the two scouts would be sent out for days at a time, wearing little more than a hooded poncho while running a far greater distance than any traditional expedition could accomplish. If the Scots returned safely, the Vikings would deem the area safe to go ashore.

Photo Credit: Ultra-Running: A Brief History of a 15,000-Year-Old Sport

As the centuries went past, tribal warriors took pride in running for days at a time with little food — and often, without shoes. Around the world, systems began to develop where highly-trained, physically-fit messengers would run great distances daily to test the boundaries of communication. The Incan empire had the “Chasquis” (who ran up to 240 km a day while pioneering a relay system), the Aztecs had the “Titlantil” (trained from childhood until they could run over 100 miles in a day), and from Canada to the Carolinas the Iroquois trail network featured runners like “Sharp Shins,” a native who wowed observers by covering 90 miles in a day.

By the 1700’s it was not uncommon to see “ultra walking” competitions, where competitors and observers would place wagers on how far someone could walk in 24 hours — and in a spirit any modern day ultra-runner can understand, from there the challenges grew greater and more intense, pushing the boundaries of what the human body would tolerate.

Photo Credit: Ultra-Running: A Brief History of a 15,000-Year-Old Sport

In 1928, it was time for things to get organized. A sports promoter named Charles C. “Cash & Carry” Pyle envisioned a groundbreaking footrace across America, and soon the so-called “Bunion Derby” had nearly 300 participants attempting to run 3455 miles for a $25,000 first place prize. Much like a modern-day event, Pyle pioneered the use of support teams and checkpoints — and also had a rolling shoe repair vehicle following the runners. 20-year-old Cherokee Andy Payne, running to pay the mortgage on his family’s farm, was the first to cross the New York finish line — winning by more than 15 hours. The race lost money, but Payne was minted as a national celebrity.

From those humble (and sometimes quirky) origins, the sport has evolved into one that had about 127,000 people finishing an ultra in 2017. According to RealEndurance.com ( 2018 UltraRunning Summary ), there are nearly 2000 ultra races now held all over the world, and although such numbers are small compared to traditional marathons, the sport continues its upwards growth. Which makes one wonder if, perhaps, now would be a good time to revive the Bunion Derby.


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