On July 12th, in the foggy Maine air sometime just before noon, a haggard, goateed, pencil-thin Scott Jurek kissed the carved-up, sun-bleached wooden sign atop Mount Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine. Forty-six days, eight hours, and seven minutes after setting off from Springer Mountain in Georgia, Jurek had set a new Appalachian Trail thru-hike speed record, beating the previous time by a mere three hours and 13 minutes.
For a month and a half, Jurek ran, on average, 48 miles per day. "There were a lot of days and a lot of hours that I never thought I'd make it," Jurek said to the small group of runners and journalists that met him atop Katahdin. "To be here is just so surreal."
That journey, which Jurek has called his "masterpiece," was the culmination of a career spanning 21 years; one that's taken him to the podium of nearly every elite ultramarathon, which incorporates any race longer than the standard 26.2-mile marathon distance, and is usually run on trails winding through mountains. Between 1999 and 2005, Jurek won the prestigious Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run a record seven consecutive times, setting a (since broken) course record in 2004.
Ultrarunning is a decidedly niche sport; in 2013, nearly 10 times as many people finished a marathon as an ultramarathon. To a wider audience, Jurek is perhaps best known for running with the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, as chronicled in Christopher McDougall's 2009 book Born to Run.
The best ultrarunners are said to be the ones who are most adept to suffering.
Like most ultrarunners, Jurek is a particularly peculiar type of human being: He is humble, smiley, and environmentally conscious (most ultrarunners, by necessity, spend the vast majority of their time outside). He also possesses a certain physical and mental toughness that, while outwardly non-threatening, still borders on masochistic—think Lance Armstrong crossed with a Trader Joe's employee. Fitness, of course, plays a major role in one's success at the ultra distance, but the best runners are said to be the ones who are most adept to suffering; the ones who, after body and mind begin to fail mid-run, embrace the darkness, as ultrarunners are so fond of saying. Professional ultrarunner and current Western States record holder Timothy Allen Olson once said in an interview, "I like going to those dark spots and overcoming it. In ultras, you think you’ve hit your lowest low in the last race, but ultras just keep surprising me of how dark it can really get."
With hours upon hours spent in the mountains beating one's legs and mind into submission, ultrarunning, it seems, requires a unique blend: a lack of self regard and an abundance of free time. So, who actually fits this mold? Is there a particular type of person who electively chooses to do something like this? Ultrarunning, while some will contend otherwise, is a form of strategic suffering—it goes far beyond a desire to stay thin or healthy. Who are these people, and what does their radical hobby say about them?
I’ve become obsessed with these questions recently, as I have slowly adopted the sport myself. I can't say for sure why I started running ultra distances. I wasn’t a cross-country runner in high school or college. I didn’t become inspired to lose weight, or suddenly discover running as a means of coping with a traumatic life event. One morning, I just started running. The next day, I ran some more. Before long, I became consumed by the questions of how far I could go, the size of the mountains I could scale, the destinations my legs could take me. With my penchant for poor self-reflection and inspiration from guys like Jurek (who doesn't suffer from a lack of profundity; he wrote a book called Eat & Run), I became addicted to the simplicity of mountain running. But, like almost everyone who plunges headfirst into this abusive sport, I quickly suffered my first injury: Achilles tendinitis.
Sidelined from the trails for two months and still craving endorphins, I tracked Jurek’s progress through the Appalachian Trail—from the humid Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, up through North Carolina and the Virginias, and into New England. I impulsively checked his near-daily Instagrams, watching as he transformed from the charismatic, healthy looking ultrarunner to a sickly version of himself. Jurek was plagued by injury right from the get-go, which made tracking his progress all the more interesting. It was at this point that I really was able to reflect on the absurdity of it all: Not only was I watching—cheering!—for a man abusing his body, but the whole thing nearly drove me crazy with envy. How did I end up here? Why was something this taxing so appealing to me, to anyone?
One morning, I just started running. The next day, I ran some more.
"Ultrarunning is very typical of sporting cultures in the sense that it is complex, contradictory, often paradoxical," says Maylon Hanold, a professor at Seattle University's Centre for the Study of Sport & Exercise, and one of the only researchers studying the sociology of ultrarunners. "It is both empowering as well as marginalizing." The sport, Hanold explains, has a history of catering to a certain socioeconomic group, and this has fundamentally affected who runs these types of distances, and why.
Emerging as a subculture from the more traditional marathon running crowd, ultrarunners were initially a group seeking distinction, Hanold says; a way to destabilize everything that preceded them. This push to greater and greater distances is nothing new in the sport: The track-based running of the late 1960s and early '70s gave way to road running, and eventually marathoning, in the '80s and '90s.
The growth of ultramarathoning, while difficult to pinpoint to an exact moment, happened in large part over this past decade. Since 1998, the participation in ultramarathons in America increased from 15,500 to 69,573 in 2012, according to UltraRunning magazine. But unlike the sport it grew out of, ultramarathoners are quite homogeneous.
According to a report published in Research in Sports Medicine in 2012, at the Western States and Vermont 100 Endurance races, two of the most popular 100-mile races in the country, ultrarunners were mostly older (45 on average), married (70 percent), educated (44 percent had bachelor's degrees; 37 percent had master's), and male (80 percent). Another survey, conducted by researchers at the University of Arlington, found that 90 percent of ultrarunners are white. For comparison, in 2013, regular marathoning boasted a gender split of 57 percent men to 43 percent women, according to Running USA.
There's an easy explanation behind ultrarunners' advanced age: The emphasis in ultrarunning is simply on finishing, as opposed to speed, and as such the pressure of pace is hugely alleviated. Older athletes, Hanold says, find comfort in this de-emphasis on times and personal records. There's also no 16-week ultra training plan; for most, it requires years of normal running for a mind and body to become strong enough to endure a distance of up to 100 miles. This obviously favors athletes who have been on their feet for longer.
But figuring out why these ultrarunners are mostly white and male, that’s where things become a bit more complicated.
"[U]ltrarunning is a sporting activity that (re)produces middle-classness," Hanold writes in a 2010 study. When pressed for clarification on her research, Hanold remarks that "the space itself and who occupies that space become normal, the norm for that space, and ultrarunning has a norm of white, heterosexual men who embrace these kinds of values." The values that she's referring to are distinctly middle-class sensibilities.
"Ultramarathoning is putting myself in a situation where I don’t know what I’m going to experience or how uncomfortable it’s going to be."
People in the middle class, Hanold contends, are in positions of relative flexibility, both personally and professionally. As additional research shows, most middle-class jobs are flexible and provide some degree of autonomy: In her book, A Framework: Understanding and Working With Students and Adults From Poverty, educator Ruby K. Payne laid out cultural and social characteristics that she found to be true of different social classes. Payne described the middle class as being driven by "work and achievement;" disciplined with "self-governing and self-supporting" behavior; and noted that "choice is a key concept in the lifestyle." It's a way of living that can be described as the Flexible Citizen, a term first coined by University of California–Berkeley anthropologist Aihwa Ong. Although Ong's seminal book, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality, dealt primarily with the middle class and globalization among modern Asian migrants, her theory is still apropos to the American middle class, as well: In today’s economy, with the inherent level of uncertainty and risk that exists, a worker who possesses flexibility and adaptability will be more likely to succeed than one who does not. These, Hanold explains, are character traits also found in the mostly white, middle-class group of ultramarathoners.
"Success as an ultrarunner comes about if you're adaptable, flexible, and can change to environment and push through things that you didn’t know you could push through," Hanold says. "You have to have a plan to begin with, but it’s all about how well you tweak it and deal with what comes at you. Ultramarathons reproduce and highlight these [middle-class traits]."
To survive a race that lasts for some 24 hours, one must be willing to face challenges as they arise. A common ethos among ultrarunners is, "Anything can happen—you have no idea."
"That’s the part of the allure," Jurek tells me, speaking on the phone post-run from his home in Boulder, Colorado, last week. "Ultramarathoning is putting myself in a situation where I don’t know what I’m going to experience or how uncomfortable it’s going to be—and that’s hard to do. In everyday life we experience that, but electively choosing to put myself in that situation ... mentally, you have to be really adaptable and be able to change at a moment’s notice." Being willing—excited, even—to react and thrive on the fly is the embodiment of an adaptable attitude.
An equally important reason for flexibility: Logistically speaking, preparing one's body for a 100-mile run requires lots of time. When I asked Jurek about this, he agreed, but added that ultrarunners must be proactive in creating this free time for themselves. If someone returns after a hard day of physical labor, Jurek says, they will probably be less inclined to spend their free time electively straining themselves.
"Your upper- and middle-class sensibility is about proving yourself over and over based on your own power, so you get lots of endurance sports that appeal to that demographic."
This importance of a malleable lifestyle could help explain why many of today's blue-collar workers are noticeably absent from ultra starting lines. As research has shown, those with blue-collar and service jobs possess much less autonomy over their work and schedule. Plus, as social psychologist William Gabrenya notes, lower income workers are more susceptible to fatalism—that is, "the belief that one lacks control over one's life experiences and 'what will be, will be.'" A fatalistic attitude, by definition, limits the degree to which one can feels control over their choices—their flexibility. This is all adds up to make ultrarunning, for the most part, a middle class, educated, white man's sport.
"There’s a social class difference [in ultrarunning]. There are different sensibilities associated with those different classes—ultrarunning does come with the middle class," Hanold says. "Your upper- and middle-class sensibility is about proving yourself over and over based on your own power, so you get lots of endurance sports that appeal to that demographic—people who are in these positions of flexibility, trying to create, trying to grow, trying to be an entrepreneur. Ultrarunning plays this out over and over and over and reinforces those values and sensibilities. It does it in a way where there’s concrete success … It's not a blue-collar worker mentality."
This notion has become such a truism that, in 1990, researcher James P. Knochel of University of Texas–Southwestern nicknamed exertional rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal injury caused by over-exercising, where the skeletal muscle cells are damaged so severely that they leak into one's circulation, "White-collar rhabdomyolysis."
While Jurek plainly contends that the nature of ultrarunning is currently occupied by mostly middle-class runners, he says it wasn't always this way. Growing up in rural Minnesota, his mom, before being forced to retire due to multiple sclerosis, was a home economics teacher; his father a boiler maintenance operator. Jurek describes them as "hunting and fishing sort of folks." When he first started running ultra distances in Minnesota, he was doing so with other blue-collar employees. He met welders, guys who worked on heavy machinery, even those who took up the sport because their day jobs weren't physical enough. Slowly, though, that changed. One possible explanation: Over the last thirtysomething years, annual working hours have increased more for workers in the lowest fifth of the wage distribution than for anyone else.
This homogeny isn't ideal, of course, but trail runners are, in my experience, kind, open-minded, patient, curious individuals. Yet, despite the ideals they may expound, there is plenty of room for ultrarunners to improve when it comes to embodying these principals.
Hanold, who herself is deeply involved in Seattle's trail running community, is gay, and spoke candidly about the odd juxtaposition between the open-mindedness of her fellow runners and the homogeny of the sport. "I know anecdotally that I can run with my friends and they are totally fine with me being gay," Hanold says. "You can talk with these people and they are well educated and they like diversity—it’s great. But what people don’t realize is that when there’s silence around things like diversity or gayness and when people just don’t talk about those things, then it’s a form of exclusion."
The ultrarunning demographic functions as a sort of cultural feedback loop—the sport, the space, is occupied by a certain type of body, which in turn attracts more of the same. It's a theory that also applies to hockey, but unlike mainstream American sports, where people of all races, genders, and socioeconomic classes receive exposure by simply turning on the television, ultrarunning is a sport largely hidden from the public. Compounding the problem, many runners, despite their propensity for open-mindedness, would like to keep it that way.
"But what people don’t realize is that when there’s silence around things like diversity or gayness and when people just don’t talk about those things, then it’s a form of exclusion."
"Sometimes ultrarunners don’t really want the sport to grow. They like the small, down-home feeling of races," Jurek contends. "The whole reason that people may have left the marathoning scene and gotten into trail running is because they love the small, intimate vibe."
Ultrarunning is growing rapidly, and in the process it’s still figuring out what it can be, what it should be. Hanold suggests it still has a long way to go.
"I know one African-American runner, one Asian runner, one Hispanic runner. You just have to be a little more visible, a little more vocal, and just talk about it," Hanold says of being a minority in ultrarunning. "The more those bodies intermingle and are around each other and are comfortable with each other, the more you start to change the culture. It’s certainly open to it. You have well educated, well meaning, mostly liberal, middle-class people."
When I hung up with Hanold, I couldn't help but feel guilty—the white, college-educated, middle-class male that I am. Was I a part of the problem? Probably. I asked Jurek whether he's optimistic that the sport to which he's dedicated his life can change for the better. He gave an unequivocal yes.
"I’m all for the sport growing and bringing more diversity to it. It’s happening definitely, but slowly," Jurek says. "You’re seeing it with more and more women, you’re seeing a wide range of ages, you’re seeing a lot of younger people get into it, which is great."
"The more those bodies intermingle and are around each other and are comfortable with each other, the more you start to change the culture."
In the Santa Ynez Mountains—the dry, carpet trailed hills towering above Santa Barbara, California, and the host to the majority of my runs—I've noticed this to be true. I regularly pass runners of nearly every demographic: multiracial ultrarunning groups; high school cross country teams training in the mountains; families, even, with the dog in tow.
There's an unwritten rule—an instinct, really—in trail running: When runners pass each other, a knowing glance, a nod, is shared. It's a show of respect, a sign of admiration for having the gumption to abandon the bike path for something better, a signal to keep fighting the good fight. It's these shared moments that give me hope for the future of the sport. While the space may be currently occupied by white, mostly male bodies, there's something transcendent about running in the wild. The primal, euphoric feeling that comes from time spent in the mountains—the same feeling that is acknowledged with these passing nods—knows no race, no gender, no bias. It is fundamentally human. As a wider range of runners discover this for themselves, it is, I think, only a matter of time before the trails become a very different place.
"I think the cool thing about it is you don’t have to be the strongest or fastest runner—it’s really about the mind," Jurek says. "If you have the desire and grit and determination, you can do anything. That’s what ultramarathoning teaches us."
Lead Photo: J. Wesley Judd running in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara, California. (Photo: Taylor Le)