Adharanand Finn, author of the exceptional running books Running with the Kenyans and The Way of the Runner, is back with a new must-read! The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance, focuses on the growing popularity of ultra-running and documents Adharanand’s own journey into the sport.
We were lucky enough to be able to catch Adharanand and ask him some questions about his new book and his own experience with ultra-running.
Main image © CANOFOTOSPORTS / Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2018
In your book, you share stories of some amazing ultra-running individuals. Is there any one story that sticks in your mind above all others, that has stayed with you since you wrote the book?
It actually happened since I finished the main draft of the book, so I only managed to give it a skirting reference, but Jasmin Paris’s 15-hour victory – beating all the men – in this year’s Spine Race was incredible. She was already back at university writing her thesis while most of the rest of the field were still running the race.
Throughout your own personal journey into ultra-running, what is your most memorable experience?
It’s hard to pick one, especially without giving away any spoilers, but the most fun I had was in my last few mountain races when I finally mastered downhill trail running. It’s such a buzz hurtling down a mountain once you get it.
And, on the flipside, what moment stands out for you as the lowest point along the way?
I’d say the lowest point was the end of the second day on the Ring O’ Fire ultra in Anglesey. I had run 40 miles the first day, then got up and run 65 miles or so the second day. I’d got lost on the way, had taken longer than expected, and had started hallucinating, when I finally made it to the end. I didn’t have the strength to get changed into anything warm and clean, I barely had the energy to eat, and I ended up crawling into my sleeping bag under a pile of tables in a village hall and lying awake whimpering all night because my legs ached so much. Then I had to get up at 5am and set off on another 35 miles or so in driving rain. In itself it wasn’t necessarily the hardest moment, but the main reason I felt so low was I had no support crew on that race, and I really needed someone at that moment to tell me it was all OK. I felt very alone that night.
Out of all the ultra events you undertook during the book, is there any that you’d want to go back to and have another crack at?
Weirdly I’m attracted back to the 24-hour track race. It was such a meditative, uplifting experience in the end, and I loved the simplicity of it. If I’m honest, though, I partly want to do it again because I ran it so badly the first time.
While I’d love to run again in the mountains, and experience the buzz of the UTMB festival in Chamonix, or the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the Dolomites, next time I’d do one of the ‘shorter’ races. I’m not sure I ever want to try to run 100 miles in the mountains again!
What races are on your bucket list now?
I’d love to do an ultra in China, as trail running is really booming there and I imagine it would be such a different experience. I also still want to run one last marathon PB before I get too old!
In terms of kit, what are your key items for any ultra race you undertake?
Shoes obviously. I ended up opting for Hokas on the longest runs as, even though I usually run in minimal shoes, after 24 hours or so the soles of my feet started burning without lots of cushioning.
A backpack that feels comfortable is also key as even the slightest discomfort or annoying little rattle is amplified by hundreds after hours out on the trail. It needs to fit snugly, especially when full. I found the Inov-8 bags worked best of the ones I tried.
Do you think that ultra running is more levelling than marathon running? Enabling more people of differing abilities to compete together on the same playing field?
It levels the playing field in terms of pure running ability, for sure. You may be super fast at a half marathon, say, but that doesn’t mean so much in an ultra. In an ultra other abilities come into play … such as strength of mind, the ability to be well organised, to pace yourself, to prepare well.
If you could sum up the appeal of ultra running in one sentence, what would it be for you?
The intensity of pushing yourself to a place so extreme that everything in your external life fades away, and you begin to experience the rawness and simplicity of existence.
What did you learn about yourself on your two-year foray into ultra running and in writing the book?
I learned that I’m both tougher and more fallible than I thought. Also that I’m quite emotional – I was constantly riding the highs and lows to their extremes. I also discovered that my mind will tell me I’m finished, that I need to give up, when really I still have plenty to give.
Where do you see ultra running heading over the next few years, both in the UK and globally?
China is embracing the sport in a big way, which will be interesting. At the elite end I can see more and more faster road runners experimenting with ultras and finding they like it. This would push the level of competition up and as a result I can see it growing as a spectator sport – with all the technology available now, drone cameras, online tracking etc. it would be easy to turn it into a wonderful spectacle for TV/online. The drama in ultras is pretty intense.
In someone was looking at entering their first ultra, feeling a bit apprehensive, what would be your golden words of advice to them?
Start with a shorter race. Relatively, 35 miles, say, may seem like a lightweight ultra, but it’s still a very long way to run. And don’t look at the mile splits people are running and think it must be easy. To run even close to a 10-minute mile in the second half of a trail ultra (unless it’s all downhill) is a lot harder than it may sound if you’ve only ever done shorter races.
The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance* by Adharanand Finn is published by Guardian Faber (£14.99)
*Run Deep uses Amazon Affiliates. Purchasing via this link means we may receive a small commission.