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Through Heaven and Hell: Ultramarathons That Go Beyond Human Limits

by Adam Roy Jul 9, 2009
This July, two of the world’s most extreme footraces are pushing runners to the edge of their abilities – and beyond.

AFTER YEARS OF WATCHING FRIENDS train for marathons, I can say with confidence that I could not run one. Just the thought of running 26 miles nonstop makes my knees ache. Even more than the physical fitness, I’m amazed by the mental toughness that marathoners have to conjure up to make it to the finish line.

This July, however, the US is hosting two of the world’s toughest ultramarathons, multi-day footraces that make the garden variety marathon look like a fun run. By pitting participants against extreme conditions and distances, these two races aim to answer one question: just how far can our feet take us?

Racing Through Hell: The Badwater Ultramarathon

At 135 miles (215 km) long, the Badwater Ultramarathon is about five times longer than a standard marathon. Add in the fact that it takes place in the middle of Death Valley in July, when temperatures can exceed 120 F (49 C), and its not hard to see why Badwater’s organizers refer to it as “the toughest footrace on Earth.”

Conditions at Badwater go beyond brutal: in addition to food and water, many runners bring extra pairs of shoes in increasingly larger sizes, so they can trade up as their feet swell. Competitors have 48 hours to finish; organizers expect the winner of this year’s race, which begins on July 13, to reach the finish line in 22-26 hours.

The crazy part is that for some people, once isn’t enough. In 1989, two competitors completed the first “Badwater Double” by running to the finish line and back. Their feat was followed by the first Badwater Triple in 1994 and the first Badwater Quad in 2001.

Running to Heaven: The Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race

There are no medals or trophies at the finish line of the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. Instead, runners come for a much more profound prize: to discover and rise above their own limits.

The Self-Transcendence race was founded in 1997 by Sri Chinmoy, a guru from Bangladesh who saw long-distance running as a path to spiritual evolution. To finish, runners have to complete 5,649 laps around the course, which covers a block in Queens. At 3,100 miles (4,989 km), it’s the longest footrace in the world, and can take 50 or more days to complete.

This year’s edition of the race began on June 14. As of Wednesday, 9 out of the 12 runners had reached the halfway point.

Community Connection

What do you think – would you rather “run to heaven” or “race through hell”? Tell us your pick in the comments section!

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