What makes the toughest ultra?

A while ago I was helping produce a "toughest ultras" book. It didn't work out in the end but I did draft a first chapter as to what I think makes the "toughest" ultra. Here it is.

The Hardest race, The Toughest Challenge, The Ultimate Ultra.

These words are thrown all over event websites with reckless abandon. It’s the easiest thing in the world to type them into a marketing slogan. Our world is saturated with superlatives. Every day we are in “crisis” or at a “tipping-point” or experiencing something on an “unprecedented” scale. Most of us have learned to glaze over this hyperbole.

Is there a “toughest” race out there? Which one is it? Can we even tell?

I think seeking the toughest race on paper misses the point of what attracts people to ultra running. Races are not hard when you are reading about them in a book or on a blog. They are hard when you are doing them.

I’ve completed a number of these so called “toughest” races, I could look back on all of them, crunch some numbers, finish rates, altitude, temperature, humidity, climbing, deserts, jungles, bears and distance and declare “yes, according to my algorithm the Smash Canyon 3000 race is the toughest”. Someone else with a different algorithm will give a different result. And none of these results are valid unless you have been there.

The human brain has a great ability to discount previous hardship and exaggerate the present. The consequence of this is that any moment in time can be the “toughest” of our lives. There comes a point in every challenge where moving forward becomes the toughest thing we have ever done, where you feel like what you have is not quite enough. You have to find something from somewhere, build it out of nothing

And that is the great appeal of this wide array of ultra marathon challenges, some are very high, some are very hot, some are very cold, some are just very very very long. Each one has the potential to take to you to that place where you say to yourself “I’ve never suffered anything like this”. You could run the numbers through the tough equation you may have created and say this races is 87% tough, or you could go there yourself and experience it.

Some people seem to prefer the cold, declaring that they could “never” run a desert race. Some only like the mountains and will claim that they could never run a road race. Some love the roads and despair at the thought of a rocky trail. We all have different strengths and fears and running ultra marathons help us to use our strengths and conquer our fears.

Ultra Marathons allow us to break through personal limits, be they physical or mental. Ultra Marathons can break you into small pieces, humiliate and destroy you. There will be times when you feel like the most pathetic person on earth, you are moving so slowly and hurting so badly you are unworthy of the human form. You will suffer paranoia and anxiety, as if everyone is laughing at how hopeless you are. All of this while you are hungry and tired, your bones are aching and your muscles are mutinous.

It is the pushing through these times that make these race worth doing, the memories of being at your worst but somehow holding on just enough. The times you can look back and say “I was reduced to nothing, I felt like I had nothing left to give, yet I somehow managed to hold onto myself just enough to take that step forward, and then another, and then another. I went from feeling sub-human to super-human and all it took was motion”.

Every race here has the potential to humiliate and destroy. But they also have the potential to elevate. That’s why I do them. That’s why a growing number of people from all walks of life do them. That’s why you should do them.