Between exhaustion and exhilarationIf there is a limit on a human’s ability, it only lies within, so they say. That’s why ultramarathoners believe there is no limit: they run under the scorching sun and the dark of night, pushing their minds and bodies to the point of exhaustion and exhilaration.
The ultramarathon is an increasingly popular sport in which runners race much longer distances than in a 42-kilometer (26-mile) marathon. Depending on the race, the running distance can be up to 5,000 kilometers, and the race can continue for months.
“After running marathons for years, I was looking for something different,” said Choi Su-cheol, 44, who sells cars in Busan. “I found it (ultramarathon) challenging compared to a regular marathon. There is nothing in my life that can replace the sense of achievement that I have in completing the race. It is like being a Don Quixote.”
Mr. Choi began his ultramarathon career with a 100-kilometer race, then finished three Trans-Korea races: 311 kilometers going from the west part of the country to the east, 537 kilometers from the south to north and 643 kilometers from the south to north.
Completing all three Trans Korea races ― whose lengths can vary ― is considered a “grand slam” in Korean ultramarathon, and Mr. Choi is one of a handful of grand slammers.
Because of the extremity of the sport, there is not a single company willing to sponsor races. Most are financed with the annual fees collected from the federation’s Korea Ultra Marathon Federation members and runners.
“After participating in 80 marathons in 20 years, I wanted to test myself,” said Kim Yun-hyuk, a 49-year-old factory employee in Gumi, North Gyeongsang province. “I was curious to know how far I could push myself in running all night. I could live without eating, but not without marathon.”
Mr. Choi recently volunteered to be a referee during a 622-kilometer Trans Korea race that ended Saturday. It ran from Ddangggeut Village in South Jeolla province to the Unification Observatory near the Demilitarized Zone in Gyeonggi province, continuing for seven days and six nights or around 156 hours. Out of 95 people who started the race, only 44 finished. Every person who finishes an ultramarathon is considered a winner and receives a crystal medallion.
Because of slower paces, fewer injuries occur compared to regular marathons. There’s also an abundance of nature on the courses, and runners can watch sparkling stars in the night sky and clouds passing below them on a high mountain. It’s these special moments, the isolation and physical challenge which makes runners crazy for ultramarathons.
The Trans Korea races, among other ultramarathon races, however, are far from painless jogs. Every runner must run a minimum of 100 kilometers per day within 24 hours. Anyone who uses transportation other than running or a lodging facility other than small rest areas set up by race officials is disqualified.
There is a checkpoint every 50 kilometers on the track where athletes can pick up food and take a quick rest. Athletes have been know to also take a rest in a farmer’s greenhouse or at a restaurant before continuing.
The Trans Korea races belong to the survival ultramarathon category, in which the participants run days and nights, as opposed to a stage run, in which the runners race only during the day. The 622-kilometer Trans Korea race is considered the longest survival ultramarathon race in the world.
The recent Trans Korea race went through mountainous areas in Gangwon province, 700 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level, and runners had to endure summer heat and monsoon rains. The biggest hardship, however, is running on little or no sleep. It’s the reason that most runners give up.
“The runners might not be able to sleep for more than two hours a day,” Mr. Choi said.
“In the beginning, there seems to be enough time, but as days go by, running 100 kilometers within 24 hours is very tight,” said Ji Hae-woon, a 46-year-old sergeant in the Korean Army. “You have to enjoy the unavoidable,” Mr. Ji added.
After running around 400 kilometers over four days, runners start to hallucinate, seeing and hearing things that aren’t there; they start babbling incoherently and sometimes even forget why they are running.
“I don’t know how many times I collapsed on the street,” Mr. Kim said, recalling a previous race when he fell down, lost consciousness and was taken to a checkpoint by nearby residents. “It wasn’t just me but other people as well. There were people who ran in the middle of the road when they should have been running on the side.”
“Running alone in the middle of the night is very dangerous so I try to run in groups,” Mr. Ji said.
In the end, what matters most is not stamina but the power of the mind, according to Lee Yong-sik, chairman of the Korea Ultra Marathon Federation. “They must overcome physical pain with mental strength,” he said. “This is why most ultramarathoners are in their thirties and forties, and younger people tend to give up easily.”
Injuries also cause runners to quit. Strains in ligaments and muscles, blisters, knees and ankle injuries are the most common injuries that occur. If runners do not take care of blisters on the soles of their feet and instead keep running, the blisters can spread, and runners can suffer from an infection.
As the race continues into the night, there are also issues of safety, as the participants run on empty roads in rural areas. To prevent accidents, participants often choose to run in the opposite direction of cars so that they can see oncoming cars. Runners must wear protective gear, such as head flashlights and reflectors. They also have to be careful about getting lost, as they run sleepless under a dark sky.
They also prepare for the unexpected. Runners often become targets of sudden attacks by wild animals or even dogs, especially when it is completely dark. “Running at night requires some nerve,” Mr. Kim said.
Oddly, those who become ultramarthoners often used to have worse-than-average health conditions.
“I didn’t do much exercise and never liked it,” Mr. Lee said. “I began running in 1999 because of poor health. I was under so much stress, I felt like I was dying.”
When Mr. Lee tried the Chosun Marathon in Chuncheon for the first time two months after he started running, he finished it in five hours and eight minutes. “I almost came close to death,” he said.
Most ultramarathoners are amateur athletes who struggle everyday to make ends meet and support their families. For them, it makes the extreme sport more meaningful. Most ultramarathon races take place during the weekend, long national holidays and the vacation season.
“When I run, I become retrospective on family problems, work issues and what my life has been like,” Mr. Lee said. “It feels lonely when I am running, but it is nice to have time for myself. After the race, it feels like everything starts to make sense.”
They squeeze out training time, which can be stressful for their families.
“I run to my work for half an hour and another two hours on the way home,” said Mr. Kim, who is married with two children. Mr. Kim finished the Trans Korea race first last Saturday in 134 hours, achieving the grand slam.
Most spouses, coworkers and even doctors try to dissuade them from continuing ultramarathons, but once they start running, they soon realize that it’s addictive.
“My wife has asked for a divorce four times,” said Mr. Lee, who founded and is involved in managing the Korea Ultra Marathon Federation. He spends most of his spare time on the sport. “I haven’t visited my parents and relatives in Busan for the last five years. Now they call me a bastard.”
Mr. Lee was even fired twice after he was on television, which for some reason angered his employers. But he didn’t stop racing. “Everyone thinks I am crazy,” he said.
Ultramarathons can be traced to Greece
According to the myth, the forerunner of the ultramarathon dates back to 5th century B.C. A Greek war messenger, Pheidippides, ran 246 kilometers to Sparta over two days, to call for troops during a Persian invasion of Greece. A few days later, he ran across the Marathon plain back to Greece to deliver the news of victory (it’s where the term marathon came from). He died on arrival.
The modern ultramarathon started about 100 years ago with the establishment of the International Association of Ultrarunners. Modeled after Pheidippides’s run, the 246-kilometer-race Spartathlon in Athens continues to be the most famous one in the world.
Other famous races include the Marathon des Sables in Sahara Desert, the Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset Race, the Sahara Race in Egypt, the Gobi March in China, the Trans America and Trans Australia races. The latter two continent-crossing races usually take a couple of months and are called stage runs. Runners must run average more than 70 kilometers daily.
The Korea Ultra Marathon Federation, which was formed in December 2000, has a tentative plan to hold a Seoul-Pyeongyang race in the fall and the first international ultramarathon competition in Korea next year.
by Limb Jae-un