10 March 2014

Are 200 mile races the next thing?

From a European perspective it is quite strange that it is not until something has happened in the US that it appears to count in most media. That the 350-mile race IditarodTrail Invitational has been there for several years, the 205-mile (330 km) trail race Tor des Géants (TDG) will be organized for the fifth time in 2014, that the 200 mile long Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL) at UTMB is a long standing event and that there are several other European races, for instance Swiss Iron Trail, BeskidyUltra Trail, Volta Ceranya Ultrafons and GAX TransScania, with distances over 125 miles appears to fade in the wake of the interest the new 200-mile race in the US Tahoe 200 generates. That even Badwater is considerable longer than 100-miles (it is 135 miles) appears to be forgotten and there is no mentioning of 48-hour time events which for quite some time grown in popularity. However, there have since the announcement that Tahoe 200 will be held for the first time in September been several articles and blog posts published asking whether 200 mile races are the next thing. For instance Jill Homer asks this question in her excellent blog Half Past Done and there was now just an article in Outside Magazine entitled “Ultrarunning Gets Serious” by Heidi Mills portraying this as a new trend. I do not think it is a new trend – I think longer trail races is just one niche of the general rapid growth of ultrarunning, just like fastest known time (FKT) attempts on fixed trails and distances is another.
Picture from the article in Outside Magazine
I have previously written several blog posts claiming that from a running and muscle physiological perspective, shorter distances like 100 kilometers might be tougher than longer races. In longer continuous races there are other challenges, not only general fatigue and sleep deprivation, but also the influence of the environment will be greater and for this reason I think they can give another kind of experience. I recently read two different race reports about PTL 2013 illustrating two different ways of coping with the extreme alpine environment during this long race. The “Flipper’s Gang” from the UK managed to complete thewhole race as a team without a GPS, while the description of how the international team “Too Cute to Quit” deteriorated in the extreme environment is one of the best and most educating race reports I have ever read (the latter report is divided into several sections). How to optimally perform in extreme environments is clearly an area in need of more research. The fascinating article “A neuroscience approach to optimizing brain resources for human performance in extreme environments” by Paulus and colleagues in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 2009; 33: 1080–1088 is a good review and comes up with the hypothesis that “individuals who are optimal performers have developed a well contextualized internal body state that is associated with an appropriate level to act. In contrast, sub-optimal performers either receive interoceptive information that is too strong or too weak to adequately plan or execute appropriate actions.” Longer ultramarathon races is clearly a better test of the interaction between the environment and the body and mind as they in contrast to shorter races clearly require more strategic decisions. I guess that will make them both more challenging and attractive as it is another dimension of the race. Certainly not a “better”, more “trendy” or “the next” dimension, but different.

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