Extreme Distances: Athletes Keep Going Longer and Stronger

The what, why and how of ultra-distance athletes

Samantha Gash competing in RacingthePlanet’s 4 Deserts Grand Slam. Desert Runners

In the highly competitive world of sports, athletes keep shooting for the next big goal. They want to go harder, longer, stronger, and more extreme than those who have come before. Did you run a marathon? Great - take it further, how about an ultramarathon? Did you run an ultra? Wonderful, maybe you should take part in the 4 Deserts Grand Slam.

"The what?" you say.

Oh, you haven't heard of the 4 Deserts Grand Slam?

It's only an eight-month event that takes place on four continents, in four deserts, each representing four weather extremes (hottest, driest, coldest, and windiest). Each of the four races is 250 kilometers long (roughly 155 miles), is unsupported, so athletes have to carry their own gear while racing, and must be completed within seven days.

Yes, it's crazy, and yes, athletes do it every year.

Don't worry - if running's not your thing, there's another race for you. In fact, you can create your own bigger, better, higher goals, much like Kacie Fischer Cleveland. She decided to set a World Records by inline skating across the U.S... then she decided to set another World Record by participating in a 24-hour tower running race to see if she and three teammates could climb higher, for longer, than anyone else.

She now has four World Records under her belt, and she pursued them on her own terms.

If you're starting to think, "Who are these crazies who decide to undertake such absurd endeavors?" You might be surprised. They're frequently your "average" man or woman. For instance, Anna Judd, an artist by trade, decided to run from California to New York City to raise money and awareness for veterans returning to the U.S.

after active duty. And Ellie Bennett, the author of the book, Mud, Sweat, and Gears: Cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats (Via the Pub), decided to undertake her 1,000-mile cycling journey simply because a friend suggested it, and she didn't think it'd be that hard.

(She was wrong.)

What Does it Take?

I've personally interviewed Kacie, Ellie, and Anna, as well as Samantha Gash, a 4 Deserts Grand Slam finisher, and while they're all a little crazy when it comes to sport, they're also quite normal. In interviewing them, I realized all it really takes to pursue a seemingly unrealistic athletic event is:

  • A goal
  • A reason to pursue the goal (like raising money for a cause)
  • Time (most of these athletes spent many months training and preparing - some of them took more than a year)
  • Support (some of them had sponsors, others had friends and family; regardless, they all had a team of people working beside them to help them accomplish their feats)
  • Tenacity (it's not always easy - these athletes had to continue pushing despite injury, illness and poor weather conditions)
  • Flexibility (things change quickly during a long event, particularly one taking place over multiple days - participating athletes have to roll with the punches)

If you're interested in pursuing an ultra-distance event, your best method of preparation is to dive right in. And I don't mean heading straight to the starting line. What I mean is enveloping yourself in the racing community and digesting as many tips and resources as you can. Then, understanding you may have to plot your own course in the end.

For instance, Samantha Gash was the youngest woman to ever complete the 4 Desert Grand Slam, and she was also a pescatarian - she couldn't pack or eat the same way as the men whose tips she was following. She had to come up with her own methodsĀ and be willing to try new things. If you want to complete an event, take the advice that's available, but then flex it based on your needs.

Final Thoughts

Just remember, extreme distance races aren't for everyone. It's not that everyone couldn't complete one, it's just that no one shouldn't feel the need to complete one. Training and preparation can consume your life, so unless you have a true passion for the sport, or a strong desire to say, "Look what I was able to accomplish," it's perfectly fine to keep you workouts balanced and reasonable. Ultra-distance racers aren't necessarily more fit or healthy than the average gym-buff or weekend warrior - they've just trained for an event or sport that requires extreme endurance.

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