Human beings are seemingly adapted to run long distances, since anatomically we have traits that allow us to sustain this physical activity for hours or even days. Running more than 42,195 km (which is the official distance of the marathon) is known as ultra-distance running. This discipline is subdivided into ultramarathon (“beyond the marathon”) which is run on circuits, tracks or asphalt, and ultra-trail which takes place in mountains or in a natural environment 1.
Perhaps you are not familiar with the term ultra-distance, and rightly so since this discipline lacks recognition and diffusion in Mexico and even worldwide. That is why we considered it pertinent to write this article, in which you will learn the generalities of ultra-distance, its history and some curious facts about this sport in Mexico.
Overview of ultra-distance
Humans have been running long distances at relatively high speeds for over two million years 2, through particular anatomical and physiological adaptations. This makes us superb aerobic endurance athletes compared to other mammals adapted for running, particularly in arid conditions, as sweating allows excess heat to be removed 3,4.
The oldest record of an ultra-distance race concerns the one carried out by Pheidippides in approximately 490 B.C., who ran from Athens to Sparta and back, traversing the plains of Marathon in Greece, to report the victory of the Athenians over the Persians.
The oldest record of an ultra-distance race concerns the one carried out by Pheidippides in approximately 490 B.C., who ran from Athens to Sparta and back, traversing the plains of Marathon in Greece, to report the victory of the Athenians over the Persians. It is said that Pheidippides dropped dead after this, presumably running almost 600 km in less than a week, without the conditions and care that one has today to endure a high-performance athletic challenge 7.
Currently, there are ultramarathons registered by distance (e.g., 50 km, 50 miles, 100 km, 100 miles, 200 miles, etc.) or by time (e.g., 6 hrs, 12 hrs, 24 hrs, 48 hrs, 6 days). To give you an idea of the magnitude of this type of events: the longest ultramarathon that currently exists in the world is the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. This race consists of running almost 5000 km in a maximum of 52 days, and, in case you are still not surprised, it is completed by running through an 800 m block in the borough of Queens, New York.
Another world-renowned ultramarathon is the Spartathlon, an ultra-distance race that consists of running 246 km from Athens to Sparta. The origin of this race has a mythical character, as it arose as a kind of tribute to the feat of Pheidippides. This is a challenging competition, both physically and mentally, and on average only one third of the participants manage to finish the race 8.
Ultra-distance races can take place in other types of scenery, such as mountains, trails, paths, between rivers and even volcanoes. This is the discipline known as ultra-trail, whose “formal” origin was due to a fortuitous situation in the life of Gordon Ainsleigh. In 1973, in the mountains of California, Gordon was competing in a horse race with a distance to complete of 100 miles. When barely a third of the race had elapsed, his horse began to limp and it was evident that he could not run anymore, so Gordon set out to finish the race on foot. The following year Ainsleigh was again at the starting line of this horse race, but with the intention of doing the course entirely on foot. He did it in 23 hours and 47 minutes. From this moment on, ultra-trail was considered as a discipline where runners could challenge their physical and mental capacities.
In recent years in Mexico, the offer of ultra-distance races has grown. Some of the most popular ultramarathons are the Ultramarathon of the High Mountains, which consists of running 101 km with a cumulative elevation gain of 14280 m, in the Pico de Orizaba, Veracruz, and the Ultramarathon of the Laguna Salada with 67 km distance, held in a desert below sea level in Mexicali, Baja California.
In contrast, the number of ultra-trails held in Mexico is greater. Among the most popular, we can highlight the Ultratrail de México (UTMX), held in the Mountain Corridor of the State of Hidalgo, in different modalities: 37 km, 50 km or 100 km. Additionally, the Ultratrail Oso Negro is characterized by the adverse and changing environmental conditions that the competitors face. It takes place in the Sierra de Santiago, Nuevo León, with distances of 50 km, 80 km and 100 km.
Undoubtedly, in Mexico there are ultramarathon runners capable of successfully participating in this type of competitions, as well as at an international level. Some of them have focused on acquiring a specialized preparation that has allowed them to achieve national and international records. Other ultramarathoners have run long distances as part of their daily lives: they are known as Rarámuris.
The Rarámuris, a living myth
The Rarámuris, “those of light feet” (known as Tarahumaras), belong to an ethnic group that inhabits the Sierra Tarahumara, which is part of the Sierra Madre Occidental, in the state of Chihuahua. The Rarámuris’ worldwide recognition is due to their great strength, endurance, and aptitude for long runs 9.This has led them to win several competitions in various countries such as the United States, Spain, and France, to name a few countries. Most of them run with rim-soled huaraches (Figure 1).
Running long distances is part of the daily life and traditions of the Rarámuris. This is something that has forged them to be ready at every starting line of the races. The Rarámuris have a game called “Rarajipari,” which consists of running up to 200 km in teams, carrying a ball, in the case of men, and a hoop, in the case of women, made from the roots of a shrub called madroño 10.
In Mexico there are ultramarathon runners capable of successfully participating in this type of competitions, as well as at an international level. Some of them have focused on acquiring a specialized preparation that has allowed them to achieve national and international records. Other ultramarathoners have run long distances as part of their daily lives.
The ability of Rarámuris to run long distances has been examined from a genetic, physiological and anthropological perspectives 11,12. A genetic study of two Rarámuris, conducted by Romero-Hidalgo et al., 2017, identified genetic variants associated with musculoskeletal functioning that could explain the endurance of Rarámuris for long distances. However, it is necessary to analyze the genetic component of a larger number of individuals to test this hypothesis 13.
The Rarámuris have become challenging rivals to ultramarathoners from all over the world, which has given rise to the creation of various ultra-distance competitions in northern Mexico. One of the most recognized ultramarathons in the nation is the Caballo Blanco race, held the first weekend of March of each year in Urique, Chihuahua, where you can run 21, 42 and 80 km. This event became famous after the publication of the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, a cult book for lovers of running 14.
In October 2020 a world ultra-distance championship was organized, called Big Dog’s Backyards, which consisted of running 6.7 km every hour, with no time limit, until there was only one runner left standing. The Mexican team was made up mostly of Rarámuri runners. Pedro Parra, Juan Contreras and Miguel Lara achieved an outstanding participation. Pedro Parra is the national champion and ranked fifth in the world after running 435.5 km in 65 hours.
Other Mexican ultramarathoners
To our knowledge, there are a limited number of ultra-distance athletes in Mexico, besides the Rarámuris, who have achieved records endorsed by the IAU (International Association of Ultrarunners), the international organization that regulates ultra-distance competitions worldwide.
To talk about ultra-distance in Mexico is to mention Silvia Andonie, the maximum Mexican reference in this discipline, since she has conquered 30 records in total, 14 of which have been international.
To talk about ultra-distance in Mexico is to mention Silvia Andonie, the maximum Mexican reference in this discipline, as she has conquered 30 records in total, of which 14 have been at the global level. Silvia still holds the absolute Mexican record for the 6-day ultra-distance race, with a total of 726.603 km run.
Oswaldo López and Jorge Pacheco are also two references of ultra-distance running in Mexico, as both have won one of the most prestigious ultramarathons in the world: the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 217 km race which starts in the Badwater Basin and ends at Mount Whitney, which are the lowest and highest geographical points in the United States, respectively (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). This entails an ascent of more than 4,000 meters. Most of this ultramarathon takes place in the Death Valley desert located in southeastern California, USA —where temperatures are close to 50°C (122 °F) in the shade. Oswaldo Lopez won this competition in 2011 with a time of 23:41:40, taking second place in 2009 and 2012, while Jorge Pacheco won it in 2008. Outstandingly, Oswaldo López holds the Mexican record in the 24-hour ultra-distance athletic race, with 224.723 km run.
In addition to Silvia, Owaldo and Jorge, Marco Antonio Zaragoza Campillo has also been an outstanding ultramarathoner, who has been one of the six Mexicans to finish the Spartathlon in time and form. Marco has managed to finish this competition three times, in 2017, 2018, and 2019. In addition, Marco currently holds the Mexican record in the 48-hour ultra-distance race, with 328.026 km, obtained in Uruguay in 2019.
The uncertain path of ultra-distance in Mexico
Currently, ultra-distance running has little recognition and diffusion in Mexico. This is due to several factors, one of them is the lack of support from the sports authorities, because it is not categorized as an Olympic event. Another factor is that since there is a small number of practitioners, it does not have the advertising impact that attracts the attention of large sponsors; therefore, in most of these competitions there is no economic prize for the winners. This implies that anyone interested in becoming an ultramarathon runner must pay for their shoes, appropriate sports clothing, training, race registration, as well as transportation, lodging and food on trips to attend national and international competitions.
Ultra-distance is the unique ability of human beings to run unimaginable distances. In Mexico, ultra-distance has been part of our daily life, in which athletes, with or without a particular training, have achieved distinctions in national and international competitions. So, when running, do not set a limit, always go for more, your body is adapted to run an ultra-distance.
When running, do not set yourself a limit, always go for more, your body is adapted to run an ultra-distance.
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Is a Biological Pharmaceutical Chemist from the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM), with a master’s degree in Biological Sciences from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She is currently doing her doctoral thesis in Biological Sciences at LIIGH under the mentorship of Dr. Ávila Arcos.