reviewed by Peter Bakwin
Extreme Running by Kym McConnell and Dave Horsley (Pavilion, 2007, $26.60 at Amazon) is probably the first coffee-table book specifically for ultrarunners. It is a beautiful book, with every page loaded with stunning photographs that will make the avid or aspiring adventure runner lust for more vacation time and travel funds. McConnell and Horsley describe 24 extreme footraces on all seven continents. “Extreme” means not just extremes of endurance, but also of conditions: the bitter cold and dryness of Antarctica; the brutal heat and humidity of the Amazon jungle; the roasting desiccation of the Sahara; and the lung-busting altitudes of Pikes Peak and the Mount Everest region.
The book covers a remarkable variety of events, and there is something here for every ultrarunner. There are road ultras , including Badwater, Comrades and Spartathlon, trail ultras such as the Ultra-Trail Tour du Mont-Blanc, Kepler Challenge and Wasatch Front 100 Mile, trail and mountain marathons - Pikes Peak, Inca Trail, Lake Baikal, Antarctica, and multi-day stage races – the Marathon des Sables, Transalpine-Run, and more. Detailed descriptions give a good sense of the total experience of each race, often including pre- and post-race activities. Key data for each race is listed, such as race distance, altitude gain and loss, climate, course records, approximate field size and finishing rate, and web site and contact information. Coverage of the races ranges from two pages (Pikes Peak, Comrades), up to an in-depth description of the Marathon des Sables in sixteen pages. Each description is loaded with valuable information, maps and eye-popping photos. The only distraction is very frequent typos.
The book includes four multi-day, self-sufficiency races which are all very similar in format to the Marathon des Sables. In these events competitors must carry all their own gear, usually excluding only water, and live in spartan conditions during the race. They are uniformly six-day runs of 200-250 km total distance, with one especially long stage of 80 km for which two days are allotted, so that the stage may be completed in a single push or with an overnight sleep break. All are held in extreme environments, such as deserts or the Amazon jungle. The events described here (Marathon des Sables, Gobi March, Jungle Marathon, Atacama Crossing) are not the only ones of this format, and the proliferation of these events is perhaps surprising, especially given entry fees in the range of $3000 to over $5000. But, it surely reflects the desire many of us feel for a truly unique adventure that challenges the body and spirit on many levels. Completing such a trial gives one a sense of confidence that the challenges of daily life can be met and surmounted with grace.
Readers will likely enjoy comparing their own list of classic extreme running events with those in the book. What about Hardrock vs. Wasatch? Why wasn’t the Arrowhead 135 mile included? Is the seven-day, 350 km Swiss Jura Marathon more extreme than the eight-day, 230 km Transalpine Run? With such a variety of events now available on the racing calendar, readers may be inspired to come up with their own list of classics.
Extreme Running is a great gift for any ultrarunner or serious outdoor adventure junkie, though a spouse or parent may want to think twice before giving their endurance-addicted loved one any more crazy ideas.