extreme trails

Addendum: anyone doubting my claim that extreme efforts presuppose an ‘outlier’ body, read Bryon Powell’s interview with Pete Kostelnick who just shattered the longstanding trans-USA record, running an average of more than 115k/day for a consecutive 42 days, 6 hours and 30 minutes.

In one of my previous posts I pat myself on the shoulder for correctly divining a trend toward more extreme trails. And I lament that what really matters for considering doing one yourself and for properly appreciating the efforts of others is not yet receiving sufficient attention. All a bit cryptic, so you deserve a bit more detail, and some nuance to my overly judgmental opinions.

Besides the above, three additional triggers to dwell a bit more on the extremes. First: Lizzy Hawker (check out her other big thing: the Ultra Tour de Monte Rosa) has just finished her 42 day unsupported East-West crossing of Nepal, following the Great Himalayan Trail high route wherever that was possible (some sections require mountaineering equipment and a partner – not possible on a solo self-supported attempt – more on the ‘support’ semantics below).

If you want to support Lizzy’s efforts for Nepalese female runners, go here.

Then: a recent post by Michiel Panhuysen, a Dutch extreme trailer,  enlightened me about how much trail race organizers are into developing extreme  events. I knew about the Tor des Geants and the Petite Trotte a Leon, some shorter (but extremely technical) courses like the Ronda del Cims, or the crazy Barkley, and the longer Transpyrenea. But a 233k Ronda del Cims version (the Euforia)? The existence of a 265k Transgrancanaria 360, a 260k Beskidy ultra trail, all alpine, very technical mountain trails with huge altitude differences, no markings (thus requiring some orienteering skills) and with minimal support? All new to me.

Lastly: the German and especially UK trail race calendars contain increasing numbers of single stage,  beyond-100-mile distance courses. Not extreme from a technical perspective, but certainly requiring exceptional skills in dealing with sleep deprivation to get on the podium.

Alright, let’s get back to what I focused on in my trendwatching post: the Fastest Known Times efforts over crazy distances, like the Great Himalayan Trail, or the Appalachian Trail. The supported FKT for the AT has recently been broken again by 100-miler legend Karl Meltzer. Bryon Powell of iRunfar conducted a very long interview with Meltzer that addresses lots of interesting aspects for anyone trying to understand what kind of body (amazing self-healing capacities – something first highlighted by research conducted on runners participating in transcontinental races) and mental focus are needed to get through these kinds of distances, and about the game changing importance of (good) support:

(Substantially beyond) 100-miles is a good description for what I mean with extreme trails. For very alpine and/or technical-scrambling courses with lots of altitude difference, 100 miles is already a pretty crazy distance that is going to take 30+ hours for those going for victory. When the going gets easier, the distance needs to be longer, and that’s where the 250-300k races come into play. Which is not to say that they are all (technically) easier. Nearly all German and UK races, and the TdG are, but e.g. the PTL isn’t. However that may be, with these distances ability to deal with sleep deprivation is a crucial factor in being a serious contestant. The TdG winner is going to take 70+ hours with very very little sleep. I’ve personally crewed a friend doing something along those lines and can assure you that what it requires is a very rare ability. It definitely felt like being in an ‘alien’ presence.

Obviously, combining extreme technicality and extreme duration makes for a qualitatively (very) different package. As is the level of support provided. This only comes fully into its own on the really long distances. The usual categories and their ‘purist’ interpretations are:

  • unsupported = carrying all you need (other then water from natural sources) for the whole duration of the effort
  • self-supported = restocking with self-deposited caches or resupplying from stores etc. en route (or close to the route)
  • supported = having a dedicated support crew looking after you

Unsupported in the above sense naturally limits absolute duration. One can only carry so much food. For those wanting some more thoughts: have a look here and here. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that these ‘definitions’  leave ample room for hugely varying levels of support/difficulty. A crew who drops caches for you at designated places already turns one’s effort into a ‘supported’ one, but the difference between this minimalist version and support meeting the pedestrian every 10-20 miles, with food, gear, injury treatment and massage, and looking after anything other than putting one foot in front of the other is huge, I mean HUGE. Karl Meltzer had support of the latter kind. Watch an effort to do it in a way more minimalist way (supported among others by the indefatigable Richard – trailrunningnepal – Bull):

Now, imagine the above without a partner along for at least part of the way, and basically nothing beyond what consolation and help living of the land offers (which – as you can see from Philip & Anna’s visuals – makes much of Nepal a fabulous trailrunning/fastpacking destination!) and a spot device connection with her home ‘crew’, which is the Lizzy version of this trail. I don’t think that the times of supported efforts like those of Meltzer (and his immediate predecessors Scott Jurek and Jennifer Pharr Davis, it’s a hotly contested record) can really been compared with those of minimalist self-supported efforts. One can try to quantify some of the differences, but much of them are just impossible to adequately factor in.

Anyways, I fully agree with the Ras Vaughan, that the most sensible approach to these efforts is to honestly document them, including all aspects (food, clothing, other gear – caches or not – time required off-course to resupply, etc. etc.) of the way one (self-)supported it, the weather, anything else that matters, and then leave it up to the world to decide what to think of it. We all have an ego, but if you’re a somewhat normal individual, knowing that you accomplished something hugely impressive should be sufficient payback. That this approach of according real differences more importance than simplistic categories, and accepting that the ‘FKTs’ and ‘records’ are all very conditional upon loads of factors beyond the hero(ine) at the centre of it all shouldn’t detract one bit from their accomplishment. But I know that that is a naive stand to take.

Let’s get back to the extreme ‘races’. How do they fit in? I am still very much in two minds. They offer the possibility to those with the basic skills to give extreme a try, with just enough safety measures and support to allow a finish without the need for an outlier body (exclude the Barkley from that statement). But they also entice the overconfident and foolish (I know the kind from the inside) that it cannot be that bad/potentially dangerous. They organize it, don’t they? I pay some serious money for it, so it’s legit to expect some serious looking-after and the exclusion of real danger and/or the risk of an ego-shattering rock-bottom experience, isn’t it? And the effects on the world of event organizers seems equally predictable. When money is involved it is bound to become difficult to avoid compromises, stringent selection criteria are bound to be overlooked sometimes, etc. sure, only by some events, but in the aggregate the result of both tendencies is going to be casualties. Such is life. Risks are part of it. One mind thus comes out on top: responsible organizers deserve praise.

In the meantime, no reason to wait for organized events to test your limits (in a safe way). Go out in your backyard, be it the real outdoors or a cityscape, ensure your ass is covered in case things go wrong, preferably take someone along, and see what happens. More than enough to explore right here, right now.

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