Neil Featherby: The mind-blowing world of ultra running is nothing new

Only 26.2 miles to go having completed 80 miles during my 106.2 mile run, August, 1995. Picture: Nei

Only 26.2 miles to go having completed 80 miles during my 106.2 mile run, August, 1995. Picture: Neil Featherby - Credit: Archant

Every time I go onto social media I am always amazed by the enormous amount of people who have entered or indeed have just completed an ultra marathon.

Setting out on the third and final peak, Ben Nevis during The Three Peaks Challenge in August 1999.

Setting out on the third and final peak, Ben Nevis during The Three Peaks Challenge in August 1999. Picture: Neil Featherby - Credit: Archant

It's not that many years ago when anyone who ran beyond the marathon distance was considered bonkers, but now there are events and races just about every week which goes well beyond 26.2 miles with some of them even being multi day races.

Locally here in Norfolk, we have recently seen Mandy Foyster, Carmine De Grandis and Karen Doak, all produce awesome multi day ultra-running performances and then of course Maria Greaves and Gavin Barron with their completion of 10 Ironman races in 10 consecutive days.

However, ultra marathons and extreme racing is nothing new and has history which goes back many years to the 1700s where athletes or pedestrians as they were also known back then would try to break records which meant covering hundreds of miles on foot from point to point or city to city such as York to London. Then during the latter part of the 19th century, six-day racing became very popular with large amounts of prize money being up for grabs with on course betting throughout the week amongst the spectators and what at that time was the gentry who sponsored such events.

These guys would circle the track for hour after hour throughout each day and night when at times it appeared that the contestants had walked themselves into oblivion only to then have treatment at the side of the track whereby they were soon up and away again.

Needless to say some of the methods used in this treatment could mean anything from a mixture of brandy and strychnine to having cuts made so as to let the blood flow which was a term knowing as bleeding. I am sure that it if this extreme procedure did have any positive effect, then it could have only been one of a psychological gain.

There were many great names during this period who all excelled at one time or another, but it was the British athlete George Littlewood from Sheffield, who at The Madison Square Gardens in New York, in 1888 set a new world six-day record which was to remain unbeaten for an amazing 96 years with a distance of 623 miles and 1,320 yards until the equally amazing Greek athlete Yiannis Kouros covered 635 miles in New York in 1984.

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Kouros burst on to the ultra scene during the early 1980s winning races a long way ahead of his competitors for which initially some suggested he was cheating.

MORE: Love running? Join the Run Anglia Facebook group hereHowever, he most certainly was not and he remained pretty much at the top of his game for many years whereby he bettered his own six-day record again in Australia in 2005, with another awesome performance when completing a staggering 644 miles.

Whilst Kourus has set many outstanding records at various ultra-distances during his career and is still the holder of a dozen world bests, there are many others who have since got very close and even set records of their own.

However, and at the same time, the ladies must not be forgotten either for which some of their records are mind blowing too such as Camille Herron's road 100 mile best of 12 hours, 42 mins and 40 secs set in 2017 which is less than a hour behind Kouros' road best of 11:46:37 and New Zealander Sandra Barwick with her 549 miles, 110 yards in 1990 during a six-day race.

With regards to local athletes and ultra-running, there is no way I can finish this column without mentioning Dave Goodwin from Taverham, who during the 1980s whilst competing for Thetford AC produced some world class performances himself such as 515 miles in a six-day Race at Nottingham, 100 miles in 14 hrs and 10 mins, 100km in 6hrs and 40 mins and completed what was at the time the classic London to Brighton Road Race of 52.5 miles in 5hrs and 58mins. I don't think anyone would disagree when I say that makes him Norfolk's most elite ultra-marathoner.

Late August is always a time of year when ultra-running is very much on my mind. In the past I've run round Norfolk with my good friend Nigel Arnold whilst raising money for The Quidenham Hospice in 1989 and I ran 106.2 miles in less than a day in 1995 for two young girls who suffered with a very rare skin disease. I also completed the Three Peaks challenge with friends in 1999 for the Macmillan Appeal.

As for being bonkers, well possibly, but the one thing I will say is that whilst there are only a very few who will set ultra marathon world records, if you prepare your body and mind well, completing such challenges really is so very possible which of course is now being proved by so many people.