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August 19th, 2004
Sahara Marathon
Race Guide: Extreme Marathons

The inspiration for today’s marathon and ultra-marathon comes from an ancient Greek messenger named Pheidippides. Legend has it that in 490 B.C.E. Pheidippides ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens, delivered the news of the Greek victory, and then dropped dead. Pheidippides had earlier run 150 miles to Sparta in an unsuccessful effort to gain immediate Spartan military support for the battle of Marathon. (Why Pheidippides died after a significantly shorter run has inspired much scholarly debate.)

Long-distance running has evolved a great deal since the fifth century B.C.E. Today the sport involves everything from an easy 3K run to a 150-mile ultra-marathon. One particularly appealing aspect of competitive running is that practice is self-directed. The runner can set his or her own training schedule. Another attractive feature of the sport is that success is not measured solely by winning or losing; the late Fred Lebow, former president of New York Road Runners explained: “In running, it doesn’t matter whether you come in first, in the middle of the pack, or last. You can say, ‘I have finished.’ There is a lot of satisfaction in that.” Perhaps for this reason or just the love of free-movement, and a sense of mission accomplished, long-distance racing can be found across the globe and in a wide variety of climates and terrains.

Gear:

Pheidippides may have completed the world’s first marathon barefoot, but most modern runners rely on sneakers. Proper footwear is one of the most important pieces of gear in a long-distance runner’s world. Short distance runners want very light, slipper-like sneakers, but marathoners and ultra-marathoners need to protect themselves from the constant pounding they’ll endure along the course. Proper running shoes should be springy with plenty of cushioning on the inside and adequate arch and ankle support. Depending on the type of race, this might be anything from a standard running shoe to a lightweight hiking boot. Many runners also wear pedometers or speedometers that track miles traveled and speed. Some stage (multiple-day) ultra-marathoners must carry camping gear, so lightweight outdoor equipment is key.

Training:
To begin and, more importantly, to finish a race, a runner must pace him- or herself by adhering to pre-determined time and distance goals. Determining and pursuing these goals requires months of training. Most standard-distance and ultra-marathoners have training schedules that alternate between short (3-4 miles) and long (7-15 miles) runs. Depending on the type of race, runners may also need to incorporate terrain in their regimens, such as running up and down hills. Some competitors hire running coaches who do everything from designing training calendars to creating proper diets for their clients.

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