Recently, there has been a series of unbelievable feats of endurance that caught my attention and captivated my imagination. It’s probably been going on around me for many years, but it’s like when you buy a new car and suddenly you see it everywhere on the road. Ever since I signed up for the Transrockies Run this summer, I am taking notice of many incredible examples of human endurance. Any one of them make the 125-mile Transrockies stage race look like a warm-up.
Take Jennifer Figge, who just became the first woman to swim across the Atlantic Ocean. She completed this swim in 24 days, swimming 2,000 miles from the Cape Verde Islands to Trinidad in a makeshift shark cage. Frenchman Benoit Lecomte is believed to have been the first to swim across the Atlantic when he swam 3,716 miles from Cape Cod, Mass., to the Brittany region of France in 1998. The journey took him 73 days. In 1994, another Frenchman, Guy Delage, claims to have swum the same route that Figge swam, but with a kickboard.
15 athletes recently completed the 8th Decatriathlon World Challenge in Monterrey, Mexico. That’s ten ironmans in a row, or an absurd 24-mile swim, 1,120-mile bike, and a 262-mile run (just move the decimal point over one place–seems easy, huh?). The swim alone is 1,520 lengths of a 25-meter swimming pool, or the equivalent of swimming the English Channel. For the leaders, this ultra endurance event takes over eight days of non-stop effort with occasional one-hour sleep breaks. Six others (3 men, 3 women) also completed the Quintuple Ironman, a monumental distance that is somehow dwarfed by the Decatriathlon.
Then there’s this fellow Richard Donovan who just last week became the first person to complete seven marathons on seven continents in less than seven days. His globe-trotting string of marathons started in Antarctica, then went to Cape Town, Dubai, London, Toronto, Santiago and Sydney in five days, ten hours and eight minutes, logging 26,719 miles in the air in addition to his running.
What drives these people to attempt such mind-bending feats of human endurance? How do you train for something like that? And just how far can you push the human body, anyway? Many of these extremes among extremes raise money and awareness for charitable causes along the way, but you know that’s not the only reason they do these things. Is it inspiring or truly insane, or maybe both?
Any discussion on endurance giants is incomplete without mentioning Dean Karnazes, whose list of unimaginable running accomplishments continues to grow. There is no organized race in the world that provides enough distance for Dean, and he makes Forrest Gump look like a rookie. Last year, Dean became the first person to complete the desert “Grand Slam” in one year by running five of the world’s most inhospitable deserts. He has also run 350 miles without stopping. Yes, 350 MILES! Took him over 80 hours. That’s over three days and nights without sleep. His perfect biomechanics and an ability to recover quickly has helped him to never sustain a running injury. More on my recent run with Dean here and my review of his book, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.
For cyclists, there is of course the Tour de France. But that famous event is for professional riders and it’s a mere 3,500 kilometers long. For the truly insane cyclist, there’s the Tour d’Afrique (ironically pronounced ”da freak”), an annual 12,000-kilometer bicycle race and expedition from Cairo to Cape Town, billed as the most grueling bike race on the planet. The event takes about 120 days of which 96 are cycling days, averaging 125km a day.
Last May, George Hood set a cycling record without going anywhere. He sat on a stationary bike for over 177 hours. That’s nine days pedaling an estimated 2,600 miles, burning nearly 47,000 calories, and sleeping a combined 9 hours, 36 minutes in 10- and 12-minute cat naps. Can’t imagine how he handles saddle sores.
The longest certified road race in the world is the 3,100 mile Self-Transcendence Race. There is no photo that quite captures the madness of this event but the whole philosophy of self-transcendence is the idea that we are capable of more than we might believe. Incredibly, competitors run 5,649 laps of a half-mile course in a span of 51 days. The course record is 42 days. That’s an average of 75 miles a day for six weeks! Suprabha Beckjord is the only 12-time finisher and still the only female competitor. She has run 39,900 miles in this one race alone and holds national and world records for running 700, 1,000, 1,300, and 2,700 miles. This and other famous feats of endurance are a part of the fascinating history around ultramarathons and its predecessor “pedestrianism,” chronicled on allaboutrunning.net.
And just when you think you’ve heard it all, there’s Mark Covert, who has run at least one mile every day since July 23, 1968. That’s over 40 years without missing a day and averaging almost nine miles a day. I remember reading about him in Runner’s World last year. He has covered more than 136,000 miles. He ran more than 150 miles a week in his peak years when he finished seventh in the 1972 Olympic marathon trials. His is a different form of endurance, but no less impressive.
I note the age of just the athletes mentioned here as it makes me feel very young:
Jennifer Figge — 56
Richard Donovan — 42
Dean Karnazes — 46
George Hood — 50
Suprabha Beckjord — 52
Mark Covert — 57
Here’s how one athlete summed up his 4th place finish at the Decatriathlon. “It took me 2 years to recover from the race in Mexico. My health suffered from the supreme effort I had given and from the amount of painkillers I consumed. But, despite this I learnt a great deal about myself. I learnt how to keep going though great pain barriers. Too often in life people are scared to push themselves. They put up a barrier. However, it is once you break through that barrier that you discover yourself. Don’t be scared of breaking through that barrier in life. You never know what you might achieve.”
I especially liked what Jennifer Figge said about the ultra endurance athlete. ”Those who don’t know the impossible are the ones who make things possible.”