By EMMA K. CARTER
You’ve probably heard the story of Pheidippides, the Greek soldier who, in 490 B.C., ran 26 miles from the town of Marathon to Athens. When he arrived, he announced a battleground victory over the Persians with his cry of, “Nike! (Victory!)”, and promptly dropped dead. Over 2,000 years later the marathon – so named for the spot of Pheidippides’ finish and defined by the approximate length of his run, 42.195 kilometers or 26 miles and 385 yards – was incorporated into the first modern Olympics in 1896 and has since spread across the globe.According to Running USA’s annual Marathon Report a record 1,100 marathons were run in 2013 with 541,000 finishers in the U.S. alone. In fact, the largest marathon in the world —that is to say the most popular — is the New York City Marathon, which last year boasted an astounding 50,266 finishers. However, size isn’t everything. As the popularity of the marathon has grown, so have the abilities of the runners themselves. Those looking for the next big challenge turn to the ultra-marathon.
An “ultramarathon” is defined as anything longer than the traditional 26.2 miles. These races can range anywhere from 50km to 100 miles in length or more. Ultramarathons are not for the faint at heart. As runners continue to stretch past their previous limits, a new category of racing has emerged – the transcontinental or “trans-con” race. Historically, races such as these have taken place in both the United States and Europe.
The first and longest ultramarathon in the U.S. took place in 1928. It was called the Trans-American Footrace, but nicknamed the “Bunion Derby” by the press. Participants started in Los Angeles, California, and ended in New York City, completing 3,423 miles in 84 days. Andy Payne, age 20, of Foyil, Oklahoma had the fastest time of 573 hours, 4 minutes and 34 seconds. One year later, the second trans-American footrace occurred, this time starting in New York City and ending in Los Angeles. Seventy-seven runners ran a total distance of 3,554 miles in 78 days.
As told by Charles Kastner in his new book, The 1929 Bunion Derby, Johnny Salo and the Great Footrace across America, two runners – Johnny Salo of Passaic, New Jersey, and Pete Gavuzzi of England – surpassed the rest of the field with their unparalleled average pace of 8 minutes and 53 seconds per mile over the entire Trans-American course. Never before had runners run so fast for so long.The next Trans-American ultra marathon wasn’t held until 1992. This one started in Huntington Beach, California, and ended in New York City. David Warady took first place, completing 2,935.8 miles in a time of 521 hours, 35 minutes and 37 seconds.
Transcontinental ultramarathons of such a large scale have been held in Europe as well. In 2003, participants ran a 64-day Trans Europe Foot Race from Lisbon, Portugal to Moscow, Russia, covering a total distance of 3,200 miles. There were 44 race starters and 22 finishers, including one woman and a wheelchair athlete. Robert Wimmer from Germany was the winner.
In 2009, another edition of the Trans Europe Foot Race was held. Participants ran from Bari, Italy to North Cape, Norway, covering 2,787 miles in 64 days. The male winner was Rainer Koch of Germany, with a time of 378 hours and 12 minutes. The female winner was Takako Furuyama of Japan.
The most recent TransEurope Foot Race ultramarathon was held in 2012. The course took runners from Skagen, Denmark to the Strait of Gibraltar, a distance of 2,594 miles. In 64 days, 29 runners completed the course, and Henry Wehder took first place with a time of 376 hours, 42 minutes and 28 seconds.Next year, the United States will once again host a transcontinental ultra-marathon. Organized by Run-Walk Events, the Race Across the USA will feature a team of international athletes who will embark on a 140-day journey, running 3,080 miles across the United States. The race will begin in Huntington Beach, CA and end in Washington D.C., with the goal of “sparking a renaissance in childhood health and fitness”, as the runners raise awareness of childhood fitness organizations, such as the 100 Mile Club®.
Race Across the USA aims not only to raise awareness but also raise funds for the 100 Mile Club®. The race will pass through 12 states and, in addition to the core team that are crossing the entire country, other runners are given the option of completing a portion of the race in one or more states of their choosing. When signing up, participants may choose different race options in some states. The further the distance, the more money each runner hopes to raise.
The 100 Mile Club® is nationally recognized school-based fitness program that challenges kids to run (or walk) 100 miles in one year. The program also “teaches kids life skills, goal setting, and self-esteem while making physical activity a healthier habit for life.” Race Across the USA also encourages students participating in the 100 Mile Club® to follow along with the progress of the marathon runners by adding up all the miles each child runs every week and entering them into the World Walking Race Across the USA tracking tool. Students can measure their own progress as a team, using the Race Across the USA course and run virtually alongside the super marathon participants.
Whether or not Pheidippides meant to, he inspired a global phenomenon, and many runners after him, including Johnny Salo, Pete Gavuzzi, Dave Warady, and Rainer Koch, have continued to inspire generations to come with their determination, endurance, and passion. Race Across the USA aims to do the same with the next great transcontinental ultramarathon.