Strength of Iron, Heart of Gold


For most of us, exercise is a fun, healthy – but casual – way to get out of the house and stay in shape. In the world of sports, however, there’s a category that goes beyond our weekly bouts at the gym, or a pick-up game with the guys: some sports out there are Extreme. Sports like the famous Iron Man Triathlon races exist to push the limits of human ability and endurance. The full Iron Man race pits athletes against 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of bike racing, and a marathon 26.2 miles of running – all in one stretch. Finishing any one course is a workout even for a professional athlete; completing all three amounts to a Feat of Hercules.

Pheidippides and runner carrying on the tradition

Pheidippides and runner carrying on the tradition

These kinds of feats of strength and endurance go back almost as far as Hercules himself. The original Marathon race was run millennia ago by the Greek soldier Pheidippides, who wanted to deliver news of an outstanding military victory to the city-state of Athens – 26.2 miles away from where he started. The legend says he ran without pause, and when he finally reached Athens, he shouted “Victory!”, and then died, his mission complete. (How’s that for dedication?) Since then, people from all over the world have sought to push the limits of human capability by creating tests of physical ability, like the Olympic Games held every four years to celebrate the peak of human physical condition and training.

There are extreme competitions a little more local than the Olympics. In the United States alone, there have been numerous races and competitions to pit human strength against nature, other runners, and themselves. In the past century, several races stand out for sheer extremeness: in the Iditarod Trail Invitational1, 50 racers run the same course as the famous Iditarod Dog Sled Race. If a competitor isn’t as good as a team of a dozen racing dogs, they won’t finish the race. This race is also run through snow, ice, and weather, so the racer had better have a fur coat like a racing dog, as well!

Other races have been held in more temperate climes, but raise the difficulty to almost inhuman levels in order to keep the challenge alive for the hardest-of-core professional athletes. The first “Great American Footrace” in 1928 was a truly massive race run from the city of Los Angeles to the city of New York. At the time, the newspapers advertised the Footrace as “the Bunion Derby” for the sad fact of all the sore feet the contestants developed after running hundreds and hundreds of miles. For racers who want more than a flat track, there is the Hardrock 1001 race situated in the Rocky Mountains, with 100 miles of horizontal distance and over 14,000 feet vertical distance at the top of the race. Athletes in the Hardrock 100 had better catch their breath, because the altitude is killer. As far as extreme sports races go, the United States has held, and will continue to hold, some of the toughest in the world.

Next year, in 2015, another race joins the tradition of the great American racing events: The Race Across the USA. As the name might suggest, the Race will be run across the entire continental United States, from Huntington Beach, California, to the east coast. It will pass through 12 separate states in the southern half of the country, ending at White House in Washington, D.C. The Race is scheduled to take 140 days, making it one of the longest single-run races in the world. The Race Across the USA has already been compared to the Top 5 Toughest Ultramarathons1, and covers about as much distance as the “Bunion Derby” did, coming in at 3,080 miles in total. The main coast-to-coast event will be run by a core team of 12 athletes, with secondary courses run across individual states, and four-day challenges, each of which cover multiple marathon-length races. Racers in these events will get the chance to run on the same course as the core team when they pass through each state, with the challenges scheduled to coincide with the main coast-to-coast event.

Any one of these smaller events matches the original Marathon race run thousands of years ago; if any racer has ever wanted to feel like an ancient Greek hero, this is their chance. Finishing the entire race – all 3,080 miles of it – means the racer will join only a few dozen people to have successfully run the width of the United States of America – and at the same time, the North American continent. That’s a bit longer than a marathon, and every racer who participates should be proud of themselves for their extreme dedication and for keeping the extreme tradition alive and kicking.

There is another tradition the Race Across the USA keeps alive, a tradition of supporting worthy causes. The Race benefits the cause of childhood fitness and health. After each marathon-length stretch of the race, the runners will be pausing to spread the word at schools along the route, with special attention paid to issues such as childhood obesity and diabetes – a concern on a national level, with as many as 29 million people2 afflicted, with many more at-risk.

These health issues are of particular concern to the 100 Mile Club®, the non-profit organization benefiting from the Race Across the USA. Headed by educator Kara Lubin, the 100 Mile Club® is a nationwide organization that helps students get fit, stay healthy, and become aware of life-changing health issues. The 100 Mile Club® is in its 24th year of helping schoolchildren across the country. Donated proceeds of the Race Across the USA will go to help the 100-Mile Club® and other childhood fitness non-profits in their missions. Those who wish to volunteer or sponsor the race should sign up to help while they can.

For thousands of years, humans have pushed their bodies and minds to their limits – and far beyond. Each new competition or ultramarathon is a chance to prove that a racer is the strongest, toughest, and fastest, and just like the races, it doesn’t look like the desire to succeed, to push, to be extreme will be ending anytime soon.

References and Citations
1 Mews, Tobias. “5 Toughest Ultramarathons in the USA”. 5 Toughest Ultramarathons in the USA – Merrell The Pack. Merrell. Web access. 13th August, 2014.

2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Diabetes Statistics Report: Estimates of Diabetes and Its Burden in the United States, 2014. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2014.

3 “Pheidippides”. Web Image. World of James. World of James | James Ellis’ travel blog. Web Access. 29th August, 2014.

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