New Research Reveals Recent Trends in Ultra-Endurance Events

New research tells us a bit about the participants in two of the world’s most infamous ultra-endurance events: the Spartathlon in Greece and Badwater race in Death Valley.

Few athletic events capture attention and respect like long endurance events. And I don’t even mean marathon long, I mean what we call ultra-endurance races that last for days, like the Tour De France or Iditerod.

For foot races, ultra-marathons might cover 100 miles or more. A recent study in Extreme Physiology and Medicine takes a look at the trends in these ultra-marathons. The researchers didn’t look at just any ultra-marathons though. Instead, they examined two of the most infamous ultra-endurance races out there: the Spartathlon and Badwater.

The Spartathlon is the most well-known historically inspired run. This race is a vicious 153-mile trek from Athens to Sparta in Greece. The legendary run by Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger sent to Sparta to request assistance against invading Persians, is where we get our modern term “marathon.” According to the story, Pheidippides arrived at his destination the very next day. In 1982 five British air force officers traveled to Greece on an official mission to see if this was possible. Sure enough, three of them made it, the fastest in 34.5 hours. And thus the Spartathlon was born.

The other race the researchers looked at is known as Badwater, advertised as the most brutal foot race in the world. This race is thankfully shorter than the Spartathlon, at “only” 135 miles. Problem is, it’s in Death Valley. In July. If running an ultra-marathon in 120-degree heat isn’t enough to dissuade you, allow me to continue. Not only would you be running a race 135 miles long, you’d also be climbing about a mile and a half. That’s right, it’s uphill the entire way.

The researchers examined the basic demographics and performance trends of both races. The biggest change in recent times is the increase in female participation. Women make up about a fifth of the participants in Badwater, and about half that for the Spartathlon, but the trend is increasing. Female participation in these races is on the rise.

The other major change noted was the age. Only the fastest men at the Badwater have gotten younger in the last few years, dipping to just under 40 years old, but finishers at both races in general averaged in their mid-40s, and the fastest racers in each race and in both sexes was roughly in the 40 to 45 year age range.

No surprise, Badwater is the slower of the two races, with average running speeds at only 80% that of the Spartathlon. However, unlike the Spartathlon, the Badwater racers are getting faster in time. Perhaps better technologies for dealing with the heat are to blame, or possibly people are simply desperate to get it over with. I know I would be.

The research shows these sorts of races are increasing in popularity, especially among women, so expect to hear more about these events in the future. One thing that hasn’t changed over time so far is the difference between the sexes. There’s about a 20% difference in performance between men and women for both races, with men consistently outrunning women. It’s time to go get ‘em, ladies.


1. Kristina da Fonseca-Engelhardt, et. al., “Participation and performance trends in ultra-endurance running races under extreme conditions – ‘Spartathlon’ versus ‘Badwater’,” Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2013, 2:15

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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