The Ultimate Running Adventure

It's not only about the race. Why epic solo runs are the new ultras.
Ryan Sandes runs through the Fish River Canyon
Ryan Sandes record attempt © Kolesky/Nikon/Red Bull Content Pool
By Fredrik Ölmqvist

Ultra races may be popular, but the biggest trend in trail running is the growth of epic solo adventures or Fastest Known Times (FKTs). There is no big bang at the start when you set off alone — just the gentle rhythm of your breath as your mind slowly opens.

At the forefront of the FKT movement is Spanish superstar mountain runner Kilian Jornet, who has ticked a bunch of impressive speed records. In 2009 he set a new FKT with 32h 54m for the GR20 trail in Corsica and a new record, 38h 32m, for the Tahoe Rim Trail in California. In 2010 he set a new speed record up and down Kilimanjaro, 7h 14m, beating the previous by two hours.

In September 2012, Jornet “ran” the Innominata Ridge (a technical climb) from Courmayeur, passing Mt Blanc’s summit at 4,808m after 6h 17m and reaching Chamonix town square in 8h 43m after sprinting down Europe’s highest peak.

Other recent notable FKT’s set by ultra-trail runners include Elizabeth Hawker’s third 319km run from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu in 63h 8m in April 2013. “A wild and wonderful journey of contrasts” was how she described it. “Feeling rawness and vulnerability, and yet finding a strength in body, mind and spirit. Living in the moment.”

Jez Bragg runs on the Te Araroa trail at the Two Tumbs Range
Jez Bragg runs in New Zealand © Damiano Levati / The North Face

In February 2013 Briton Jez Bragg completed the 3,054km Te Araroa Trail across New Zealand after 53 days of running. In August 2012 South-African ultra-runner Ryan Sandes set a new speed record for Namibia’s Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail. Sandes completed the 84km run, self-supported, in 6h 57m, smashing the old record from 2003 by four hours. “I wasn’t doing it for breaking the record, but rather for the experience.”

Reasons for the trend vary. One explanation is the emergence of minimalist ultra-light gear, enabling runners to to pull-off longer distances on their own.

But the trail writer Adam Chase points to something else. Runners are fed up with races that fill-up in minutes, soaring entry fees and are driven by a desire to seek out solitude, he claims.

Swedish ultrarunner Markus Torgeby, who recently attempted to run the 1,300km length of the Swedish mountains, says running in the wilderness evokes strong emotions.

“Being all by yourself, carrying only what is necesseary, far away from roads and civilisation, you need to trust your instincts. I really like the idea that you can travel very far in the mountains with only leg power. It’s not so organised, but rather creative.”

Kilian Jornet portrait in the woods of La Palma
Kilian Jornet in the woods © Berger

Solo adventures bring an epic dimension to running. For some it’s fueled by curiousity of what is possible. Others are driven by a romantic, almost mystical connection with Nature. As Kilian Jornet puts it: “We are mountain runners because we like to feel free, to feel nature. When you can share all these emotions with friends, with other runners, with other persons, it’s just amazing!”

Records to look out for. This summer Anton Krupicka is planning a 145km traverse on the Continental Divide in Colorado, passing 14 different 14,000ft (4,300m) peaks.

Jornet is planning speed-record attempts on Aconcagua, Denali, Everest.

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