The red, sandy mass of the Simpson Desert covers 176 000 square kilometres of Australia's Northern Territory, extending over state borders into Queensland and South Australia. The landscape is relentless. In parallel lines, from north to south, dunes stretch as far as the eye can see – some of their ridge lines continuing unbroken for 200km, some of their peaks soaring to 40m. There are no maintained roads, no escape routes and, with summer temperatures reaching up to 50°C, no second chances for the unprepared. It took Samantha Gash four days to run across it.
"There's a huge sense of space in the Simpson," said Gash. "There were only two turns to be made in the whole 379km route. You can see for miles and that sort of environment puts a lot of things in life into perspective."
Since 2008, the 27-year-old lawyer has run ultramarathons all over the world (although her epic run across the Simpson was not an organised event). To qualify as an ultra, a race has to be longer than a traditional marathon (42km), with the most common distances for single-stage races being 50km, 80km, 100km and 160km. Multistage races take this a step further. In 2010, Gash became the first woman – and the youngest person – to complete the infamous Four Desert series, racing 250km in four separate stages across the Atacama, Sahara and Gobi deserts and Antarctica.
Another desert race, the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 243km race across the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco, is considered by some to be the toughest on Earth.
"I just love deserts. Running is a way of exploring the world. That's why I do it," said Gash. "Once you tackle something bigger than you've done before, you break down boundaries and that's so powerful. How can you deny yourself the opportunity to find out how strong you are?"
It's a question people are trying to find answers to with growing fervour as the bog-standard marathon loses its reputation as the pinnacle of running endeavour.
"I did my first ultra in 1995," says Rory Coleman, a performance coach who specialises in training people for long-distance races. "Back then it was a few oddballs looking for a different challenge. Now I think ultras are seen as the new triathalons and the ultra-race scene is exploding."
Disparate and independent
Despite the growing interest, the organisation of ultras is still rather disparate and independent races pop up all over the place, giving the sport an amateurish feel with camaraderie playing a large part.
There's a relatively comprehensive list of global events at marathons.ahotu.com. Some of these, such as the 64km Dukeries, which took place in May, are billed as a gentle introduction to ultras. Others, such as Whistler's Meet Your Maker – held for the first time recently, with the winner finishing in eight hours 31 minutes – make no bones about what they are: 80km of undulating single-track Alpine terrain. So if you really want to run across the United States's national parks, there's an ultra for you. And if you fancy tackling 4 600m of altitude gain in Luxembourg's Little Switzerland, you're in luck.
"Running has seen tremendous growth in the past 20 years," said Topher Gaylord of Mountain Hardware, an outdoor equipment company that has enthusiastically turned its attention to ultras. "There has been a tenfold increase in trail events and the events have seen a massive rise in participation because it's such a natural way to engage with the environment."
Recently, Gaylord was one of 2743 runners who took part in the North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (ultratrailmb.com), a single-stage race that begins in Chamonix and takes in 160km of Alpine scenery, three countries, 400 summits and almost 10 000m of altitude gain. It was won by a British runner in 12 hours 32 minutes. Support is minimal and the elements are merciless.
This epic race, in which the looming presence of Mont Blanc is the only constant, has demolished champions. Gaylord, who has entered the event 10 times, said: "No matter how prepared you are, it's always a challenge and there's never a guaranteed outcome. But it teaches you to be calm. There's not a lot you can do about the elements, so you have to learn to be comfortable with whatever you get."
Another competitor, Rachael Hutchins, said: "It doesn't get more scenic than Chamonix. I remember just before reaching the first checkpoint last year in the TDS [the Traces des Ducs des Savoie – a subsidiary and slightly shorter event under the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc umbrella], I rounded a bend to be faced with the most amazing view of a glacier I've ever seen. It was spectacular."
Trail-based or off-road, ultras are becoming the norm and runners often speak of the enjoyment of being part of the landscape, the feeling of adventure. But city-based challenges still have a part to play in this relatively embryonic sport.
"My all-time favourite is the 3 100," said Abichal Sherrington, editor of Ultrarunning World magazine (ultrarunningworld.co.uk). This is the longest certified foot race in the world, with runners lapping a 878m course round an extended city block in Queens, New York City, until they clock up 4 960km in 52 days. "It's as close to heaven as you can get. It's like meditation. You enter a different realm. It's not boring because you're completely focused on that moment, on what's going on inside your body.
"Although pounding out 160km may seem like an activity reserved for elite athletes, competitors generally agree that the opposite is true: ultras are for everyday people, and they're not wired differently. What they share is a desire to push boundaries."
"For me, it's definitely a physical test," said Hutchins. "The setting is usually mind-blowing and I find it easy to switch off my brain." – © Guardian News & Media 2012