America has been marathon-mad for decades but after you have run a few of them they begin to seem a bit ho-hum. At least for me. There are currently hundreds of active marathons in U.S. cities, with more than a million participants II some seriously competitive, others dressed in clown suits or walking backward. It is fast becoming a fun run for the masses.
So in the proud American tradition, the real thrusters need something bigger, better and more expensive. They appear to have found it in the 24-hour race, a kind of grown-up slumber party without the slumber. The courses are known for their scenery but about half the race is run in the dark, depending on the time of year. Runners' individual Petzl headlamps showing the way around the pot holes.
In the Boston area, teams are already training for next spring's 200-mile race along the shore of Cape Cod all the way to the end point at Provincetown. I plan to join in -- or at least attend the post-race party that brings these events to a roaring climax.
Of the 16 races now established by the Ragnar organization, the leader in this ultrarunning event, other events on the 2012 schedule include races starting in Washington D.C. and following the Potomac River Valley, descending the Florida Keys, and threading the Northwest Passage in the Seattle area.
The 24-hour endurance test is a uniquely American phenomenon, a challenge that seems to speak to the best of the can-do genes in the American makeup. It offers participants the chance to emerge from the pack of ordinary runners and earn bragging rights wherever couch potatoes gather.
The races have mushroomed from about 18,000 runners a few years ago to more than 100,000 expected in the next season, including all organizers. The wimpy Europeans and Asians aren't interested.
Nobody actually runs for 24 hours but teams of six or twelve runners break up the course in legs of 5 to 8 miles, leapfrogging their way in the team's van to the next exchange point and grabbing the baton. Catnaps in the back seat are about the only hope for rest.
Runners say they like the shift from the solitude of the marathoner to the togetherness of the team concept. Bye-bye "Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" (Alan Sillitoe's famous short story of 1959). Team members are expected to train hard for the ordeal. They run for the greater good of the team, and draw extra stimulus from their fear of letting the side down.
I recently spoke to Tanner Bell, based near Salt Lake City, co-founder of the Ragnar Relay Series. "Taking part makes you a member of a tribe," he told me. Veterans flaunt their branded gear in public and watch for opportunities to connect with fellow survivors of this grueling contest.
His fitness evangelism reaches a peak when he describes the races as a "gateway to an active lifestyle."
The 24-hour participants are a bit like the triathalon crowd, a breed apart. Last week I saw a bumper sticker in Boston that reads "103.5". The guy's vanity license plate is "Tribum." It's okay. The right people get it.
Always in the background is a patriotic feeling of "America the Beautiful." Bell says the races celebrate the diversity of the landscape, with courses mapped out specifically for their historical significance or natural beauty. His staff is continuously looking for interesting new itineraries to inaugurate across the nation.
Operating these relays is not cheap. Entry fee per team is $1200, most of which goes to laying out the course and monitoring the event. Local charities are hand-picked by the Ragnar people to benefit from the surplus.
The endurance element puts extreme stress on participants, which I guess is the point. Like other endurance tests that are gaining popularity -- Iron Man, boot camp for adults, Fatpacking, the triathalon, the Rock and Roll Marathons -- the objective is often merely to finish the course unaided; to survive. Most manage to do so, although in the Ragnar medical teams are stationed every 30 miles to pick up runners in trouble. Bell says accidents are rare, but he acknowledges that two runners have died -- one was hit by an inebriated driver and the other was overextended.
"Some participants want to push themselves to the max," Bell said, "but others take it easier. We want this to remain a very accessible event, open to all skill levels."
I plan to be at the back of the pack.