“Multiday Racing” Might Be the Most Bizarre Running Community in America

The little-known 48-Hour World Championships took place earlier this month

A group of runners racing along an empty street.
In multiday events, runners race for distance — not time.
PaulGregg/Getty Images

In the summer of 1809, a man named Robert Barclay walked one mile, every hour, for 1,000 hours. That’s nearly 42 days of nonstop movement. As he approached the millennial mark, a crowd formed in the English town of Newmarket to watch him walk. No one lodged wagers with the oddsmakers — Barclay was reportedly too confident in his own success to bet against.

Barclay’s story is an early example of the sport of pedestrianism, a form of competitive multiday walking that eventually morphed into competitive multiday running. Unlike conventional races — where one runs a set distance for time — in multi-day races, one runs a set amount of time for distance. The finish line is however far you’re capable of running.

So: everyone finishes, but some could possibly run 10, 50 or 100 more miles than the other competitors. In order to get through a multiday race — which, in the 21st century is more likely to take 48 hours or so…not 42 days — there are constant breaks for naps and snacks. Sometimes, the competitors must grapple with bizarre overuse injuries, like their bodies tilting too far in either direction.

While multiday running seems to share some DNA with the sport of ultrarunning, which as exploded in popularity over the last 25 years (seeing over 1500% increase in interest during that period), it exists on an island of its own. As The New York Times noted in a recent profile, the International Association of Ultrarunners recently decertified most multiday running events; the focus on distance instead of time is considered too fringe and random for most long-distance runners.

But a few of them are determined to keep the old ways alive. Earlier this month, GOMU 48-Hour World Championships had its first annual multiday race in Hainesport, New Jersey, just outside Philadelphia. The winner? A Mongolian named Budjargal Byambaa, who ran 208 miles in two days, just south of eight marathons. He beat the closest finisher by 13 miles.

If ultrarunning is still the misunderstood lunch table in the running world cafeteria, multiday racing is the ragtag friend group eating jelly sandwiches outside under the bleachers. The 48-Hour World Championships were created in direct response to last year’s decertifications, and more events are coming (another two-day contest in Gloucester, England, and another, over six days, in the Italian province of Matera), but it’s hard to say if it’s been a success.

Just 47 runners showed up to the race — some family Turkey Trots fetch larger turnouts — and 10 were over the age of 70. But that fact, believe it or not, is actually a strong sign for the nascent multiday racing “tour.” The sport’s oldest are also the most knowledgeable about and protective of its history. If it’s going to stand a chance going forward, that will be partly thanks to its multigenerational appeal. Not to mention, in the world of ultra-long-distance running, there is a fabled “longevity list” (an Excel spreadsheet, ostensibly) documenting runners who have completed consecutive years of 50-100-mile races. Some have been at it for decades. Multiday events will keep them coming back.

In the end, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the people drawn to such a bizarre pursuit are themselves sort of bizarre. But there’s some measure of beauty in their own self-awareness (as one runner said to the Times “It will never be mainstream. It’s an odd sport. Everybody’s a finisher,”) and in their commitment to keeping multiday racing going, no matter how far they must go.

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