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VICE Sports Tackles the Brutal Midnight Mountain Marathon

VICE Sports braves the elements to find out what it is that makes extreme running so popular (and suffers a black eye in the process).
July 23, 2015, 9:39am
All images by the author

You wouldn't know it from the ubiquity of the marathon runner in modern society, but there was a time when long-distance running – the whole 26.2-mile race in particular – was considered an extreme pursuit.

But at some point, during the fag end of the 20th Century, marathoning became so popular that you now can't shake a Facebook tree without three or four JustGiving pages dropping on your head. Everybody's at it.


This year alone, the London Marathon beat all previous records with nearly 38,000 runners completing the course, a number that will no doubt be broken again next year after applications went from 125,000 for 2015 to just a few shy of a quarter of a million for 2016.

The abundance of marathons has given rise to a whole new breed of racing (in itself symptomatic of a more adventurous sporting scene where extreme sports might even be replacing golf as the networking scene du jour). So in the name of science, I decided to find out for VICE Sports what it is that makes extreme running so popular.

I was standing in a little car park somewhere in the Welsh valleys, surrounded by men and women in tight lycra with excited faces, when the full extent of what I was doing dawned on me: it was 5:30pm, sunset a mere three hours away, and I was about to set off on a punishing off-road and hilly marathon – or to give it its proper name, the Brutal Midnight Mountain Marathon (MMM). Some would say the clue was in the name.

Just like the London Marathon, the MMM has doubled in size within a year: there were 162 of us ready for the course ahead.

But what's driving the increase of popularity? Claire Smith, director of Brutal Events (the company behind the Midnight Mountain Marathon) believes the answer may lie with a redefinition of what we view as 'extreme'.

"I think people are just starting to find out exactly how far you can push the human body. Not that long ago marathons were seen as 'extreme' but now they are almost viewed as training for some runners. It's natural, I guess, that as soon as one boundary is broken we look to the next."


Looking around the starting line at the MMM, her assessment rings true. Most people I spoke to had a few road marathons under their belt already, and were here for a new challenge.

But maybe the answer is more complex than that.

Dr Eric Brymer, Principal Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, and a researcher into the wellbeing benefits of extreme sports, suggests a more societal explanation.

"In many parts of the world, we still live in a complex, uncertain, challenging way. In most parts of the West all we are interested in is minimising risk. Our lives are boring and sedentary, yet it seems that human nature is about challenge and exploration. Many of us are now searching for that balance, a deeper relationship with our environment and what it provides us and a way of understanding what it means to be human."

This point was echoed by Dr Victoria Robinson, Reader in Sociology and Director of the Centre for Gender Research at the University of Sheffield, when asked by VICE Sports what she thought lay behind the increase in extreme sports participation in the West.

"An increasingly risk-averse society where voluntary risk taking allows the individual to counter this, has meant that previously marginalised groups in sport – such as women – can find a place to enjoy and excel, as so called 'extreme' or risk/lifestyle sports seem to offer more scope for less gender stereotyping.


"It may also reflect the move to individualism in neo-liberal economies, which it could be argued encourage people to take up less traditional collective sports. As well as a desire to take up a lifestyle sport which allows more freedom and a chance to be more maverick than traditional sports."

Dr Brymer goes on to identify the key factors in the rise of extreme sports.

"The factors come under three distinct areas: individual, activity and the environment. The environment is both social and physical. In essence, I think the social environment of the modern form of traditional sports and its focus on winning, conflict and competition is not conducive to participation, collaboration and fun.

"Alongside this, for many extreme sports participants, being in the natural world is part of the experience, the unpredictability and everything else that comes with the physical environment. From an individual perspective, extreme sports allow one to take the level of challenge appropriate; allow one to feel emotions, such as fear, usually considered in negative terms; and allow us to manage problems and accept challenges that are about self-improvement. From an activity perspective, extreme sports do not have the same attached rules and regulations, and allow creativity and so forth."

This was certainly the case during the MMM. Talking to some of my fellow runners on the day, it was clear that the challenge of pushing yourself to the extreme was what drove most of them.


As off-road racing veteran Dave told me: "It's always great to reach that point of every race when I feel like I can't go on, and then go on anyway." I was curious to find out how that's different from your normal, run of the mill road marathon and the answer was clear.

"It's just not the same thrill," Dave added. "To be competing with the elements, with your mind, with the terrain – it's just different".

The author on Pen Y Fan, the highest peak in South Wales

As the race wore on and we reached the mountainous spine of the Brecon Beacons, I discovered just how different.

Although by no stretch of the imagination an elite athlete, I entered this race on the back of my fastest marathon time in April and feeling as fit as I've ever been.

But my off-road and mountain running virgin legs started to give way very early on. Unlike a road race, however, where I'm used to engaging the brain on a different pursuit for stretches of the run whilst my legs do all the work, here I had to be switched on every single minute. The terrain was too unpredictable to allow your concentration to waver.

I learnt that lesson the hard way. Having had a warning shot at around mile 14, when I fell on my posterior whilst running down Pen Y Fan, I took my eye off the ball for just one second with about six miles to go. It was already dark and, as I allowed my mind to briefly wander to the soup the organisers had promised at the finish line, I tripped and fell forward. Two smashed knees, a bloodied elbow, a black eye and a smartphone shattered to smithereens later, I made sure I kept my eye on the path constantly for the final six miles of uncomfortable shuffling.


And whilst that might sound like madness to some people, it was this connectedness with my environment that made the experience so enjoyable.

So, why is the popularity of extreme sports on the rise? I asked Claire Smith, as she prepares for her Deca challenge, why she puts herself through all that pain.

"I do it to face my fears," she replies. "And to ensure that I never have a boring life!"

That's as good an answer as we can ask for.