The intensity level of endurance sports is rising. It’s the natural progression of these sports that allows today’s athletes to achieve feats unthought of fifty years ago. In ultramarathons, people are now racing for 100 miles. That’s a big deal. But I think this phenomenon is even more obvious in climbing. The alpinists of today move lightning fast over terrain that once stymied the best climbers in the world. To do so, they give up certain elements of protection in favor of speed, meaning mistakes have more consequences. Among the best, this is a reasonable trade because the athletes are extraordinarily confident and capable. The problem is that the 99% who aren’t the best see these accomplishments and want to achieve similar feats themselves. They forget about the progression.
You’re interested because climbing and ultrarunning are not so different at heart. Ultrarunners race on big mountains, and climbers these days literally run the steepest peaks. I’m interested because, as I’ve mentioned before, I got into running because I wanted to climb but was discouraged by the gear and experience required to start. For me, climbing and running are near-equal interests, which leads me to do them both, often at the same time. This mostly means big running approaches to mountains of only minor technical difficulty, but I have spent enough time nervous on rock faces in running shoes to gain a little perspective on the evolution of the sport.
I ran up Mont Blanc last summer, 12,000 feet above the town of Les Houches to the summit. On the high glaciers I delighted in passing climbers fully decked out in ropes, packs and crampons while wearing nothing myself but running shoes and light running clothes. The first ascent of Mont Blanc was in 1786, and was by all accounts a horrifying affair. Fear of the unknown, snowblindness and an unplanned (bonus!) night high on the mountain all contributed to the climbers barely escaping with their lives. 225 years later and I run my first personal ascent in running shoes. Progression of the sport? Sure, but that by no means indicates I am a better climber. I have exceptionally better gear, support and knowledge of the route. Failure would be almost ridiculous in these conditions.
Maybe. Legendary climber Alfred Mummery famously said: “It has frequently been noticed that all mountains appear doomed to pass through the three stages: An inaccessible peak – The most difficult ascent in the Alps – An easy day for a lady.” This is progression of the sport. What worries me is that people will forget that this is a progression and not some static state, and leap immediately into the cutting-edge. Running up Mont Blanc was cool, but the climbers I passed had on all that gear for a good reason: mountain climbing is a dangerous sport. A freak storm, an avalanche, even high winds – anything at all could change the nature of the run from a cool day’s outing to an epic. To protect against this, climbers have traditionally carried lots of warm clothes and climbing gear. That speed climbers today eschew most of this gear in no way means it is useless. They trade one kind of protection for another – speed. But to safely do this requires an enormous amount of skill and ability. A good example of this is free soloing. Alex Honnold raised the bar on free soloing to a previously inconceivable level, prompting many to ask “what’s next?” Yet like any revolutionary achievement he also changed the public’s perception of soloing. Suddenly it’s not quite as unbelievable as it used to be; it’s possible; it’s within grasp. If Alex Honnold can free solo Half Dome, what can’t be done?
Right now, just about nobody can free solo like Alex Honnold. Along the same lines, few people can run in the mountains like Kilian Jornet or sprint up big faces of snow and ice like Ueli Steck. Athletes of this caliber are at the forefront of their sports, actively pushing the progression. We all want to be able to do the same, but the reason we often can’t is because we forget how much work those guys put into their personal athletic progression – the countless hours spent training in unacknowledged obscurity; the years when the dream had little basis in reality. Gradually, slowly, patiently they prepared themselves to do great things. On the other side – the side of the media – we see no-names blasting onto the scene with ferocious success, unknown athletes kicking ass all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere. And we think to ourselves, “I could do that right now.” That’s where the problems start.
Then again, maybe this is all just my perspective, the perspective of someone with a lot of ambition, a little success and the ability to give it a try. I love what I get to do, and the places I get to go, and I certainly desire to leave my mark on the sport, my own little tick mark of progression. But that comes slowly. Success comes from patience, which breeds safety. The mountains can be very fun because they are so challenging. But they deserve a lot of respect – climbers took over 200 years to reach the level they are at now, and runners took… well, all of human history, if we truly were born to run. Ultrarunning is just a progression of the sport. The next progression will be a combination of these sports and others, a transition from clearly delineated activities to blends of many different sports. This will happen because the athletes of each generation start on a little higher footing than the previous generation, thanks to the latter’s accomplishments. We just can’t forget about the process of progression, and the dangers that entails.