Running Beyond: Epic Ultra, Trail and Skyrunning Races, text and photos by Ian Corless. White Lion Publishing, 2019. Reviewed by Laura Clark for the Winter 2019 edition of our Trail Times newsletter. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.
– It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. Edmund Hillary
Once upon a time, the query most long distance runners found themselves defending was “Why would you want to run 26 miles? I don’t even like to drive 26 miles!” Nowadays that question has ramped up to encompass 100 and even 200 mile events. Obviously, Edmund Hillary’s and Tenzig Norgay’s assault on Mt. Everest was just the starting line. But was it? Read Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes and discover the mountain prowess of ordinary civilian Cretans that enabled them to flummox the entire Nazi operation by kidnapping a German general. Or, for a world view, delve into Ian Corless’ Running Beyond where he quotes pioneer Bruno Brunod: “Older generations were already skyrunners. My grandfather crossed the mountains working.”
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If this is news to you and you feel you need to catch up, there is no better resource for an overview than Running Beyond with photos, elevation profiles and course descriptions of 35 iconic international skyrunning and ultra events. At first glance, this hefty, oversize volume would appear to be a typical coffee table book with Corless’ stunning pictures highlighting each race. But wait! While some of the photographs are of the typical “get your scenics here” variety, others beckon you to partake of the runners’ experience –his agony as he struggles and his ecstasy as he skims over jagged rocks, seemingly not touching the ground. And interspersed are old-fashioned black-and-white portraits and impressions. As someone who thinks in color, I have always eschewed classic uncolorized films and even Ansel Adams’ elegant views of nature. But this time, juxtaposed with the standard color, I finally get it. The stark portraits, often featuring rakish angles and cut-off views, highlight the focused concentration required just to stay alive. And through the black and white landscapes which echo this struggle, we experience every nuance in the lichen-covered mountain rock and scraggly, straining plant life.
Each chosen race is assigned its own brief chapter, making it easy to hunt and peck. Skipping around, I first visited those events that were familiar to all runners: Western States, Everest Trail Race, Comrades, Mount-Blanc, before branching out into the unknown. Perhaps because of their mythical qualities or simply a desire to probe deeper into Harry Potter’s roots, I discovered myself inordinately attracted to those races closely tied to the fell running heritage: Dragon’s Back 300K in Wales, Lakeland 100 in England and Glen Coe Skyline 55K in Scotland. I could picture myself extending the 17th and early 18th century pedestrian heritage of the British Isles into this century.
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Besides inviting you to imagine possibilities, or at the very least, daydream yourself into a different body and different set of circumstances, many of the author’s interviews with athletes and race directors provide insight into why something like skyrunning or ultra running which “seemed like a good idea at the time” can be a good idea during the heat of competition. While we can expect the moment when we wonder why we subject our bodies to such duress, as Corless states, “Amphitheatres of rock, grass and trail have replaced the Coliseum and today our gladiators are runners…Running Beyond is a gateway to what is possible.”