LONG AGO, even before the marathon, came ultra running. Races which demand willpower and stamina beyond 26 miles 385 yards.
Older in concept, they have just taken more time to become popular.
Now, with hundreds worldwide to choose from, you can race for days to the holy site of Muktinath in the Nepalese Himalayas or try the grand slam comprising Jungle Ultra, Mountain Ultra, Desert Ultra and Ice Ultra, taking in the Amazon Rainforest, Rocky Mountains, Namib Desert and Arctic Circle.
Or you could opt for one of the classics, the Marathon des Sables, a 150-mile six-day run on the sands of the Sahara in temperatures hotter than the worst Qatar can throw at the football World Cup.
Or you could just settle for the Bideford Bay 50km, set up by race director Adrian Colwill as a potential "first-time experience of ultra running".
It may be beyond a marathon but it is just a sprint in ultra terms, the shortest of the recognised distances up to however far you can run in six days – the world record is 639 miles. Other standard distances include 50 miles, 100km and 100 miles
The most mind-boggling is the 24-hour record – 188 miles, the equivalent of just over seven marathons between breakfasts.
Both these records are held by Yiannis Kouros, from Greece, but UK runners hold more world records than any other country, upholding British tradition in a sport pre-dating the establishment of the marathon distance in 1908.
John Hayes was first to cover 100 miles in 24 hours in 1762 and betting on footracing became big business in 19th century six-day races. In 1809 The Times reported that one 1,000-mile challenge had attracted wagers of £100,000 (£40 million today).
The days of betting on ultras may be over but the business part remains and, with the industry thriving, Colwill hopes soon he can give up his job as a nightshift worker stacking supermarket shelves to make a living out of endurance running events. Beacon Running, his new business, is, you might say, up and running.
"The Bideford Bay 50km is my first," said Colwill. "At the moment it is something I do on the side but we have another race next March, the 50-mile Wreckers Challenge, and plans for more. Hopefully I can turn it into a full-time career."
Business opened with 57 runners setting off at 8am on Saturday from Hartland Square on a course that took them to Hartland Quay, along the South West Coast Path to Westward Ho! and on to Northam Burrows and Appledore before finishing in Victoria Park, Bideford.
Almost five hours later, Iain Hindes, from Chivenor, crossed the line first, adding the Bideford 50km title to other local successes including the Bideford Triathlon in 2011 and the North Devon AONB Marathon four months ago. It may not have been Hawaii but at least it was cheap.
Hindes had taken part twice in the Ironman World Championships triathlon in Hawaii, most recently last year. The 2013 event was on the same day as the Bideford Bay 50km.
"I have stopped Ironman because I can't afford it," said Hindes. "It's a ridiculously expensive sport. Just the entry fee was £500 and we have to do it as our main fortnight's holiday of the year. We would not have got any change out of £5,000." As against £35 to enter the Bideford Bay 50km.
Hindes, who received prizes sponsored by No Sweat Outdoors, celebrated with a triple scoop of ice cream, bought from the van at the park entrance. "I saw it as I came in (to finish) and thought, 'I am having one of those'," he said.
It was well deserved and gone before the next man came in.
A lorry driver, aged 43, Hindes took 4hrs 52mins for the 31 miles, 25 minutes clear of runner-up Steve Sage, from Tavistock. He pulled clear early, from Hartland Quay, but over a course with some 5,000ft of ascent, there was trouble ahead.
"At about 22 miles I started cramping," said Hindes. "I am rubbish at nutrition and I never get it right. It was probably about Westward Ho! where it started. I would stop because I would cramp up then walk for a minute then start running again."
How many times had he cramped? "Far too many," he said. "When I got to Westward Ho! I thought if I could run how I wanted I would have every chance of finishing in four and a half hours."
The race, originally scheduled for five weeks earlier, was delayed, which meant instead of it marking Hindes's ultra debut it was his second outing. Last month he won the JW Ultra over 30 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon to Bournville, Birmingham.
Even after two ultra wins out of two, Hindes said he was not making it his priority over triathlon.
"Running is easier to train for than triathlon – a long run is two hours, a long ride is five or six – and I have taken a break from triathlon this year, but I am still a triathlete and I think I always will be," he said.
Comparing the difficulty of the Bideford Bay course with the North Devon Marathon, Hindes said: "This is probably tougher, partly because the first half of the marathon is not that bad – it is quite challenging but not that hilly.
"The second half of the marathon is where it gets quite gruesome whereas this is gruesome for the first 20-odd miles to Westward Ho! Then it is not easy running through Northam Burrows because it is all sand dunes, potholes and stones. Even the coast path from Appledore is bitty – zigzags, hills and stiles to go through."
Runner-up Sage has had a marathon bypass. His previous longest race was a half marathon but he jumped straight to 50km.
"This year I have been lacking time to commit to cycling so I did a bit of running and ended up doing this," said Sage, 39, who rides for North Devon Wheelers-Southfork and won last year's Barnstaple Criterium.
"I enjoy running off road and thought this would be more of an achievement (than a marathon). I can't see me giving up cycling. I would like to incorporate the two."
Already the idea of an ultra in a glamorous location has crossed his mind – "the Alps maybe," he said.
Which is where Izzy Wykes, from Truro, the first woman home at Bideford (5-26), ran recently as the highest-placed British woman in the CCC division of the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc.
First North Devon woman on Saturday was 26-year-old runner-up Holly Symons (6-01), from Hartland. She has ultra experience too.
"I have done a 50-miler but this was harder because of the terrain," she said.
The course crossed fields at Brownsham Farm, her family home. Soon, though, it will be sand as far as the eye can see.
"I am down to do the Marathon des Sables in 2015," said Symons.
And who knows where after that? The choice of events these days for any ultra runner, like the road ahead when the pain kicks in, seems endless.