The aim of the present study was to establish whether gastro-intestinal (GI) complaints observed during and after ultra-endurance exercise are related to gut ischaemia-associated leakage of endotoxins [lipopolysaccharide (LPS)] into the circulation and associated cytokine production. Therefore we collected blood samples from 29 athletes before, immediately after, and 1, 2 and 16 h after a long-distance triathlon for measurement of LPS, tumour necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin-6 (IL-6). As the cytokine response would trigger an acute-phase response, characteristic variables of these responses were also measured, along with creatine kinase (CK) to obtain an indicator of muscle damage. There was a high incidence (93% of all participants) of GI symptoms; 45% reported severe complaints and 7% of the participants abandoned the race because of severe GI distress. Mild endotoxaemia (5-15 pg/ml) was evident in 68% of the athletes immediately after the race, as also indicated by a reduction in IgG anti-LPS levels. In addition, we observed production of IL-6 (27-fold increase immediately after the race), leading to an acute-phase response (20-fold increase in C-reactive protein and 12% decrease in pre-albumin 16 h after the race). The extent of endotoxaemia was not correlated with the GI complaints or the IL-6 response, but did show a correlation with the elevation in C-reactive protein (r(s) 0.389; P=0.037). Creatine kinase levels were increased significantly immediately post-race, and increased further in the follow-up period. Creatine kinase levels did not correlate with those of either IL-6 or C-reactive protein. It is therefore concluded that LPS does enter the circulation after ultra-endurance exercise and may, together with muscle damage, be responsible for the increased cytokine response and hence GI complaints in these athletes.