Why We Race Part 1

As Rachel Toor writes in her book Personal Record: A Love Affair with Running (2008, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press): ” I knew the litany, the multiplicity of reasons why people ran: that it was good for them, in some physical, emotional, or even soul-enhancing way; that energy and frustrations needed to be sizzled out, like the fat in bacon; that many people, and most women, were raised to be dissatisfied with their bodies, no matter what they looked like, and running was an efficient trade-off for brownies and ice cream; that we are social animals, some of us, and want time with others, even if it is at ungodly hours of the morning and in weather that is not fit for those who do not grow fur; that solitary time is a necessary condition for hard thinking; that competition is endemic to the human condition and harnessing it in innocuous ways and at appropriate venues will, perhaps, keep violence at bay.” 

At the end of 2010, as people planned and posted their race schedules for 2011, I couldn’t help wondering where all these people got their motivation. I have goals and experiences that I look towards in the coming year, but somehow racing just wasn’t that important. Why?

I emailed a wide-ranging group of blogging buddies and sent out a general bulletin on the Endurance Athlete Project asking some simple questions:

Why do you race? Why are you willing to pay to run on public streets or trails, sometimes paying large amounts for travel and accommodations? Why are you willing to plan a race around a particular weekend? What ARE your motivators to race?
The answers were far from simple, ranging from being pushed by Patrick to a dissertation by Amanda (surprise, surpise), to a re-write by Chris, along with many others. I’ll be sharing their responses over the next couple of weeks, so be on the lookout. If you weren’t on the original email blast or subsequent EAP bulletin, feel free to answer the questions and send them over, I’m always happy to add to this minor research project of mine. In no particular order, here it is in broad strokes – people race:
  • for self-identity or personal fitness
  • to push themselves
  • competition against others
  • social aspect/excitement/spectacle/community surrounding organized events
  • motivation to train/working towards a goal
  • being out in nature (trail running)
  • public validation/recognition, official time, the bling
  • being a role model for their child(ren)
All interesting reasons to race, yet none resonate with me. Why? Not sure. A big part of it has to do with me being solo in my endeavors, I’m sure. I’ve never “raced” with friends (as I have none). I’m not competitive, either with others or with myself (hence the lack of current fitness). I am also more experiential than most, looking for the random occurrence that teaches/touches/affects me in some way. Races are perhaps too structured for me, too much pressure to perform on a specific date in a given location. A lot of the reasons given above I connect with on a real gut level, but they are important to me for training, not as reasons to race.
I had decided not to register for any races this year and instead was looking to creating opportunities for myself to attain certain goals as I saw fit. I am also lucky in that there is a very active ultrarunning group in the area (the Chicago Ultrarunners Group, CHUGS), who put on nearly a dozen Fat-Ass events every year, ranging from fun runs up to a 200K race this year. Pretty much any given month, I have the opportunity to, for whatever I’m willing to pay or for free, run an ultra in a forest preserve within driving distance of my home.
However, as the poet said, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley” (for you heathens out there, Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse”). This spring, I will be heading to California to run the Skyline to the Sea trail marathon with a cast of motley characters. I will also be attending The North Face Endurance Challenge in San Francisco in December (will travel for beautiful weather and scenery a theme perhaps?), where the whole family will participate in one way or another, trail runners all of us. There will also be one last race, yet to be determined, where I will be crew chief/lead pacer as a bloggie friend attempts her first 50. My goal to run an ultra remains front and center, yet not scheduled. Perhaps at a CHUGS Fat-Ass event, perhaps unexpectedly on a lovely weekend in nature, perhaps at the TNF Endurance Challenge. Will any of these change the way I feel about racing? Roll the dice (no Adam, not that way) and see what turns up.

38 thoughts on “Why We Race Part 1

  1. I didn't respond to your EAP questions because I couldn't come up with an answer. I'm still not sure why I think it is so important to me to do it, but if I figure it out, I'll get back to you.
    I CAN agree that it is a great way to role model for the children. As I watched my 6 year old hop on the treadmill yesterday and run her 8:30 m/m (only because she's not allowed to go faster on that thing 🙂 and I saw the sheer running joy on her face, I see that for some people, like her, it is what makes their heart happy. It is not work, it is play.

  2. I really like your take on this racing aspect of our sport. I am not a racing person, but have raced a small number. I think that the reasoning of running/racing blurs and becomes one at times. I cannot provide a reason of why to race, but it may be the same cause as why I run:

    Running wanders through my soul. For when I run, it happens, my mind and body feel the essence of my soul, they feel exactly what it is, believe as one, perceive as one, look, experience, and for once; just once, understand as one.

  3. Interesting, Kovas. My wife doesn't get “racing” either. I agree with @Julie – not exactly sure why I like to race, but I do. Something to ponder…

  4. My motivation to race is very simple: racing is one thing I find that allows me to be purely in the moment, more so than just going out for a run. Racing forces me to push the envelope, and to dig down to a place that is almost impossible to replicate. As part of a saying for my alma mater goes: “from the inside out you can't explain it”, so is how I feel about racing.

    Maybe racing is such a simple concept at it's CORE in a complex world?…

  5. I think you answered part of your own question in the last paragraph. You are doing Skyline to Sea with a “Motley Cast Of Characters”, with these people being the primary attraction for you. You probably also are interested in running through the Redwooods. That said, you are a (relatively) reasonable person and understand that to do an event with a group, scheduling is required. So you will show up on race day.

  6. Love this post Kovas. I read your question and didn't answer either because I wasn't sure. Funny thing is I love to be around races/at races (usually volunteering) but when I do “race” (which is rare) it's not really for any of those reasons. Likely it is a different reason for each race I do. I'll be curious to see more on this.

  7. That's the fascinating part of the human race – we're all unique enough to make life interesting.
    “Insist on yourself; never imitate… Every great man is unique.”

    I hope whoever “she” is must have a good friend.
    “A friend is one before whom I may think aloud. “

  8. Racing and training for a race simply presents a level of challenge and success that the rest of my life does not.

    But, I enjoy training for all the other reasons above as well as time spent alone and an opportunity to converse with God.

  9. Great post Kovas. My one post I'll read this morning before I get going with my day…well worth it. You give us all something to think about. Although I already wrote my dissertation, I have more thoughts and possibly even am reevaluating what I originally thought (surprise, surprise). 😉 I think the biggest reason why I'm racing right now (training for the Newport Marathon) is to prove something to myself or see what I can do with my body…how I can push myself in ways I never could before in college. It is a way for me to come back from injury and having kids and feel victorious. I want to see what I am capable of when I really train for somethign seriously on my own (without doing my program only half A). I think after Newport, I probably won't race for awhile…maybe a long time. Who knows. Maybe just the occasional half marathon like through a vineyard that ends with wine and friends or the destination race that is an excuse to travel. But racing seriously and for a time? I think after Newport I might return to just running because I LOVE it and because it fills my soul so completely. It is a time to be with my thoughts, get in awesome shape, and relieve stress. But I'm not a huge fan of always training for a race…I feel like I miss out on too much life if I do that all the time.

    Thanks for this post. Great words to get me reflecting today! Food for thought. I'm thinking I should end here but my word count says this isn't quite dissertation length yet..I hope I don't disappoint.

  10. Take 2: “she” must be a very grateful friend.

    Holy ketchup … didn't Amanda already write her dissertation on the subject earlier?

  11. Great post. I can't honestly remember what answer I gave you, so it must have been a lie. In all honesty, I hate racing, I hate getting so nervous, I hate feeling like I'm going to die while I'm on course… but then I finish and I (usually) love it.

    I also love Amanda… she cracks me up.

  12. Jill, don't Holy Ketchup me woman…:) I've got more where that came from.

    Laurie, that's how I felt in college…nerves, being sick, feeling like I wanted to die. That is why I didn't race for a loooong time. 🙂

  13. I can relate to your dislike of having to perform on a given day at a given time on a predetermined course. That actually freaks me out quite a bit.

    I ran for 5 years without ever wearing a Garmin or running a race. I ran alone and I never considered running any other way. When I met Angela, I was exposed to the running community, races and all of the gidgets and gadgets that came with running.

    I still was a skeptic of this whole world of running. My first big race was the Soldier Field 10 Miler (I wasn't registered but Ang made me run it) and I hated it. I felt uncomfortable running in a crowd of people. It made me anxious and I ran horribly.

    As time went on I learned to push myself. I was becoming a better runner. At that point I signed up for a 10k to see my progress and I placed 1st in my age group. That is when my competitive side came out. I wanted to see how much faster I could get and how much further I could run. Now, I run races for MYSELF. I love the energy of the people around me but ultimately I am striving to run a personal best.

    I am inspired by the amount of people that come out to share in this sport. I think it is wonderful and it no longer makes me anxious. I can't wait for skyline to sea and to share in that experience with all of you knuckle heads. That will be one race I am running strictly for the experience, not a PR.

    🙂 That's my story.

  14. St. Louis's ultrarunners' group is called the SLUGS. I could get behind either the CHUGS or the SLUGS…it's like I've found my people…if only they didn't run so far.

    I get nervous as all get-out at the thought of having to run with other people in a group setting, but I love to race. Go figure. I think it's bc in a race I know they'll all just run past me and I don't have to worry about holding anyone back.

  15. Plain and simple, or not so much. You are a/the TRAIL GURU. You will remain this to me. We will meet and will have laughs and share stories. Race or no race, it will always be about getting there.

  16. I have been waiting patiently for this and now I have to wait even longer for the full post….I'm a competitor and need that adrenaline rush…..c'mon MAN!!!

    Seriously though, this is what I love about blogging and training/racing. To each his own and I respect your feelings. My wife feels the same way this year but last year was all about the marathon. Maybe next year it will be back with her.

    I just know I love to race and compare myself to myself and my peers.

  17. The reasons I race NOW are totally different from my old reasons. NOW I race because I am guaranteed the amount of time it takes to get from my house to a race course, do the race, and get home again to be doing something just for me and about me. With 4 kids that is amazingly precious. ( I even love going to the dentist because it is a wee slice of time off. ) If it is something that was paid for (i.e. a race and not 'just' a training run) the time and day are locked in and I pretty much know it'll get to happen. So getting a partial day off once or twice this year in addition to my teeth-cleanings is why I'll do a couple of races this year. Don't get me wrong… I LOVE being with my kids… but too much of a good thing and all that 😉

  18. I think everyone has their own reason for racing (Amanda apparently has MANY!) ; )

    Whatever the motivating factor, as long as it's enjoyable and in balance with the other factors of life, then it's all good.

  19. For me it's all about running. Running is how I live…much more than a passion. I do lots of races but in the end it's about the running. My non-race goals are just as important and sometimes even more important than big races. I truly feel running in my blood.

  20. I am a fat guy, though getting smaller! Developing a running habit (or any exercise really) is just harder for people that are significantly overweight. Try going on your next run with an extra 75 pounds on your back…seriously. You would not want to do it twice.

    Therefore, the races are critical for me because if I commit to do this public event that is several weeks/months out, then I will likely train for it. Not to win it, but just to complete it or PR.

    And that training, keeps my tail off the couch.

  21. This topic fascinates me and if I recall I gave you a whole mess of reasons why I race.
    Your take on it as well as the comments here are fascinating as well.

  22. Love this – and sorry for not responding to your question…I had such short, succinct answers that I couldn't put into nice words….
    I love it. It is fun. It makes me feel good. I get more confident all the time…..

    Anyway, looking forward to the responses…

  23. Man, this is why you're probably 1 or 2, depending on the day, of my favorite bloggers. Great post!!!

    I really think it's just such a personal decision that should be not criticized or judged, whatever the reason. Often, if you're very competative, you're viewed as shallow or insecure, only craving accolades. But if you're not always attempting to be the best, some view you as apathetic or insignificant.

    I really believe that both are fine … just as long as you're moving! There is so much scientific evidence that validates active life styles. You feel better, you're happier, etc.

    I just don't think there's a right or wrong answer. But it's great to examine closely, like you are doing. Again, great post my friend!

  24. I love the energy on race day same reason why I go to the Arnold Classic yearly. With that said I am starting to be more conscious of the $/race mile making sure am getting the most bang for my money. Splurging on special races.

  25. What do you mean “you never raced with friends”…..you beat me twice last year 🙂 Technically, I guess that's when we had broken up so we weren't friends.

    Great post. Great series. Can I rewrite mine one more time?

  26. It's interesting that you aren't drawn to racing in the least! I'm not crazy like some who race multiple times a month, but I do enjoy races/the atmosphere/change in scenery or having people to run “with”. I try to find a race when I go on weekend trips so I can run somewhere new and just for fun. I know I am not always great at running in unfamiliar places (don't wanna get lost) so that's another justification for running a race. For me, anyway.

  27. Hi Kovas,
    I loved this! I think I race for the thrill and the feeling I get when training. There is nothing better than crossing the finish line with your hands up in the air! It is such a feeling of accomplishment:)

  28. I don't actually “race” but I do compete in rock climbing competition (outdoor only, not in the gym).

    Why? Coz there are new routes to climb there. That's a huge gain – to climb new routes on-sight makes you a better climber. Yeah!!!

  29. I like your approach to let a teaching/learning moment happen. In my only 2 races, I have run with someone, but am going solo for the next one.

    That's huge that you have some Fat-ASSES to run with regularly though! 🙂

  30. It's a great question. I think I race because it makes my push myself harder than I ever would in training. I learn things about myself when I work so hard for a big goal. In an event like the Ironman, I'm forced to dig deep for every last shred of motivation, concentration, and the ability to endure. I don't think I would ever do that on just a training run.

    That being said, this may be the first year in 25 that I am not doing any races. I may be setting my own goals – a specific trail run that's marathon distance – but accomplishing it on my own without the support of a race. Of course, this takes a lot more planning (having friends mountain bike out ahead and drop supplies), which also explains the appeal of a race (having all of those details taken care of).

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