What motivates ultrarunners?

By David

Ultramarathon runners usually cover dozens of kilometers daily. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of kilometers monthly. And yet they wake up every morning eager to plan another run. What motivates them in their struggle? How come they are not entirely exhausted and burned out after a few weeks? I didn’t use to ask these questions in the past; I simply ran.

Then, some time ago, I was watching a recording of the Marathon De Sables, a renowned endurance stage-race regularly held in the Sahara Desert. After one stage, Elizabet Barnes summed up her experience of the race:“…you really feel alive… because you are away from the stresses of normal life. It’s a very simple life: you eat, run and sleep… and that’s it. It’s a very simple life but at the same time a very real one. You will gain a different perspective on what’s important in life.”Back then I had just finished a stage race, and her description accurately depicted my personal experience. Similarly to Elizabet’s perspective, after a few days in the race, I could focus only on just a few basic things closely related to running. My mental capacity was too limited to grasp anything else. And frankly, after going through everyday worries and struggles, this was a liberating experience.

I was curious as to whether this was common, so I started to ask my fellow-runners what their experiences were. What does running give them? What motivates them to achieve performances that are unimaginable to most “ordinary” people? I was surprised by their answers, but mostly because of the variety of responses. It seemed as if each one of us found something completely different in the running. So I went yet another step further and in several ultrarunning groups on Facebook, started a discussion with one question: what motivates the group members to aim for such performances? I collected dozens of answers and arranged them into categories. Let’s take a closer look at these groups.

However, before I start to describe every single category, I would like to stress that most of the runners mentioned more than just one motivational factor. Usually, it was two or even more things that kept them running. Participants in the discussions frequently claimed that they had started this demanding sport for a particular reason, but then later, as a bonus, found something else. A considerable proportion of ultramarathoners had started long runs merely to find out whether they could make it. Only after they had mastered their challenges did they begin to find other motivational factors that have kept them running.

Overcoming one’s limits

The most significant motivational factor was achieving the goals they set for themselves. A large number of posters indicated that they run to determine their limits. To find out what are they capable of; what they can achieve. However, they don’t understand the limits as something imposed. Once they reach one goal, they usually set themselves another, more demanding aim. Thus they shift their boundaries and prove that they are advancing. They are rising to yet another challenge. At this point, I have to mention the famous psychologist Carl Rogers, who claimed that a human has a natural tendency to self-actualization, that we strive to reach the best possible self. By overcoming limits, by mastering new skills, and by constantly aiming forward we are trying to become “full” humans. To fully utilize the gifts mother nature gave us.

Many posters mentioned self-knowledge as a “byproduct” of constantly moving the limits forward. By continuously facing new challenges, runners are correcting their view of themselves. They better understand how they react to critical situations and why. They are also taking in various bodily stimuli. The participants of the discussions frequently claimed that thanks to running, they developed a new, more complete self-image. One of them aptly depicted it when claiming that running revealed to him yet another facet of himself.

One more “byproduct” of overcoming one’s limits was mentioned – self-confidence, the confidence in one’s abilities. By both facing and overcoming yet another lofty goal, runners become more self-confident and acquire the mindset of a winner. A conviction that “I can.” And this doesn’t only concern running: runners carry this mindset over to other areas of their lives.

Here and now

Another significant group of posters wrote that thanks to long runs they were able to focus on a present moment, to live “here and now.” This is exactly what Elizabet Barnes was talking about during the desert race. Suddenly you are focusing just on running and on things directly related to it. You don’t perceive anything else. Ultrarunners frequently say: “If you want to arrange your thoughts, go for a two-hour run. But if you need to clean your head, go for a two-day run.” During a truly long run, you suddenly become consumed by what is going on around you. Only a few runners can think about anything else. You become fully absorbed in the present.

Under this heading, we also find a large group of motivational factors revealed by the contributing runners: the simple joy derived from the movement itself, the sudden impossibility of focusing on anything else but running. Forgetting troubles, the ability to get rid of all one’s worries. Some runners have described it as an almost religious experience, kind of like “becoming one with the universe.” Another benefit attributed to running revealed in the discussions was the beautiful landscape, the natural scenery that the ultra-marathoners ran in. The fact that for a moment they can become part of a whole and can merge with the nature surrounding them. But in my view, it is again precisely the ability to be present here and now which allows us to capture the beauty around us.

It’s worth noting that in the discussions, the contributors very often stated that thanks to unity with nature, runners are becoming more responsible for preserving their surroundings. They are more focused on protecting the environment. A Large number of ultramarathoners follow the seven principles of the Leave No Trace movement.

New experiences and people

The participants of the discussions frequently claimed that during long runs they had experienced adventures they couldn’t experience anywhere else. They had explored new regions, new countries, and new environments. The courses had frequently led them through places that a runner couldn’t usually visit. The racers were also exposed to the vagaries of the weather. It might sound slightly masochistic but with regard to my personal experience, the worse the weather, and the harder the conditions of the run, the more profound the experience and the memories of it.

In any case, most comments in this category were concerned with the social aspects: the people we meet on the runs. The posters stated that thanks to ultrarunning they had become part of a special community of people. They became aware of a sense of belonging to a broader group with whom they shared common interests. They stressed the comradeship that is a fundamental pillar of our sport. They frequently explained how someone unselfishly helped them during a race and how they, thanks to that experience, are also willing to help others. Runners also shared their experiences with friends, family members, and other people who supported them during long-distance races, who spent hours waiting for them at refreshment points, or who had accompanied them as a “pacer” in particular legs of the race.

Yet another interesting idea was mentioned. Two runners wrote that by running ultra-distances, they wanted to provide their children or even grandchildren with a role model. They wanted their offspring to learn that if they are to accomplish anything in life, it is essential to invest the corresponding amount of energy in it. Similarly, through their example, they wanted to inspire their relatives to live active lives, and not just sit at home in front of the TV or a computer/phone.

Fitness, health, and relaxation

The posters also stressed the health-related benefits of long runs. Several times we read that running helps people to control their body weight. Others highlighted longevity, and yet others touted the overall improvement of one’s physical condition. Before I started to run, I had suffered from painful night cramps in my calves and thighs. I have been completely free of them for ten years. Of course, I have not been carrying out any controlled research, but I charge it to the running account. Objectively speaking, the positive effects of long runs are questionable – there are studies that, at least from a short-term perspective, confirmed the negative influence of the load affecting the human body in very long runs.

Mental health was frequently mentioned as a reason to run. It seems there are runners who, in this world overloaded with information, perceive ultraruns as a way of clearing their heads or of gaining a new perspective on their problem-solving. It might be considered mental hygiene, or an effort to maintain mental balance, they explained, since during a long run one has to be constantly alert, as anything could happen at any time. Thus there is no time to think about anything else. One runner actually described it as a “no-brainer.” Again, it is related to the “here and now” principle mentioned earlier. Apart from the rational component, participants mentioned an improvement in both experiencing and perceiving emotions as a benefit of ultrarunning. Not only the improved ability to manage their feelings but even an upsurge of positive emotions. Running simply brings them joy, excitement, and an intense emotional experience after finishing a challenging race too. One of the discussion participants even mentioned the therapeutic effect of running after undergoing a traumatic experience.

Besides health, the ultrarunners also indicated the relaxing effect of runs as a motivation for running. They perceived long-distance runs as a form of escape from society, as a means for taking a break from work and the people around them. Some wrote that they drew new energy from the endurance sport. It provided them with a break from the stresses and demands of modern society. One of the participants described running as a quiet and calm activity.

Success and uniqueness

The last group of posters reached consensus on the finding that thanks to ultrarunning they can set themselves apart from others. They claimed that they wanted to do something unique which not everyone can do. Recently this trend is more and more apparent. You have most probably already noticed that seemingly every running event is billed as the toughest, the most beautiful, conquering the most peaks, the highest in the world, etc. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that there are increasingly more people in the world. These days it is much harder to excel at something and achieve a certain status because the competition is enormous. However, each of us needs to sense his or her uniqueness: similarly, when belonging to a group, being a part of a community, we also need to distinguish ourselves from others, to show them our unique value. We need to be useful members of society. Some participants affirmed this when they claimed that they run, above all else, to get appreciation and recognition from their surroundings.

And what about you? Have you identified yourself as belonging to some of the above groups? Or do you get something completely different from running? Please share your wisdom by leaving a comment on the article.