why do we do it?

Yesterday, I took part in the Australia Day Ultra down at Australind. It’s the third year for this event, and my third year being part of it. Today I am sore, tired, struggling to walk normally and feeling sun-kissed and weathered…

It was the culmination of 32 weeks of training; 32 weeks working towards the 100km goal that had firmly embedded itself when I pulled the pin at the 50km mark last year.

Obviously today I had hoped to be writing the race recap of a successful 100km race, a new personal achievement and another major milestone reached… well, some of that is true, I scored a new personal best for 50km (taking about 16 minutes off my previous best time), and recorded a distance PB (for a single running event) of 75km… but the 100km proved elusive yet again. Progress has clearly been made, my running is back on track, but there is more work yet to be done.

When i sat down to write this recap, I could have gone through the lead up and build up, described the major milestones and experiences along the way. I could have given (as I might normally do) a detailed chronological account of the day itself. There might have been a description of the Hearts Across Australia base camp set up, the feelings that built as the start time (midnight) approached, and then a lap by lap breakdown of the race itself….

However, while thinking about all these things, and reflecting back on the race, the training, the achievements, the time invested, and the fact that I will undoubtedly do it all again… my mind turned to the question that you often hear during a race, not only in your own head but from other runners too, is “why do we do this?”

The full answer to this question has as many variations as the number of runners there are out there doing it; everyone has their own story, their own motivations, their own reasons for doing what most people consider to be crazy.

There are, however, a number of things that I believe can help explain this craziness. A number of things that keep us coming back for more. Reasons why running is very much a lifestyle adopted by so many from so many diverse backgrounds.

Community and Team Spirit

Running is a solitary pursuit, many hours of training are conducted alone, the main person you are competing against is yourself, and when you have a bad day at the office there is no team around you that can compensate for and disguise that fact.

In the middle of a race, it is you, your demons, your mental battles and your determination and ability to dig deep that count.

Your successes and defeats, your achievements and your failures are primarily yours to process, and the value they hold is for you to extract and to understand.

Yet running is anything but a solitary sport – one of the best parts of the weekend for me, was spending time with some really awesome, likeminded, positive, friendly, supportive and amazing people. There is an amazing camaraderie among endurance runners, and that cuts across ability levels, age groups and backgrounds. At some level we understand each other, and whether you’re going to smash out 100km in about 7 and a half hours (this weekend’s winner came in around 7:35), thrash out a determined 100k in over 14 hours (final finisher came in around 14:20), or somewhere in between, personal limits are going to be pushed, new achievements made, discoveries about yourself made, and an awful lot of hard work and determination will be required.

But it’s not just the runners – the mini tent/marquee city that popped up in Australind this weekend was visible evidence of a festival/carnival atmosphere, a gathering of runners and supporters, a sense of community, a chance to catch up with friends old and new….. put simply, a party – though perhaps better described as a really painful way of camping…

Whatever it is, it is awesome. The runners, the supporters, the family atmosphere (there was a kids’ 6km event at 9am), the amazing amazing amazing army of volunteers, and the race directors themselves… all combine to be part of what we al consider to be our “family”. The ultra running community…

Personal Growth

So that’s the external stuff, however there is a whole other level of reasons why we do these things, and these are less obvious, less tangible, and deeply personal.

A recent conversation with friends produced the quote “how lucky we are that life is so good that we have to pay good money to take part in events that push our limits”… when you think about it, how much truth is contained in that one line?

We are designed to run, walk, hunt, survive, endure extreme conditions – it’s how the human species evolved and survived. Yet at the same time we have developed technology and, for those in developed countries, life is devoid of the dangers our primal ancestors faced, and we really do live in a warm cosy bubble.

Endurance running, for my money, gives us back these things. It gives us back the feeling of being alive, ironically often through experiences that make us feel physically, mentally and emotionally drained. It gives us, through training, a regular dose of stress, elevated heart rate, adrenaline, flight or fight, and good healthy physical activity.

it gets us out of our chairs, it makes our lifestyles more active, it is physically and emotionally nourishing…

As if that were not enough, the focus, the discipline, the planning, the sheer satisfaction of setting a goal, executing the plan, and then testing yourself against a goal – these are all positive behaviours that improve and enhance us, transferable to other areas of life and, quite frankly, rewarding in and of themselves.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of achieving a goal, there is nothing quite like taking a failure or setback and dealing with it, there is nothing quite like reaffirming your commitment to a path or goal, going back to the drawing board and planning the next phase of training, the next goal, the next personal frontier…

To go back to the idea of community, I think it is this more personal experience that, perhaps ironically, draws us together as a community. We get it, we understand each other, we understand the joy to be found in pain and the positives to be found in the deepest darkest moments of a training cycle or an event.

We are ultra runners, and we do it because we can.

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