When I talk about ultrarunning or obstacle racing to the lay public, a frequent response that I get is a look of shock and awe, then the question: “Why?” Sometimes it comes with some clarification like, “why do you do that to yourself?” or “why do you pay for that?”, but the general concept is clear: to someone who is not familiar with the sport, what we do is so outside the realm of average human experience that it can seems incomprehensible that someone would do these things by choice, so our world seems impenetrable. It doesn’t have to be that way.
In my opinion, the key to long-term success in a field is figuring out why. Why do you want to spend time, energy and money doing this? What do you put into it and what do you get out of it? I think that the lessons we learn by staying committed to ultrarunning and OCR are transferrable to many struggles that I see people going through, particularly relating to healthy living and weight loss. Let’s talk about some reasons why, and how they turn out in the long term.
The First Why: Myself.
Humans are inherently selfish, so it makes sense that the reason why we start things can be selfish. Selfish reasons get us off the couch and into the great world to explore new things. They can get us very far.
A common why is adventure seeking. When looking to always expand your world, there’s the next big thing that you can chase. When you hear about it, your heart can jump and you start getting excited. This new experience will make you stronger, increase your endurance, and give you a rush of accomplishment when you finish. But, how does that translate to your next event? How does adventure seeking help you identify the weaknesses that held you back from going faster or farther the first time? Without doing something more than once, it’s hard to build expertise.
Another common why is to increase personal fitness and personal health. Especially in the US, this is a common struggle that millions of people. Getting involved in obstacle racing brings back joy to exercise because there’s varied challenges and there isn’t the monotony of many other activities. Ultrarunning can bring you to new places to explore new things and let you appreciate beautiful things like the sunrise in a 24+ hour race. That joy and exploration can last a while, but sometimes that joy starts to fade with time.
The Next Why: My Friends and Family.
The downfall of acting for personal reasons is that you can always make excuses for yourself. It’s harder to make excuses to your friends and family. When you start building a set of friends in the sport, you start having accountability towards them. Simple things, like a friend asking “when is your next event,” encourage you to plan and make sure that next event happens. Other things like just wanting to see a friend that you always see at events or training sessions can drive you to go when you otherwise wouldn’t. Without an external push, it’s easy to make excuses about the expense, fatigue, and a waning excitement for the sport. Once you have other people around you rooting you on, and you feel like you are part of a group that’s needed to make the sport continue, then you start seeing long-term gains.
In the fitness world, this is the difference between group training and individual training. There are countless stories of people who said that they’d go to the gym 4 times a week around New Years, only to return to their normal couch-based routine by February. However, if some of those people join a group cycling class or a running group, you find that by February, at a minimum the only thing that they’re doing is the group activity. They might even be training outside on their own.
The Last Why: The Community.
The last step that basically guarantees some degree of longevity is feeling like you are part of a wider community. One reason why I love the camaraderie of OCR is that when you’re on course, there are friends you knew before you started and friends that you just met. No matter how fast you’re running or what you look like, the culture is that you will get a helping hand and an encouraging word to help you accomplish whatever goal you set out for. This sense of belonging to a larger group that isn’t dependent upon a smaller clique of friends ensures that every time I come to an event, I don’t even need to check who will be there. I know that I’ll meet awesome people, have a great time, and improve in the sport. In my opinion, that’s the key to long-term success in the sport because no matter what, I’m going to keep coming back to be part of that community.
That attitude makes it easy to train when you’re outside of that community. You begin to see yourself as an OCR athlete or an ultrarunner, and training is just something that comes with that territory. When training and healthy living are internalized into who you see yourself and what community you are a part of, it’s hard to think of when to stop training. Instead, you start running into the opposite problem: overtraining, but that’s an issue for another day.
Of course, when you start a new activity, you cannot expect to instantly feel like you are part of a community. As the titles suggest, it takes the time to start, find a friend group, then become part of the community. In my opinion, if you’re looking for long-term success, then each of those steps is almost required. The selfish pursuit of personal gain and fame can only get you so far.
Dr. Redtights Sub Tip:
One of the reasons why I’ve progressed in skill and speed is the people that I’ve met, from Junyong Pak who inspired me to start ultra-OCRs, Amelia Boone and Deanna Blegg that inspired me to never stop trying to go farther and faster, to Cassie Harris & Hanna Copper who inspires me to keep on going with a smile on my face, no matter what happens. I have unending gratitude for what they and many others have given to me. Instead of focusing on personal milestones this year, I’ve chosen to focus on the community and become a great ambassador of the sport. Whatever stage you’re at, I encourage you to get out there again and give a helping hand. Becoming part of this vibrant and positive community will give you much more joy than the effort you put in.