Why we run – Why people participate in ultramarathon races

About the author and the text: Christopher Stern is an orienteer and a runner, and this is the conclusion of his Matura thesis (graduation thesis in High School). Interviews with six ultramarathon runners, three of them female and three of them male, to find out what motivates them to participate regularly in ultramarathon races.

In very short, the motivation can be described by the following words. The ultramarathon is about experiencing an adventure in nature in all its facets, something that is intrinsically rewarding. Ultramarathoners seek their limits and a sense of community. It is about revelling in sunsets and enjoying the tranquillity while running in the mountains and getting into the state of flow.

However, motivation is something personal and differs from runner to runner. Hence, a more specific conclusion split into categories of motivation is given. The conclusion of the thesis draws upon semi-structured interviews and a qualitative analysis. For curious readers, the Matura thesis, explaining the methods and including the original interviews, is linked below.

Their motivation is of intrinsic nature

There are runners which only participate to prove the world that they are capable of running such a distance. Though, to run several competitions means that only intrinsic reasons can motivate enough to withstand such agonies. Experienced runners get mostly rewarded by the experience of the race itself, not by results nor by the admiration of others.

It is about seeking limits

Ultramarathoners want to find their limits. And once they found them, they try to go beyond them. It lies in the nature of long distances to challenge the body as well as the mind. To cope with difficulties, mental lows and the fear of dropping out of the race is part of the experience and appreciated by most of the runners. If they finish despite all the difficulties, the happiness and complacency is even greater.

It is about finding tranquillity through meditation

Tranquillity is the state of being calm. Running can be meditation, it helps the mind to become clear and calm. Most runners know the meditative character a short jog in the woods can have. The experience is said to just become more intense, the longer the distances get. Once an ultramarathoner is out for a day or even longer, his mind has plenty of time to ponder over questions, over their life or even over why they run. The silence of nature is the perfect condition to meditate.

It is about the movement

Running is a simple movement. Deeply rooted by evolution, humans must have loved running since long ago. Ultramarathoners especially love the movement because it adds speed, so more nature can be seen in shorter time, yet it is slow enough to pay attention to the surroundings. They say that if they bike or ski, the attention is more on the technique and the speed is too high to really enjoy the mountains. This leads to the next motivation that all of the runners pointed out to.

It is about nature

Being more specific, it is about mountains, the weather and lights. All of the runners love the mountains. Ultramarathon is their way to explore the vast amount of beautiful places in the Alps or elsewhere. It must be very impressive to get into a snowstorm in the middle of the night and experience a stunning sunrise the next morning.

They love the adventure

To run an ultramarathon is a journey. When they are on the trail for 24 hours or more, they experience a lot of unpredictable happenings. Changing weather, unknown responses of the body or the mind to the stress and a many instances where things can possibly go wrong make an ultramarathon an adventure.

It is about the flow

We all know it. The state when everything becomes easy, when we are completely immersed in the activity. Ultramarathoners enjoy this state for a prolonged period of time, which causes a lot of happiness. To feel the flow is a key aspect of motivation for some of the interviewees. The flow experienced while running might be particularly intense because it is amplified by the endorphine hormone released to let the body cope better with physical stress. This endogenous pain drug leads us to the next topic.

Addiction

Addiction is no motivation, but it can replace it. Certain ultramarathoners might be addicted to their sport. The flow, meditative moments as well as highs and lows are part of both, the ultramarathon or a drug trip. However, keeping in mind that everyone is low when deprived from a beloved activity and that everyone shall have the right to be passionate about something, I would say that none of the respondents was addicted. As long as one does not harm the body and keeps having social contacts, we should not be talking about an addiction. To keep social contacts takes us over to the last motivation.

The ultramarathon community

The community is essential for most of the respondents. As most runners might have experienced this fact themselves, running communities are often respect- and helpful. The community is very familiar and when someone has difficulties along the trail, he or she can always expect the help of the very next runner, even when this is a pro athlete going for the win. The relatively small community, if not at the UTMB, is very exquisite and wild.

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