What’s So Special About Racing?

The running related question I ask myself more than any other is why I race? I have no doubts about my desire to run, and have not questioned that in several years, but sometimes I wonder why I bother to race as opposed to just running independent of the structure, stress, and cost of racing.

The thrill of competition is a huge part of the answer to this question. I love the shared experience of pushing myself as hard as I can against other people who love running in the mountains as much as I do. I like to perform well, but I often take as much satisfaction in seeing someone else run a really effective race as I do when I run one myself. That’s the way I’ve always been. I like being around people when they accomplish great things. Sometimes in the sport of running you even get to feel like you “helped” someone else accomplish something great.

There’s something more than just the competition though. I realized this more than ever when I attended the Chuckanut 50k last month. Not as a racer, but as a spectator/volunteer. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t racing that day, it was still really satisfying and inspiring to be there among so many great people.

And this brings me to the larger point of this article. Training can, and often is, a very solitary thing. Racing, however, is a communal endeavor where the strength of the whole is far greater than the sum of the individuals. Competition, encouragement, and inspiration travel so freely at races that runners of all levels end up running much faster than they ever could on their own. This interconnectedness isn’t limited to individuals present at a given race. Often, it involves those who have run that same race in previous years, as well as individuals who have taught us or inspired us in other settings. When this all comes together on race day you end up with an event that feels more like a collective event with one single pulse, rather than a race among many individuals. Everyone ends up with their own individual result, but in the end it is the collective pulse that seems to fuel us and keep us coming back for more.

The beauty in all of this is that no one individual is any more important than any other. Whether you finish first or last you have the same influence on the collective entity that is that event. If you are a race volunteer you will shape an event as much as the runners battling at the front of the pack. Without everyone who is out there on race day, and without everyone who has taught and inspired each of us, the collective strength of the whole would be a little bit diminished. Each time we gather at a race we bring with us dozens of others, some of them thousands of miles away, some of them no longer alive, who become a small part of that event. And none of this is dependent upon how fast someone can run, but instead on what they have taught us or how they have inspired us, and shaped us as the runners and the people that we are.

In this way each race becomes a collection of tens of thousands of people all over the world. And in this way racing is a very different experience than the everyday run. When we go out and run each day we are doing so primarily for our individual benefit. Even when we run with other people our daily runs tend to be mostly about self-improvement or self-satisfaction. Races though are much more about providing a small piece of a larger puzzle that hundreds, if not thousands of people are influenced by. And it’s not just us providing this piece, but also the dozens of others that we bring along with us: friends, family, mentors, training partners, critics, etc.

Sometimes races don’t play out the way we hope. I had my fair share of those last year. But next time you have a race that doesn’t go so well, be sure to take the time to notice just how small a part of the larger whole your individual experience really is, and how successful the collective experience might be, even if your individual performance falls short of what you know you were capable of. Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t be disappointed when we have a bad race or excited when we have a good race, but our individual performance is only a small part of the larger experience of these races that we’re all a part of.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Why do you race? What’s special about it?
  • Do you feel like a part of something bigger when you’re racing?

There are 41 comments

  1. eric hodge

    i think that feeling is probably way more prevalent in the ultra community than in other race environments. i've yet to run my first ultra (getting there), and i've gotten that feeling from a handful of races i've done, but certainly not all. i think it's one of the things that is so alluring about the ultra community… the open-armed welcome, the humility of the elites who are just as willing to share some time with a hack like myself as anyone else.

    seems like everyone sort of looks out for everyone else and shares in the collective enjoyment of the race on a whole rather than (or in addition to) personal success (which obviously is also very rewarding, when achieved).

  2. Steve Pero

    Why do you race? What’s special about it?

    I ask myself that every time I participate in a race…I'm older and slower now than I was a couple of decades ago. Wouldn't it be easier to just volunteer? But there is something special about being out there with many others all doing the same thing, so I enter and enjoy the day in the mountains with my fellow runners…well most of it ;-)

    Do you feel like a part of something bigger when you’re racing?

    Yes, whether that race has 20 entrants or 2000…it's all the same.

  3. Fernando N. Baeza

    Geoff,

    Thank you for sharing those interesting and very humbling points. As a whole, the ultra community is a strong bunch, finishing strong is only of the many facets of why we stick together as a group, whether it be the front pack, or the middle pack or a conservative bunch in the back; one of the primary roots holding this ultra tree together is is its ambience, and your a constant reminder of why elites like yourself and others are examples to follow. Thanks for the article Geoff, Fernando

  4. Paul Nelson

    I feel the same way Geoff! Thanks for sharing this great article.

    It was so nice to meet you and your crew at Chuckanut 50k! Looks forward to seeing you at Steamboat100!

  5. Phil Jeremy

    Great article. Sometimes I feel alone in a race, possibly because I'm near the back but this has given me new vigour for my UTBA 52k this weekend as I will now feel more part of an 'event' no matter how I perform.

  6. Russell

    I've been waiting for this article for a long time!! I've pondered this exact question for a while now. Thanks for the insight Geoff.

    I've always wondered why the people in the middle of the pack (those who've run the same course before) run races. I can fully understand why elites run and compete. I can also fully understand the joy of a newbie… of finishing your first race at a particular distance/event (something you never dreamed of doing). There are definite bragging rights (and i don't mean that in a negative way)in both instances… to feel great about something you achieved through hard work. But what I've not understood (and this is just me, I'm sure) is why you would repeat a certain race several times, just to maybe knock of a few minutes off your time, where there is no real joy in the challenge of completion or competition.

    Once again this is just the way I feel, but if I'm not aiming to get thunderously better at one race, I would rather look for a new challenge. Even explore a new part of the world maybe.

    That being said, I do fully understand and support the sense of camaraderie, and thank everyone who participates in furthering the love of the great outdoors.

    1. Anonymous

      A race can never be repeated. The course might be seem to be the same, but there are so many variables (weather, competition, your training level, your age, etc.) that the race is always different.

      1. Russell

        That's a bit of a vague statement. By that token, no two training runs are exactly the same either. So why not just keep doing only training runs?

        However, I do agree with (and am enlightened by) all the other reasons posted here.

        1. Ben Nephew

          You didn't ask why race and not just train. There are obviously great differences between training and racing for most. Maybe you should have asked why race, and not why do the same race many times? I am having a hard time trying to imagine the person you are depicting that competes at the same race when there is not joy in the challenge of completion or competition. Sometimes it takes years to PR on course. Running the same time year after year as you age would actually be an improvement. Sometimes you need a race to gauge your fitness, and doing the same race can provide a reasonable comparison.

          If all I wanted was to see different places and hang out with some runners, I'd probably not race. Instead, I'd just travel to some nice trails, find a local running club to do some runs with and save the race fees for good food.

  7. Jim Skaggs

    I race for some of the same reasons, to test myself, to see and be with friends, to run in someplace very different or someplace very familiar. One of the big reasons I race is that it gives me a goal to strive for in training. If I didn't race, I would probably not run nearly as much as I do. Knowing that I have an event on the horizon gives me some incentive to train harder to see if I can still eke out a PR at that event.

    1. Jay

      I agree Jim. I would never go out on a 4 or 5 hour training run solo unless I wasn't scared out of my mind that in a few months I had 26,000 feet of elevation to conquer at 10,000 feet of altitude!!

  8. Jeff Faulkner

    I run ultras for two reasons:

    1. To achieve. Each race is either longer than any before or I've set a loftier performance goal for myself.

    2. To be with other runners, who are often the kindest, funniest, and most motivational people alive.

    I love our sport.

    1. Anonymous

      Totally Agree.. ultra running is SO different than marathon running.. It's the friendships in training and racing that I love. Too bad Geoff trains mostly solo. I really enjoy training with other ultra buddies.

  9. Michael Owen

    Studly course records won't be re-broke unless there is people pushing – Geoff, you would probably attribute part of the 2010 WS CR to having Kilian and Tony in front of you to go after.

    Most FKT's would probably be taken down if there were an organized competition on that route.

    Good discussion.

    1. Ben Nephew

      I'm going to have to disagree with both points in general. My interpretation of that WS race was that Geoff ran his own mature race, and Kilian and Anton killed themselves by being overly competitive too soon. I think the key point in that race was where Geoff let them go. He clearly had a strong finish after a rough patch, but I'm not convinced that competition was key to that. There are numerous course records out there where second place was miles behind, and this was likely obvious to 1st place.

      Maybe I'm splitting hairs, but I think the key to taking down course records is assembling a fast field. The race might be competitive, like in San Fran last year, but it doesn't have to be. Top ulrarunners are particularly skilled at running hard by themselves, and the best races are the result of runners running their own race.

      With FKT's, a race might result in the best time if it is planned carefully. How about a R2R2R race in late July, starting at 9am? What about if someone ran a supported run on the VT100 course in perfect fall weather? I think they would have a good shot at running faster than the CR. There are many advantages to the the flexibility of a FKT, weather, timing with respect to training and racing, the ability to focus on running your own pace with distractions, and the lack of race stress.

      1. Michael Owen

        Ben, Anton broke the course record as well, being only 6 minutes behind Geoff. Did he really kill himself? Would Geoff of had any incentive to run such a good second half of WS if Kilian and Anton were not in front? I can't answer for him, but he had to of had his sights on going for them at some point once he realized he was gaining. Anton and Geoff were dueling the last 12 miles of the race – Geoff running hard to not be caught by Anton and Anton running hard to try and catch Geoff. That is competition making the race faster.

        Of course you can talk about the weather variable. I can say the complete opposite and ask what if there was an organized race on the R2R2R in early November with prefect weather and all the top ultra-runners competed? But I still disagree wouldn't go down if there was a competition on route, even if the weather was less-than-optimal.

        As ultra-runners, a lot of times, we hide from saying we race for the competition – saying we do it for the pure "joy of running and being on the trail." Sure, this is a huge reason; this is why we train everyday. But many people run to race as well. Why not embrace the competition of ultra-running, while keeping the community aspect alive, and realize it makes the sport stronger, and better?

        1. Anonymous

          The point I wanted to make with the weather is the flexibility of races vs. FKT's. There are certainly periods when scheduling a race would be very likely to hit a good day, but you are still talking about one day a year.

          The other issue is the likelihood of runners having a good day on a specific race day. The strength of ultrarunning races is naturally inflated by a combination of racing frequency and variations in specific fitness and injury. Look at the times listed for the IAU 100k competitors, some go back almost two years. Looking at the longer lasting CR's at competitive races, I think that is evidence of how rare it is for everything to go right for the right athletes on a certain day.

          We are on the same page about your last paragraph, and it is hard to understand the differing opinions on competition and participation at a major city marathon vs. top ultras. A combination of just running for joy with a lack of intensive training and racing and frequent injury or exhaustion is surprising on some levels, but OCD issues tied to intensive training being rewarding may explain that paradox.

  10. Ryan David Pardey

    Great article. I have been running VERY consistently for 20 years. I am 35 years old and just recently started racing for the fist time (first race was in December 2011). I feel like I have discovered a whole new dimension of running that I didn't even know existed! I run because I love running and it is a part of "me". But now I also love that racing allows me to set personal goals and run head first at them.

  11. Spencer

    I love racing, just because you get to hang out with people. There's this great community of people who are all working towards the same goal of competing/finishing, mainly just having some fun. I fully realized that at Chuckanut this year, and I can't wait until the next race. I volunteered at a race this weekend, and just seeing people and cheering them on is great.

  12. Frenchy

    I race because I want to know what I'm made of. To find my absolute limits, mentally, physically, and emotionally. To see how far I can go. To see what God created for me to enjoy. To learn from grizzled vets in my region, like Ian Maddieson and Bobby Keogh. And most important, to have fun.

  13. Walter

    I race because it is the only way I can justify to my wife and kids why I run almost every day.

    All that other stuff is great too…

  14. Paul Elliott

    Cheers for that article, I can never really explain to my wife why I race (she gets why I run) so I'll show her that instead next time she asks!

  15. Rachel White

    I loved the article, Geoff, because I sometimes feel guilty about the selfish aspects of racing. How can I justify spending time, money, and the goodwill of people helping crew me just so I can indulge my adrenaline addiction? What good am I putting out there into the world when I pin a number on and spend a whole day running in a beautiful place? The answer – as you point out – comes from seeing this as a collective endeavor, not just an individual pursuit. At each event, we create a whole family of runners who are willing to come together to help each other test our limits. I have yet to meet an ultrarunner who wouldn't offer encouragement, a spare headlamp or extra gel, stories of their experiences, a ride to the start, etc. Thanks for the reminder that we are a community.

  16. Jeffery

    Geoff,

    Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

    I've often said that 'no one runs alone', for precisely the reasons you expressed. No matter where I finish in the pack, I have been helped during races by elite front runners and their crews, mid-pack runners who might offer up some candy or salt, and at times back-of-the-packers who provide more inspiration per mile than anyone. Endurance events are communal events. We just need the runners to justify why we're out in the middle of nowhere with our friends :)

  17. Matt Smith

    This article brings to mind Maslow's theory of self-actualization – racing is the perfect platform to become the potential self that we envision.

    "…the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for the individual to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming."

    It's not so much about discovering oneself as it is creating oneself through action.

    Of course, we might do that alone on a trail, but the community and coming together with other like-minded people at a race creates a synergy that drives us beyond our current selves. To become our potential.

    1. Loic Bernard (Gingee

      Very well said,I'd have to add that in doing these we not only create oneself but it provides for me, a feeling of being alive. By pushing my own personal limits and thresholds I validate my "raison d'etre".

  18. Adam Barnhart

    Loved this article. I think the philosophy behind it is completely sound. Races are (or should be) about the running community coming together. By that token, I'd assert that volunteering at races is just as important as running them. Geoff is good enough to point out the positive experience(s) he has had doing that… and I would challenge anyone who hasn't volunteered for a race to do one this year.

    Want to see the trail running community grow in a positive way? Volunteer at twice as many races as you run! :)

  19. Bekah

    I love this. Have been thinking/blogging some about this lately, as I'm injured and have been going crazy planning my future race schedule, but have been pulled up short by the thought of…why?

    You nailed it.

  20. konrad

    I wholeheartedly agree with all the reasons given and would like to add a couple of my own. First I believe we race to celebrate ourselves and our sport. No matter what you're into,Star Wars, guns, airplanes, it's always a lot of fun to get together with a bunch of people who are also into that stuff. On a more personal note the ultrarunning community is the only group I've ever tried to be a part of that accepted me unconditionally. I've always been kind of a dork, still am, and every group I've ever tried to gain entry in- deadheads, bicyclists, stoners-has kept me at arms length. Ultrarunners are so wonderful though. From my first trail race I was welcomed with open arms, no questions asked. Sometimes during a race I just get a little lightheaded and giddy and make really bad jokes to get anyone around me laughing. But that's me and I've never gotten the impression from any of you folks that I had to try to be anything else.

  21. Andy

    I totally agree with the communal spirit and celebration that makes races special, especially since, like Geoff, I train/run almost exclusively alone (mostly schedule issues). Races also definitely provide that carrot or goal that drives us with excitement and anticipation — didn't, for example, someone recently mention the feeling of "Statesmas" that surrounds WS? Each race is, for each of us, like a mini-holiday celebration of ourselves and the outdoors and something to be eager about. Last but not least, if you enjoy running for hours in the wilderness it's a lot easier with aid stations!

    As for Konrad, not being accepted by Deadheads or stoners but being accepted by ultrarunners (among whom there are quite a few from the former two groups) is probably the strongest endorsement yet for the communal openness of ultrarunning!

  22. CJ

    Nice post Geoff. I race for the thrill of competition but also for that camaraderie among fellow runners (human beings, for that matter). That shared experience and re-hashing of the details post-race are gold. Races are also a place where I can put all that fine training to the test and see how I stack up, win or lose. Each race is essentially the fruit of 10-12 weeks of experimentation.

  23. Ian Sharman

    Geoff,

    Well said. There are many aspects that make racing addictive and a lot of fun but there's no doubt that a lot of us have a lot of the motivation from getting to hang out with like-minded people. Yes, that is also possible in training runs or days outside of races (I really enjoyed doing the 40 miles around Mt Hood with a great bunch of local runners last year).

    But what racing offers on top of that is the competition and additional challenge – whether to beat a course, a time, a friend or your past self…or all of these. And races often take us to places we wouldn't otherwise reach, whether because the course goes over private land or it's just too far from anywhere. I know some people may run 50+ miles in the middle of mountains on their own, but for me it's the only way I'd realistically see some places.

    I know my wife wouldn't be very happy with the idea of me running 100 miles through the High Sierra then in canyons with extreme temperatures (Western States) if I just went along with some friends and no race support.

  24. Edward Chapman

    I thought I would disagree with you, I'm not a racer, but what you said resonated with me. In particular 'Whether you finish first or last you have the same influence on the collective entity that is that event.'and 'Everyone ends up with their own individual result, but in the end it is the collective pulse that seems to fuel us and keep us coming back for more.' I enjoy being part of an event, whether it as a competitor or helper, now I can put into words why! Thank you.

  25. Diane Roy

    An absolutely brilliant synopsis which articulates exactly why I have a passion for racing. I find myself racing almost every weekend and often its distances that dont particularly suite me but I still go to take part in the collective event.I thrive on meeting others,sharing stories,joining in with the banter and tapping into that comradery that you so often find on the more tougher of courses. Memories are created by the people with whome we run with,they make us want to come back for more. If it was all about winning,getting fast times then there would be very few on the start line!…..that buzz would be gone.We need everyone from every ability to participate,marshalls,supporters and spectators a like to create this collective pulse you speak of. Enjoyed reading this so much!

  26. RunningFarce

    Really cool article. I love racing and I think competition always makes you better – whether you run a fast time at races or not – but I haven't thought about racing making the community better like this before. It's definitely true, when I leave races that I didn't run in, I always leave inspired by watching others put forth their best efforts.

  27. Tony Mollica

    Great article Geoff!

    I train mostly by myself. The people that I am around most in my life think I am crazy for all the running I do. When I am at a race I am running and socializing with people who understand! That is a beautiful thing!

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