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?