Why Race?

I ask myself “why” a lot? Sometimes it is in a self-reflective tone, simply stoking the fires of an already-burning ambition. I know what I want and am therefore just reviewing the reasons for further focus or fortification. Sometimes it is more of a petulant child, akin to a resistant, “Whhhhyyyyyyy mom, I don’t want toooooo” (complete with a sobbing meltdown on the floor). In that case, I am seeking inspiration, a deeper reason for doing something specific.

This year, I have been under a lot of stress trying to get our bakery business off the ground. It has shifted my focus from running and pursuing different races to business first and fitting in racing later. Thus, my racing schedule is absolutely filled to the brim with races, but my commitment to those specific races is mediocre at best. I keep a full schedule of races because, due to the ever-changing landscape of our business, I am not sure which ones I will be available for (whether emotionally, physically, etc). I can still fit in my training, but not at the level I was last year. The supplemental things and the energy to focus on running first is gone. Thus, my ability to feel fighting fit for races is diminished.

All of these things has made me contemplate a great deal  “why” I race and which of those “whys” will allow me to enjoy myself, perform at the best of my current abilities, and put me in the best mindset to even show up at the start line. We all have fundamental “whys” that motivate us to choose to race or choose specific races. For me, this year has been all about understanding what my “whys” are in my new context. In all of the stress of opening a new business, running is my respite, my sanctuary, and I don’t want to trespass on that or add to my stress levels by forcing myself to race when I am not fundamentally motivated to do so. When it comes down to it, I need a strong “why” in order to race. It gives me energy, focus and, when the going gets tough, a grounding principle to keep me moving forward.

As I said, my dance card is quite full this year, but many races are put in place with the hope that by the time they roll around I will feel passionate about them. Unlike last year when I raced the Olympic Trials, Two Oceans, and Comrades, all races I was hyper-focused and excited about, I don’t have any races on my schedule that fit that bill. Then what gets me to the start line? Thus far this year, it has been an interesting experiment in trying on different motivations.

What motivates me to race

1. Iconic races or races in beautiful places

Every runner has a bucket list of races they want to run. When the opportunity to run one of these races arises, it is a no-brainer to jump at the chance. Bucket-list races often require a great deal of planning and time to make happen. Some of these races, like the Boston Marathon or Hardrock 100, require you to race just to be able to apply to get in. Once you actually get in to the race, you have travel, logistics, and other things you have to meticulously coordinate in order to get to the start line. My primary motivation for racing Comrades was because of its iconic status. My baseline motivation was first just to enjoy being there. I never felt anything but all in for this race because of the lengths I had to go to get there.

Bucket-list races are also races that we go to for the experience of doing, even if we aren’t in the position to PR or have our best race. For instance, in 2009 I ran the Boston Marathon. It wasn’t an A race for me, as I was training for the 100k World Championships. I wanted to run well at Boston, especially considering that I was running in the elite women’s field, but I was not attached to a specific time goal.

Sometimes the thrill or privilege of making it to a particular start line is more than enough reason to run a race.

2. To run a specific time or distance goal

This is pretty straightforward. I ran my first marathon because I wanted to see if I could run a marathon. I ran my first 50-miler to see if I could run 50 miles. I ran my first 100… you get the picture.

I ran my second marathon to see if I could run faster than my first. Then I raced to run sub-2:45 so I could qualify for the Olympic Trials. Specific time and distance goals are a great way to motivate yourself to race. Because they require specific focus in training and on race day, the goal itself provides a strong carrot to get to the finish line. Focusing on a concrete goal such as a race, time or distance PR creates motivation naturally.

3. To be a part of my community

This spring, my sister and her husband were driving from Seattle to San Francisco as a part of their move here. I knew that their trip coincided with one of my best friend’s races, the Chuckanut 50k, and so I volunteered Nathan and I to come up to Seattle help Sarah and Steven move as long as we could run Chuckanut 50k first. I wasn’t specifically trained for the race and I was having a hard time motivating on the drive up to the race (it was pouring rain), but once I was there, greeted by so many familiar faces and old friends, I was excited to be a part of the event.

The main reason I was attracted to the ultrarunning world in the first place was the amazing community of people that make it up. When I show up at races, I feel like I am meeting up with a bunch of friends to have an adventure. Ultrarunning has long been such a niche sport that sometimes I can show up and know half the entrants in the field from the front of the pack to the back and even the aid station volunteers. I’ll sign up for races just so I can spend time with my community.

4. To give my training structure/as part of my training

If I didn’t race, I would probably get injured a lot more. I like to run high mileage and I could envision myself hammering until my legs fell off if I didn’t have races to provide peaks and recovery periods. Alternatively, if I didn’t race, I might also just fall into a running rut and never include speedwork or other race-specific workouts.

Since I began ultrarunning in 2006, my race frequency has gotten a lot higher. The previous year, I ran three marathons and one 50k. Coming from the road-running world, that seemed like a whole lot! After starting to run ultras, I realized that some races served as hard training runs with aid stations and schwag. I think that many runners find it easier to motivate to run a 50-mile race than to go out and do a solo 50-mile training run.

I took this approach a few months back, the weekend after Chuckanut actually. I had Oakland Marathon on my schedule, but was not certain I was going to run it. I knew that I was not thoroughly recovered from the 50k, but also knew that I was scheduled to be doing a two or three-hour long road run on March 23rd. In the end, I figured what the heck, I might as well run a race to fit my training schedule. The logistics were easy, I was already registered, and it allowed me to get to spend some time with my mom, who recently moved to Oakland. Because of the race the week before, I was not attached to the outcome and was able to just run by feel and had a great deal of fun. In the end, I surprised myself by winning the race, setting a course record, and winning tickets to Hawaii. Not a bad training day, I’d say!

There are so many reasons to choose to race. For me, I need a strong “why” or motivation to set myself up for success. In the ever-changing landscape of my life right now, I continually have to re-examine these motivations as races on my schedule draw near to make sure that I have a solid reason for doing them. For me, racing starts with the fundamental “why.”

Why do you race?

Devon Yanko

loves to cook, eat, run, sleep, repeat. She is a runner (distances and surfaces of all sorts), certified personal chef, and cafe/bakery owner. Three times she's competed for Team USA at the IAU 100k World Championships, while also being a two-time national champion (100k and 50-mile). She competes in distances from the marathon to 100 miles, but the 50-mile distance is her favorite. She recently raced in the Olympic Marathon Trials setting a PR of 2:38:55. She documents her adventures on her blog.