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.

There are 25 comments

  1. Ana

    I had this exact question on my mind during a race last weekend… I enjoy training far more than actual racing!

    But for me, it's a lot of #2 and #4. I really want to see how far I can push my body.

  2. Shelby

    #1 definitely. It's like a supported adventure run or a great training run for a longer race. I enjoy trying out new trails and this is a good excuse for traveling.

    The reason above is followed up very closely by the chance to do my very individualistic sport with a bunch of people who are like minded. Ultrarunners are awesome – from back-of-the-packers to elites – I'm inspired by so many. So it's kinda like going to the bar on Friday night, except it's out on the trails and the chance of meeting someone you'd want to see again is much higher!

  3. Yeti

    Why race? That's a really good question for which I've never been able to find an adequate answer. I don't "race" anymore(not that I ever really did anyway, as that would seem to imply I was in some kind of position to at least maybe win). I suppose community is the only reason that makes any sense to me at all as to why I ever raced. I've never struggled with motivation, running far and being in the backcountry is just what I like to do.

    I have come up with a few reasons that I don't race though.

    -The courses are free the other 364 days of the year and I'm pretty broke. If I want to compare my times to others I just look it up on the race website.

    -24-48 hours in the backcountry is small potatoes compared to the backcountry epic I could enjoy with the race fee alone.

    -There's really no adventure to it. People telling me "good job" all day, giving me food every hour, a million ways to bail and a medical team at the ready, to me, is more like babysitting than a test of endurance, grit and will.

    -I and just about anyone reading this stand zero chance to win. Not on our best day could virtually any one of us even crack top 10 at any respectable race. So we aren't really racing at all. A race is a competition, if I'm not actually in the running then what the hell am I doing? I don't know.

    So now I follow racing similarly to the way most people follow college basketball. In the same way most hoops fans don't play for an amateur basketball league, I don't race. I have my favorite runners and races and thanks to irunfar I can get the action as it goes down.

    1. Anonymous

      Respectfully disagree. Not everyone can race to win, but everyone in the competition is still racing (against the clock, against the course, against the next competitor, against their own expectations, etc). Racing is challenging yourself to put forth a better / harder effort than you would normally do in training.

      1. Shelby

        Agreed. Even though I'm enjoying the scenery and people, I'm still racing against myself or the course, hoping to pull out my best performance possible. My best will most likely happen at a race, not on a training run.

  4. Ethan

    It depends on the race, too. Unless by 'respectable race' you're limiting yourself to Western States and UTMB, I'd guess a lot of people who read on here have a good shot at breaking into the top 5 or 10 at races they run. In addition to seeing frequent comments from well-known elite runners on here, I know I have a lot of friends who read iRunFar who usually finish in the top 3 at regional races, and – while they may not be competing for the win – acquit themselves well in bigger contests. And if you do enough races to know the other runners, you can still race against the folks with whom you're usually competitive.

    1. Yeti

      Sorry Ethan, not to bicker with you but you are wrong concerning your estimation that, "I’d guess a lot of people who read on here have a good shot at breaking into the top 5 or 10 at races they run". That is just not true. If your average race had say, 100 people, 90 of them will not place top ten. 90% of the crowd at every race whether it be respectable or bush league is out of the top ten, and the number of runners placing out of top 10 increase as the race increases in size(even more still if you're talking top 3 or top 5). If you look at the results from most races the same core individuals tend to place in the top spots year after year, excluding newcomer prodigies and the occasional underdog-turns-his-life-around story. Just because a relatively small group of elites contribute to the forum and you happen to have a circle of successful friends does not mean that the thousands and thousands of irunfar readers consist of top ten runners that are winning or even placing top 10 in their races. The overwhelming majority of us just aren't capable of that kind of performance and even the suggestion that we are is a little silly.

      Point taken about running against others with whom you're usually competitive though, I suppose that is an abstract form of racing, but I still don't understand why one wouldn't just go do it for free at the preferred course with those same individuals. With a small amount of planning ahead you can do this for a fraction of the race entry fee, with the added benefit that it can be on just about any day you choose between you and your buds AND you could actually win! I don't know, paying for something that was over before it even started just seems like an odd thing for me to do but if it makes others happy and they got the money to spend then great. I'm certainly not trying to rain on the parade here, just still at a loss for the "why" most of us continue to pay top dollar to participate in something that is free despite the inevitable outcome.

      1. Cory K.

        Actually, Ethan is more accurate than you might think. His observatons are far from silly. You qualified people who read irunfar. The majority of ultrarunners I know happen to not read irunfar, only about 10% of them. So, there's the top ten. I myself – a newbie to the sport – have raced well and into the top 10% at a race with nearly 200 competitors, and one of my friends who is purely recreational as well, wins the women's field with regularity in the region. At any rate, it is interesting to consider how competitive we can be as recreational runners who are fueled by passion for the act of running.

        1. Yeti

          Cory, sorry man, I guess I just didn't realize that the readership was such an elite group of runners. I've always thought irunfar was kind of the go-to website for the trail running masses. I humbly stand corrected sir. Considering that almost everyone who has ever run a trail/ultra doesn't read the most popular trail/ultra website, I guess I'm a little out of place.

          Big congrats to you and your friend by the way, top ten is quite an accomplishment…er wait, well actually everyone's doing it nowadays…I kid ;)

  5. Luke Garten

    I am always wondering why I race. I have a love hate relationship with it. This year I have raced once a month with less expectations and less pressure to meet a specific goal as I do when I race only a couple times. I have more fun on long adventure runs than I do with races, but if I did not have races to train for I would not be in as good of shape to run as far on adventure runs. Races also let me see new trails that I would have not gone to see otherwise.

  6. Will

    I try to have a race on the schedule every month. I use the race as motivation to train. I have a tendency to slack if I don't.

  7. Scott

    Totally agree. Only in this sport is the word "racing" using by people who are not actually racing. They are signing up, paying money….to run at the back or middle with no chance of competing with anyone who is actually racing the race. About 10% of the people who sign up for these races are actually racing the course… the rest are just trying to get from start to finish….how that equals "racing" I have no idea.

    It's kind of a weird thing that the "race" requires a whole bunch of people who aren't even racing to enter…in order for the …race…to go down ..between like 5 people.

    If you aren't in the top 10 …you are just a financial backer you didn't really "race" anyone.. You just paid money to run with a bunch of other people for a while…

  8. Scott

    Basically the idea of people who have no chance of winning races paying to enter races is the running version of the shake weight… You lack the motivation to actually do the work necessary to improve..so you just pay money for something that gives you temporary relief of the fact you aren't actually achieving anything.

    1. olga

      Kind of sad that you belittle folks who do running as a pass-time and yes, have hard time "pushing the limits" without signing up for the race.

      Most of us will not "place top 10%", and yes, majority are not even "racing the course or the clock" – they are just getting from here to there. So what? Otherwise they might have been sitting on their butts, not seeing the beauty and not socializing. Yeti says he just goes backcountry to test limits – good for him. I am scared, I like knowing I'll see people every 1-2 hrs, and will be able to have clean water, and won't (hopefully) get lost. I like seeing a number of my friends I would otherwise have to travel 20 times more to as opposed to all of us "bundling up" in one place at one time. Heck if I'd push my running beyond jogging here and there if there were no races. Just because the name implies "racing" doesn't mean nobody but "real racer" is allowed to participate. Oh, and yes, I like people telling me "good job". May be I was abused as a child and I use it as a therapy. Why is that a problem? Really, guys, lighten up.

      Good article, Devon. I am looking forward your return – and to visit your store in some near future (hopefully a trip attached to a race, most likely Lake Sonoma next year).

      1. Elena Makovskaya

        I agree. I race cuz I like to see if I can go further or faster or both.. And not worry so much about logistics of doing that, so I can worry about just one thing that I love the most – RUN.. And also, see friends while I do that, meet new friends, see new places and test my own limits. All great stuff!

        To Scott: it it wasn't for those 90% of ppl getting from one place to another, those top 10% would not be top 10 either. Simple math. :)

          1. Elena Makovskaya

            Guess spending 7 years in in math class in soviet Union finally paid off!! LOL! :)))

            btw Olga, I was looking at Lake Sonoma for next year too.. It is a very competitive race, so I will most likely be in the 90% of financial backers field (also backing the airline, hotel, car rental, restaurant and winery industries at the same time!!), but I love it and cannot wait!!! :))))

  9. Pierre

    Totally agree with the ladies here. I need to be taken care for when i'm doing an ultra. How would you go around Mont Blanc in less than 46 hours without all the volunteers and aid stations. You race for the adventure, the scenery, and you don't have to take care of the logistics involve. Pretty simple. Its true that the word RACE is not appropriate for most of us.

    The rest of the WHY(s), are personal reasons that certainly needs to be adress from time to time.

  10. Danny

    I love to race, but I realized towards the end of 2012 that I was racing way too much, and looking ahead to my 2013, that I was going to be racing even more. I hadn't put in three solid weeks of training in over six months and I rarely found myself running long miles even on weekends. Even with a "B-race" mindset, I still find myself compelled to push hard if I've paid an entry fee and lined up with other racers. This means a week or usually two of reduced effort before hand and a week or two of recovery after. Then boom, time for another race.

    Racing so frequently through 2012 put me in worse shape than I wanted because I was barely training in between, kind of like a baby's version of what many Grand Slammers do. After a race in early January, I decided to take six months off of racing entirely. I'm running more than ever, enjoying the mountains more than ever, and feeling fitter and stronger than ever. It was a great decision. That said, I'm certainly looking forward to testing myself and my newfound fitness in a month's time at the White River 50!

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