This article is co-written by ultrarunners Brandon Chase and his coach, Joe McConaughy, on the importance of self-identify for any endurance runner.
Training for a marathon, ultramarathon or fast packing adventure isn’t easy. When you mention to friends and family the pace that you struggle to maintain, the distance of your recent race, how you hiked 30, 40, or 50 miles per day for a week straight, or how awful your feet looked by the end, the most common response is a look of confusion and concern. This is usually followed up with a catchy phrase such as, “I don’t even like to drive that far!” or “I only run if I’m being chased!”.
Despite the hours and weeks of dedicated training, the brutal terrain, and the toll it takes on our minds, bodies, and relationships, we still continue to pursue feats of endurance. Why? Many runners I know don’t reflect on this continual self-inflicted suffering. It is important to think about why we do what we do.
Obtaining some clarity on the subject is not only useful when explaining your pursuits to a work colleague, but also when you’re in the middle of a race and find yourself exhausted, cold, wet, nauseous, and your brain is telling you it’s time to quit. More importantly, your ‘why’ provides inspiration for the weeks and months of training. If you don’t know why you’re out there, it will be that much easier to throw in the towel.
As German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche once said, “he who has a why can endure any how”, so let’s get to it.
What Excites You About Endurance Athletics?
What initially compelled you to toe the line at your first marathon or head into the woods for that solo fastpacking trip? Maybe you wanted to see if you could really do it (you can), or if all that training actually works (it does). Perhaps you sought a sense of adventure that is not readily available in other areas of your life and take pride in doing hard things and making progress toward a lofty goal.
On the other side of the coin, maybe you’re fascinated with the gear and technological advances that make it possible to go further than ever before. Lighter packs, longer-lasting watches, and more comfortable shoes won’t necessarily make you any faster, but they sure do smooth the ride.
Perhaps running is your community. You prescribe to the church of the long run every Sunday. A good training partner makes for an even better best friend, and you enjoy being around people with similar interests. The running community not only makes you feel at home, but understands and supports the active and adventurous lifestyle you want.
Think about the feeling that washes over you when following the progress of someone in the throes of an FKT attempt or while watching a trail running documentary. What about those experiences makes you eager to endure physical and emotional pain, harsh conditions, or perhaps even more insidious side effects, like sleep deprivation?
What Motivates You to Train?
While similarly phrased as the first question, the answers may not be the same. Training is what you will do more than 90% of the time, while racing and going on adventures will be a small slice in comparison. What gets you out of bed and lacing your shoes up in the morning is a more intrinsic motivation. What keeps you from hitting the snooze button?
Most athletes experience a sense of pride and confidence when they push past their perceived limitations to finish an event they didn’t think was possible for them. You may also enjoy the health and fitness benefits that consistent training provides, as well as the community surrounding the sport that is overwhelmingly supportive and welcoming.
With a few events under your belt, perhaps you’ve become addicted to the release of endorphins you experience when closing in on the finish line. Conceivably, these achievements have sparked curiosity and you begin to wonder, “what else am I capable of? How far can I push myself?”. No one wants to look back on their life with regret wondering “what if?”, and endurance events are one of many ways to test and train your mental and physical capabilities.
As Jennifer Pharr Davis says in her book The Pursuit of Endurance, “The value…is not found in completing a footpath faster than anyone else, but in harnessing the power of resiliency and translating it to life beyond”. Discovering what keeps you coming back to the sport and how you can translate that newfound toughness into other parts of your life is the key to success.
While training is a big part of an endurance athlete’s life, it shouldn’t be the only thing. Everyone has work, family, and other life commitments that deserve attention and focus just like your training does. Understanding that you can do anything, but not everything will help you prioritize and get the most out of your time and effort.
Life happens, and there are times when you won’t be able to do a run or complete a workout. The key to continually making progress and staying satisfied is by having consistency in your training and looking ahead in rather than backward. If you are regularly putting in the miles, then a missed run because of a late work meeting or a family event will have a negligible effect on your training and is not worth wringing your hands over. Simply pick up where you left off on the next run and forget about it.
Endurance athletics can be a lifelong sport if you remain engaged, train consistently, and rest when necessary. When balanced with other obligations and passions, it can spur lasting friendships, continual personal growth, and a sense of unbounded contentment that can enhance all aspects of your existence. After all, a happy and healthy athlete is a fast athlete.
Outcome goals drive competitive nature and the desire to see improvement. Outcome goals are the big dreams that you hope to achieve by the end of the year. In 2020, my outcome goals were to go sub-4:20 in the mile, set the JMT FKT and place top 15 at UTMB. Then COVID happened. I ran 4:23 during the indoor track season, set the Long Trail instead of the JMT FKT, and UTMB is cancelled. Good thing I love the process, or else I’d be bummed out!
If you can identify and stay motivated by outcome goals, you probably think you have found your ‘why.’ Not so fast! Without process goals your training, the majority of your running, loses its spark. What are you doing day in and day out to get after it?
While most athletes have no problem listing off their goal race, time, or place, many struggle to identify what they want to get out of the process and how those intermediary steps support their desired outcome. These may be event-specific, such as “eat 200 calories per hour during the Vermont 100,” or broader like “do at least 30 minutes of strength work per week to prevent injury.” There is also my personal favorite, “cross the finish line with a smile.” In any case, process goals should be within your realm of control and tailored to your needs and proclivities.
Finding Your Why
In the end, reasons for pursuing hard things like endurance sports are personal and you’re under no obligation to articulate them to anyone. However, the more honest you are with yourself, the easier it will be to commit to training and persevere during the late stages of a tough event. Remember what initially excited or scared you about the endeavor and what now keeps you from quitting and moving on to something else.
Your ability to balance training and other commitments will have a direct impact on how much enjoyment and impact the sport can bring to you, your family, and the endurance community as a whole.
So, what’s your “why”?
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Brandon Chase is a writer, endurance athlete, and guide based in Maine. He is a former Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State and spent nearly a decade overseas serving at embassies in Egypt, Cyprus, and Pakistan.
Along with a 98-day thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, he has summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiked the West Highland Way, fastpacked in the Himalayas, and trekked around New Zealand and South Africa. He also regularly competes in ultramarathons at the 50k, 50-mile, and 100-mile distances.