There’s one question I get asked by nearly everyone I meet. It’s the one thing they all want to know and the one question I find difficult to answer quickly and succinctly. It is, of course, ‘Why do you do it?’
Those five words are really loaded. What I think most people who ask me that mean is something along these lines:
‘Why don’t you just give up when the going gets so tough most people would just lie down and cry? Why can you push through pain barriers, and beat all odds, continue on for hours or days in a state of exhaustion that most humans would never conceive as possible, through sleep deprivation, hallucinations, blisters, shin splints, inflammation, digestion problems and altered mental states? Why, after swearing black and blue you will never do it again, do you turn up at the next race all excited and ready to go?’
Needless to say, I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years. I think every ultramarathon runner would answer the question differently but there are several things that drive me to run.
For most of us, our world today is so comfortable, so physically soft, and at the same time so terribly demanding and stressful that it can be hard to keep up with everything we feel we need to do in a day. For me, running helps regain a healthy balance between my mind, my body and my soul—that is why I do it.
It takes real discipline to train for an event, and then to give my absolute all in order to finish that race. With every race I enter, I know I am risking failure but I also have the confidence in myself to know that I will push myself to my very limits in the pursuit of success.
I love single-mindedly pursuing a goal. I find having a singular goal is quite purifying because there’s so much going on in my life in terms of commitments and expectations—the phone’s constantly ringing, emails are coming in, there are a hundred things that need doing—and I have to find a way to balance it all.
But when I go to a race, I leave all that behind and I just focus on the trail.
When I go to a race, I don’t enjoy the pain of it—absolutely not—but I enjoy the focus that it gives me. While I’m racing, my mind is constantly preoccupied with taking the next step. I know I can’t let go for a minute, especially in desert races or when I’m running through the night. I’ve got to be watching where I’m going.
I’ve got to be aware of how much fluid I’ve taken in. I need to know how many calories I’ve eaten. I’ve got to be listening to my body and where the pain is. I need to know how my mates I’m running with are doing. I need to worry about whether I need to be motivating them or if they are motivating me. My whole focus the around the clock is on getting to the finish line.
It can be extremely tiring because there’s no downtime. Even in the stage races, although there’s always the relief of getting to camp when I know I’ll be spending the night there. We sit around sharing war stories about what we’ve gone through that day. But the whole time we’re all still focused on that goal of making the finish line. The rewards for all that hard work are the sense of pride, of achievement, of tired satisfaction, and of confidence that come from crossing that finish line.
Another thing I love about ultrarunning is that when someone is challenged in such an extreme way, both mentally and physically, you get to see the true essence of that person. I think that’s something a lot of us want to do—to get to that point in a race, adventure or expedition where we’ve got nothing left, that we’re totaled and we’ve given everything but we somehow manage to pull something out of ourselves to keep going. That’s what most of us want to find out. Have we got that in us? Can we push it that little bit harder? What mettle are we made of?
Through the sport, I have really learned to value people who push themselves beyond normal barriers and overcome obstacles. For me, it’s not about being the fastest on the course—that doesn’t impress me. It’s the guy who is last, it’s the girl who has broken her back and has fought back and now she’s crossing the desert or the 75-year-old who’s coming back into the desert for the fifteenth time and he won’t let anyone tell him he can’t do it. Those are the stories that I really love and that’s what I love about the ultramarathon scene as opposed to the more competitive marathon and triathlon scenes. There it’s all about competing against each other. Our sport does have an element of that, but at the end of the day, most of us are in to compete against and test ourselves.
The power of running to change people’s lives, to put people’s lives back together, to help rebuild their self-esteem is another reason I do it. You go through hardships in running but that makes you tougher and shows you what is important in life. It takes you back to basics. You can’t be an ultramarathon runner and really arrogant because you’re dealing with Mother Nature and Mother Nature will always give you a hiding. She will also show you your strengths and your vulnerabilities, your extraordinary abilities, and your inherent human weaknesses.