Why We Compete

Posted by Filed Under: News and Opinion

running shortsRun hard enough or long enough and a thought always creeps into that cranium no matter how hard you try to ward it off: Why am I doing this?

It may be while heaving on the sidelines of a highly competitive 10k, midpoint in a triathlon or just after passing a painful Mile 16 in a marathon, wondering how youíll summon the strength for 10 more like it.

The Washington Post just launched a yearlong series of sports stories called “Why We Compete.” It’s aimed at helping us understand why people undergo a sport-related challenge, especially one where the costs are great. And it begins with ultramarathoners.

As the series introduction explains: “Sports historians, psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists generally agreed on eight fundamental reasons that continue to entice us into competition: Because it thrills us. Because we’re curious about our abilities. Because competition yields a social identity. Because, sometimes, it also yields acclaim. We compete, experts said, because doing so is essential to our community. Because it’s part of a tradition. Because competition can elicit opportunities that otherwise would remain unattainable. And money. We compete for money.”

The series, though, opens with a piece about the 100-mile Barkley Marathon deep in Tennessee forest, which doesn’t offer prize money—not even a belt buckle if you make it. Competitors have 60 hours to do five 20-mile loops with Everest-like elevations and fallen trees and raging waters as course obstacles. Oh, and the event organizer unleashes rattlesnakes just to jazz things up. More than half of each year’s field quits after the first loop; only six men have made the finish cutoff since the race began in the 1970s.

In a pre-series online chat, reporter Eli Saslow wrote: “That race—and the people who run it—captivated me more than just about anything else I’ve covered for The Post. As a casual runner myself, I found it fascinating to watch people push themselves like that. It’s half crazy, half admirable.”

Later in the conversation, someone suggested a prime reason we compete in endurance sports is because of our nation’s affluence. Saslow responded: “I think because our lives can be so comfortable, we do look for ways to push and test ourselves. This competition might strike folks as even more ridiculous in a place where people couldn’t afford this much extraneous energy.”

About Anne

Anne’s been running for so long that when two paths diverge in the woods, not only she does she know to go for the one with the most foreboding weeds, swarms of bees and steep, rocky climbs, but she convinces everyone else to come along. Then, before people are done cursing and nursing insect bites, bloody knees and poison oak outbreaks, she’ll again run — away. She eschews a lot of the newfangled devices that are supposed to make you a better runner because she believes it’s what you put into your body, not on it, that really matters. (Footwear is the exception.) That includes proper nourishment of the mind, which we all know is what really makes the difference on the road…and the trail…and the track. At some point she started to realize that not everyone has run into an Alaskan grizzly bear, been pegged by police as a robber, lost her shorts in a major marathon, rubbed elbows with Olympians, mistaken movie stars for beach bums and watched a wildfire consume her suburb - yes, while she was on a long run. Whether it’s these unique situations, or the universal ones every recreational runner encounters, after she lives it, she loves nothing better than to write about it at Run DMZ.

  1. Jon (was) in Michigan on May 10th at 7:10 am

    “Why am I doing this?”

    I have that thought on every run and in every race. 🙂

    I liked the video intro (didn’t get to the first article yet) and liked to hear him say they were going to talk to marathoners “who give it all even though they don’t feel they will finish”. Should be good.

    For some reason, I think this will dig up the argument of “If you couldn’t possibly win or place, are you really competing?” Always a rousing discussion. 🙂

  2. Mark Iocchelli on May 10th at 1:00 pm

    “curious about our abilities” describes me – even though it seems like an understated way of saying, “driven to find out what I’m capable of”. 🙂