We each come to running for our own reasons.
For me, it was at age 24, when I had a summer job in Seattle and was looking for the best way to get fit to climb the 14,000-foot volcano that beckoned beyond my office window. Coworkers tried to get me to also try a 5K, but I had no interest. I saw running as simply a means to an end, and the moment I later reached the top of Mt. Rainier, I quit.
When I came back, it was for a different reason. I’d returned to grad school and found myself looking at a perfect autumn day, wondering if maybe a run would be a good way to celebrate it. Somehow, I Forrest Gumped my way through 90 minutes of autumn leaves, waterways, and trails, and when I recovered from the sore muscles, I was hooked — this time on the joy of motion. But I still had no interest in racing.
I Am Not a Wimp
Eventually, though, I did find myself at the starting line for a 7.5-mile point-to-point race — one I’d picked largely because it covered a scenic route. To the extent I had a competitive goal, it was not to be last. In keeping with that goal, I lined up at the back of the pack, and was vaguely aware that I was passing enough people that last wasn’t going to be an issue.
When I reach the finish, however, I was stunned. At the start, there’d been a huge crowd. Where did they all go? Gradually, it dawned on me that I’d not only not been last, but I’d passed the vast majority of the field.
In high school, football had been king, basketball not far behind. At 5’1” and 103 pounds (at age 16), I’d been useless at both. Running meant sprinting, and I wasn’t any good at that, either. And now, unexpectedly, I’d found something at which I was good.
My first reaction said it all. Mentally, I shook my fist at the high PE teacher who’d been my nemesis. Take that Coach Vail, I thought, I am not a wimp.
Since then, I’ve realized that there are many types of runners, distinguished by the types of things that motivate them. These categories aren’t fixed in stone — I myself clearly shifted among them — but they come with different strengths and weaknesses, and understanding them is a useful tool for understanding your own racing.
Type 1: I run for fitness.
That was me, preparing to climb Mt. Rainier. But the fitness goal for many can also be a lot more general, such as lowering blood pressure, warding off diabetes, cardiac rehab, preventing weight gain, or mental and emotional health.
For a lot of people that’s all they want, and they have no interest in competitive running and the injury risk that goes with it. But running for fitness can also be a steppingstone into competition. “Most people like, to some degree, to ‘master’ their recreational pursuits,” says Portland, Oregon, coach Bob Williams. “They like to feel there is some improvement.”
Strengths: Such people can be highly motivated to run. “Exercise is a high priority, and they do it for themselves,” says Amy Begley, coach of the Atlanta Track Club. They may also be extremely disciplined, especially if they have achieved their fitness only after a long, arduous struggle.
Weaknesses: Although fitness is a high priority to these runners, running may not be. “They may come and go if they find another fitness routine that meets their needs,” Begley says. Not necessarily a weakness unless you recruit them to be your team, they may also not press very hard in races, because they aren’t particularly competitive. “Maybe a bit with themselves,” Williams says, “but not with others.”
Type 2: I run because I have something to prove.
That was me, once I realized I was good at it. In my case, it was to shout defiance at the childhood voices that had made me believe that because I was too small for football or basketball, I was athletically useless. For others, it might be to prove you are “good enough” to a demanding parent, especially one who measured everything in terms of numbers such as grades or test scores.
Not that such motivations are always based on bad experiences. “I think many serious runners fall into this category,” says Mike Reif, coach of the Genesee Valley Harriers Running Club, in Rochester, New York. “I had something to prove…to myself — mostly that I can accomplish difficult challenges.”
Strengths: Such runners have “singular focus and commitment,” says Begley. “Nothing gets in the way.” Many great runners, such as Gerry Lindgren, she says, appear to have been motivated that way. “Jim Ryun may be another, who failed at baseball, but found that by running workouts no one else could survive, he could become a world record holder.”
Weaknesses: “It could be devastating to fail,” Begley says. Also, if you do prove whatever it is you need to prove, it may be hard to find motivation to continue racing at the same level of intensity.
The latter was definitely me. At age 50, 25 years after I ran that first 7.5-mile race, I captained a 50-year-olds’ team that secured bronze in the USATF club cross-country nationals. At the award ceremony, my first impulse was to shake my medal at the heavens and say, take that, Coach Vail. Then it dawned on me that he had probably been dead for many years. All the completive fire drained out of me, and I didn’t run another good race for 18 months.
But it could have been worse. Runners whose motivations are entirely focused around pleasing voices from their pasts may never be happy or satisfied, no matter what they accomplish. “They will never get the approval from those they are doing it for,” Begley says.
Type 3: I race to beat my rivals.
That’s what restored my competitive juices after I realized that I’d long since proven I wasn’t a wimp. A runner I had once regularly beaten was starting to edge me out, and even though he was a good friend, I couldn’t just let that happen.
Strengths: If you and your rivals are well matched, such rivalries can lead to peak performances. They can also be ways to release anger and aggression unrelated to running, says Kara Bazzi, a Seattle-based therapist and former Division-1 runner. “It might be displacement, but it can be a way to get some of that energy out.”
Weaknesses: You can’t control how your rivals run. This can make it hard to recognize your own good race if your rival has a better one. And if a rivalry turns bitter, it can not only be emotionally destructive to you, but may eventually cause your friends and training partners to avoid you if they get tired of hearing about it.
Overblown rivalries can also be destructive to your racing. I was once part of a training group where two runners — I’ll call them Joe and Ralph — had such a rivalry. If Joe beat Ralph in a race, he would rub it in during training, egging Ralph into running too hard. Ralph would then “win” the workout…only to get beaten yet again in the next race, in a cycle that recurred, over and over.
You can also start racing against the wrong rivals, such as perpetually trying to beat your own training bests—or worse, by competing against training performances posted by others on run-tracking platforms. That’s another formula for winding up like Ralph, so tired and beaten up you never race to your full potential.
Type 4: I run because I really love to compete.
What this means varies from runner to runner. Some love the effort, some the process — everything from the race-day rituals to the shared experience of being on the course with a large community of like-minded individuals. “There can be a pure love of running and racing,” says Bazzi.
Running blogger Peter Bromka, who narrowly missed qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, puts it this way: “I race for the commotion. For the gut checking, nerve twinging, people screaming, thrill of stampeding down the street en masse.”
Related to this is the desire to be part of a team. “Team camaraderie is a big reason [people race] in high school if you have good coaches that make it a positive team environment,” says Charlotte Richardson, who has coached both high school girls and post-collegiate women in Portland, Oregon. “Good team captains,” she adds, “make it fun and give the kids a sense of belonging.”
Strengths: Such runners focus on the race itself, free of emotional distractions. They can also be very process-oriented, allowing them to more easily find that elusive “zone” and just do their thing, without being overly concerned about the outcome.
Weaknesses: Enjoying the process doesn’t necessarily mean you will dig to your utmost. And, if your motivation largely involves team camaraderie, what happens if you lose the team — as is currently happening to those of us stuck in COVID-19 isolation? That can also be an issue for runners who ran on a team in high school or college and are now on their own. “They didn’t know it was a motivation until after the fact,” Bazzi says.
Type 5. I race for mastery: because it’s something I’m good at, and I want to see how good I can become.
The most obvious way of doing this is by trying to lower your PR as far as possible. But that’s not the only way. People whose PR years are behind them can find other goals, such as lowering their age-graded PRs, or running the perfect predict. During coronavirus quarantine, my club ran a one-week hill-climbing competition. The winner logged 30,650 vertical feet.
Strengths: Such runners have a strong inner drive, and a strong feeling that there is more to accomplish, says Begley — a combination that gives them a great deal of motivation. Bazzi ties it to the concept of “mastery,” in which you are conducting an experiment to see what your body can achieve given today’s realities and conditions. “That can be beautiful,” she says.
Weaknesses: Not many, so long as all goes well. But if racing is the only way in which you are seeking to achieve this sense of mastery, Bazzi says, you might be in for hard times if an injury or other problem pulls the rug out from under your running. “What else is going on that keeps you in balance?” she asks.
One of the things I tell my club’s runners is that who you are — the essential you that sits at your core — is not a stopwatch. Nor is it your body. You inhabit the body, but it is not that mysterious you. Find out what you’re capable of, but don’t let it be the only thing that defines you.
Myriad, Mobile Motivations
These categories, of course, aren’t the only ones. Begley notes that there are also runners who are addicted to the goal of improving, but not taking it to the max. “The improvement could be moving up in distance,” she says.
There are also those who are doing it to celebrate the fact that they once couldn’t and now can, she says — a group that incudes people who have lost large amounts of weight, or who have had an amputation and are now fitted with a prosthetic.
The bottom line is that motivations are extremely diverse and no simple list will ever reflect them all. Not to mention that they can change, as life changes.
Eugene, Oregon, coach Peter Thompson, likes to break them into two broad categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Or, he says, “process-oriented versus outcome-oriented.”
Thompson, who hails from the UK, believes that this is a major difference between North American runners and those from other parts of the world.
“It is very difficult to race in the USA without becoming obsessive about outcome — qualify for districts, qualify for state, then at collegiate running, chasing to be top-ranked performers,” he says. Elsewhere you can race to find out about yourself, and try various strategies to develop enjoyment of the process of racing.”
Bazzi concurs. Motivation, she says, clusters around three basic needs: the need for accomplishment, the need for a sense of mastery, and the need to see progress toward a goal. “They’re part of being human,” she says.
Runners, she says, should ask themselves why they are racing, and what they are getting out of it. “It’s natural for that to shift and change,” she adds.
And if that also helps them recognize their strengths and weaknesses and therefore become better runners? I’d call that a win-win.