Why, Really, Do You Run (or Do Whatever it is You Do)?

A few weeks ago, I wrote on Twitter that I was (just barely) starting to think about the possibility of signing up for a 100-mile run.

Toby, who has a way of keeping me honest when I get these crazy ideas, asked whether it was because I really want to do a 100, or if it just seems like I should do one because it’s the logical next step after a 50.

The answer was that I really want to do a 100, someday.  Like 26.2 miles and 50 miles once were to me, 100 miles is a distance that seems and sounds impossible. And the idea of doing something like that charges me up, inspires me, and plain makes me feel alive.

But then I asked myself a harder question.


Try this.  Take an activity you spend a lot of time on, or something you have a lot of emotional stake in.  Then ask why you do it or care about it.

Once you come up with an answer, ask why that matters to you.  Keep on asking why, and see where it gets you.

When I was a kid, I was a big baseball fan.  Whether the Orioles won or lost had a significant impact on how happy I was, the same way many of you are either having a good or bad Monday depending on how your NFL team started the season yesterday.

But when I asked myself why I cared about how a bunch of grown men played baseball, I couldn’t come up with a reason.  Most of them weren’t really from my town.  They weren’t my friends.  And win or lose, I could take no responsibility for the outcome.

My conclusion was that rooting for a pro sports team wasn’t worthy of so much emotion and time.  The decision to stop caring about it wasn’t necessarily a conscious one, but it happened over time.  I still root for local teams today, but unless I’m betting on a game, I really don’t get attached to the outcome the way I used to.

The point isn’t that caring about pro sports is wrong.  If watching your team win is something that fills you with pride for whatever reason, great.  In that case, asking why will probably help you enjoy their wins even more.  But the point is that if you’re going to put a lot of time and emotion into something, it had better be something that really does matter to you.

Why I like running far

When I first thought about it in this way, running 26.2 or 50 or 100 miles seemed like a pretty dumb use of time.  Running that far to end up in the very spot you started seems like an incredibly pointless endeavor.

The training certainly isn’t much fun.  It’s the most relaxing and least painful way I know to stay in shape, but if it weren’t for the race at the end of it all, I wouldn’t do it.  (Trust me, I can think of more enjoyable things to do with a morning than to spend five hours running 30 miles to get ready for a race.)

So it must be the race that makes it worth it, right?  Nope.  The actual race isn’t fun, for me at least.  It’s a little exciting at first, but inevitably it gets hard and I can’t wait to be finished so I can sit down and drink a beer.

So, why do it?

I suspect everyone’s reasons are different, and I’m interested to hear yours. 

But here’s why I do this stuff: There is nothing that feels better than doing something I used to think was impossible.

Intellectually, we know that lots of people run half marathons or even 100 miles or walk across coals or jump out of planes or start businesses that succeed.  But some part of us, let’s call it our gut, simply does not believe these things can be done.

And when you work hard and eventually do one of them, you are living proof that your gut was wrong.  Then all of a sudden, your horizons expand.  Things that used to seem impossible don’t anymore.  You become willing to take new risks, commit to new things, and to put yourself out there and your name on the line.  You have a new reason to get out of bed, because now there’s more stuff available for you to do with your life.

Then you find something in a whole new class of impossible.  And then one day you do that more impossible thing, and your eyes are opened even wider.

That feels good.  That’s why I do this stuff.  What about you?

This Saturday, I got to see vegan bodybuilder Robert Cheeke speak at the D.C. Vegfest.  The audience wasn’t a crowd of athletes; it was a bunch of vegetarians who I’m sure were mostly there to get some good food and meet like-minded people.

So Robert’s talk wasn’t really about weightlifting or sports.  Instead it was about passion, about making the most of your time on this planet and leading a life that you’re proud of, whether that’s through fitness, service to others, or loving animals and the earth.  He summed it up with a Mark Twain quote that he mentioned in my interview with him the week before:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Robert lives by this quote every day, in the way he works his butt off to spread the ideas of veganism, fitness, and plain old caring about what you do.  And caring about what you do starts with understanding why.

If NMA seems a little bit fluffier than usual today, it’s because I’m still high from listening to Robert speak and getting to hang out with him for a little while.  If just a little of that has rubbed off on you, then I’m happy.

Extra, Extra

  • Big congrats to NMA writer and now-Ironman Susan Lacke, who finished Ironman Wisconsin on Saturday!
  • At the D.C. Vegfest on Saturday, I got to meet my blog-buddy and fellow vegetarian runner, Emily from the Front Burner.  Check out the guest post I wrote for Emily last week, 5 Warning Signs You Aren’t Getting Enough Protein.
  • HUGE giveaway coming up on NMA tomorrow.  Like, seriously, the biggest yet.  Miss it and you’ll hate yourself.


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  1. I’d have to say, one of my reasons is the same as yours!

    It makes me feel SO great & confident in myself that I can do something that, even when I was in track in high school, I didn’t think I could do (run longer than a mile or so, and run it at a pretty great pace!).

    Also, it’s a way for me to keep myself grounded… to feel good in & about my body, to feel strong. I used to be an extremely disordered eater & depressed to boot, & running makes me happy. It makes me feel alive. & it also revs up my hunger a little so I have opportunity to feed myself better.

    & I achieve inner peace & get my daily dose of solitude while I run… & get to see the sunrise, too! :]

  2. First off, your post is really inspiring. Thank you! I totally agree with what you said about expanding your idea of what is possible. That’s such a great reason to run. In addition to it being great exercise, the reason I run and train for races is the logic in the Mark Twain quote about being disappointed in the things that you didn’t do. I’ve already experienced that a little bit in my life because I regret not traveling and seeing more of the world when I was younger and not tied down to a job, pets, hubby, etc… Not that I would trade what I have now, but I think I passed up some opportunities to travel when I was younger. I’ve been thinking about running a full marathon, and if I don’t do it, this is exactly what I’m afraid of- that I will regret that I didn’t do it when I had the chance and was in pretty good shape to do it. So maybe I should… 🙂

  3. running is something that was always something i wasnt good at…something i didnt enjoy…but since i have taken it up, i find that nothing i do gives me the high i get when i finish a race.

    now im not a 100-mile runner. for that matter, i only completed my first half marathon this past april, but still, accomplishing that goal, and achieving my goal of completing one race a month for 12 months (this month will be #6), has given me a level of pride i didnt have before.

    more than any group fitness class ive taught, running has given me more MENTALLY. 🙂

  4. Nothing could make myself Matt, except missing a giveaway from NMA that it ;)Or if it’s for Americans only, that would suck too.

    Why I run? That’s an easy one for me, sometimes the only time I get to myself all day is when I lace up those shoes and head out the door. It’s my stay at home mom salvation.

  5. I started running to fit my jeans. Literally, I ran so that I could lose weight and maintain that loss. It was the quickest way I knew how.
    However, having “grown up” in the last couple years, one of the main reasons that I run now is that it keeps me sane. It is pure me time where I can think about everything or nothing depending on how I feel.
    I can push my body to do things that I couldn’t do last week or last month.
    And that makes me happy.
    And makes my jeans fit a little better!

  6. Great post! One of my reasons is like yours… wanting to do something I never thought I could and then realizing that, “wait a minute… maybe there are other things out there that I can do!”

    And the other reason is that running makes me feel good and it really helped me to see food as fuel and not as an escape or for comfort.

  7. I loved your answer to your Why? I think Why is probably the most important question we can ever ask of ourselves. I love that feeling of surpassing expectations, blowing through ceilings, and just accomplishing things that others my age aren’t doing. And the feeling of being somewhere close to a superhero when I’m done, well that’s just priceless.

  8. Interesting post. I pondered the same thing after I ran my first 100 last year, and pretty much came to the same conclusion – blogged about it at http://welshrunner.blogspot.com/2009/03/why.html

    • Mark, really neat post. I like the quote at the end of it about what a 100 does for one’s soul. I wonder if that means during the race, or in the days and years after…

      And thanks for the link the other day to the green juice recipe!

  9. I just registered for my first 100 miler a few hours ago. It’s about halfway between us – you should consider it!

    NJ Ultra Festival in mid-March – has a marathon, 50k, 50 mile, 100k and 100 mile race.

    Site: http://www.njtrailseries.com/njultrafestival

    I’m thinking of running the last Ghost Town 38.5 (if I get in) in January as well.

    • Wow, the timing couldn’t be better. Enough time to train well and get in another 50 miler or 100K. I’ll keep that in mind. I’m interested to hear more details about how you’ll train for it.

      • Yeah, I was thinking that I’d try to get into Umstead but the timing for New Jersey was just much better all around.

        I haven’t sat down and planned out all my training quite yet. At this point, I’ve got a pair of marathons in one weekend coming up in a few weeks, and if I get in then I’ll probably run Ghost Town as my longest run. (Having never really run at elevation I’ll take 40 miles up there and call it good.)

        Not sure what else I’ll do, other than the usual smattering of Winter Fat Ass 50Ks. I might jump into the USATF-New England Ultra Running Championships, which is a 6 hour loop race in (I think) November, but haven’t seen if it actually fits my schedule yet.

        Either way, there will be a lot of miles on snow and ice covered trails. Since that’s what I have available in the Winter up here most years (last year being an exception.)

  10. I so wish I coulda joined you! I met Emily at the Summit, and loved her sass.

  11. Just discovered your blog recently and am so happy for it! I am a begging runner myself and beginning to make the switch to vegetarianism (with lactose-intolerance thrown in the mix). Definitely will be following you and learning from your tips and advice 🙂

  12. Great post. I run for similar reasons. Mostly I run to prove myself and others wrong. When I told someone very close to me that I was going to train for my first half-marathon, they laughed. Deep down inside, I couldn’t help but think they might be right, maybe I couldn’t do it. Tears welled up in my eyes when I crossed the finish line that day and I’ll never forget the day I did what I didn’t think I could.

  13. I run to even out my moods and hopefully lose a little weight. But that’s not why I want to run a marathon. I want to run a marathon to prove to myself that I can achieve a long-term goal FOR ME. It doesn’t benefit anybody, it’s not being pushed on me by anyone. It’s not even necessarily a very smart idea. 🙂 I simply want to prove to myself that I can do it.

    …and then earn the right to wear the t-shirt 😉

  14. Another great, thought-provoking post. I guess, in the end, I really do (whatever) I do for the same reason. To see if I can. I started running for health reasons. I started racing to see if I could finish a (10k, then a half, then a marathon, then a triathlon). So I continue to run for health but I continue to sign up for races to see if I can do it better.

    Which isn’t all that different than some of the things I do outside of running. Twenty years after earning a master’s degree I find myself back in the classroom for some advanced graduate work. Why? To see I can do it all these years later. I started blogging. Why? To see if I can do it in a meaningful way.

    What I appreciate about this post is that it reminds me to really ask myself WHY? before taking on something new, whether signing up for another race, agreeing to volunteer at a new organization, etc. Very grounding.

  15. you read my mind and said it loudly!!! that’s exactly what I was asking myself when I run my first 1/2 M on Sunday. why am I do it? I had doubts before but on the race day I realize that I do it because I thought I couldn’t do it. Unlike you, I do enjoy the training and the race, specially the long run on weekends. Every week is a new challenge and a new accomplishment. Love how you describe the feeling as horizon… It’s so true that every time we conquer something new, we expand our horizon and possibilities. That feeling worth everything!
    great post! 🙂

  16. I went to DC Vegfest! I go to the University of Maryland, so I stopped by the fest with a fellow blogger friend. I didn’t hear anyone speak, it sounds like I missed out. When I went it was mainly large lines of people everywhere to try samples of veggie food, which, although delicious, got a bit tiresome. Instead we went to Founding Farmers for brunch, which is delicious and has great vegan options. Anyway, I hope you arrange a local meet up sometime!

  17. Fabulous post! I always keep that Mark Twain quote in the back of my mind. Especially when the fear creeps in after making a big decision. It gives me the confidence to take that leap of faith or to click “complete transaction” … whatever the case may be!

  18. kate – i had the same experience when i did my first 1/2. i was never a runner. i had just had my 4th baby. i wanted to prove to myself (and others) that i could do it. and i did.

    i cried when i finished too. it was very emotional for me. worth every second training. 🙂

  19. Great post! I run because like you, I like a challenge – the more impossible, the better. But I also love the feeling I get when I’m running, the freedom, the alone time, the centering effect it has on the rest of my day. Physically, emotionally and even spiritually (and I’m not spiritual!) running is the best thing I’ve ever done.

    I’m also a writer, and I write stories because I’m good at it, because I love the feeling of a plot and characters coming together, and because I love to connect with people and see them respond to my writing. If running helps me be alone, then writing helps me be a part of something bigger than myself.

  20. Katie Musser says:

    I run to become the women I am intended to be. I was 240 pounds and knew I wasn’t living the life that was intended for me, I wasn’t designed or made to be 240 pounds so I started running. 2 years and 100 pounds lost and I am closer to being the person I am intended to be. Not only physical but emotional, mentally and spiritually. Running is the most intimate time I spend with both myself and my God. It has healed hundreds of hurts and allowed me to express myself in ways I didn’t know were possible. It’s allowed me to see who and what I am capable of being. It’s taught me that NOTHING is impossible. I have concurred strong holds, fears, and doubt all by setting out to achieve great distances.I run to Glorify Christ. Running is my Worship.

  21. I run because it is something I can feel proud of and that people respect. I feel really guilty over wasting a lot of my parents money on a college education that I no longer have any interest in using. I can’t pay them back (yet), but finding something I feel proud of has been extremely important in saving my self-esteem.

  22. I gotta admit to you that I don’t run because it’s fun but I run because I feel so much better afterward. A lot of the things we do in life like eating healthy and exercising daily are not fun. At least not for me. But I do it because it’s rewarding and I try to make the best possible experience out of it as I can.

  23. this is an amazing post! probably my favorite ever from NMA. i wish we could all strip our actions down to the barest motives and really face ourselves like you have. we would be so much more productive and successful!

    i didn’t find it fluffy at all – rock on.

    • Hey Rebekah, thanks! I always like writing those types of posts, but they’re also the scariest because they’re more personal than others…so it’s great to hear when one resonates with someone.

  24. I prefer cycling than running because when you run, you put so much strain on your knees and it might give you negative side effects in long term. Well, I cycle every day at seven o’clock in the morning and it feels great as it is a way to release stress, think, and compete.

  25. I don’t mind the fluffiness at all. This may explain my reason for running better than anything that I have come up with. I have often asked myself the same question, “Why do I run?” I have come up with several reasons but never looked at it from this angle. A year and a half ago I thought that a half marathon seemed absolutely crazy. I did that, then set my sights on a full marathon. I did that, and now I’m wondering if I could possibly do a 50 miler. From the way you explained it, we set goals that we don’t really believe that we can accomplish. Our guts tell us that we can’t, but we do it anyway. I am really starting to believe that I can not only run a 50 miler, but probably a 100 miler as well. That is, if I put in the effort and train my butt off. It’s funny, after my full marathon, I thought, “That’s it?” as if I needed more. Hopefully there will come a point where I am simply content with where my running has taken me. In a way, I hope that I never reach that point. I hope that I will continue to seek out challenges and meet them.
    For anyone just getting started and need a few reasons to run check out this article:

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