What Do You Say to Yourself When it Hurts the Most?

Last week when I was in San Francisco, I had the great pleasure of having a couple beers with Leo Babauta. Leo writes the blog Zen Habits, and over the past six months his ideas have shaped my thinking more than any others. So it was an absolute treat to hang out with him in person, and the beer wasn’t bad either.

Leo is both a vegan and a runner, like many of us. And recently (probably unlike many of us), he’s been experimenting with living without goals.

That’s right, none.

When he wakes up each day, Leo works on whatever he’s excited about, enjoying the moment instead of focusing on the future. If it’s painful now, it’s not worth it.

It’s a tough concept to grasp, but I can see how it might work: if you’ve taught yourself to enjoy — truly enjoy — activities that are productive, they can snowball and eventually add up to something larger than their sum, even if that something was never technically a goal in your mind.

So, for example, while training for a marathon might seem an awful lot like pursuing a goal, you could look at it as simply a series of runs. Do what it takes to enjoy each one, taking a break when you just don’t feel like running. If it’s fun and you like how you feel, you’ll run a little more each week as your body allows it. Then, bam, one day you’re a marathoner. A stretch, maybe, but feasible.

But what about when it doesn’t feel good?

We hit the snag when we started talking about ultramarathons. What I told Leo, who is thinking about running one, is that the difference between a marathon and an ultra (say, a 50-miler), is largely mental.

During a 50-miler, there’s a well-known “no-man’s land” between miles 30 and 40. You’ve run more than a marathon, perhaps more than you’ve done in your training. Your muscles and feet are sore, and you want nothing more than to sit down.

But you’ve still got a long way to go … 15, maybe 20 miles, too much to feel like you’re almost there. Add to that the loneliness of being out in the middle of the woods by yourself and the overwhelm of staring up hills that are too steep to even run, and you’ve got an experience that is, frankly, painful.

It’s learning to deal with the dark thoughts that creep into your mind here that makes the difference between a finish and a big fat DNF.

I have a friend, an ultrarunner who has completed several 100-milers, who says that he retires from running multiple times during the course of an ultra. This has been my experience as well, even in events as short as 50K.

For me, the monologue goes like this:

Why am I doing this? My friends are probably just waking up, brewing a pot of coffee and reading a book while their kids watch some Saturday morning cartoons. And here I am in the woods — by myself, uncomfortable, cold, tired. And I still have at least three hours before I can stop. This sucks. What am I doing? This is stupid, I’m going to stop. I need to rethink what’s important. Life is short; time is precious. This isn’t worth it.  Even if I can finish this one, I’m sure as hell never doing this again. I’m done with running like this. Next time I want to sign up for one of these idiotic things, remember this exact moment and how awful it feels.

This or a variation thereof, often punctuated with curse words, gets repeated dozens of times.

Eventually, the thoughts shift only to the pain. The Vermont 50 stands out in my mind. By 35 miles, my legs were so fatigued and sore that every downhill and even every turn hurt, even more than the brutal uphills. All I wanted was flat, of which there was so little. (They even had a sign near the end that said “Vermont isn’t flat” and I wanted to punch it in the face.)

Every single step literally sent pain through my legs. I dealt with it by just focusing on getting to the next aid station, telling myself I’d have to get there anyway if I wanted to quit and get a ride back to my car. Eventually, I finished this way.

And yet, two weeks later, most of that pain would be forgotten. The accomplishment of finishing, of overcoming all of that to do what very few people ever will, was the lasting feeling.

“Why am I doing this?”

This is interesting, when you think about the no-goal idea. Forget about putting up with pain during the training to enjoy the thrill of race day — here, even the race itself isn’t fun until you are finished with it (for me, anyway).

Leo, whose focus is so much on the present, asked what the answer to this question was: When you ask yourself why you’re doing it, what reason do you come up with?

I was stumped. (My friend Johnny B. Truant has his own, masochistic explanation here.)

It’s not for fitness; you can get that with an exercise regimen far less painful than an ultra or even a marathon.

I don’t think it’s the sense of accomplishment, either. Maybe the first time, but not after that.

After some thought, here’s the best I can explain what keeps you going: the reason you don’t stop is because doing so would be more painful than the discomfort you feel by continuing. Not just later when people ask how the race went, or when you see the race shirt in your drawer and feel ashamed to wear it. But even in the moment when you stop, the physical pain you continue to endure is less than the emotional pain of making the conscious decision to fail at something you promised yourself you’d finish.

Essentially, the goal itself is all that keeps you from quitting.

My guess is Leo would argue that this is somehow artificial, held up by its own bootstraps. That if the fulfillment you get from finishing comes only from the goal itself and not from enriching your life, then it’s not worth spending time and so much effort on. That you’d be better off not having that goal to pull you along, because then you’d have stopped doing something you didn’t enjoy — and probably long before race day arrived.

I’m not so sure. To me, the most valuable part of training for races is this very choice between quitting and sticking it out. You’re faced with the decision, either to give up or to dig deeper than you realized was possible. And when you search inside yourself and find a determination that you never knew was there, to accomplish something that on some level you truly did believe was impossible, I think you can’t help but be changed by an experience so profound.

And without a goal, I’m not sure an experience like that could exist.

I’m really curious to know what you say to yourself when you want to stop. Not just what it is that keeps you going, but your answer to the question, “Why do I do this?” I hope you’ll chime in.



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  1. Fascinating thoughts, Matt! I too enjoyed our beer and conversation.

    I’d like to clarify my position a bit: although I’m experimenting with being goal-less, I don’t just drop something if it doesn’t feel good.

    I find it interesting to explore my mind when it comes up against pain. The urge to quit is great, but I don’t necessarily give in to that urge. I don’t stay with something painful to accomplish a goal, but to find out more about how my mind works. I think it’s interesting to find out why others push through pain too.

    • Thanks for clarifying, Leo. Although I’m sure anyone who knows you or reads Zen Habits already realizes that you don’t just give up at the first sign of adversity. 🙂

      Now that I think about it, your reason for putting up with pain (to learn about your mind, as opposed to accomplishing a goal) isn’t so different from the one I mentioned at the end of the post, which is to discover what you’re capable of and how much you can endure. Especially when the answer turns out to be, “more than you thought.”

  2. I don’t know if that’s the whole story, or even if it is what drives everyone, but I think you definitely touched on at least a part of what makes us do these “crazy” things. Accomplishing something that maybe you thought you could never do? Pretty priceless. Even if it’s something like a marathon that doesn’t really produce anything (not like I’m winning any prize money here), I think that accomplishment bleeds over into other areas of your life and gives you more confidence to take on challenges. Because, if you can run a marathon, c’mon. What can’t you do? 😉

  3. Hi guys,

    As a guy very focused on personal development I have had a rough time reading leo’s posts on being goal less (sorry Leo). I personally think it’s impossible to finish a race like a marathon if it isn’t your one and only goal during that time period. If you give into comfort or pain you lose the goal. The goal being the finish line.

    Unfortunately you can’t even really get around being goal less. Getting out of bed everyday is a goal for some. Leo’s goal to be goal less and be happy is a goal unto itself.

    Leo, I think in a future post you need to make the distinction between being goal-less and purposeless. In my mind, without some purpose it’s almost pointless to live. Not sure how many people would agree with me but that’s how I feel…


    • John Foval says:


      I understand your point but you should go check out Leo’s full post on it. It’s a little deeper than that. http://zenhabits.net/no-goal/

    • Hi Everyone,

      As a very goal-oriented gal focused on personal development I also had a hard time reading Leo’s post and concept of being ‘goal-less’.
      I agree that the philosphy applies that to strive to be goal-less is a goal unto itself…
      To strive to be goal-less is in fact – I believe – just another way of approaching the attempt to improve upon releasing oneself from worldly desires.
      However to be truly goal-less and to be completely satisfied with yourself as you are currently is a great and wonderful thing to work towards however I worry that promoting a ‘goal-less’ lifestyle is also promoting one of the most rampant tribulations of modern society: complacency.


      • Sure, being goal-less is a goal. But once you’ve achieved it, like Leo seems to have done, you’re there! And then it’s not a goal anymore, just how you live your life. Unless we’re going to consider maintaining a goal-free lifestyle a goal, but then I think we’re getting carried away.

    • John Belitsky says:

      Strong discussion here. I think it would be helpful to avoid equating purposes with goals, achievment with the experience of achievment. Understanding that adversity knows know empirical quantity, one could be dissuaded to finish a 400 meter race as a 100k race. The question then is simply “what motivates us to push through pain”. The argument here is that the thrill of accomplishment is insufficient. I agree, since adversity can be experienced within the parameters of an event that is not unusually difficult to complete. The drive is to overcome adversity. In fact, the event is simply the individual actively seeking out and finding adversity. Im reminded of the first time I saw a commercially offered Hummer. An article flouted its ability to drive through 3 feet of mud. My buddy said ” where would you ever find 3 feet of mud in NYC”? The answr, of course, is that if you owned a Hum-V, you’d sure as shit find : feet of mud. We are all looking for 3 feet of mud to better understand, test and enjoy our vehicles.

  4. I ran my first 26.2 in Chicago this October. Because of injury, I had only 10 weeks of training. My injury again flared up at mile 7, and by 11 it hurt so bad I could barely run. My IT band and knee was just locking up.

    What kept me going was the thought that I still could keep going, that even this incredible pain wasn’t stopping me. A DNF would hurt even more, and I hadn’t come on a 6-hour trip from Michigan to quit halfway through when the rest of me felt great. The pain subsided a bit at mile 13 and I was able to slowly limp to the finish. I started that race with the goals to finish and enjoy the experience. Without that goal, where does that leave me? What internal motivation do I have?

    My primary goal in running is to see what I am made of. I thrive on that. Chicago was a great experience for me in pushing through. The more discomfort I’m in, the better opportunity I have to learn my own strength. My future goals include running a BQ qualifying time. My goal of running in that race undoubtedly will keep me going. Always, I want to enjoy my journey. Multiple goals are a great way to go.

  5. Claire-Louise says:

    I LOVE this blog, Matt, always so inspiring! I say, whatever it is that makes us lace up our running shoes while others are making pancakes, whatever makes us toss and turn like kids on Christmas Eve before a race day… whatever it is that makes us take. Each. Step. During training or in a race. Is very personal. And I identify so much to the points that you make in this… the emotional pain of failing to keep the promise that you made to yourself is very, very strong for me. But what pulls through at the desperate point for me is putting all thoughts out of my mind when I am feeling DONE and smiling (literally! the power of that action is huge) to myself… and saying: this is what I wanted to do today. And I’m doing it. And that is all. Just in the moment. Right now. Hear the strides hit the pavement. Not looking to the finish, but relaxing into the accomplishment that I am making with each step.

  6. Great article. I don’t have an answer yet, but it sure has got me thinking. I’ll get back to you.

  7. I like to think of it as “moments that define us” – I started thinking this way recently when I ran a half marathon at 5 months pregnant, and it was my first solo race, so it felt harder than past races… but I like to think that in the moments where it is truly tough (either physically or emotionally or mentally), our character comes through as either someone who perseveres or someone who quits. and I don’t want to be someone who quits! With running especially, my two mantras are “pain is temporary, pride is forever” and “quitters never win and winners never quit”

  8. Pain is temporary, quitting is forever.

    You can quit and they won’t care, but YOU will always know.

    That breaking point, the point where you contemplate quitting, is so far away from the point where you ACTUALLY HAVE-TO-MUST-ABSOLUTELY Quit. Most people do not know this. You can train your mind to endure, cope with these thoughts and push through that mythical wall. I think alot of people are searching for this moment in sport…

    If you want to be competitive though, you have to quit at least once. Not throw-in-the-towel quit, but more like I-think-I-am-going-to-die quit. Giving up when you really thought you had to. It takes the bitter taste of defeat to make a champion whole. If you’ve never quit/gave-up before then you’ll never understand. There’s something to learn about ones self in that moment but most people dont care to learn that lesson though. It’s a painful lesson you will live with for the rest of your life.

    Quit once though, and that mythical wall disappears all together. Its easy after that because it will NEVER happen again. Anything is possible.

    If you learned your lesson that is.

  9. I like to set a goal for every run. If I set a goal to run 10 miles and for some reason I only get in 8 or 9, I don’t feel as good after. But if I run a strong 10 miles or go a little longer and do 12 I have a very nice sense of accomplishment that seems to go well with the runner’s high we all enjoy. When I feel like stopping or turning around early, I think about how disappointed in myself I will feel for not meeting my goal. This encourages me to push on because it sure feels good to be sitting in the office, knowing that you met or exceeded your goal of the morning. So, when I reach that point when I feel like quitting, I tell myself, “Keep moving cause its going to feel reeeeally good when you finish!” And it almost always does. Now I enjoy almost every run I do, but I know that I would not run as far, for example a marathon, if it wasn’t for the sense of accomplishment that lasts for hours or sometimes many days after the run. I ran my first Marathon this past February and I still enjoy thinking about how great it was to attain such a challenging goal. But, everyday is a new day and sometimes just completing a 3 mile jog feels like a huge victory. So yeah, I think its got a lot to do with preparing mentally and of course training your mind to not give up. Good article, thanks!

    Matt, Iv’e been trying the “mental warming” methods form your cold weather article, and while it didn’t fix the fact that it was 19 degrees in Dulles Monday morning, it gave me something to think about while I hopped over the icy patches on the W&OD trail:)

  10. I count–usually steps, sometimes breaths. That sounds lame, but making an agreement with myself to go 100 more steps (or whatever) actually helps–it doesn’t require a lot of brainpower and takes my mind off the pain. I used to run long distances (up to and including a marathon) and I still run, but I tore an Achilles tendon 4 years ago and it didn’t heal well. I currently spend most of my time doing and competing in girevoy sport–an endurance kettlebell-lifting sport. It’s seriously anaerobic, the weights are heavy and technique is important. It’s 10 minutes of hell and lately I get derailed by my brain yelling “No way you can do this!” Only counting and breathing get me through.

  11. Matt,
    Great post.

    I hear you. With 15+ ultras behind me I have often been at mile “why do I do this?” I have quit ultras many times in my mind, and to then have a very short memory just hours after I have finished.

    My answer afterwards is clearly that high value lessons come from moments of utter adversity. Do we lie down or step up and make the most of the situation? Can we apply previous lessons? Can we stay focused when the rest of us wants to fold?

    As Jim Rohn suggests, it is not so much about what I am achieving/completing … it is more about who I am becoming. I set my goals for the person I will need to become in order to achieve them. I usually give my medal away at the finish to a deserving, cheering child. I don’t want the medal, I want the experience. I want the confidence which overflows into all aspects of my life. And I want the experience of being in the presence of others who are also pushing their limits.

    If you remember, you passed me on the JFK50 course a few years ago while supporting your friend; and I recognized you from online. We chatted for a few minutes before you continued your search ahead.

    This year’s JFK50 was the first ultra I have run that I did not have the “what I am doing here?” question come up. Coincidentally, it was also a 38 minute PR due to a number of training/lifestyle adjustments. My adversity lingered from last year’s JFK50, knowing I could do better by becoming a different person with different habits.

    When you overcome the adversity of past or in current experiences, you get a real sense for the inner strength we all have. And you realize that inner strength trumps everything; and there is likely nothing you can’t achieve if you put your mind to it.

    See you out there.

    • Hey David, yes of course I remember you. And it’s funny that you mention Jim Rohn — I’ve long been a Tony Robbins fan and heard him make references to Jim, but only this week did I get my first book of his and read it. (And read another immediately after I was finished!) The message you mention — becoming before achieving — is exactly what I noticed as the theme of all his writing (which distinguishes him from Tony).

      I love your idea about giving away medals. As a result of Leo’s influence, I’ve decided to start getting rid of all my junk, which includes all medals except perhaps the one from Boston. (Also his idea: I’ll take pictures of the medals on me, or maybe my son, and keep those instead.) But anyway, giving them away is what I’ll do for now on as I earn new ones.

      Great to hear from you. Huge congrats on your PR, and on getting through an ultra without ever wondering why you were doing it!

    • David,
      I’m curious what training/lifestyle adjustments helped you get through an ultra without wondering why! I did my first marathon this year and definitely had those moments, but I suspect one day in the not too distant future I will tackle an ultra. So I’d love to know what worked so well for you!

  12. I did a 100k lst weekend that was part of a fatass 100 miler put on for the sole purpose of one of our running club members getting to finish his 10th 100 miler. I have done the 100k distance and beyond before, but this was December in MD-a very, very cold long slog-I really questioned why I was doing it, but fortunately had a philanthropic answer-I was pacing our leader to his goal, so dropping out was never an option. Hopefully I can keep the same spitit on March 31- April 1 at Umstead!

  13. Nice post! My 2 favorite bloggers together in one post! I think it takes a lot of discipline to achieve BIG things without goals. We are procrastinators by nature, after all. I personally feel that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish as much if I didn’t have a clear vision for my future and a set of goals. The goals itself are my motivation.

    Matt, you wanted to know what we say to ourself when we want to stop and how we answer the question “Why do I do this?”. My answer varies, depending on the situation, but I usually find myself saying “life is about the journey, not the destination” and “you signed for this, you better enjoy it!”

    • I’m flattered to be grouped with Leo as one of your favorite bloggers. Now let’s get to work on convincing Time Magazine of the same. 🙂 I agree; we are absolutely procrastinators by nature; it’s in our makeup. And it’s a horrible thing in today’s world, especially when there’s no deadline and you just keep putting off something truly important (but never urgent) to your fulfillment. That’s why goals have worked for me, just like you.

  14. My brother recently sent me a link to this blog article which I found really interesting, especially for those born in the 80’s to early 90’s. The whole article is interesting but its the last few paragraphs that talk about why that generation especially runs, including the line “Because it feels good to give ourselves over to something…If we do not have goals, if we do not strive for something greater, the only thing left is to worship ourselves.” http://cantgohomeagain.tumblr.com/post/12196899365/some-thoughts-on-my-generation

  15. For me, it’s because I can. I may not be able to do it today, but if I work hard enough and stay focused on the goal, I know I can accomplish whatever crazy goal I want. God has given me the ability and I will put in the work.

    Getting to the end of a long race (like Ironman) is a reward in personal satisfaction. The next one is about a faster time, or maybe a harder course, or increasing the number of finishes, or whatever inspires me at the time. I don’t enjoy every minute of the race or of every workout, but the good outweighs the bad and I have proven to myself that it can be done.

    I think everyone is different and not everyone needs a goal to motivate them. I am not one of those people. =)

  16. Finishing a race is like giving birth to a great accomplishment. No pain, no gain! Ask any woman who’s been through childbirth and she’ll tell you she vaguely remembers the pain, but it was so worth the reward. Finishing a hard race is the same for me!

  17. I also follow Leo’s blog, and have thought a lot about his “no goal” philosophy, as I like the idea, but seem to have a bit of trouble making it jive with my own (mostly) goal oriented life. I have (kind of) come to the conclusion that only goals that don’t make you happy and full of energy, vim, and vigor, are the sort of goals that should be avoided at all cost. This may mean changing or abandoning a particular goal in mid stream. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as one’s priorities have truly changed, (and it’s not just a shitty run or in the third quarter of an ultra). It’s when one clings to outdated or unsatisfying goals that the goals become a burden. So maybe what I’m saying is that (in my theory, not Leo’s) it’s one’s attitude toward any particular goal, not the presence or absence of goals themselves that is critical. If one’s goals allows and encourages one to get out of bed every day and do what one loves, then I don’t see how that can be a bad thing.

    • I agree with everything you said, Stephanie, about abandoning goals when they no longer motivate you other than for the sake of accomplishing them and getting them over with. It’s like reading a book — if halfway through it, you hate it, why finish? Just to put it on the shelf and say you read it? Not worth it. And yeah, I’m in the same place you are with Leo’s goal-less-ness. It runs so counter to the way I’ve lived (which has made me happy), and yet it’s so intriguing to me because of how much Leo’s writing and other work resonates with me and has improved how I feel and live.

  18. Let me start by saying that I am not a runner. I tried to be, and still think I will continue to try to be, but I’m definitely not a runner. I have arthritis in my hips and it just hurts. A lot.

    That being said, I “ran” (mostly walked) my first half-marathon last month. For the first five miles, I felt okay. Even good. For the next five miles, I felt like I’d made the dumbest decision ever and why on earth did I possibly think I should ever try to do a half-marathon? I mean, I’d barely been running five months. It hurt. I wanted to quit, sit, die, jump in front of a car or bike…anything but keep going. For the last three miles, I simply said, over and over again in my head, “You’ve come this far. If you quit now, all that will be worth nothing. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. DO NOT SIT DOWN.”

    And somehow, 3:54:07 later…I crossed the finish line. In tears. My first words? “Get me out of here.” But now I can say I did it. I finished it. I dug deep and I had what it took to keep going. I crossed the finish line. And for me, that feeling was worth it. I mean, now what CAN’T I do? (The answer is: a marathon…never happening.)

    • John Foval says:

      You def need to run a marathon haha..

    • I know the feeling you’re describing, for sure. But would you do it again? I can totally understand doing something one time for the achievement’s sake (although of course that is a goal), but I don’t fully understand why I would run another 50 miler after doing it once, for example. Especially if it wasn’t to improve on my time; it was just to experience and achieve it again.

  19. I find it almost impossible to believe that any human being would actually ‘enjoy’ running a 50 miler. I feel like what’s the point, if your not doing your body any good from mile 30-onward (for example) and wanting to be somewhere else?

    that’s why I’ve given up marathons, at elast for now, and stick with half marathons, 10 or 15 milers when I want to race. Why do it if it’s not fun? I’ve gievn up my watch years ago and run a race when I feel like it. I do run about 60 miles a week, but only 4 races a year at most. Mile 0 to 15 is fun for me. Anything beyond that isn’t. Happy trails!

  20. My body has told me to stop in three races. I listened once in a 50k six miles from the finish. The first incident (Mother Road Marathon 2010) all I had to do for an answer was look at the people around me. Based on appearances alone I should have been well ahead of all of them. So the answer in my head was “Look at these people beating me. I can’t let that happen.” The focus was the competition with those around me. It was ugly but I made the finish. And yes, I even got beat by a guy that race walked the course (we are now friends). The second time was my first 50k, it was 90+ degrees, miles 28.5 I was wicked dehydrated and sat at the final aid station. I was done. I told myself I was ok with quiting. Each AS volunteer encouraged me to finish (all fellow runners I know) but I didn’t budge. Not until the AS manager called the RD (another running buddy if mine) to advise I was dropping 2.5 miles from the finish. The RD said unless there were bones sticking out or my insides were now outside my body the answer was “NO!” And then he called me a name I can’t repeat but the first part rhymes with “ducking” and the second part, well… I told myself that I was not one of those and damn if I wouldn’t prove it. And I did. All it took was a little help from my friends.
    The last time I did DNF. I had no answer. This was another 50k and I was going for a big PR on an unknown course. It came on so fast and I had pushed too hard for too long that when I should have answered there was just a big bag of nothing. The one redemption is knowing I had no more to give on that day. It was one of those days, when employing a go big or go home strategy, that things didn’t work out.
    This is what I tell myself when my body hurts and is screaming to stop…
    “How bad do you want this? All those hotter than hell summer days spent sweating my ass off. The frigid winter mornings running through the piercing wind, face and fingers numb, working when everyone else stays inside. I have earned this. I worked harder and am willing to hurt more for it. These folks around me still moving, they don’t have the guts to push harder. They can’t match the pain threshold. I want it. Time to make that final withdrawal on the ass kicking account. It’s go time.”

  21. I really like Leo’s post on being “goal-less” my best runs and athletic achievements happened because I was in the moment and happy – and yeah they were hard, but when it gets hard, I remember how much I love it – I tell myself, “deal with this, because you love it – stay with it, stay here in this moment, you love this – everything you love in life comes from this. This burning in your legs, this is you getting stronger, this pain in your lunges, this is you getting faster” I really embrace the pain and it becomes pleasure – it becomes what I love – a test to how fast I can really go. Living without goals allows you to always be happy with yourself instead of disappointed and judgmental all the time. As an elite athlete training for the olympics, I like to have one goal for each day – make the most of today’s practice.

  22. Because God smiles when I run fast.
    God gave me gifts and when I run it gives glory to God. Deeds are ours, results are God’s; so while I have goals, the real deal is the training. The final time or result belongs to God, not me. Running with that mind set is what drives my training and racing. Running is a spiritual journey just as much as a physical one.

  23. When kept me running was the fact that I signed up for a half marathon and wanted to know I could finish it! It was so much fun that I did another one shortly after. Now, I have no long races to train for but just the connection I have made with how running balances my mood and clears my head is all I need to maintain a few good runs a week. It’s about getting that sense of accomplishment too. 2 hours max for runs is what I do. I don’t feel that (for me, at this point)going farther than that is enjoyable or good for my body or health.

  24. Although I agree that ultras hurt and they hurt each time, but your recovery time is quicker and less painful as you do more of them wisely (ie not putting injury in your body)! I actually think ultras (trail offroad ones) are heaps more enjoyable and even healthier than a fast flat road marathon! each time you race and push the distance you learn new things about your body and your mental abilities, it is an amazing life changing pursuit!

  25. “Pain passes, finish is forever”. Even when the going gets rough, the great feeling you experience when you finish that run or race stays for a long time. I think it’s a drug to all distance runners!

  26. John Foval says:

    I think wanting to be in the 1% (club as Tyler Tervooren puts it) keeps me going the distance not only in running but in life. Wanting to be unique and know that you’re not the same as the “next guy.” I use this tactic when my brain says “Why are you doing this” for sure.

    I also think for me it has a lot to do with Johnny’s point as you mentioned. Without hard work and probably some pain as we all know good things are hard to find. There’s gotta be a balance and that’s the part that people don’t realize. Unless you’re allowing the “bad” or “pain” side of the scale jump up in weight you’ll find that your “good’ or “pleasure” side won’t jump up in weight no matter what you try.

    It’s also cliche’ to say but “pain is weakness leaving the brain.” Good ole’ marines motto. I use that a lot when I’m running. Complaining about how painful or hard a situation is shows you the area that’s weak in your life that you can improve. When you allow this to happen (especially when you seek it out!) and work through it you become stronger and I believe simultaneously add a bigger threshold for understanding more pleasure.

    Thanks for keeping it fresh, Matt.

  27. is it a goal to be without a goal??? … just askin’

  28. I am sort of at this spot now. I am hoping to do a 12-hour ultramarathon in May. The most I’ve ever raced is a 10-K. And only have run 7.3 miles at a time. I will train long hours with the hopes of getting 40 miles in, thrilled to get 30. It’s always something I’d like to try and I like the idea of going as far as I can in a set period as opposed to going a set distance in my best time. I look forward to seeing new parts of my city during long sessions, and traveling to a city dear to my heart…it will all be good. And maybe a little sore on the drive home!

  29. I started writing a comment here and then got a bit into the idea of goals and having fun so I turned it into a blog post on my own site. If anyone’s interested in the full thing: http://www.andygapin.com/2011/12/14/why-do-we-do-things-that-arent-fun/

    Essentially, the point I tried to make is that FUN is actually the goal. You need to do unfun stuff in order to have fun. Pushing yourself to do marathon and longer races is hard, but being a finisher and feeling a sense of accomplishment is fun. It’s fun that you can’t have without doing stuff that isn’t fun.

  30. For me, I continue because I know I really love what I’m doing, running, as the case may be. You mentioned that stopping is more painful than continuing; and for me, stopping isn’t painful because you fail to accomplish a goal but because I’m failing to do something I know I really love…even if at this particular moment it hurts a little you know it doesn’t always hurt, and in fact, most of the time its fantastically enjoyable 🙂

  31. I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about this very topic. Over the last few years I’ve found myself trying a lot of new things.

    This year I ran my first ultra and also did an expedition length adventure race (for the first time).

    I’ve never been able to eloquently explain why I do them or why it’s important to me to do them. After reading Johnny B Truant’s explanation I would say that his answer resonates with me.

    As someone who works with a computer most of the time, I find that outdoor challenges a becoming a bit of an addition. Pushing the boundaries of my physical and emotional comfort zones seems to have a grounding affect on me and some how reconnects me with what’s real.

    Sure there have been times when I haven’t finished a long race, but most of the time I find that I’m stronger, tougher and more resourceful than I ever thought I could be. 🙂

    • Michael, my brother in law was just telling me about these events he and some other former Marines do called “suck.” They go out in the woods and crawl through mud and swim in ice-cold water, and carry sand bags up hills and all kinds of similar stuff. And “normal” people, office workers, get so pumped to come out and join them on the weekends. It reminds me of Fight Club, this idea of having an office personality and then this hardcore, badass pain-addict that comes out on the weekends.

  32. No offense, but I could never really understand Olympians. I never could grasp the competitive desire. I like to exercise. I run, cycle, ski or whatever because I REALLY hate to sit on a couch in front of a TV or computer all day. I need to move and get very depressed and psychologically messed up when I’m kept indoors. You shouldn’t do this to pets and you shouldn’t do it to yourself either. Very bad for the mind and body. That’s why I like sports and athletics. If it becomes an issue where I have to force myself to get across the finish line, even in 20th place, then it’s the wrong thing for me. I never want it to hurt more than sitting at home. Well, that’s just me.

  33. Matt…I couldn’t agree with you more!!!! I think the reason I keep going is because when I dig deep inside to keep myself going…somehow, I make myself a stronger person…and that attitude carries over into life. If I can do that, if I can get up and run a marathon…then there are a million other things I can accomplish!!! I don’t really know if the thought of the emotion pain of quitting really carries me through when I am in THAT moment. Later, it certainly resonates with me!!!! But when I am in the throes of the most painful marathon…last Feb, I ran Myrtle Beach with a goal of getting a BQ. I cramped up at mile 2. I decided, in that moment, to change my goal from a BQ to just finishing the marathon. It was my slowest marathon, but it was the most rewarding. I don’t know how I got through that many miles in that much pain, but I wouldn’t let myself give up. At some point, the mind overrides the body, and you can accomplish things you never thought possible. It’s that attitude that I take with me daily. For instance, I am 36 and back in a school in a rigours medical education. There are times when it’s so hard and grueling, and I question what I am doing at my age in this program. There are times when it just isn’t “fun,” but then the reward is the greatest gift!!! I am going to accomplish another goal that most people don’t ever pursue…just like the marathon!!!

    Thanks for that blog post…simply awesome!!!! Your blog is one of my favorites!!!!


    • Good points, Mandy. Something I didn’t mention, which you did, is that you run to become stronger as a person. Dealing with the pain strengthens you. Is toughening yourself a goal, though?

  34. Awesome post, thanks for writing it! Usually when things get tough out on the road or trail, I remind myself that I’m doing it to be fully alive. There was a book that was my favorite growing up called “The Art of Expressing the Human Body” by Bruce Lee. It’s basically all of his workouts and some of his philosophy. That phrase, the ART of expressing the human body, has stuck with me my whole life. To fully express our potential as human bodies, the animal that we are, is to get closer to realizing deeper meaning in life I think. That is why I run, and what I try to remember when I feel like quitting. Life keeps moving, with or without us, so we should do our best keep pace with it 🙂

  35. -One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other we’re taking it step by step-

    It’s from a song, these days that is what I sing to myself when it hurts

  36. Thank you for the great article! “Why am I doing this?” is the part that caught my attention most and let me tell you why. I am so glad to know that I am not the only one who asks myself this same question. Getting out there everyday and running in the snow and wind or the very long 2 – 3 hour runs every Saturday morning when all I can think about in my head is the chores that need to be done. You can’t help but ask yourself that very question. For me, it’s the feeling I get after I have accomplished a great track workout or that I’ve ran 18 miles when most of my friends are still in their PJ’s. I love pushing my body to the limits. I trained for my first marathon this year and thought that it would be my first and my last. But I got hooked and ran my second one this last October. Now I am training for the Boston. I have to admit that the last 6 miles of a marathon, I’m feeling pretty horrible and I do ask myself, why am I doing this? But soon after it’s over, you forget about the pain and look forward to the next one. When I get exhausted, I remind myself, just put one foot in front of the other. The faster you go, the faster it will be over with! Then you can celebrate!

  37. The two ultra type races I’ve done is the Pikes Peak Double and the Burning Man 50k.

    Pikes Peak is interesting because it’s running up Pikes on sat, and then up and down sunday. For the Burning Man 50k, my friends were just getting back from a night of partying when I was waking up to go run.

    I’ve heard from numerous friends, runners and not, how can I do this, or why?

    For me, part of the reason to do it is there. Or why not do both days? Or why not go run a 50k at one of the worlds largest parties.

    There are moments in those races where it becomes you against the mountain, and nothing else is there. Either you rise up to the feat at hand, grow as a person. Or you shrink off and call it quits. There is a fine line between taking a DNF because it’s really in your best interest not to and pushing on just to finish.

    But to grow as a person and the will you get from it is huge.

    When I started running the Pikes Peak Double, it took alot for me to even start the race that second day, and push up the mountain again. It’s at the point now where I know I could do it tomorrow, snow and all.

    If you want to be great and to really grow as a person, you have to do things that others won’t or can’t.

  38. Allen Eckert says:

    Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

    ~ T. S. Eliot

  39. I run … because I can!!

    At this time my longest distance is half-marathons, but I’m loosely planning for a full and even an ultra… and this is after I almost lost my leg and my life in an accident and doctors didn’t know if I would ever walk again.

    So the fact that I’m still breathing and able to put one foot in front of the other is a gift I treasure in every race… no matter how much pain I have.

    • Janet, you’re a great example of running because you can. I don’t think it’s really possible to understand how it feels to have that ability taken away unless you’ve faced it, so your perspective is appreciated.

  40. Great post – distance running was first a goal, an accomplishment, even something to brag about. Now it’s a time to explore my brain/body connection and remember that my body is capable of much more than my brain believes. I’m fascinated with what my brain goes through to try to get my body to stop.

  41. Marty Cowan says:

    After a busy day earlier this week, I texted my running friend: “I’m not running today, I’ve got too much going on”. I looked at those words for a moment and then deleted them. I did a 180 and put on my running gear and left my house.

    I think seeing it in writing made it very clear about my intentions vs. actions. And that’s what can create failure for me – if I don’t do what I intend. I know failure is not an option – there is too much glory at the finish line!!!


    • I have those moments all the time! It’s so easy to defeat yourself when it comes to running goals because really, who else will know or care that you didn’t train? But I think you hit it on the head when you said that if you don’t do what you intended to do then it makes you feel like a failure. Regardless of how anyone else may see it.

      With that said, I think goals are definitely necessary for running/athletic events – but not necessarily for everything we do in life.

      • Your last point is one I should have included in the post: even if we establish that marathons and ultras are necessarily goals (and I’m not sure we did that!), it still says nothing about the merits of a goal-free lifestyle for so many other types of activities that don’t require physical pain and can be enjoyable at every level if you’ve disciplined yourself to enjoy doing productive things. I just don’t think physical pain can really be disciplined away. 🙂

  42. I am very much a “goal oriented” person but lately I’ve been trying to differentiate between “goal” and “intention”. When I run, my goal is usually to complete the distance and to do so in a particular time. Lately, I’ve been trying to set an “intention” for my runs, something I stole from my yoga practice. Maybe my intention is to stay with my breath. Maybe its to think about people I love the entire time. If I find myself not pursuing my intention, I haven’t failed, its something to pull myself back towards. With a goal–like completing a marathon in X amount of time–if I don’t do it, I’ve failed.

    “Why the F am I doing this?” often goes through my head a million times during a marathon or ultra. “Because I can…” is usually the answer. I use to do it explore the boundaries of pain. I thought doing it would give me the confidence to face other challenges in life. A week after my first 90 K, I received horrific news from my family and I scoffed at myself for thinking running would prepare me for tragedy and hardship. However, as I grieved the loss of my young nephew, I learned that while running could not prepare me for such emotional and spiritual pain, it could provide me with a space to work through it. The answer to the question is still, “because I can…” but its no longer preparing me for some future event but about coping with present pain so I can live fully right now.

    • Interesting Melissa. So it sounds like it’s no match for emotional pain, but I’m sure it’s quite feasible that doing ultras or marathons can allow you to better handle physical pain. I also think it has helped me become more disciplined in work and other pursuits, as the “pain” doesn’t seem nearly like it does when you’ve got 15 miles to go in a 50-miler.

      Good stuff about intentions too. I have never tried that, although I have had some success brainstorming ideas during runs. I’ll have to try making that the entire point of the run.

  43. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Hey Matt,
    Another awesome post. You are en fuego! If you are looking at the pain aspect, some people use pain as a meditation focus, just as some use Kirtan or focusing on the breath. The thing about the pain and doing the ultras and other such endeavors is that it’s all impermanent. Once I was able to se this, then finising training runs and marathons made it much easier. Also, when I feel like stopping, I say to myself that this pain is self inflicted. Think about the poeple that have no choice: sitting in a trench in Iraq or taking in more chemo treatments (see Susan Lacke’s past posts about her friend). There’s no shame in walking or even stopping a race (I prefer this instead of quitting). It’s the journey, not the finish. I’ve written this before, but to quote John Bingham “The miracle isn’t that I finished, the Miracle is that I had the courage to start.” Rock on Matt!!

    • Awesome. I’ve never heard of using pain as a meditation focus, but I absolutely will try that. The second half of your answer is a lot like those of the people who said, “I run because I can.” Think about how wonderful the ability to run must seem if you’re not able to do it.

  44. I ran the Lincoln Half Marathon last year, in Lincoln, Ne. About mile 8 or 9, I could feel my knees grinding and I just wanted to stop, but I didn’t because I knew I would be disappointed in myself. The reason why I kept going was, I could stop once I crossed the finish line and I knew that I would regret stopping when I was so close to the end. I did finish the race and I my time was 7 minutes longer than I was hoping for, but I finished and I don’t regret my reasons for pressing on towards the goal of finishing my first half marathon!

  45. Hey Matt, for me the answer is simple – to know myself through the experience. It’s not a goal, it’s a result of removing all anticipation and desire from the run, or whatever activity you choose. Win, lose, DNF, none of that matters. Have fun, push your body, listen to your body and learn.

    • Shawn, I think that’s a great answer, and one that’s at the heart of my reason and a lot of other people’s. I’ve never gotten to the point of removing all anticipation and desire from the run, but that sounds like something to work at.

  46. Honestly, being a slower runner, I have about a zillion little pep-talks and mantras that run through my head out on the course to help me deal with the fatigue of distance. I count backwards from 90 slowly, telling myself that by the time I hit 1 I’ll be over whatever I’m feeling. I quote a friend of mine in my head who said ‘2 more minutes. You can keep doing anything for 2 more minutes.’ – for a lot of 2 more minutes.

    But when the tank is empty – no tricks left in me – there is one question that has never failed to get me to refocus and usually, speed up – and it’s not why – it’s “What did you come here for?”. Whatever logic got me to register and through training and to the starting line doesn’t matter at that point. Once I’ve crossed the starting line, I came for one thing and one thing only – to finish as best I can.

    • You are so right, Nota! I always believe you can handle pretty much anything for a finite amount of time. And when you’ve trained so hard for months to get to that finish line, why quit when you’re so close? A few more minutes of pain, and you have that huge sense of accomplishment.

  47. Well, I quit a half ironman. Even looking back now, I kind of had to. I was riding a mountain bike instead of a road bike (!!!) and there were 20 mph winds. It wasn’t going to happen.

    But I spent the entire 3+ hour ride home thinking about how terrible the decision to quit had been. I almost WISH I’d been knocked out or DQ’d or something. Choosing to stop was as painful as going on would have been.

    It was so painful, in fact, that I created my own DIY half ironman four days later, rented a road bike, and did it again.

    The idea of relative pain is like the notion that there are no selfless good deeds, because even if a good deed feels selfless, you’re doing it because on some level you feel good doing it, or want to do it. So it’s selfish; you’re doing it for YOUR reasons, even if it hurts you in the short term. Pain is the same way. What’s painful? Pain? Or quitting?

    A lot of this ends up being semantics. Do you push on because it’s more painful and you’re forcing yourself to do it, or do you push on because it’s LESS painful than quitting?

    Six of one, half a dozen of the other. But I’ve learned just how much quitting can hurt.

    • Haha, the DIY half Ironman! I’ve heard of people doing those with failed marathons too, if they trained for one and race day just wasn’t their day.

      I’ve thought about the “selfless” deeds thing a lot too — never thought to relate it to this, though. But you’re right.

  48. Adam Chase says:

    I want to start by saying great blog! I enjoyed reading the multiple points of view that were posted and shared. I think an obvious observation to make is that we are all different. The driving factors that motivate us range greatly from personal, social, spiritual, goal orientated, or moment orientated, to name a few. Though our reasons vary, we all have them.

    I have never run an ultra marathon (or even competed in an organized marathon) I have pushed myself to that moment of “WTF am I doing?!” I train at a local Crossfit gym and sometimes that question can arise within a couple minutes to even seconds of starting a workout. My internal response to this unavoidable question would be associated with Leo’s philosophy. I have no goal to bet or meet. I do it because I can. Because when I close my eyes and breath, that oxygen I can FEEL is the only thing that matters. This moment will end, it will end very soon, and I WILL learn from it. But I will also forget it.

    To constantly challenge myself. To move to the next phase, whatever that may be. To be better than the next. To be better than myself. One more. One more. Because the soothing touch of a caring partner will be that much more euphoric. Because the first bite of that Double-Dutch German Chocolate Cake from the corner bakery will be the best first bite I ever had. Or the quenching first sip of a foamy pint from my favorite local brewery will be the most refreshing taste I ever tasted. Because tonight when my head FINALLY touches my wonderful soft and comfortable pillow, I will have earned it. These are thoughts of mine. My mind adapts as well as my body and so my motivations continuously change.
    I find it ironic that when I feel the worst and say “today is a rest day” out loud, are inevitably the days I lace ’em up and push harder than I’ve ever pushed before.
    Whenever the question “Are you training for something?” is posed to me I usually just smile and simply say “Yes, I train for me.” Because I train for tomorrow, I train for yesterday, I train for right now at this very moment.

  49. So many times during training, during a long run, while maxing out my credit card on race fees and gear, I ask myself why? For me, I think its the love of the test mentally and physically. When I’m in it I agree with you, not finishing would be more of a pain than anything I am currently feeling.

  50. Matt,
    Very interesting read, I just completed my first marathon on 20 Nov. and in my training I only ran up to 16 miles. In fact I shouldn’t even call it a training cycle because I just ran a couple long runs (over 10 miles) and that was it. I previously only ran my first half marathon on 28 August. That again was no training due to my job in the Army the month before the race I was out in the field and came back and just manned up and ran. It was miserable! Then I got the idea I ran a half now i’m running a full. It was twice as bad, extremely painful and wanted to quit many times after mile 19 when my legs locked up. The mind is an amazing thing I am going to continue to punish and test as I go for a 50K race at the end of Jan.

  51. “Why do I do this?” – I have been given this one precious life and want to use it up and end this life with a feeling of compassion and love! And who knows when that end might be (today, tomorrow, or 50 years from now). So when I run I do my best to open my heart to the experience. That one run could possibility be the last run I ever do. I constantly ask myself at the times when that next step is probably going to be painful and my mind is reeling, “is this the last sensation/emotion/feeling I want for my last moment?”. Usually my answer is, “no, I’d rather be smiling, happy, and loving.”, so that’s the feeling I try to cultivate when running becomes hard (usually that feeling is already there when the running isn’t so hard). And that’s what keeps me going…when I changed my mind about running I started to find joy in running (finally!!). Granted, it’s not always easy and it doesn’t always work but it certainly keeps me going more so than any goal has ever done for me (this is coming from somebody who has worked extremely hard to meet other sport related goals with the result leading to burn out after those goals have been met.).

  52. This post is definitely thought provoking, and made me ask that question that I’ve never really asked myself- why I continue when I want to stop and why I do this.

    I haven’t run a marathon yet, or even a half. Partially because I injured my IT band several months ago. It took a while to get used to running regularly again and thing that I kept telling myself in my head when i mentally wanted to walk but physically felt okay, was “hey, you’ve run further than this before, keep moving”. Also, if I plan to run a certain amount of miles, I don’t like to cut it short, even if I feel like walking (it’s always mental for me), so I remind myself when I’m halfway done, when I have 2 miles to go, 1 mile to go, and by the end I feel like I could do a few more.

    I do it because I love the feeling of finishing what I wanted to do. When I get through that tough run without giving up, I feel on top of the world and the rest of the day goes great, and it serves as motivation the next time I feel like stopping, because I can just tell myself-you did this the other day, don’t stop now.

    I also live for the opportunities I get (which, because of the weather can’t happen as often now) to run out in the woods. Most of the time now I have to run on the roads, and I try to avoid the treadmill because I get horribly bored. When I get out on the trails and don’t worry about my pace, or mileage, thats when I can just appreciate the fact that I have legs to run with, that I’m healthy, I can see all of mother nature and feel alive, that’s why I run.

  53. It is what I do. I run.
    I run long distances in the mountains because there is no other place on earth that I would rather be. I race because I get to the point where I can go no further, I cannot go on and then I keep going. It is an amazing feeling to push beyond what you think you are capable of. I live in that moment. The training is fun, the racing is a test or an experiment to see what this body is capable of. It is part of what defines me and sets me apart from others.

  54. I have one DNF marathon on my record. It was by far one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had. For all the race pictures I have of me running through the finish, I wish I had one of me sitting on the curb bawling. It is why I keep going. I’ve finished marathons since that have been way worst than how I felt the day I did not finish, but it felt a lot better than not finishing.

  55. I’ve thought about this a lot as I’ve experienced a bit of hip (glute med) “discomfort” in my races. The best I can come up with as an answer to the question is “because I can”.

  56. great post, matt. the question of “why?” is something i’ve been wondering a lot lately, myself. i’ve been hearing “you’re crazy” a fair bit from friends who aren’t super fitness-focused. some of them mean it in a joking way, and some of them have expressed actual concern for me. why am i so obsessed, they want to know? why do i venture out to the ocean to swim in the dead of winter, when most people don’t even want to be outside, let alone in the water? why did i recently make a spur of the moment decision to complete a 50km instead of just doing a twenty miler when i got to the aid station at mile 10? why am i training for my first 50 miler? why am i hooked on ironmans, with an ultraman looming in my future? the common denominator in all of these, of course, is pain. and i’ve come up with the following answer: i feel uncomfortable when things are too easy. i’m sure i’m not alone on this- i feel a need to prove myself (more to myself than to others!) and i temporarily accomplish that every time i refuse to quit during a tough training session or when i cross the finish line at a race. i don’t know, but when i suffer for something, it’s way more meaningful both in the moment and when i look back on it later. and pain, i can deal with . . . but quitting? that’s not something i’d be able to let myself live down.

  57. An excellent post Matt.. I recently did my first marathon and a 50k and there were miles where this question “why am I doing this ?” were encountered. But I had my answer ready.. I do it because of my belief in myself…” I know me so I set out with the goal of racing a 50k and if I stop now, it means I don’t myself well enough” “I am strong and I believe I am, to finish this, run 4-5hrs, if I quit now, it means I assessed myself wrongly” and those are my reasons to continue and not give up…
    Let me also add, training for and running a marathon has taught me patience, given me mental strength… Break my problems up in small issues, stop panicking… And so I continue to make myself stronger, tougher…

  58. I think this quote from Bruce Lee sums up why I continue to push myself both mentally and physically. In my mind, if it’s a choice between failing and quitting, I’d rather fail.


  59. What do you do when you when you do quit and are no longer supported by the desire to succeed? Not just quit a race, but a sport. I’m not sure what to do.

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