why do people run the marathon?

There are two types of exercisers in the world: those who just do their workouts for their body and mind, and those who want to compete. I have always considered myself part of the former group – gawping at marathon runners, triathletes and Crossfit-gamers but also grimacing at the thought of actually completing the races or competitions they enter.

And then lockdown happened, and then it ended, and then it happened again and, well, you get the picture. The exercise routine that I knew and loved became more on and off than the infamous lockdown relationships that were starting and ending all over the world. After 18 months of it, I needed to do something that would give me a kick start back into the world of fitness, so I did the unthinkable: I signed up for a challenge. 

The UrbanTri sounded like the most ‘me’ physical feat I’d come across. Doing three exercise classes back-to-back, involving barre, spin and boxing, made the challenge about strength and stamina rather than solely a test of endurance – perfect for me, who hates running but loves strength training and HIIT. While I wouldn’t say it was comparable to a marathon, it was two and a quarter hours of hard work, mental focus and, frankly, sweat. I loved it and hated it in equal measure, and despite screaming ‘never again’ as I punched my boxing bag, I was already considering when the next one would be as I sat down for my post-event burger.

With the marathon this week, we should all be gearing up for an influx of content showing women achieving incredible things. But, I wonder, what drives us towards these physical and mental battles?

Why do people do fitness challenges?

“What spurs people on to sign up to a sporting event is really individual,” says sports psychologist Dr Josephine Perry. However, she identifies a few key reasons why people might be drawn towards these challenges that should be anything but attractive.

One big reason for undertaking these races or events – particularly marathons – is a feeling of supporting a cause. “That’s a nice reason to sign up, doing it for charity and having that fundraising as a huge motivator.” 

Raising awareness is one of the reasons Chloë McCardel, a free water swimmer famous for triple non-stop crossing of the channel, takes on physical challenges. “I like to inspire and empower people, sharing my trials and triumphs very publicly,” she says. “Many of my supporters are so grateful that I have shared my lived experience as a victim-survivor of domestic violence to show we can achieve great things even after difficult and traumatic experiences in our personal life.”

Chloe McCardle in swimming hat and costume
Chloe McCardle is about to swim her 43rd channel crossing.

But for many people, the motivation is intrinsic, rather than about other people. “I think people who sign up to big challenges can often be in a difficult place. They’re not very sure of who they are or what they are doing in life. These events can feel like a nice route to figuring that out. We can use them as a way to boost our own confidence,” she explains.

Dr Perry also has a theory about autonomy. “At work, we might contribute towards something bigger, but we don’t necessarily feel like we have that much autonomy to do things on our own and to take ownership of our own achievements. When we sign up for a challenge, it feels like something that’s all about us and we have a huge amount of control over whether we achieve it or not.” 

This is perhaps more relevant than ever, given the lack of control that we’ve all experienced since the pandemic began. In fact, it can’t be a coincidence that the 2021 London Marathon is set to be the biggest race ever staged, with 100,000 runners taking place. I also feel like I signed up to my UrbanTri in a bid to take charge of my life and my fitness after a chaotic few months.

Flora Beverly, an ultra-marathon runner and running blogger, says that having something as simple as following a training plan helps her feel more in control. “I took part in sports at school but was never really any good, and certainly wasn’t a runner. I first tried running when I was about 18, but didn’t start training regularly until 2018 when I was training for the Tokyo marathon. I completed my first 10k race just three months before the event and was wildly unprepared.

“Now I find training for a physical challenge is immensely satisfying. It’s like maths – you do the sums, and the answer always comes out the same. If you put in the right training, you will always improve. When there are so many uncertainties in day-to-day life, it’s nice to have something that seems so simple.” 

Why would you do more than one marathon event?

“My first attempt at a triple non-stop crossing of the English Channel – which is 34km per crossing and 102km in total – caused me to end up in intensive care in hospital,” says McCardel. “My second attempt was another failure, but a few years later in 2015 I finally achieved the triple crossing. I am one in only five people in history to have achieved that.” McCardel is about to attempt to break the world record for the most amount of times crossing the channel – it will be her 43rd swim.

What makes people want to continue to push their body through these challenges despite knowing the pain? “People may say ‘never again’ when they’re at the finish line, but I’d bet the next morning they’re looking at their times and working out how they can go faster,” says Dr Perry. It’s usually the “goal-driven personality types” that you’ll find keep tackling these physical feats – perhaps why so many high achievers always seem to be in training for something or other. 

“These challenges are very easy to measure. Goal-driven people don’t think about them by how proud they feel or how many people they help, but by numbers. Looking at pacing or timing can be very motivational and make you want to go back and try to do a little bit better, go further or faster. As a psychologist, I wouldn’t say that is the best way to measure our challenges, but it is a very easy way to measure our challenges,” Dr Perry explains.

Megan McDonald, a triathlete, coach and ambassador for cycling brand Liv, definitely sees herself as a high achiever. “Growing up I was confident with sport and a high achiever compared to the academic side of school where I struggled with my dyslexia,” she says. “I started triathlon when I was eight years old, competing at my local school and from there I started training properly. The miles got longer and longer as I got older and started training more. The reason I train is to race – that is the fun part of the sport.”

Dr Perry believes that this sense of ‘mastery’ is a huge component in why the more you do, the more you want to do: “Once you’ve gotten good at something specific you are likely to carry on and do that – it’s very motivational to be good at something.” It’s why McCardel told herself she would “be the best marathon swimmer in the world” after her first 11km swimming marathon aged 22.

But Beverly keeps going back not to do better, but to do something that isn’t ‘real life’. “There’s also something incredibly simplistic about training and racing ultramarathons. You get up, you eat, you run, you eat some more and you sleep. Life [during those races] is about eating, moving and recovering and not much else. Real-life seems a hell of a lot more challenging than three days in the mountains,” she says. 

But let’s be honest – these things aren’t actually a joy. So why does she keep facing the pain? “I think somewhat like childbirth, you tend to forget the most painful parts of races and remember only the good bits. That’s why people go back for more babies, and why I go back for more ultramarathons,” she concluded.

We also can’t deny the feeling of success (or perhaps smugness) that comes from saying you’ve completed something ridiculous. I know I told anyone who’d listen to me about how knackered I was from my long morning of workouts, and while Beverly no longer “aims for perfection in everything, there is definitely a sense of achievement when you finish a run or race, be it 5km or 50km,” she says. “I think I’m drawn to bigger challenges because there’s so little pressure to perform – you’re doing well just completing training. So long as you show up and give it your best shot, you’ve achieved something most people wouldn’t even contemplate.” 

Should everyone attempt a sporting or fitness challenge?

“I truly believe that everyone should run an ultramarathon or do at least some sort of physical challenge that seems wild and unachievable – until it isn’t,” says Beverly. “We live so much of our lives in physical comfort without ever really testing our physical and mental grit. I think that those of us who can should make the most of what our bodies can achieve. So rather than asking why, I would ask: why not?”

Unsurprisingly for a psychologist, Dr Perry doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with doing the challenges, as long as your motivation for them is right. “Most of the time I would say it’s great to have a goal that really matters to us or to have something we use as a coping mechanism to handle the tricky stuff in life. But sometimes these challenges can go too far, and we become too dependent on them for our self worth and pleasure. That can become quite unhealthy.”

It’s clear that these women who live their lives race to race have something special in them. I couldn’t live like that, and I doubt most other people could too. But now I’ve tried one event of pushing my body a little harder, a little further, I kind of get why they are passionate about it. Having a sense of purpose to training and a cause bigger than you and your own health is pretty motivating. And if you can’t do it for those reasons, you can always do it for bragging rights. 

Images: Getty / Chloe McCardle 

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