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Why do we run?

by Mark Hartell
Monday 12th March 2012

New columnist Mark Hartell will keep us updated on the events in the ultra running world in the UK and beyond

Most of the future articles in these pages will be objective and practical: race reports, updates on the UK Ultra-running Championships, current research relating to ultra-running and so on. To kick-off the column, though, I wanted to share some thoughts on the most basic of questions – “why do we run”?

This is a purely personal perspective; your reasons may be very different and I would love to hear about them. You may think I have missed the fundamental essence of what keeps us running so feel free to comment and join the conversation.

I don’t think I am unusual in that whilst running does not completely define my life (I do have other interests, honestly!) it certainly informs and energises my life. I do acknowledge that a part of the attraction of running for me lies in being competitive. At school I was never any good at sports so it was a joy to discover something I was actually good at and I love the buzz of being near the front of a race. Beyond that, though, I think it’s possible to define four key reasons which apply to most if not all of us who love to run long in the hills.

Simplicity – we live complicated, complex lives. Of course much of this is our own doing but society exerts a powerful pressure to conform and normalise. With emails, tweets, voice messages, TV and status updates we have many streams of information coming at us for all of our waking hours and sometimes the last source of information we have chance to listen to is ourselves – our bodies and our minds. Standing on the threshold of a really long run with just a small pack of the things we need to survive - water, food and protection from the elements – we are consciously stripped to the essentials and voluntarily choosing to spend several, maybe many, hours alone with just our own thoughts and bodies for company. It helps us to know ourselves better and to re-energise for the complexities of daily life.

Camaraderie – everyone talks about the fragmentation and breakdown of society. Neighbours not being so neighbourly, drivers being aggressive and everyone looking out for themselves. With ultra-running you become part of a tribe; a diverse collection of ages, beliefs, professions and ambitions united by passion and commitment for what they share. Of course, you argue, this is no different from many other “tribes” – motorbikers, hikers, stamp collectors and many other sporting groups. I suggest though, that there are a few reasons why the camaraderie runs deeper for ultra-runners. Here are three:

  1. Ultra-running is primarily an amateur pastime. We learnt most of the skills we have through club mates and other runners. Others continue to learn this way – through us and other more experienced runners rather than through a book, a professional course or online. That means face-to-face contact, time together and the sustenance of traditions that kept things like the Icelandic sagas alive through the generations.
  2. We have to look out for each other. There are times when it gets really tough out there. A simple bad patch or more life threatening weather conditions place people together in situations where the veneer of everyday life has to be stripped away and you get to know the real person. Our connections are deeper
  3. Because ultra-running is as much spiritual as physical it draws a more diverse population to the tribe. We make more connections with “different” people through running than in the rest of our lives and these connections are treasured.

Beauty – wiser people than me have explained this better than I, but I still delight in that virtuous circle experienced every time you fully commit to training or racing. When we acknowledge the five am alarm call and get 20 miles in before breakfast or decide to choose the longer version of a run rather than cut it short, it is amazing how often there is a “reward” for our commitment – the sight of a hawk hunting, a deer glimpsed through the trees, a dramatic sunrise or sunset. Simple things but we put ourselves in a position to appreciate their beauty. This nourishes us and renews our commitment forming the virtuous circle. It’s the same with people too – we see people struggle with something really hard, we empathise because we have been there and can understand and we see the beauty in that person when they persevere and overcome.

Perspective – ask most people the opposite of love and they will say “hate”. Ask them the opposite of pain and they will say “pleasure”. Admit to them that ultra-running can often be painful and that there are times when you hate it and wonder why you are there and they will shake their heads, uncomprehending and ask “why on earth do you do it then?” I think that ultra-runners instinctively view things differently even if they are not always that conscious of their different perspective. Instead of a continuum where love, pleasure and confidence are at one end with hate, pain and self-doubt the other, consider a clock face with those things at 11.55 and 12.05. What lies opposite are indifference, numbness and crass ignorance. What I am saying is that, as ultra-runners, we are more likely to live our lives on that clock face between 11 and 1, aware that we cannot truly enjoy pleasure without having experienced pain; that our doubts and fears exist because we care and that with diligent effort we can turn them into confidence. I often say to people that to run 100 miles is like life amplified. We know that there will be an intensity of experience and emotion that we simply do not experience in “ordinary” life. It is powerful, it is addictive and it defines being alive!

Don’t get me wrong. Ultra-running is an often selfish pastime and we should never self-congratulate or fool ourselves that we are somehow special. Many people are out there performing unspoken, unrewarded but exceptional acts – raising families, looking after the sick and giving selflessly for others. I just wanted to suggest a few of the things that make our sport special and offer reasons why it gets under the skin.


About The Author

Mark Hartell

Mark did not show early promise as an athlete. He elected gardening instead of cricket or rugby and even smoked for several years. Progressing from climbing, through orienteering to fell running he discovered an ability to run long and a passion for big days in the hills.

Over a running career spanning 23 years and counting he has become just about the most experienced UK ultra-runner out there. Some of his achievements include 11 wins at the 61 mile Fellsman in Yorkshire, the current record for the South Wales traverse of 2000ft mountains and the current Lake District 24 hour record – standing at 77 summits completed in 23hrs and 47 minutes.

He has completed the “grand slam of ultrarunning” in the USA and is a former winner of the Hardrock 100 race in Colorado. He has also raced in Alaska, Hawaii, the Sahara, Nepal and Europe.

Now 47, Mark continues to train and race hard but tries to be smarter about recovery and lifestyle. He provides coaching services both in the UK and the USA for those who want to dream big and run long and can be contacted via hartellmark@gmail.com


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Your thoughts

by Mark Hartell
02:06, Wednesday 14th March 2012
Would love to hear some other views - what makes it your passion?
TereréJordan Blood