Why Race?

When we were all younger and firmer, my husband was a competitive runner and our daughters were Dad groupies. Upon returning from the crusades, battle scarred and sweaty, the girls would surround him, hopping around with Barbies in their fists and shrieking, “Did you win Dad, did you win?” The situation was such that sometimes he could truthfully say yes and a cheer went up, yeah, and all was happiness. But sometimes when he was being silly and honest, he said, “No, I was tenth.” Not only was he tenth, he was colder than yesterday’s starlet. The daughters were of the Linda Evangelista don’t-get-out-of-bed-for-less-than-ten-thousand-dollars school of thought. Why race if you weren’t going to win?

Of course that’s immature thinking. Judging from the streams of competitors transitioning from swim to bike to run in the Lifetime Fitness Triathlon later this month, not to mention the ten thousand runners who’ll be making their way down Summit Avenue in the Twin Cities Marathon in October, there must be lots of reasons to race that don’t include a prize worth $500,000. The Road Running Information Center reports that while numbers of participants in marathons have steadily climbed in each of the past ten years, median finishing times are significantly slower—from 3:54 to 4:23 for men and from 4:15 to 4:51 for women. This suggests the athletes swelling the ranks are definitely not racing to win.

Missy Fee, thirty-eight, race director for the Heart of the Lakes Triathlon in Annandale, first became involved in the event as a competitor in the early 1990s. There were perhaps one hundred other racers that year, including her husband who signed up on race day. This year, the short course reached its five-hundred-entrant limit in just two days, four months prior to race day. Between short and long courses and relay teams, the Heart of the Lakes Triathlon drew one thousand entrants who each paid sixty dollars to participate. “It’s hard to say what’s motivating people to enter triathlons,” she said. “I can only speak for myself. I was a competitive athlete in high school and college, and I had run several marathons. This is a local event, and when I saw what the distances were, I thought, I can do that.”

Suzannah Mork, a doctoral candidate in the school of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, has interviewed twenty ironman-distance triathletes and discovered several characteristics unique to participants of this extreme event that comprises a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile run. “In most events, racers compete against each other. Ironmans are so challenging that there is a strong sense of cooperation and camaraderie among racers, and every finisher really is a winner.” The triathletes she interviewed listed many reasons for racing, among them, curiosity, motivation to exercise, an enormous sense of accomplishment, and even social opportunities. “There’s a lot of time to talk on a fifty-mile bike ride. Triathletes appreciate the chance to meet and socialize with other like-minded people. They commented, ‘We used to meet for coffee. Now we meet for a run.’ ”

Overwhelmingly, the reason proffered for racing is to challenge oneself, to discover something about oneself by finding limits and then pushing beyond, to see what’s on the other side. So says Jan Kahring, age fifty-three of Maple Grove, who, when interviewed, was in the thick of training for Grandma’s Marathon, her first. “I like to push myself but I need a race to motivate me to get out and do the training.” She recalled a cold, rainy weekend when she did an eighteen-mile run—something that would not have occurred had she not been training.

Any intuition that training more often and more intensively increases one’s susceptibility to injury was debunked by Liz Schorn, a physical therapist in Minneapolis. “I think people who race are more attuned to proper training techniques, hydration, diet, and stretching and therefore are less likely to get injured,” she said. “Racers are also more likely to have invested in better-quality gear which helps prevent injury. The noncompetitive athlete may take a more casual view of these factors and, even though they are logging fewer miles, may be just as likely to sustain injury.” She notes that while participation in races has increased over the past ten years, the number and types of injuries she sees has remained steady.

Of course, race participants don’t sign waivers of responsibility for nothing. Two entrants died during the 2006 Los Angeles Marathon, and a third was hospitalized. Race officials ran out of water during last year’s Life Time Fitness Triathlon, held in ninety-degree heat. At least three competitors ended up in Hennepin County Medical Center’s intensive care unit. This year both the Mad City Marathon in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Med City Marathon in Rochester took place over the unseasonably hot Memorial Day weekend; both events were called off after five and three hours, respectively. In Madison, some five hundred runners who were still on the course were encouraged to accept a ride to the finish area or to walk the remaining miles at their own risk.

“I don’t really get it,” says Diane Wiese-Bjornstal, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, speaking of the flood of people entering races these days. “Racing does motivate people to be active, and as a kinesiologist, this is important to me. But my cynical side has observed that races serve as a notch on the belt, an observable accomplishment that seems increasingly important in our society,” she said. Beyond health, Wiese-Bjornstal suspects that at least part of the motivation for neo-racers is our society’s obsession with the tangible evidence of success; acquiring a souvenir race T-shirt serves as a marker of success, much like driving a Hummer or buying a mini-mansion. Anyone can jog or go for a swim or a bike ride, Wiese-Bjornstal points out, but “racing has become increasingly attractive in part because it raises the status of the participant. The intrinsic value of physical activity has shifted to extrinsic—‘Look, I completed a triathlon’ rather than ‘I am a disciplined person’ or ‘I love being outside on my bike.’ ”

Many of the registrants filling triathlons and marathons are young professionals trying to make their mark on the world. Wiese-Bjornstal observed that this generation was one of the first to have had a highly scheduled childhood, with organized sports starting as early as three years old. If a child enjoys whacking around a can with a stick, the inclination for many parents is to channel that activity into a peewee hockey program, where he quickly learns there is more glory in competing than there is in merely whacking around a can with a stick. It’s not surprising that children who grew up connecting physical activity with competition and external rewards would, as adults, choose to race, Wiese-Bjornstal explained.

“That may be true,” said Charlie Peterson, a runner and triathlete from St. Paul. “I saw a lot of people wearing their T-shirts and finisher’s medals around after the Boston Marathon. The T-shirt is really important to some people.” Although a young professional himself, Peterson says his motivations for racing involve travel and socializing. “It’s a fun thing to do with friends and a great way to see another city.”

The opportunities to socialize and belong to a community played an important role in Janet Robertz’s decision to race. The forty-four-year-old Bloomington resident had been running every day for seven years before she ever entered a race. Even though she was the first woman finisher in that event, she was sorry she’d entered. “It was a horrible experience—stressful, competitive, crowded, and I felt just terrible. This was the exact opposite of everything running had been for me. After that first race, I wanted no part of it.”

But being both intrinsically motivated and talented as a runner, Robertz eventually transitioned from being vehemently noncompetitive to becoming one of the country’s top masters (age forty and older) runners. “I still love running by myself on trails through the woods, but racing has opened a whole world to me. I’ve gotten to travel and I’ve met the most wonderful people. It’s been fantastic. Back before I was racing, I knew nothing of the running community. I thought I was kind of weird. A few years ago, I was at the Avon marathon and my sister said, ‘Oh my gosh, all these people look just like you.’ It’s true. They’re my people.”