On Memorial Day weekend, I gave a talk at the pasta dinner preceding the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington on the topic of “Why We Run.” I was initially asked to speak on the beginning of VCM, which is now 29 years old and which I helped start, and why it has flourished. But I felt that should be framed by why any one runs, period, whether it be a 5K or a marathon. So I entitled my talk “Why We Run, Why Run VCM.”
I did a lot of thinking about the first part and came up with five reasons:
- We Choose to Participate
- We Challenge Ourselves
- We Make Friends
- Good Health
- Reasons Beyond Ourselves
Running is a choice we make. We’re not alone! Running USA’s survey indicated there were 17 million road race finishers (not unique racers – one can count multiple times) in 2015. Of those 45% were 5Ks, 12% half marathons, and only 3% (or 500,000 finishers) in marathons. Interestingly, 57% of finishers were women, up from 25% in 1990, when there were just 4.7 million finishers.
Lots of reasons for this increase, including technologies allowing for net times/quick results, a proliferation of local races, and social media. But the facts speak for themselves – we are participating in large numbers. There was a time when the running cohort was aging. But that trend has halted. The median age is now 37 years old, with 51% of racers between the age of 25 and 44. Perhaps surprising, but encouraging, is that 10% are under 18. On the opposite end, 12% are over 54. It’s a broad range. Regardless, we’re all out there doing our thing.
There are of course more runners than racers. It is estimated 10 million people in the U.S run regularly (over 2 days a week) and another 20 million run one or two days. So roughly 10% of the adult U.S. population runs.
I think it’s fair to say many if not most runners self-select the sport because they like the challenge. Running at all levels starts from where we are. There is really no other place to be! Fellow coach Jon Waldron suggests training is an incremental process that can be viewed in weeks, months, or even years. For success, it’s critical to set realistic goals, meet those, and then recalibrate.
We all hit up against physical, mental and social challenges. All are relevant and important, if not necessary, to address. Physical challenges can be temporary – an injury or illness – whereas some, e.g., a hip replacement or leg length difference are permanent. Others such as excess or insufficient weight can be more persistent. Mental challenges include taking time to plan and stick to a training and racing plan and be willing to put the hammer down, while being smart and listening to our bodies. Work, family, and volunteer commitments are important social challenges that fester if left unresolved.
The overall challenge is to find an acceptable balance among competing demands for our time and energy. No simple task! But that’s the lot of a runner, and one we choose.
I do most of my training solo. Probably more than most. I’m a morning running and am pretty specific about my regimen. But when I do connect with others, I really enjoy it. The run seems easier and it’s a time to share what’s going on in our lives.
Some common reasons for running together include:
- Accountability – when you tell someone you’ll meet them at 6 a.m., you’re likely to get up and be there!
- Motivation – to go long or keep a pace.
- Learning – about affairs of the world, what has worked for someone else’s running, or just about anything really.
- Safety in numbers and for emergencies.
The known health benefits of running abound. As long as we don’t overdo it!
Average body fat% of men running marathons is 8% vs. 23% for the overall population. For women it is 13% (12% is the ACSM minimum for good health so careful there!) vs. 34%. Running builds bone mineral density, reduces resting heart rate and lowers blood pressure.
Running can also boost mood and prepare us for a productive day. What’s to not like about that! The caveat, of course, is to pay close attention to the first signs of injury. This can be point specific or just general tiredness, setting us up for something larger. I profess that only running is not healthy in the long run, that we must find complementary aerobic, flexibility, and strength-training exercises to balance the stress we place on joints, tendons, and muscles used for running.
REASONS BEYOND OURSELVES
We may run for all of the above, but it can be for more than those reasons. I suppose this relates mostly to why we race. Consider charity running. At the Boston Marathon, roughly 20% of entrants are charity runners. A high percentage of local races are sponsored by organizations or service groups benefitting a larger whole, be it medical research, the local elementary school, our favorite NPR station, or a public park. Cancer runs highlight survivors and running “in memory of” bibs. It’s rewarding. In 2015, I ran the BAA Half Marathon for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. I generally run races with my Cambridge Sports Union singlet and typically a few people yell out “Go CSU!.” But for that race I wore a DFCI singlet and the shouts outs were in the hundreds, mostly in the category of “Thank you!.” For me, both the process of raising funds, which was unexpectedly easy, and being part of the event for Dana Farber raised the meaning of that race. It was not about my time, rather the part I played in raising $650,000 for cancer research.
Another reason for racing, which I submit is beyond ourselves, is being part of a celebration. There’s a buzz, an energy, we both feel good about being in and contributing to. Imagine the Boston Marathon with 100 runners, dodging cars, and no spectators. A race is a happening, possible due to organizers, sponsors, volunteers, spectators, and of course runners. We’re part of it, but we ourselves are not it.
So that’s my list of reasons. You may have others. And perhaps this is just too complicated and the best reason why we run can be boiled down to: WE ENJOY IT!