When motivations for endurance sports become wicked

Are you running for the right reasons?

This article stems from personal experiences and observations I’ve made during my time and forays into the world of endurance running, particularly since living in Sydney—a city with a climate conducive to a year-round active, outdoors lifestyle; luscious parks and glistening, teal sea pools galore.

I hope to instigate a conversation about the issues present in the endurance sports community, predominantly running, as this is where my experience is rooted. I am not blaming anyone nor shaming anyone for the current state of affairs–the issues to be described are due to the collective, and crucially, amplified by the nefarious influences of social media. However, I hope that this article is perhaps a mirror to one’s behaviour; and maybe compels people to talk more openly about their own experiences with endurance sports—particularly the mental health ramifications of getting in too deep.

My foray into endurance running was (and still is) haphazard, fun, constantly varied, not disciplined in the slightest and performed for no other reason than a love of movement and feeling fit. I also relish the sense of freedom I get from running wild and free, the stress release; connecting with others and also just getting downright dirty and sweaty. This list of reasons for participating in endurance sports is in no way meant to be exhaustive or represent the full spectrum of explanations for why others are compelled to participate; they are my own. Furthermore, the way I run is certainly not the way to train if you wish to be at the top of the leaderboard. Nevertheless, considering why you do participate in endurance sports is imperative. Are the reasons serving you? Or are you being hoodwinked by yourself?

Taking a step back–my sporting background was... actually, I don’t have a sporting background. At school, I wasn’t on sports teams. At one particular parent’s evening, my high school P.E teacher said little more than, “Sam is not a team player.” He was correct, of course, if inappropriate and condescending; I was never interested in being on teams, and I’ve always been extremely wary of groups.

At school, I enjoyed cross-country running, gymnastics, and I didn’t mind racket sports. However, I didn’t excel in any of it. In my late teen years, post-high-school, I really found sports and exercise for the first time. At first, I attended the local gym with some other friends looking to build some muscle, and then later, I started running with regularity and swimming; and eventually, at age 19, I found CrossFit. I discovered that I had a natural penchant for these activities. These pursuits kept me fit and occupied for many years, but it wasn’t until I got to Sydney that I started running with increased frequency, and it was the first time I joined running clubs.

Upon arrival in Sydney, I quickly immersed myself into the numerous little and large running cliques buzzing around the Eastern Suburbs. It was a brilliant way to meet people, and it provided me with networks and exciting challenges to pursue. After being in the country for a mere five days—I had already signed myself up to run a one-hundred-kilometre “ultramarathon”. A wild goal but also one that didn’t seem a particularly out-of-character thing for me to do; it initiated me into the world of endurance running and its eclectic mix of personalities.

Since that time, I’ve met plenty of endurance athletes in Sydney, many have become friends, and I’ve participated in numerous endurance events. My experiences have been mostly positive, and I will continue to enjoy running with friends, reaping the myriad benefits it offers. Nevertheless, over time, I have perceived a dark side to this long-distance gallivanting, which involves quite apparent masochistic and, perhaps simultaneously, sybaritic behaviours.

The variety of people found in the endurance community is kaleidoscopic. I won’t list all of the caricatures to be encountered. Naturally, you can imagine there are innumerable reasons that compel a person to undertake ultramarathons and such, and accordingly, many different personalities.

Undoubtedly, many of those that engage in the endeavour of endurance running do so to attain a happier or more contented state of being, as I alluded to previously in this article, for which I also run. But it has become apparent to me that there comes the point where an individual’s reasons for endurance running can become more sinister, perhaps without the runner even being aware of it themselves, and accordingly, they are no longer running out of sheer love and enjoyment but out of necessity; compelled by a nefarious drive or yearning for more; chasing an evasive state of calm; a restless soul trudging through pain, kilometre after kilometre to quell their mental disturbance.

Unfortunately, endurance sports are easily abused by those with addictive tendencies or those seeking meaning outside of themselves. It can have particularly harmful consequences for females, who may end up figuratively running themselves into the ground; while simultaneously struggling with an insidious eating disorder, chasing, chasing, chasing to feel okay. It shouldn’t surprise that social media (over)use is pervasive amongst such individuals. I determine the current zeitgeist to provide a toxic cocktail of despair for those with addictive personalities and who exhibit a need to control—the conditions of a perfect storm for those unable to relinquish power, of themselves, of their environment. The illusion of control is frightening and has disastrous consequences for people who succumb to the mirage—you can die of thirst out there, wallowing on Instagram, counting calories down to zero, running down a dream.

Perhaps the mental health disturbances prevalent in the endurance community would have presented themselves regardless via other avenues if such people hadn’t had the outlet of intense exercise at almost inhuman volumes. As I previously wrote about in my article on meditation, from my own perspective of finding contentment—I understand that the outlets which we use as catharsis, or those we end up abusing like any other fix, differ by degree, but not at all by kind. Overworking, overdrinking, overeating, overscrolling... it’s really the same beast. It’s essential to understand this fact and to think on it deeply. (People are quick to judge others who have succumbed to a habit or addiction that differs from their own, but how many psychiatrists or clinical psychologists of aeons past were alcoholics treating gambling addicts or drug users? Likewise, how many “workaholics” with a simultaneous caffeine craving look down upon those who use drugs?)

In Australia, people regularly throw around the pop psychology term of ‘Type A’ individuals to describe those who participate in endurance sports. Many people almost venerate the “Type A” persona. I find this label severely lacking in nuance and context—not fit at all to describe the vast array of individuals who engage in endurance sports (or any human conducting any activity for that matter.) Crassly labelling people as Type A, or even identifying as Type A yourself, really diminishes the complexity of a person and misunderstands the things that are driving them. Two people may be regularly engaging in competitive endurance sports, but one may be performing the actions out of love and the other out of suffering, labelling both as Type A legitimises and encourages a person that might be participating for the wrong reasons. We should be careful not to promote self-harm. In addition to this, the label of Type A is exalted in our society which puts “hard work” on a pedestal (even when that “hard work” is detrimental to the individual and those around them; they are sacrificed on the altar of capitalism).

We find ourselves in an age where people are constantly wired into the ongoings of others. It is so unhealthy. It is so unnatural. We are not adapted to live in such a way. The combination of ubiquitous social media use, peering into the supposedly perfect and high achieving lives of others whilst having a competitive disposition, is a recipe for suffering. Individuals who do not have the mental maturity or insight to understand their own Achilles heel are quickly swept up into the tumult and find themselves engaging in a never-ending battle to preserve or inflate one’s ego. It is a scene played out amongst many in the endurance community to no end.

This is all well and good for those with balanced temperament who can enjoy the frivolities of social media and their sports to no personal detriment, but for those vulnerable to emotional and mental disturbances—this new world can be painful and lead to an unhealthy desire to prove oneself and push oneself to the brink of destruction.

Perhaps the root cause of the suffering that can be present amongst endurance athletes is one of searching for identity—pushing oneself further than thought previously possible and deriving great satisfaction from the element of control is undoubtedly a way to conjure an identity.

However, forming an identity of oneself based on something that you can lose or that can be taken away from you at any moment is foolish, unwise, and ripe for pain. Deriving your sense of self, your sense of self-worth, your identity from your occupation or from the sport you do, or from how many followers you have or likes/kudos you get is an ignis fatuus. None of that stuff lasts. You can lose your job at any time. You could suffer a debilitating injury and not be the same sportsman you were before. You can be ‘cancelled’ by an internet mob and lose all of your followers, or not be in fashion or cool anymore. All of these things are fleeting–fun while they last, sure, but fleeting. Please don’t make them your identity.

In this time of ever-increasing divisiveness and extremes, it is sagacious to consider our actions and to question why we do what we do. This applies to everything. It sounds simple, but I find it evident that this is a consideration few make often. It is so easy to fall into a trap—to be doing things not honestly for yourself but for others and for validation from others. It’s easy to think that running further and further will finally bring you the contentment you desire; the fame or sense of achievement that you so deserve—a phantasm.

I hope my ruminations on this matter provoke some thought. I’m aware this article was a little tangential, but I think that my main points peer through the fuzziness. Feel free to comment.

Recommend reading

Chasing the Scream — I adored this book. I learnt SO MUCH about the futility of the drug war and I learned even more about addiction. A topic I’ve been fascinated by for many years; particularly when I’ve done ‘the work’ on my own past and realised how so much of it was marred by the addictions of the adults around me. This book took my understanding to new heights.

Lost Connections — Another book by Johann Hari. It was considered groundbreaking by many, well, particularly those who hadn’t spent much time contemplating the causes of depression. I must say, although I enjoyed it to an extent, I really didn’t find it particularly novel. I suppose that’s because I’d always considered depression to be a societal ill (which in many ways is Hari’s root argument, although he is of course careful to describe it as such) and much less an individual problem. Naturally, it’s convenient for it to be an individual problem—we can make an expensive drug for that and then society can carry on as normal… If you find what I just said abhorrent or controversial (as there is of course comfort in the victim mentality and having an identity as a ‘depressed person’) then you really should read this book!)

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts — another book about addiction, its causes and how to cure it by one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever read/heard, Dr Gabor Mate´. All the more fascinating as Mate describes his own childhood as a child of Jewish émigrés whom left Eastern Europe to escape the Nazi war machine—and how this childhood trauma affected him.

I’ve read many of Mate´’s books on trauma and addiction, but this is his best.

The Power of Now (yes, I recommend this for practically any topic—it’s because its wisdom applies to life generally.) I think this is a book that you are ready for when you are ready for it.