In the last decade, there has been an explosion in the number of events and races available to runners.
From the most accessible fun runs and 5Ks to the most grueling, off-road or ultra-long races, more and more people seem to be looking for physical challenges. Sometimes what race directors come up with just isn’t enough and the adventure-seekers craft their own seemingly-impossible, often record-breaking, feats.
From 1990 to 2012 the number of race finishers in running events went from 4.8 million to 15.5 million, according to Google Trends.
Some people theorize that the explosion in popularity comes at a time when our lives are simply too easy. The convenience of modern life has made us soft and sad, and so some of us are simply trying to wake up. One way to do that is to seek out character-building adversity that was naturally occurring in the lives of our parents and grandparents.
I think that’s ridiculous.
Yes, I think people are deliberately seeking challenges. No, I do not think it’s because our lives are too easy.
In fact, in many ways, we’ve made our lives harder. We’ve piled more onto our plates with less time to be still, to be together, to be with nature.
So while the demands of our daily lives may not be as physically demanding as our ancestors, we deal with different burdens. I don’t have to chop my own firewood, but I have to figure out how to monitor the online activities of my children. I don’t have to churn butter for my family, but I have to understand how to read labels and what ingredients to avoid when I buy food for my family.
Why people are flocking to running, cycling and triathlons in record-breaking numbers is much more complicated than seeking a tougher road.
I’ve been asking people why they run the races they do for the last decade. And while I’ve watched the number of race participants increase, the one thing I’ve never thought is, “Well, this person is just looking for a way to make his easy life a bit more challenging.” Instead, it’s more often that a person turned to running when life became virtually unbearable. While some people have been athletes all of their lives, much of the growth in both traditional events and non-traditional events (color runs, mud runs, tough mudders, zombie or themed runs or warrior-type events) is thanks to people who may never have participated in traditional sports.
Some find their way to the start lines of runs as a reward for all those miles logged on a treadmill in the stale air of a gym. Some end up participating in events they’d never considered thanks to family or friends.
And some are actively seeking a way to push themselves physically because, for some reason, when we wear our bodies out, our minds seem a lot more clear. For some the challenge may be running a 5K where organizers douse them with color, water or bubbles. For others, it might entail man-made obstacles of mud, playground equipment and bales of hay.
And then there are those who simply want distance – the farther the better. I’ve met those who want to go faster today than they did yesterday, and those who hope to run on paths where no one else bothers to go.
The most important thing is that they’re moving. They’re running or biking or swimming their way to better health. They’re finding whatever it is that motivates or inspires them and they’re holding on with both hands.
Their decision to push their bodies is making them stronger. It’s making them feel better and live longer in many cases. They’re connecting to real people in real ways, and they’re learning something about themselves and others that they never expected when they signed up for their event of choice.
You’ll hear racers minimize or belittle the accomplishments of those who’d rather dress up and giggle than earn a personal record. You’ll hear those who love a fun run saying they don’t understand why people want to be competitive.
Running for fun isn’t better than running for a win. Being fast isn’t superior to being funny.
One of the greatest benefits in the explosion of events is that there is so much to choose from. One weekend you can race, employing training and strategy, and the next weekend you can slosh through mud in a tutu with your children.
Just like variety in food, music and art only expands our universe, so does a variety in activities.
One study estimated 60 percent of Color Run participants had run a 5K or longer. Celebrate that all of those color-blasted folks, many of whom we love, are learning the value and joy of physical activity. Not everyone is motivated by the thrill of the race. Not everyone is motivated by the freedom to be childlike.
While traditional athletic events remind us of what discipline and your best effort can accomplish, non-traditional events remind us that life is more than challenges.
It’s also laughter and beauty and being together. It’s sharing our stories and helping each other.
So when analysts or columnists (myself included) start trying to figure out why a trend has occurred, keep in mind that the answer may not show up on a graph or a pie chart. In all of my conversations about why people push themselves past their limits, I learn new and interesting reasons for embracing challenges.
For me, at the core of any physical challenge, whether I seek it out or life simply throws it in my path, it's an opportunity to grow. Maybe people sign up to run a race in costume with friends so they can laugh. And maybe those people who sign up for traditional races want to see if discipline and purpose can give them a moment most people will never experience.
But I would guess that no matter what their reason or their event, their willingness to do something different, something challenging, will change them in the best possible ways.
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