Competitive Running: Why do People do it?

Nearly 40,000 people took part in last year’s London Marathon, suggesting competitive running is having a moment. But why do people do it? Annie Ridout asks a Guardian journalist, a restauranteur, Emerald Street’s deputy editor, a general manager and a TV producer…

I’ve been running every morning since I was 23. It started as a sprint around the park then increased to three miles, and now due to time limitations (a 30-minute window from 6.30-7am, before my husband leaves for work and I’m on child duty) it’s down to around two miles.

At the weekends, I’ll go for longer – maybe eight miles in total. I can’t be sure because I don’t measure it. I haven’t for the past year. It doesn’t matter to me how far I’ve gone or how fast I completed the circuit; it’s about how I feel. So I’m always intrigued by the people who run competitively; who enjoy training for marathons and beating their PB (personal best).

At last year’s London Marathon over 38,000 people took part, making it the biggest in the event’s 35-year history. So who are these people competing in races, what do they do for a living, why do they run, how far they go, what motivates them and how does it make them feel? I decided to ask a bunch of them and their answers were interestingly varied…

Competitive running: why do people do it?

Andrea Fraquelli, 30, owns a group of restaurants

He says:
“I guess on some level I have always run, I ran at school and was a serious footballer. Having graduated from university and started work I was unable to pursue football and team sports in general as I was rarely available when the team needed me. I have always needed physical exercise in my life and am blessed with boundless energy, I decided therefore to start running and set myself a target of a sub three-hour marathon.

It felt good from the start. I enjoy the idea of pushing my body and seeing how fast/far I could go. On a side note I was at this point totally unaware that I was also battling alcohol addiction. For many years my running and drinking “ran” in parallel. Using one to release from the other in a very tiring cycle. Being a competitive person I was always timing myself and the goal for me from the outset was to run under three hours and therefore I never afforded myself the “joy” of running without measuring progress.

This was 2008 and I entered a few races along the way to the marathon. I actually won one, and discovered I am quite a good runner. I finished the marathon eventually in two hours 54 minutes and felt like I had left room to spare… I wanted to build on this but the reality was (now that I look back with a clear mind) that the alcohol was starting to grip me. I ran for the next six years, racking up 14 marathons and a dozen marathons under three hours. I never improved though.

I am now nearly two years without a drink or drug. Running is my love and my passion, I have taken up competitive running, joined a club and have a coach. I aspire to run for GB… It’s a long shot but every day I try. I currently run six times per week, every morning at 5:45am, I am building the mileage slowly and methodically. In total, I run 60/70 miles a week. This year will be London Marathon number 10 and the 17th in total, my time should be circa 2 hours 30 minutes and things are getting a bit more serious.

My favourite quote about running, as it is the one I can relate to, is ‘The obsession with running is really an obsession with the potential for more and more life.’ I want to fulfil my potential and through running I believe I will do. It has positive effects on all aspects of my life. I am good at it, I want to be great.”

Maeve Shearlaw, 30, is a community and social editor for the Guardian

She says:
“I started running about five years ago, I really can’t remember why. I started slowly with short distances but I have been running regularly ever since.  According to my running app, I started measuring distance/speed on the 13th of June 2013: 3.74 miles.

I have done a few (five) half marathons but I don’t see them as competitive against other people, there are so many good runners – people in clubs, professionals – that you’re never going to win. It’s more about challenging yourself to get a PB and finding something to focus on outside of your regular routine. Having said that, if you are doing it with friend, or one of your brothers, there’s no harm in putting a little wager on it just for something to talk about after. Although I don’t think any money has ever exchanged hands.

?I run about 20 miles a week at the moment ?as I signed up to do an ultra marathon in August – 30 miles on a trail over the Mendips. Apparently it’s slightly better for your body as you run slower, walk up the hills and eat real food on the way round. It turns out the race is organised by this guy we used to know from parties “dangerous Dave” who gave it all up years ago for endurance running.

I think I still like it but I need to be better at stretching and other complementary exercises because I’m worried about getting injured.”

Rob - running - competitive running - marathon -

Robert Smith, 53, is general manager at a train operating company

He says:
“At school I played rugby and swam competitively but I ran a lot for training and always enjoyed it. I’m no sprinter but I always had an ability to run reasonably quickly over longer distances but never really pursued it.

At some point in my forties I started feeling my age; creaky and stiff, unfit and starting to spread a bit. My son had arrived late and I suddenly felt like by the time he wanted his dad doing stuff with him, I was going to be past it unless I did something. So four reasons: 1. I really like running. 2. Vanity 3. A pitiful attempt to defy the ageing process and 4. A desire to be a good, fun and active dad for my son.

Not as grim as you might expect. I’m a great believer in doing things properly and listening to people who know better than you. So, having decided to get fit, I found a British Military Fitness training programme in the Guardian and followed that (this was before the whole British Military Fitness thing got all cool and trendy). So, it wasn’t just running (although it was mainly running), the programme had me doing core and upper body work. Which was good because by doing that I reduced the risk of injury (as all good runners know but I didn’t at the time). And, of course, it was a graduated programme so I was doing very short runs which were timed (not distance) and I wasn’t running against the clock, I was just running, getting into it and getting fitter very gradually. My overriding memory is one of impatience – I wanted to be running further and faster much earlier than the programme allowed me but I was determined to stick with it and do what it said. It was the best thing I could have done.

I can’t really remember when I started measuring distance and speed. The distance probably came after a month or two. The speed a bit after that. The early stuff is purely about laying the foundations, not hurting yourself or having a heart attack.

To be clear, I love entering events but I don’t see it as competition. The competition is with myself and my own times. Anyway, about three or four months into my training programme a friend of mine suggested that I join him in the British 10k. It was a big deal for me, it had never entered my head to actually enter a race but he talked me into it and the rest is history. These days I enter lots of these mass participation events which have become more and more popular over the years.

The distance I run know varies enormously and depends on what’s in the diary in terms of events. It’s also complicated by my dabbling in triathlon these days. But, on average I probably run three times a week. If I’m training for a marathon or half marathon then obviously the mileage starts to get extended and I’ll be running up to 40 miles a week total but it’s much less than that when I’m just ticking over and keeping fit. I probably run a four or five miler three or four times a week and try to swim at least once and do a core/upper body session once a week.

When I run I feel great. It’s hard to describe without sounding a bit up myself but I just love the experience. I’ve been in a running club which was great and very helpful from a coaching point of view but I probably prefer running alone. It’s something about the rhythm of your feet on the pavement and your breathing and heart beat – I find it quite hypnotic or transcendental or something. Obviously there are times when I’m pushing myself when it’s about the running and the effort but a lot of running is quite low heart rate work and that is time to myself when I get away from everything and can enjoy what I’m seeing or think things through and straighten things out in my head. I find it is quality time on my own when I can’t get distracted by my phone or emails or anything else. It brings time for focus and headspace and all that (I said I would sound up myself).

Warning though – it’s not ALWAYS great. Sometimes it’s just a struggle and, if you’re going to be a runner or stick to a fitness programme, you have to accept those days when it hurts and it isn’t much of a pleasure. But, the fitter you get, the less they crop up.”

Molly - runner - running - competitive runner -

Molly McGuigan, 33, is deputy editor at Emerald Street

She says:
“I started running in my mid twenties to lose weight. I got tired and out of breath quickly so pieced together runs in 10-minute blocks, often giving up for weeks when I was partying a lot or the weather was rubbish. I was a horse rider for years and as far as I was concerned, no other exercise could match the thrill of that but running did – I loved the intensity, the rush of adrenalin and the simplicity. My running stepped up when I was 27 and I met my now husband, who was a big runner. He was my cheerleader, taking me on runs and pushing me out the door when I wanted to lie on the sofa and watch telly.

A year later we moved to Australia – a country where getting up at 5am to do burpies on the beach is terrifyingly and inspiringly normal – and I signed up for my first 10K. I followed a training plan, mapped out pretty routes and made playlists so I felt there was something more than running to look forward to. I really enjoyed the training; every run was a little win for me, for living, and something I could entirely take credit for. The race took place on a really hot day and I was a shambles – it took me something like an hour and half to finish – and I felt dreadful, but I was elated that something out of reach to me at one point, was now my achievement. I was so proud, I vowed that I wouldn’t let my fitness fall below that 10K marker, which was of course complete bollocks and I fell off the running wagon constantly, but I kept returning to it, doing the occasional 10K race to give me focus. I also became more active generally – going hiking, swimming a lot, and kayaking.

We moved back to the UK and I started a job at a company full of active types – runners, triathletes, Tough Mudders – and that spurred me on to run regularly and enter more 10k races.

The racing side of my running has never been about competing with others, it is about improving my own fitness and I found it easier and more enjoyable to run longer rather than faster; I like to be outdoors so long distances allow me to explore beautiful spots and stay fit.

I started logging my times on a running app and seeing the distances I was clocking up over a week, I thought I could take on a bigger challenge – the 2013 Brighton Marathon. Training for that was the hardest thing I have ever done. Harder than labour and I did that for 48 hours straight. I followed a 12 week training plan but suffered so many injuries that I could only do the top line training runs. I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to complete the race – the day before I went out for a 20 minute run and had shooting pains all down my hips and had to stop. On race day I took energy gels, paracetamol and ibuprofen and told myself that if I could run half, I would walk the rest.

I managed to run to mile 24, walked for 10 minutes, and then ran the home straight. It was one of my greatest achievements. I feel emotional just thinking about it, much like I do when I think about giving birth to my son. I loved the challenge, the atmosphere, the inspiring people who ran for themselves and in memory of others. The camaraderie was a real surprise, I saw such kindness and positivity from runners and the crowd. I could hardly walk for two days but I was so elated.

After running such long distances, anything less than six-seven miles felt too brief – but this time it was enjoyment focused rather than goal oriented. I discovered a brilliant network of tow path running routes around east London, much of it surprisingly leafy and – if I can get out early enough and the sun is shining and I block out the electricity pylons – I can make myself think I am somewhere rural rather than Hackney.

I stopped running a few months after the marathon when I got pregnant but once my son was three months I took it up again and completed a very slow 10K race when he was five months. I ran a half marathon race when he was a year and did my first triathlon when he was 15 months.

The running I’ve done since my son was born has been some of my best yet: it’s given me focus and reminded me I can be strong and determined – useful when it’s felt like everything else is unravelling. Running now is nothing to do with weight loss; now it encompasses everything I want to feel as much as possible: happy, content and fearless.

I’m pregnant again and managed to run up to 20 weeks but it became so tiring and unenjoyable that I’ve stopped now. I plan to take it up after this baby is born and I’d like to attempt an ultra marathon but I’m realistic about recovery and managing training with two small children.”

Holly - copmetitive runner - Bristol half marathon -

Holly Wicks, 33, is a freelance copywriter/TV assistant producer

She says:
“I used to be good at sprinting in school, but hated cross-country running. That all changed in my third year at uni in Falmouth. While writing my dissertation, I needed head space between long bouts of being cooped up, glued to my laptop. I started running along the coastline, which was just on my doorstep and less disruptive than going to the gym/pool.

I was already at a good level of fitness from swimming and using the gym five/six times a week, so it wasn’t difficult to keep the stamina levels up and it really helped me refocus on my work and come up with new ideas. The fresh air, varied terrain and space away from my computer helped secure a sensible pattern of mind and body balance.

At first, it felt harder than swimming or gym work because you’re using different muscles and the intensity of the exercise is much more obvious – I sweated a lot more and I found maintaining a good breathing rhythm really tricky. I soon started naturally trying longer distances though, once I realised that I could switch-off after a certain point (always around 20 mins after setting off). Music was (and still is) very important for helping me forget about my body and diverting focus.

While at uni, I didn’t log distances or times, I just knew that I was getting faster, and adjusted my route to accommodate longer distances. I didn’t start recording/checking distances until I had signed up for my first half marathon (Bristol Half) in 2011. The marathon running guides I read suggested using apps such as Map my Run, and I’ve been using that ever since, along with a Garmin device I take out sometimes.

I prefer to let my natural intuition guide me though. I will run as long as feel like running. I’ve rarely picked up injuries, which I think is testament to being in-tune with my body and knowing when to stop. There are some days when I aim for 12-13 miles, come home, track my route on Map my Run and realise that I’ve done 14-15 miles – and that’s a bigger buzz.

It became competitive by accident. My mum was in recovery from ovarian cancer and went to a brilliant residential retreat at the Penny Brohn Centre in Bristol. I wanted to raise some money for the charity to show my appreciation, so I thought running for them would be a good idea. I loved the training routine, building stamina, seeing how my body and mind would adjust to the longer distances. I raised over £1,000 for Penny Brohn in 2011-12, which really encouraged me to run faster and harder on race days. It made everything worthwhile.

Since then, I have raced in five half marathons and several 10k races. My PB for 13.1 miles is 1:42:05, which still surprises me, as I’m not particularly competitive. I put it down to race day adrenaline and the buoyant atmosphere.

At the moment, I’m training for a 30-mile trail race over the Mendip Hills (Mendip Marauder, August 6th). I recently ran the longest distance I’ve ever run before – just over 16 miles and I was amazed at how quickly I recovered (no aches, pains or blisters, able to train in the gym the following day). To achieve the longer distances in training, I’m trying out new routes – challenging hill/coastal runs over terrain that’s unfamiliar so I don’t get bored and have fun exploring what’s round the next corner.

I’ll also be doing a lot of cycling to complement the running and to ensure I don’t put too much pressure on my knees. I am looking forward to seeing how I cope with 20-26 miles, that will be real test. I doubt I’ll become an Ultra Marathon running fiend, but it’s worth a try while I’m still relatively young.

I’ll be running the Mendip Marauder for Penny Brohn again, raising funds through this Just Giving page:”

Are you a competitive runner? What motivates you to do it?

Main image is from designspiration