Dr. Joan’s Sports Psych Talk: Why do runners run?
Dr. Joan’s Sports Psych Talk-
Why do runners run?
After a long hiatus from regular running, I participated in several races recently. Several striking features were noticeable about the races. First of all, there were tons of young people running with great enthusiasm. However in the 55+, the field was limited. A friend of mine, Dane Larson took it upon himself to look at the results of the XTERRA Headlands 1/2 marathon. He informed me that I was second in the 55-59 age group. However, I looked up the results only to find out that there were only twowomen running in that age group. In the Double Dipsea, the 55-59 year-old women’s group seemed sparse. The group consisted of only 8 women out of 619 starters. I often forget about aging and the impact it has upon sports participation. Both these situations made me think about how I started running and the various reasons why I’ve run for years. After a serious bike crash sidelined me in 2003, I’ve just recently returned to running and didn’t realize how much I missed it.
I used to hate running.
During high school and college, my sports of choice were tennis, badminton, snow skiing, and backpacking. In 1979 at age 24, I was attending grad school at Humboldt State. I adopted a Golden Retriever. I started running the dog late at night. I thought that was the responsible action to take as a new dog owner. Eventually, I learned to appreciate and look forward to the late night runs with Samantha. I was hooked. During 6 years of grad school, I ran for stress relief and extra energy. The next phase involved focusing on being a competitiverunner. This fit my goal-oriented nature. Following completing Western States 100 (ultra running race), I also took up cycling. Eventually through cycling, I met my husband, with whom I rode numerous double centuries (ultra bike rides).
However, running has always been my real passion and meditation. This last spring I decided to become a “runner” again. The joy of running the trails of Marin (Mt. Tam at right) provides me a connection with nature. And of course my goal-oriented side influenced me. Now, I run for the connection with nature, as a meditation, to stay fit, and of course, a bit of competition.
Pam Schmitz, a Marin-born-and-raised runner, began running with her Dad as a teenager around Phoenix Lake in Ross. This was their bonding time. Her introduction to running was one of companionship. Following college, Pam became a circuit weight trainer. She met up with a woman, Martha Cederstrom, who she began running regularly with. Once again, the companionship factor emerged. Jointly, they decided to run the Avenue of the Giants Marathon in Humboldt County. Pam is another goal-oriented runner. They both finished with respectable times; Pam’s finishing time was 3:47. The long distance bug bit her and she averaged 70-80 miles per week. Then she got married, had kids, and dropped running. Eventually, she returned. Her goal-orientation emerged again. She ran the Catalina Marathon for her 40th birthday. She carried on this tradition for several years. Pam ran for two reasons– companionship and to achieve goals.
Natalie Clark (at left), a slight, very fit and talented runner, has been running for 26 years. One year, she missed a black shirt in the Dipsea by two places. She started running at 18. She had her body fat-tested and discovered it was too high for someone her age. Within a month, she lowered it significantly through running. Nat noticed the running helped her feel better and strengthened her muscles. Today, she continues to run for fitness and food. She loves to eat. She is also deeply attuned to nature. She loves the trees, the flowers and the animals. Surrounded by beauty, Nat puts on her running shoes and heads out the door into nature. She enjoys living in a beautiful area surrounded by numerous trails. Nat says, “I love experiencing nature. An early morning trail run in Marin, with all its diverse flora and fauna, is a gift.” Natalie runs for fitness and a connection with nature.
Karl Hoagland (photo right and below left), a current Western States 100 devotee, has a much different story than the women. As an adult, his sport had mainly been soccer. At thirty-eight, he experienced a significant knee injury playing soccer. This injury somehow changed his perspective on sports. He began running on a dare. At a New Year’s Eve party, his friends dared him to run a marathon. He started running on January 12, 2003. On March 2nd, he ran the Napa Marathon. At the finish,feeling incredibly present he thought, “Wow! This feels great. I could do it faster.” He also went on to do well in the Dipsea that year. He eventually joined up with the Wednesday evening running group–whose members include the famous and well-known ultrarunners Ann Trason and Carl Anderson– speaking highly of the friendliness and support he received from the group.
In 2004 just after a year of running, he qualified for Western States at the Jed Smith 50, timing a swift eight-and-a-half hours. His natural aptitude for running ultras was emerging. He put in for the 2004 Western States lottery (where runners have to “apply” to be considered). Karl was accepted immediately, and although his fear kicked in, he focused and trained hard. In 2005, he finished the Western States in only 22:49 earning him the coveted under twenty-four hour silver belt buckle. (He ran it last June in 18:16.) Karl runs to achieve goals and for the experience of camaraderie that ultras are especially good for.
Why do runners run? They run for different and similar reasons. This small sample of runners experience companionship, camaraderie, goal achievement, connection with nature, fitness, and competition as reasons why they run. Think about it. Why do you, or others close to you run? The reasons are vast and varied. Ultimately, there are benefits both mental and physical. When you are in the Power Zone, the running comes as second nature. As Karl described himself in his best form, “Everything felt so flowing and effortless.” However his friends, with good reason, do call him “the animal.”
Dr. Joan Steidinger is a sports and clinical psychologist with offices in Mill Valley and San Francisco. She has been practicing sports psychology with clients ranging from recreational to pro athletes for the past 17 years.
As an athlete herself, she has been a competitive ultrarunner, Ride & Tie competitor, and ultradistance cyclist.