Friday Inspiration: Why Endurance Athletes Choose to Suffer

Like everyone in the northeast, I’m sick of this winter. I’m sick of the cold, and the ice, and the half frozen black slush. More than anything else, I’m sick of running on the treadmill. On the weekends, I generally head outside, regardless of the weather. But during the week, when I’m often running before dawn, or after dark, I tend to head to the basement treadmill. It gets dull, but it gives me loads of time to watch inspiring videos.

Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of Ironman coverage. The Kona championships, the regional championships, inspiration videos edited together by amateurs. Basically its been just lots and lots of nights watching videos of people in spandex, suffering. Last night, I watched the end of the 2014 North American Championship.  At the end of the video, when the final runners of the day were trying to squeak in by the midnight deadline, I got goddamn emotional.  Why? Because I’m a softie? Yes. But also because these efforts touched something inside me.

Of course, the Ironman is a contrived event, as are all modern endurance events, and of course these people volunteered (and in fact paid) for this experience. But that doesn’t make the suffering any less real or the accomplishment any less meaningful.

Many have hypothesized that the rise in popularity of endurance events among the first world middle class is tied to a longing to be physically challenged in a way that the “real” world no longer presents – that in  what has become a post scarcity economy (for certain demographics), people feel the need prove themselves in a visceral, physical way. I think there’s something to that. I see it in myself, and my friends, and I saw it in the athletes in this video.

Many people (including myself) make fun of this desire to suffer for no reason.  I understand why it can seem silly. It’s certainly a luxury.* And endurance athletes definitely take themselves too seriously at times. But watch the last ten minutes of this video, and think about all that went into getting these athletes to that place, and tell me you aren’t at least a little inspired.

*An Ironman entrance fee alone will run you about $700, the gear and time can raise that price considerably.

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