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What Motivates Trail Runners?


Richard Bowles delves deep and questions his motivation for running thousands of kilometres. Sometimes, he discovers, it’s just about impossible to understand what drives you.

Eric Lagerstrom tightening his laces near Columbia River, USA PICTURE CREDIT: Aaron Rogosin/Red Bull Content Pool

Eric Lagerstrom tightening his laces near Columbia River, USA PICTURE CREDIT: Aaron Rogosin/Red Bull Content Pool.

In our adventurous pursuits, we have to withstand uncertainty, vulnerability, insecurity, and jeopardy. And yet, as human beings, we are hard-wired to protect ourselves and stay comfortable. So why do we do what we do, putting ourselves in danger, taking risks, and enduring hazardous situations?

It’s a baffling paradox that seems to expose humanity’s irrational side. Over the course of history, no one has produced a definitive answer. Even the famous quotes of the world’s great explorers fall short of legitimately explaining why we adventure like we do, embracing journeys with unknown outcomes.

Some say it’s for fun, others say it’s to test our inner strength, others still say it’s nothing but ego. Yet all of these appear to be watered-down, unconvincing explanations – not that you can blame those making these speculations. Answering a question as profound as ‘why’ is always bound to be difficult.

I’ve personally confronted this bottomless question in a quest to find meaning. I spent a year analysing my running adventures, finding that I too had got it all wrong. My old tagline “I’m searching for the why in the hope to never find it” suddenly sounded like nonsense, because I was dying to find it. But after visiting hundreds of psychologists, scientists and even hypnotherapists across the country I was no closer to an explanation. The consensus seemed to be ‘just because’.

But how can you be satisfied with that? Did I honestly run thousands of kilometres ‘just because’? Does ‘just because’ even make sense as an answer? Just because of what exactly? I was starting to think that the words ‘why’ and ‘because’ would forever haunt me.

Karl and crew with the AT Trail Map. PICTURE CREDIT: Josh Campbell

Karl and crew with the AT Trail Map. PICTURE CREDIT: Josh Campbell.

Twelve months in and I felt depressed in my search. My former years stood upturned in my memory; the spectre of why hovered over all of my achievements. Then boom! As I was reliving a story of severe failure, I formed a promising hypothesis.

The severe failure I was recalling? The Shvil Israel: an end to end wilderness trail from the Red Sea to the border of Lebanon and Syria. I planned to complete my 1,009 kilometre course in 12 days. At the start of day one, 60 kilometres into the heart of the desert, I found myself in the middle of a combat zone, missiles firing directly over my head and exploding in the adjacent valley. Many would have aborted the journey at this point, but I felt the need to carry on.

At the end of day one, my foot was double its normal size. My team suggested I stop, but again, for some obscure reason, I wanted to carry on. Day two, my foot got bigger; day three, and I was struggling to make the daily distance; day four, a red line was creeping up my leg, indicating an infection. But my mindset had not changed; I was forging on regardless.

Day five and my foot’s sole was now hanging off (sorry for the mental image). Perhaps this is what the hyenas circling the tent were after. Still, I packed up and hobbled on some more, with the hyenas following me at a distance. When I reached my team, they urged me to stop, but I felt the same compulsion: carry on. Until, 10 kilometres later, my foot couldn’t hold me up any longer, and I collapsed.

Fernanda Maciel in Moleson. PICTURE CREDIT: Lorenz Richard/Red Bull Content Pool

Fernanda Maciel in Moleson. PICTURE CREDIT: Lorenz Richard/Red Bull Content Pool.

As I was rushed to an emergency department in Jerusalem, I experienced a pain like nothing I have ever experienced before. As the doctor took a giant syringe to my now enormous foot, he told me this was potentially life-threatening and that, if my foot had been left like this, it could have required amputation. Even when he drained my foot and gave me a mega dose of medication, my pain remained the same.

Later, I found myself bed-bound in a hotel, staring at the ceiling fan. I was still severely suffering, but the suffering ran deeper than just a sore foot. What I was experiencing was anguish of the human spirit. Looking back, reliving these memories, I saw again into the depths of my mental world; I glimpsed a feeling of... let’s call it essentialness. My goal – to run the Shvil Israel – was essential to me. I simply needed to reach the finish line. Yet I’d failed to. Hence the pain.

Looking back on that trip, I could pick, prod and poke for a more profound explanation. But really, my motivation was so intense and primeval that it’s impossible to articulate – which explains the lack of truth in historical adventurers’ speculations as to why we adventure.

It’s something you feel. Not something you think. If I asked you why you loved somebody (spouse, kids, parent) could you give me an answer in one comment? Could you genuinely provide a well-formulated response? No way. You truly ‘just’ do.

It’s the same with adventure. Now I can confidently say that sort of answer isn’t a cop-out. That’s the closest we can come to understanding these inexplicable forces within us.

George Mallory gave one of the most legendary quotes of all when asked why he would attempt to summit Everest: “Because it’s there.” If he had returned, I think he would have given another famous response when asked why he did it: “Because I had to.”

Run out of necessity and not desire :)



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