It's a question that came up in a blog, or maybe a blog comment, after the recent West Highland Way race. I'd never really thought too deeply about it. The suggestion was that doing a particular event because "that's what I do at this time of year" was not a good enough reason. Maybe, maybe not, I'll park that for now while I look at reasons why anyone might enter a race and see how they relate to me, and maybe to you.....
1. I want to win the race. The most obvious reason of all of course - after all we are talking about a race, which implies you have a winner - but for the majority of us this so far removed from our capabilities as to be no reason at all. And yet the appeal of an age group win (however artificial the boundaries are - why should you win a prize at 50 that a much better 49-year-old isn't entitled to?) is maybe there. Races which recognise my own age group (the Hardmoors, the Highland Fling, etc) definitely give me an extra incentive to push a bit.
2. I want to hit a particular "barrier" time. This lets you set yourself a personal goal which is challenging but which you believe is achievable. This has definitely been a strong driver for me. I wanted to do a 3 and a half hour marathon, a 24 hour West Highland Way, etc, and I still believe that given a good day I can get a sub 10 hour Highland Fling. The problem (?) is that once you achieve your goal, where do you go from there - no way will I ever do a 3 hour marathon so what is my reason for entering this distance in the future? But of course there is no reason why the barrier should mean anything to anyone except ourselves, so we can set it where we like.
3. I want to run a Personal Best. Another powerful individual driver, but I think you have to recognise two limitations. Firstly you have to believe that a PB is still possible: increasing age, chronic injuries, etc may just make it an unrealistic ambition, and secondly you have to believe that the effort required, both on the day and in the months beforehand will be justified. I think there are still races where I can get a PB, but there are others in which I know deep down my lifetime best is already on the board. I ran my first marathon when I was 55 and got my PB of 3:17 when I was 60. Everything went right that day, it's not going to happen again. I've just read the report of the 1989 West Highland Way race. After setting a time that has never been bettered on the course in use at that time (nor arguably on the one run today), Dave Wallace said he wouldn't be back the following year, with the telling remark "That was my best shot".
4. This race is a big challenge for me, I just want to complete the course. I'm sure most of us have been here. Our first 50 miler, first 100, did we really know how it was going to turn out? This is how I am still approaching big events like the Lakeland 100 and the UTMB. Do I really believe after failing on each of these that I can now get round - of course I do, what better reason is there?
5. I enjoy this race so much that I'm just going to keep doing it as often as I can, I don't care about my time. I can understand this as a reason, but I can't personally sign on to it yet. I want more out of my day than that. This coming October I will run the Rotherham 50 miler again. I've done it twice before, I'm unlikely to run a PB because I will have had a few weeks off in the period before it, but having been within a whisker of 9 hours I know I won't be satisfied getting round in 12.
6. This is a training run in enjoyable surroundings with good company. I know people do this, but I find once I get into the atmosphere of an event I can't treat it wholly as "training" .
I'm sure there are other reasons but these seem the most significant to me.
Against this background I'm clear that I enter different events for different reasons. Also, if you choose to run an ultra roughly every month (which I have done in the spring/summer for the past couple of years) you're probably not going to achieve your absolute best performance in any of them. I'm accepting this because I just love being part of the events, but I've also realised that I've entered some events without being able to tick any of the boxes I've defined above. So thinking this through a bit has been good for me. I'll now make sure that I go into each race with a clear idea of why I'm there and what I want to achieve.
But I've also realised that I have another powerful reason why I do this, which must be shared by many other ultra runners out there. We do this because we can, and we'll go on doing it until we can't. Which, hopefully, will be quite a while yet.