What happens when you can no longer be the fastest kid on the block?

I’ve been pinning numbers on, in some form, for over 30 years. I ran my first race as I high school freshman just trying to get in shape for hockey season. At thirteen, I wasn’t even big enough to be labeled a pipsqueak, so I thought that a little speed and endurance would be my best chance at not getting pounded into the ice by the upper-class gorillas.

I got my ass handed to me in that first cross-country race. However, I did manage to finish in front of a few other kids, and something inside seemed to click. I was mesmerized by the atmosphere of the whole experience: the rhythmic sound of 200 feet pounding up a grass hill, the smell of the decaying leaves in the woods, the clickety-clack of metal spikes on the short stretches of pavement. Mostly, though, it was the solitary feeling of something very difficult being undertaken. Everyone had the same look just before the gun—that downward gaze, the furtive glances, the occasional nervous yawns. This was hard, and it wasn’t for everyone.

Every single competitive event since then has had that same feeling—the fear, the adrenaline, the second guessing—it’s always there. Look at the faces of anyone on the starting line of any race. You don’t see a lot of confident smiles, even in the athletes that are setting world records or winning gold medals. Everyone has their own demons, their own doubts and fears, and their own motivations for pinning that number on.

So, how does that motivation evolve?

It is a bit of a cliché to say that it is all about pushing one’s own limits or the boundaries of what’s possible. If that were really the only motivating factor, your local 5K wouldn’t be as popular as it is. People would simply go out and run three miles by themselves and look for boundaries: they’re always easy to find, whether you’ve pinned on a number or not.

But we love to compare everything. “Am I the fastest in the office? On my block? In town? In the world?”

I have been asked many times, why I put myself through the suffering of a multi-day adventure race or the all-day hurt of Ironman. Why do I do it?