Why, deep down, we’re all ultramarathoners

2nd May, 2024

Jasmin Paris is not built like ordinary mortals. Last month she won a moment of fame after completing the Barkley Marathons, a race so brutal that only 19 men have managed to finish in the past 35 years. Paris is the first woman to complete the race. It is not Paris’s first brush with greatness. Five years ago, she won the Spine Race: 268 miles along the Pennine Way in January, when it is dark 16 hours a day, cold enough to be covered in snow but warm enough for the rain to soak through everything, and where every snatched minute of sleep is a minute conceded to one’s rivals. As the mother of a breastfeeding daughter, Paris had the additional disadvantage of having to express milk at rest stops, but she nevertheless beat both the Spine Race record and the men trying to keep pace with her. Her nearest challenger, Eugeni Roselló Solé, had to be rescued four miles from the finish line after he became dangerously cold and disoriented. The eventual winner of the men’s race, Eoin Keith, was about 50 miles behind Paris when she crossed the finish line.

Paris recently told the BBC she wanted to inspire people, particularly women. I suspect most people feel more awestruck than inspired; Superman does not inspire me to try flying.

The agony involved in these endurance races defies belief. I think not just of the winners, but competitors such as Roselló Solé, who spectacularly dropped out of the Barkley Marathons in 2019. A former winner of the event, he had to quit part way through in 2020, 2022, 2023 and 2024. And yet he keeps returning.

Why would anyone subject themselves to this? A quarter of a century ago, the behavioural economist George Loewenstein addressed that question. He focused on the experiences of mountaineers and polar explorers, which he summarised as “unrelenting misery from beginning to end”, and dangerous, too. He wanted to expand upon George Mallory’s reported answer to the question, “Why do you want to climb Everest?” (“Because it’s there.”) Mallory died near the summit in 1924.

The question should intrigue anyone interested in human decision-making. Textbook economics merely states that people act so as to satisfy some consistent set of preferences, but preferences are defined only as whatever it is that people are trying to satisfy. Surely it is not useful to insist that, by definition, mountaineers “prefer” to be exhausted, cold and in mortal fear?

Behavioural economics adds more to the story, notably that people may mis-predict and misremember the joys and sorrows involved in any enterprise. There certainly is some selective memory involved; many extreme athletes report vowing never again to subject themselves to some ordeal, only to return once the agonies have faded in the mind.

Yet this hardly explains why Mallory tried to conquer Everest, or Jasmin Paris pushed herself through the Barkley and the Spine Race. Nor does fame or money. With a small number of exceptions, these endeavours offer little chance of either. Loewenstein suggests there are four motives for extreme feats of endurance. The first is signalling your own character to yourself: proving that you can do hard things. (After smashing the Spine Race record in 2019, Paris returned to finish the last few weeks of her PhD. Most people don’t do PhDs for the fame or the money, either.)

The second is goal completion. Having set ourselves a challenge, we don’t like to leave it unfinished. The third is to experience mastery, the pleasure of doing something that requires great skill.

And the last, and most elusive, is the sense of meaning that can be found after surviving extreme conditions and perhaps even cheating death. We only truly appreciate a warm bed after trying to sleep in a bivvy bag on a cliff ledge; we value time with friends and family all the more when reminded of the fragility of life.

Self-signalling, goal completion, mastery and meaning: it’s not a particularly counterintuitive list, but it is a challenging one for economists and social scientists more broadly, because it is clear that these drives are not unique to explorers and ultramarathoners. Who among us does not value the satisfaction of achieving a goal, or finding ourselves the equal of a testing challenge?

I am rarely happier than when performing on stage, even though I feel anxious beforehand and drained afterwards. Why do I enjoy it, then? Because performance is difficult and I flatter myself that I’m good at it. It’s a pleasure to be fully absorbed in the challenge of doing a hard thing well.

A pleasure, too, to do hard physical activity. Over the past year, I’ve made a habit of a Saturday morning 5k Parkrun. I’ve never been a runner. I am always afraid before I start, and in pain until I finish. Still, the run is not a grim obligation I do only for the sake of my health. It’s a highlight of my weekend.

The same is true for a really tough day walking in the hills: uncomfortable at the time and uncomfortable afterwards, and a true pleasure. Why? In part, surely, because it feels good to be the kind of person who sets himself a stretching goal and achieves it.

There is a lesson here for those pulling the levers of public policy, taxing and subsidising and regulating in an attempt to make the world a better place, and for corporations setting “compensation” packages. People want money and pleasure, but also to challenge themselves, to feel a sense of meaning and enjoy a sense of mastering their craft. Policymakers and managers ignore such desires at their peril. In each of us, there is a tiny spark of Jasmin Paris.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 9 April 2024.

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