The Reason People Run Ridiculous Distances Has Little to Do With Physical Fitness


(Photo: David Denney/The Denver Post/Getty Images)

By Tanya Basu

The ultramarathoner, as Science of Us has noted before, is a special sort of person. Generally, when people think about running and intensity, the two seem to follow a pretty correlated path: The more one runs, the more intense one must be. Running a 10K? Pretty low-key. A half? Not too bad. A marathon? Whoa, now we’re getting into intense territory. And ultramarathoners — those badass runners tackling distances that exceed the 26.2 of marathons, sometimes up to or more than 50 or 100 miles? Clearly, ultramarathoners are the most intense, gritty individuals.

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What is the point, the uninitiated may wonder, of all that running? While most people associate running with physical fitness, many ultramarathoners argue that the reason they run isn’t to get muscles or maintain cardiac health. Instead, as Quartz reports this week, it’s to attain some sense of “flow,” that nebulous term that’s associated with that other very fuzzy concept runners toss around, “runner’s high.”

Claremont Graduate University psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first coined the term flow in 1990. In a 2004 TED Talk, Csikszentmihalyi expounded on the idea, going so far as to say that it’s the key to happiness. “His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists,” Csikszentmihalyi said. “So existence is temporarily suspended.”

Sounds a lot like the state of mind even casual runners can recognize. Czikszentmihalyi argues that the power of flow — basically, getting in the zone, cranking out your best stuff, and just —> Read More