Extreme and Endurance Sports: What’s the Motivation?

This article aims to look at what motivates athletes or sportsmen and women. Apart from my chosen sports of ultra-running and surfing, I am not a daredevil, I am not into jumping out of planes or off cliffs or doing anything too death defying but…whatever lifts you up, I say go for it.

Different Motivating Factors

So why do people participate in extreme sports?

  • Money: perhaps in some cases. Yet only a fraction of a few lucky professionals will ever make a decent living out of their chosen sport. In Ironman triathlon for example the overwhelming majority of participants are amateurs, who for some reason have taken time out of their busy work and personal schedule to train for months to swim, bike and run all day.
  • Fame: again maybe, but most people have never heard of Mike Parson’s (big wave surfer) or Chrissie Wellington (an undefeated triathlon world champion who’s times are rivaling the top men).  Fame is a fickle thing.  Unless you’re exceptional, a good person and great at your chosen sport, it will only take a generation and then hardly anyone will remember who you were.
  • Ego: I think you can tell in an athlete’s persona when this is the case. Fortunately if your ego is big enough and the sport you are doing is hard enough there is only one thing that will happen. Your ego will get crushed. Or someone better will come along.
  • Self-Improvement: Competition with others and with yourself brings it about. This is the underlying reason or motivation I will participate in any sport and I feel is the main reason people want to challenge themselves.

Self-Improvement and Personal Goals

Self-improvement takes us beyond our present capacities. It involves staying focused and competing only with ourselves. “If I can improve myself, if I can go beyond my previous achievements, then that is my goal. My own previous record is always what I am competing with” said Sri Chinmoy, founder of the longest ultra-marathon, the 3100 mile race, in reference to his own fitness goals. Many climbers feel the same way “My own previous record is always what I am competing with. I am always looking for goals that are challenging me,” mentioned Ueli Steck, one of the world’s best climbers, “I am not just climbing…I really want to reach my goal.”

In the 3100 mile race every step was taking me closer and closer towards my goal. The feeling I got from bettering and improving myself, reaching miles way beyond my previous personal best, far outweighed the physical and mental difficulties I faced. The first time I did it, I was basically in agony the whole time, but I was incredibly happy because I was challenging myself.

It is why I like ultra-running so much. Every step takes me closer and closer towards the finish tape. The feeling I get from bettering and improving myself, reaching miles beyond my previous personal best, far outweighs the physical and mental difficulties I face in a race. Track athletes are no different. “Believe me,” says 9 time Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis, “the joy that comes from ‘going beyond’ is the most incredible feeling in the world. I have felt it many times. And I have enjoyed watching others experience it.”

Self-improvement is the key to life’s journey. A lot of us remain stagnant. We get caught by the chains of financial and moral responsibilities, stuck in a chasm, unable to escape from the monotonous life we are in. The scales get tipped too far and we forget to nourish ourselves and stay happy. It doesn’t take much to reverse the situation, only a desire to extend or better yourself. For some people this might be running 5 kilometres or taking up a new hobby. For others it might be climbing a mountain or catching a 100 foot wave.  

Self-improvement allows us to smash out of the jail cell or box we feel trapped in. It is taking an extra step or trying that much harder to achieve something, to live our dreams and to become something.  If we have faith in ourselves, we can accomplish anything. And with achievement, happiness automatically comes.

Trying Again After Failing


Occasionally we do fail but that is part of it. If we go about something with one hundred per cent effort, if we put all our training, patience, devotion and dedication into something without expectation, then we can be happy even if we fail. We gain from this experience and try again. “It’s not about any records,” commented 6 time ironman winner and 2 time duathlon world champion Olivier Bernhard, “As long as I reached my full potential I would be happy at the finish... it’s not about the money, it’s about making constant progress and becoming a better person on the lasting journey.” On a personal level, in my four 3100 mile races I have improved  my time every year. My last finish was a week quicker than my debut. I won it one year, but the satisfaction from beating my personal best was far better than standing on the podium. Someday I won’t improve and this will be something I will have to deal with in a positive manner.

Everyone wants to progress as a person.  Working as a business speaker, I see this thirst for progress all the time, most noticeably with ambitious, career-driven people. Someone who achieves a lot in the corporate world often has focus, concentration, drive and dedication in boundless measure.  Athletes are the same, they are just directing their energies in another field and perhaps get a more rewarding experience.

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Based in Australia, Grahak Cunningham (www.grahakcunningham.com) is a motivational speaker and business speaker and four time finisher and current champion of the Self-Transcendence 3100 mile race, which is the world’s longest ultra-marathon. He can’t face the 3100 this year and is having a break. All photos courtesy Prabhakar Street, Jowan Gauthier 

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