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Why American Endurance Athletes Have No Fun

Numbers. Rankings. Results. The data-driven mindset is preventing us from enjoying the outdoors.

Why American Endurance Athletes Have No Fun

ÖTILLÖ -Swimrun World Championchip Photo: Nadja Odenhage/ÖTILLÖ

ÖTILLÖ is an ultra-event run annually in the Swedish archipelago. I wrote about it for Outside—about how crazy, drunk Swedes thought this thing up, in which teams of two swim between and run over 26 islands, covering 40 miles on foot and 10K in the water over the course of a day.

The swimrunning Swedes I spoke with made the whole deal seem like the perfect blend of tough and funny (swim in your shoes and run in your wetsuit!? Hilarious!), so I talked my husband into doing it with me. It would be our first big race out of the United States (Canada doesn’t count) and we’d be one of five US teams entered out of 120. That made us the weirdoes in a sea of mostly Swedish and European competitors, one of whom had some choice words to say about endurance athletes in the U.S. of A. 

“All they care about is numbers,” said Dr. Jan Kriska, a physician originally from Slovakia who now lives in North Carolina. “Those stupid 13.1 stickers, 26.2 stickers, 70.3. That f**ing M-dot tattoo. They’re missing the point.” People shouldn’t be doing flat loops around warehouses in Anytown, Bumblef**k just to rack up 140.6 miles in a day, he said (or something to that effect). They should be running endurance events for the experience—for the unique way they take advantage of their natural surroundings.   

Now, he said this to me as we were disembarking from a three-hour ferry ride back to Stockholm from the finish line, and I just drowsily smiled and nodded—I'd done a terrible job of getting on Swedish time so I hadn’t slept much in 72 hours. But his statement equally irked me and resonated with me. And now that I’m awake and stuffed full of Swedish cinnamon rolls, I know why: He’s absolutely right, and totally wrong.

Let’s start with the wrong part. Over the past five years, participation in obstacle course races, color runs, Zombie runs, foam runs, and other so-called “non-traditional races” in the United States has surpassed that of marathons and half-marathons combined. Non-profit stats-keeper, Running USA, estimates that in 2013, four million people ran a non-traditional race, versus the two and a half million who ran marathons and half-marathons.

In most cases, the “non-traditional” part of the race isn’t just the addition of powdery explosions of color or the undead, it’s also the absence of a set distance. Tough Mudders, for example, are advertised as being somewhere around 10 to 12 miles; they’re not plotted exactly to a tenth of a mile. And founder Will Dean’s favorite sales line emphasizes the importance of adventure over distance: “Experiences are the new luxury good,” he loves to say. 

Courses for events like the new O2X Summit Challenges and many obstacle races are determined by the natural landscape, much like ÖTILLÖ. Swimrunning is exploding in Sweden right now because it is a country of islands, and athletes are taking advantage of that. Similarly, O2X promises to integrate fallen trees and rock scrambles found on American mountains into their course designs.

That’s not to say, however, that in the American endurance community—that group of dedicated athletes who often define themselves by their sporty exploits—there’s not a strong penchant to get caught up in the numbers. Triathlon, in particular, seems to have gravitated away from spontaneous, landscape-determined races into set distances from which few races waiver. As USA Triathlon’s Commissioner of Officials, Charlie Crawford, told me: In the beginning, the swim would be whatever the perimeter of a small lake was, the bike would go wherever it seemed best—like to a friend’s mailbox—and so would the run. 

The drive that’s developed over the last 10-plus years to make a race “Olympic” distance, or half-iron, or iron-distance, dismays triathletes who remember the sport’s spontaneity—its funniness. Dan Empfield, publisher of endurance website, wrote in a post about ÖTILLÖ that Scandinavia is way ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to appreciating the essence of the multisport event. Here in the U.S., he went on to say, “we've lost our mojo.”

I’d argue, however, that training to crush a certain distance isn’t bad. Time can be a powerful motivator, and earning a new PR is a thrill. But athletes should still make room for races of goofier layouts to remember what it’s like to race for fun, with no expectations other than to enjoy the experience. 

So perhaps Dr. Kriska was right and wrong. In certain groups of American athletes, a numbers-obsession may be dragging down the spirit of the sport. But the vast majority of Americans entering endurance events these days are going where there is no score and the distances are random—and the feeling of accomplishment at the end is every bit as great. 

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