Feature: Why I Race Ultra-Endurance

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Whiskey 50: Sonya testing her speed against Luna’s Teal Stetson Lee. Photo by Dave McElwaine.

“That sounds cool, but I’d never want to do that!” are words I often hear when I tell people about some of my races. I got thinking about the why I want to do it. The easiest answer is I started racing because I am a competitive person and I love the thrill. I like pushing myself to be the best I can be and racing is a great motivator because you don’t only race other people, you race yourself. My head started to hurt when I started thinking about why people are competitive from an evolutionary standpoint. Is it because we were warriors way back in the day? Does it all boil down to hunting, gathering, and procreating? Probably.

I started thinking about the other motivations behind the why. My racing has evolved from XC style racing that were normally 4-5 laps of 4-6 mile loops to longer 50-100 milers, to 7 day stage races, and now to adventure stage races in demanding conditions. Why would I want to sleep on the ground, freeze my ass off, ride my bike for 8 hours at a time, take pleasure in hiking my bike through the mud or up the side of a giant mountain, and voluntarily choose to push myself so hard that I suffer from the pain?

Simple. It makes me a better person.

There are so many psychological intricacies when it comes to the mind of the racer type and there are so many life lessons learned on the bike in the heat of battle. Here are the most important things I have learned. I hope to continue adding to this list.

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Learning how to deal with disappointment, failure, and accepting them with grace.

From a non-competitive person’s point of view, it’s just a stupid bike race. And really, it is just a bike race. However, working very hard and making sacrifices to be at your best at that stupid bike race are part of what gives it an emotional charge. You want to succeed. The race is the icing on the cake – the real work occurs during the trials and motivation of training for the event. Racing has taught me to accept who I am in the moment. I’m not always going to be performing at my highest level; I have bad days. I’ll also have amazing days, but accepting that I’m doing my best in that moment and not judging myself for where I should be has been a great and difficult lesson over the years. Accepting failure and disappointment directly translates to many other life scenarios that do not involve a bike. You lost the race or you didn’t get the promotion at work. Someone else did. How will you handle it? Will you sulk and let your ego get the best of you, or will you shake their hand and genuinely respect and be happy for them? Losing with grace is not always easy. My greatest failure in my racing career was not completing the Colorado Trail Race in my 2010 attempt. It’s a 550 mile self supported solo bikepacking race across the Colorado Rockies. I quit. I still reel from it, even typing it on my computer. It took me months to get over my despair, but I did and I want to go back. We learn more about ourselves from our disappointments and failures than we do from our victories.

About the author: Sonya Looney

Sonya Looney is a world class ultra endurance mountain bike racer. She has competed in the hardest international stage races in the world, picking up several wins. She has three USA 24 Hour National Champion jerseys in her closet, as well as a Marathon World Championship USA team kit hiding in there as well. Her love is for big mountain adventures which helps her excel at her favorite race distance - 100 milers. Sonya's positive energy and love for life would never lead you to guess she suffers in her races and always is laughing with a grin on her face. She also prides herself in her taste for microbrews, red wine, and has a quick witted sense of humor.


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  • Liz says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Also why I gravitate towards these lovely “fun” little races. ;) Without racing I would certainly not be where I am today. Great article Sonya.

  • BD says:

    Not sure that this is ultra distance? The CTR is as the clock is non stop. The other races listed here are all multi day stage races, not ultra endurance. Plenty of races like the Tour Divide, Freedom Challenge in South Africa, Highland 400 in Scotland, Arizona Trail races that are ultra endurance. How about trying to match some of Eszter Horanyi ultra endurance race records?

  • Lori holder says:

    This article is very inspirational especially for women in the sport! So glad to know I’m not the only one who puts a lot of pressure on themselves during a ride it really shows a lot of heart! I do have one question to ask you and hopefully you can help because I do put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed I feel a lot of anxiety before starting my ride and sometimes it affects the purpose if the ride any suggestions on getting my nerve under control thanks for all you do for the sport and thanks for the inspiration

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