Exploring their Dark Side or death before DNF: Ultra-athletes' motivation to compete in and complete ultra-distance races

Kate Spenceley
14 June 2021

Spenceley, K. (2021). Exploring their Dark Side or death before DNF: Ultra-athletes' motivation to compete in and complete ultra-distance races. (A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the degree Master of Applied Science at Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin, New Zealand). https://doi.org/10.34074/thes.5627


Athletes undertaking ultra-distance races, especially in ultra-running, are a growing phenomenon. These events are frequently held over demanding terrain, such as mountains or deserts, and can involve many metres of vertical ascent as well as hundreds of kilometres. There is an expanding body of research into the physiological impact of such undertakings on the human body. Long-distance racing impacts adversely on the body of the athlete. Research has included the nutritional needs and calorie deficit in ultra-racing; difficulties in maintaining euhydration and avoiding hyponatraemia; sleep deprivation and its impact on mood and psychological drivers. However, there is a limited amount of literature exploring these psychological drivers that motivate athletes during ultra-distance events. The literature retrieved focussed upon specific races and athletes in specific contexts. This study set out to discover the psychological drive of athletes undertaking ultra-distance races, and how they maintained this impetus during the event itself.

An ethnographic approach was used for data collection and analysis. Athletes were interviewed to elicit what drove them to pursue ultra-distance sports, and the tools they used during training and the event itself sustain their motivation. Findings from the analysed data were arranged into six broad themes: training; commitment; self-belief; mental toughness; support; addiction. During analysis, a further theme was discerned suggesting that challenging life events or changes could cause athletes to seek out ultra-distance events. Whilst links to past trauma were tenuous, as this was not identified at the outset of the study, it was identified as a theme requiring further investigation.

Keywords: ultra-endurance, long distance, athletes’ motivation, psychology

Supervisors: Richard Humphrey and Gary Barclay.


This thesis is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.

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