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The Ultra-Endurance Journey: Part 1 — Passion Becomes Lifestyle

BY Tatjana Bill

To understand the psychology and foundations of ultra-endurance athletes' passion and lifestyle, you must understand the five common themes among these passion-driven people.

We know triathletes and ultra-endurance runners, swimmers and cyclists are “different.” They lead a lifestyle that “normal” people mostly consider crazy. But there are more and more ultra-endurance (UE) races around the world, and more and more people are doing them. This global explosion of extreme endurance and adventure races is a phenomenon of our post-industrial, post-modernist and very comfortable Western world.

Can any theory or concept of psychology, sociology or philosophy explain this passion for endurance sports? Not really, and definitely not from a long-term perspective. This triggered my curiosity, so I started my Ph.D. dissertation about it and would like to share with you what we have found so far. Step by step, in three episodes, so show some endurance and stay tuned!

In the first study, I interviewed 16 non-professional ultra-endurance athletes (triathlon, running and cycling) from several countries, asking them to share their journeys of passionate engagement in sport, from inception to its full adoption as a lifestyle. I heard amazing stories demonstrating that the development journey of UE athletes is a multi-year, sometimes life-long endeavor full of unique experiences, emotional rollercoasters, overcoming and surrender stories, passion and spiritual growth.

And while each journey was unique, there were also similarities in key milestones of the endurance journeys of the athletes. Our conversations were distilled into five pivotal themes in the ultra-endurance athlete’s progression: 1) The making of the UE athlete, 2) Finding a tribe, 3) Peak experiences, 4) UE lifestyle and 5) UE passion and outcomes. These themes serve as markers along a path conceptualized through psychological frameworks like Self Determination Theory and the Dualistic Model of Passion. They provide insights into the psychological evolution from initial interest to a deeply internalized ultra-endurance identity.

The visualization below is the “Temporal framework for progressive UE engagement and passion development.” Let me take you through it stage by stage – and I ask you to reflect on it as we go to see if it also represents your journey.

Temporal Framework
Fig. 1: Temporal framework for progressive UE engagement and passion development (Bill T, 2023)

The Making of the UE Athlete

Whether the idea of extreme racing attracts someone or whether one attaches meaning of threat or opportunity to possible novel experiences is probably defined by their high-level psychological predisposition. The reasons to engage in UE can be complex, and this engagement cannot be predicted. It can be early childhood sports engagement, parental or social influence, natural inclination to extreme sports, an inborn or acquired set of character traits, or (and most likely) a combination of all the above. The exact combination cannot be known – but it became clear through the research that a positive first UE experience (normally a smaller competition or a first real endurance race) plays a crucial role and represents the first milestone in the formation of a long-term passion. If this experience is not good, an exit from these endurance activities will likely follow.

The UE engagement continues if it fulfills the innate psychological human needs for competence (a desire to feel a sense of personal initiative), autonomy (a desire to interact effectively with the environment) and relatedness (a desire to feel connected to significant others). The fulfillment of these needs is seen as the necessary condition for ongoing human growth, integrity and overall well-being, and all three must be satisfied for optimal human development. If all three of them are fulfilled by one activity, like training for and participation in UE races, this activity becomes a high-value need, and motivation becomes more and more intrinsic. (-> Stop and consider how your needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness are satisfied. There are more and less productive ways to do it.)

Finding the Tribe

 “Tribe,” in anthropology, describes a notional form of human social organization based on a set of smaller groups united by common descent, language, culture and ideology. Graffiti artists, musicians, Star Wars fanatics, Saluki dog breeders, etc., all form a “tribe.” Social cohesion and sharing common values and norms are vital features of a tribe, and this is what individual UE athletes are looking for when they strive to resolve the social paradox inherent to their extreme hobby: their lifestyle and choices of pastime do not comply with those of their peers, and they feel frequently ridiculed and even marginalized. The most common cliché is that of being “crazy.”

An answer to this is the formation of the UE sub-culture, which features different norms. Where running 100km, cycling 200km and swimming 5km is expected, where training camps are considered holidays and where the “your training is my warm-up” mentality is widespread. In groups of like-minded people, social norms get re-framed and deconstructed. So, the perceived “abnormality” of the UE hobby gets normalized, and athletic identity gets activated and reinforced.

A high-value need for UE, driven by strong internal motivation, is now powerfully reinforced by the external motivation coming from the UE tribe, resulting in increased engagement in UE. This is the moment when UE enters self-identity, and hobby triathletes start defining themselves through their sport. Unique and peak training and racing experiences help the hobby become a passion.

Peak Experiences

Peak experiences are “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” (Csikszentmihalyi M, 1989). They are central to understanding the psychology of UE athletes, and stories about peak racing experiences represented the core of the interviews. These stories were focused on intense emotions, bodily experiences, self-discovery and encounters with nature. Polarity was central to all stories since UE racing is an endless rollercoaster of positive-negative emotions and embodied experiences.

A lesser-known aspect of the UE experience is the “self-discovery journey” uncovered in my research. For participants, it was an essential long-term personal development process through UE. Many told me how the extreme experiences in races helped them build self-confidence, learn humility and gratitude, and even become better people overall. Another important aspect was the “uniting with nature,” representing a spiritual dimension to UE racing. Getting to the top of a mountain after 100 or more km of tough racing, alone, in a sunset or sunrise, being met there by an alpine ibex, is likely to induce a sense of elation, magic and divine, especially when intensified by physical exertion and central neural fatigue.

UE Lifestyle

Peak experiences make life worth living. They turn a hobby into a passion. And passion becomes a lifestyle. This lifestyle is based on UE identity, habit and master competency. When training is a fixed part of a daily routine, your food, recovery and leisure choices support your hobby, and when most of your friends are athletes, you have more running than high-heel shoes, which translates to most of your travel being to races.

Through the (unconscious) need for satisfaction in UE hobby practice, athletes start internalizing their UE hobby in their self-identity and start thinking about themselves as ” trail runners,” “athletes,” or “triathletes.” The UE hobby becomes a self-defining activity, which assists in exploring a sense of meaningful and coherent identity and provides a unique context for exploring one’s own interests and talents. “Living UE” becomes a habit, and practicing it for many years develops a master competency.

UE Passion and Outcomes

Living UE passion and practicing UE lifestyle brings about a number of outcomes, the quality of which is driven by the type of passion formed: harmonious or obsessive. A harmonious UE passion brings about positive (adaptive) outcomes such as a healthy lifestyle, balanced training, meta-needs fulfillment, and the formation of an inspiring life story. At the same time, an obsessive passion is connected to possible maladaptive outcomes such as vanity and ego-centrism, as well as injuries and burn-out, including a potential exit from the sport.

In addition, peak experiences, need satisfaction, the UE tribe, identity, lifestyle, and master competence in UE training and racing all lead to a passion-driven life plan for non-professional UE athletes: They simply do not see a reason to stop. Ever. They all claim to want to continue training, racing, and leading an active lifestyle until a very old age, until they die, for some, preferably in a race.

For a full version of the article, please visit: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0293864

More on different types of passion – and happiness – in the next episode! Enjoy your balanced training, and stay healthy!

Want to be part of the research?

For our next study, we are interviewing spouses and partners of UE athletes to better understand the impact of the UE hobby on family and relationships. Please email me at coachtatjana@gmail.com if you are interested in participating. Your support is much appreciated!


Deci EL, Ryan RM. The” what” and” why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological inquiry. 2000 Oct 1;11(4):227-68.

Vallerand RJ, Blanchard C, Mageau GA, Koestner R, Ratelle C, Léonard M, Gagné M, Marsolais J. Les passions de l’ame: on obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2003 Oct; 85(4):756.

Vallerand RJ, Salvy SJ, Mageau GA, Elliot AJ, Denis PL, Grouzet FM, Blanchard C. On the role of passion in performance. Journal of personality. 2007 Jun;75(3):505-34.

Csikszentmihalyi M, LeFevre J. Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of personality and social psychology. 1989 May;56(5):815.

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About Tatjana Bill

Tatjana Bill (Ivanova) has coached endurance athletes for more than 20 years. Her qualifications include Elite Coach A by the German Triathlon Union, Level 2 TrainingPeaks, IRONMAN and Trisutto. She is a 20x IRONMAN finisher (2xKona), trail runner and cross-country skier. All her athletes, from first-time marathoners to IRONMAN World Championship qualifiers, have achieved their personal goals and finished their races with a smile. Learn more at http://www.coachtatjana.com/

“Joy in the effort” is Tatjana´s mantra for training and racing.

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