Boilermaker Blog

The Economic Theory of Running: Are Runners Just Crazy?


 

By Kelsey Gratien, PhD, CPC

Here I am, sitting in the YMCA parking lot feeling a deep sense of dread. First, I need to wake up three kids that are all in a deep sleep, wrangle them out of their car seats, and get them safely inside. Then, I need to push myself through an eight-mile treadmill workout while worrying that I’ll hear “Will the parent for Ryan/Molly/Ruth please report to child watch?” over the loud speaker at any moment.

This is my second time here this evening. Thirty minutes ago, after driving through rush hour traffic, I arrived. I unbuckled the two-year-old, reached for the stroller, and then realized I left the diaper bag at home– the diaper bag with all of the absolute essentials needed for this venture. As my two-year-old was angrily chanting “Child Watch, Child Watch!” I buckled her back in, started the van, and drove home. When I finally got back to the Y, all the kids had passed out.

Kelsey and kids

So, why do I do this? What motivates someone to go through all this trouble just to get in a run? This question crossed my mind as I sped up the treadmill and I’ve been contemplating it since.  Why would anyone be a runner?

Approximately five years ago, in what seems like a different lifetime, I was a “practicing” political scientist. Part of my Ph.D. dissertation focused on political behavior and why some people vote and others don’t. One theorist, American economist Anthony Downs, in his An Economic Theory of Democracy, said it may be irrational to vote. He suggested that the question should be “Why would anyone ever vote?” and posited that a person should only vote if the probability of determining the election (P) multiplied by the benefit of the preferred candidate winning (B) is greater than the many costs associated with voting (C).

A person should only vote if:  P * B > C

(For the politically curious: there have been revisions of this theory, with one suggestion being that people feel a sense of duty or obligation – such as “people fought for our right to vote” —  that provides additional motivation.)

Like Downs’ question of voters, I started asking myself “why would anyone ever run. The costs are so high, and the probability of winning any given race is nearly zero for most runners. So why are 15,000 people going to run the Boilermaker knowing full well that the prize money is out of reach?

What do we, the non-elite race enthusiasts, really get out of this? Running hurts. It’s usually not all that pleasant to run hard mile repeats or race an all-out 15k. Why would anyone give up time with family, relaxation, or additional sleep to get in some miles? Why would anyone shell out $30, $50, or $100 to run a race? What benefit could possibly outweigh those costs?

 

When I was 22, I was in graduate school with a flexible schedule and no responsibilities. I was a free bird. Looking back, the costs of running were so low. And yet, I trained sporadically and ran mediocre times. Going out for chicken wings and beer often trumped any desire to go running.

And here I am, 31 years old with a million things going on, and I’ve chosen now to be focused on running personal records and breaking 60 minutes at the Boilermaker.  Am I an irrational human being? Maybe, or perhaps despite the costs of running hitting their peak, the benefits are also at an unprecedented high.

But what would make running more beneficial to me now?

I’ve heard a lot of moms give broad justifications for running, saying things like “running allows me to be a better wife and mother,” and I do agree with that. I am now able to share my successes with my husband and kids, and that is big for me.

But what about the everyday “I don’t want to run today but I know I should” internal war that truly determines a runner’s fate? This is a battle I often lost in the past because the temptations of not running were high (“let’s go get a burger right now!”)

Today, many of my running benefits are immediate and the temptations against running are limited. One run can allow me to be more patient with my toddlers. It gives me a feeling of happiness and self-worth. And, these benefits come with 100-percent probability.  Additionally, the chance of winning races is occasionally greater than 0 for me, and wins give me added happiness. (Why winning results in happiness is another topic I’ll cover whenever I get my Ph.D. in psychology). I also find fun in the general competition (like, perhaps, how some voters find fun in elections even if their candidate loses).

As far as the temptations against running go: With kids, I can’t just kick back on the couch anymore. I can’t spontaneously go out for wings and beer. Not running would allow me to avoid some costs, like the guilt of leaving my husband alone with the kids for even more time throughout the day.

But, we’ve found ways to minimize the costs. And, these costs actually keep me from procrastinating and encourage me to run each run with purpose and efficiency. I can’t just take runs for granted.

For me, right now, the benefits are at an all-time high and the probability of receiving them are usually high.  While the costs are substantial, P*B is still greater than C. And because of this, my training has been consistent and I am experiencing all the fun of competitive racing.

So back to the original question: why would anyone run? Are runners just crazy? Well, runners do seem to be a special breed that finds joy in pushing the body to physical limits. Runners find fun in competition, even if the probability of winning the race is zero. And for runners, the feeling of self-accomplishment outweighs the costs of shoes, entry fees, lost time, guilt, and physical pain. Runners may be unique, but I’d argue that they aren’t crazy. They are rational actors who find value in all that comes with running.

Almost daily it seems someone has a comment to suggest that runners are irrational:

“The only way you’d see me running is if I was being chased.”

 “You actually pay money to run?”

“If people actually enjoy running, why do they look so miserable doing it?”

It’s always been hard for me to explain to anyone, including myself, why I feel the need to run. But I do believe it has to do with benefits associated with running and how we perceive them. We find the benefits of self-accomplishment, competition, personal records, and general achievement to outweigh the physical pain, money and time. So, at the Boilermaker start line, when you’re asking yourself, “Why did I sign up for this?,” remember, you are a rational being and it will all be worth it!

The author is an information consultant in the Value-Based Payment Analytics department at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

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