By Su Reid-St. John
The first race I ever participated in (we’ll discount those miserable 50-yard dashes that plagued me in my school years) was a 25-mile cycling time trial. I’d been talked into it by my charismatic spin instructor, Tracy, who also happened to be a serious road biker. I clearly remember the nervous excitement waiting for the start signal, the heady first few miles, the grueling middle part, and the heart-pumping final stretch as I crossed the finish line. Most of all, though, I remember the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment: I, the former overweight slug-type who had shunned athletics my whole life, had not only just completed an actual race but had come in second among women in my age group. (The fact that there were only three women in said group is neither here nor there.)

After that, I was hooked. I turned to my first love, inline skating, and started doing inline marathons. I’ll soon begin training for my fifth, the NorthShore Inline Marathon in Duluth, Minn., in September.

So what’s the attraction? Why would the average woman (read: non-athlete) put her body through weeks, even months, of tough training just so she can spend part of a morning pushing her body to its limit? Here’s why:

It gives you a goal. It can be hard to motivate yourself to exercise day after day when your only aim is a vague desire to stay in shape or lose weight. When you commit to doing a race, you have a set day on which you have to be at a certain level of prowess (even if that simply equals the ability to drag yourself over the finish line)—and that makes for a powerful get-off-the-couch nudge. Want even more motivation? As soon as you decide which race you’re going to do, tell everyone: your family, your friends, your coworkers, your Facebook buddies. That way, you get the added incentive of not wanting to lose face in front of everyone by dropping out. (Plus, you’ll be amazed by how supportive and admiring everyone is.)

It’s an excuse to take time for yourself. Doing a race inevitably involves training—and that’s a good thing. Think of it as mandatory “me time,” away from all of the other demands in your life.

It allows for built-in girl time. That upcoming inline marathon I mentioned? Well, I’m not doing it alone: Three of my dear friends have signed on to race with me. Not only does that make for excellent additional motivation but it also provides loads of quality time to further bond with my pals.

It’s an excellent way to see the country (or the world). While most anyone can find a local 5k to run or walk, doing a half or full marathon, skate marathon, triathlon, or cycling event may well involve some traveling. While my first race was only an hour away from my home in Birmingham, Ala., others have been as far-flung as Buffalo; Orlando, Fla.; and St. Paul. My colleague Roz just returned from running a marathon in Vienna, Austria. Two good sources for finding events in places worth traveling to: (click the country button at the top of the page to search internationally) and (for triathlons, duathlons, aquabikes, etc.).

You come away with an awesome feeling of accomplishment. From the moment you pin your race number to your shirt and join the crowd at the starting line, you’re part of something extraordinary. Your adrenaline is high, the sense of camaraderie is all around, and you can’t wait for the starting pistol to sound. Sure, you sweat and hurt during the race, but you power through. And at those exquisite moments at which you cross the finish line, hear your name announced on the loud speaker, and accept that T-shirt or medal to commemorate your feat, your self-esteem goes through the proverbial roof. You did it!