2012-05-14

Competition

If you read my blog, you know that I ran a 10K race over the weekend. I won, but I didn't run very fast. In a more athletic city, I would not have come anywhere near first place. (Indeed, looking at some race results from Dallas, Texas reveals that the frontrunners are winning races with times I haven't run since my university days. So my days of winning races will be over as soon as I move.)

Hilariously, I accidentally ran my first mile split in 4:38. This was much faster than my intended race pace, and each subsequent mile was slower than the one before it. I tired myself out too early. Having said that, it is somewhat encouraging that I can run a mile that fast having only had the opportunity to run about six miles a day for the last few weeks, without any speed work. It certainly speaks of good things to come.

Now I would like to say a few words about the concept of competition.

Good Runner, Bad Runner
As I noted above, were I running in a different city, I would never have run a race like the one held last Saturday. This is not because "I suck, and everyone from Ottawa sucks, and the only good people are in different cities." It is a simple fact. There are faster people elsewhere.

Yet, often when I make note of such things, casual runners are inclined to take offense. "Not everyone runs to win!" they declare. "Winning isn't everything!" "For some people, it's a big enough accomplishment just to get out there and finish the race!"

All of that is true. But those are not the only things true about running. What is also true about running is:
  • Some people run to win,
  • Winning means a lot to people who are capable of winning, and
  • Some people have completed enough races at fast enough times that mere "completion" in and of itself is no longer sufficiently satisfying.
For some - though certainly not for all - slower runners, it is disheartening to dwell too much on the fact that there is a large number of other runners who will run faster and more successfully than the slower runners ever will. But it is nonetheless a fact.

Running fast and winning is admirable, and we shouldn't rob the winner of her victory just because the novice wants to feel admired.

The Beauty of Competition
No matter who you are and what you hope to gain from running, you are engaged in a competition. 

At the level of a novice, you are competing with yourself, your doubts and fears, your will-power, and your physical predispositions. These are no mean adversaries. Winning out over such obstacles is a major accomplishment worthy of praise. But it is only the first step in a life-long relationship with sport.

Having conquered a few demons and completed your first race or training regimen, your mind will then naturally wish to expand. After so many participation ribbons, being handed a new one starts to lose its appeal. You start to notice the familiar faces of people finishing around you. These are your friends and colleagues. These are your fellow members of the running community. This is your competition.

If you make a point to attempt to run faster than the familiar faces around you, you are competing. You are also doing something wonderfully positive. First of all, you are pushing your body to additional limits, and reaping the gains of a higher level of fitness. Second of all, you are learning how to push your body beyond its known physical and psychological limits, just like you used to do when you were a novice; therefore, you are becoming a new kind of novice - a novice of head-to-head competition.

And if running against other people makes you uncomfortable, take heart, because third of all, you are raising the average level of performance, and your fellow runners will start to push themselves a little harder, too. This is good for all of you. By making things a little more competitive, you're physically helping your friends run faster, too. That's a great accomplishment for you all!

As you start running faster and faster, new people enter your community of competitors, and some people drop off the back end. It's nothing personal. You're improving. There are other people to meet and befriend, and compete against. They now have a new friend to help push them along.

This whole dynamic of running and competition is lost on those who proclaim that "it's not about winning." In focusing merely on race completion, they are ignoring the friendly faces of those around them, and they are missing out on an opportunity to expand their abilities - and physically feel better as a result.

So Please Do Compete
The concept of pushing oneself to new and better heights is something I often try to express here on the blog. Improvement is a great thing! 

This isn't because a person is always inadequate and needs to reach a "better place." Fitness gurus, coaches, self-help advisers and others often get this one wrong. It's not because your life sucks that you want your life to be better. If a person tries and tries and never improves, that person isn't a "failure," and I wouldn't automatically assume that such a person is unhappy or dissatisfied.

No, we compete because it is a natural inclination we have. Human beings have found that providing additional incentive when reaching for a goal inspires us to greater heights than we may have otherwise thought possible. This spirit of achievement can be quite playful and, when done with a light heart and a sunny disposition, is a great way to feel proud and happy, even if you don't reach your goal.

Races have winners. It's a fact. Just because someone else wins doesn't mean you're a chump. Just because someone likes to win doesn't mean they're slighting your accomplishments. A healthy spirit of competition is good for everyone. It fosters both achievement and humility. 

So don't run from it. Compete.