Personal Record: The Competitive Urge

By December 29, 2010April 11th, 2014Running Times Magazine

The importance of doing things that challenge you

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the December 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

In June I won a marathon.

Memorial Day weekend I went to Idaho to watch friends compete in an XTERRA triathlon.

I hung out with Mo, an excellent athlete who was sidelined by pregnancy. We cheered and hooted, sat in the sun, talked about books. I kept saying how much better it was to spectate than it was to compete.

The run course ended on a long grassy uphill. I said to Mo that I would not want to finish a race that way, that likely I’d slow down and crawl across the line. She said if I saw a ponytail bobbing ahead of me, my real self would kick in and I would kill myself to pass her. Mo believed that I, like most athletes, could not overcome my competitive urge.

Wrongo, Ringo, I said. Those days are over. While I was never particularly fast, I no longer race to win, or even to place. At this point I have achieved all the running goals I set out to accomplish. Age and other inevitabilities are working against me, and I’m enjoying a twilight time of running only for fun, free from the pressure of thinking about my times or who is beating me.

To Mo I heard myself uttering a phrase that makes your bones creak: When I was your age, I told her, with fierce earnestness, all I cared about was achievement, excellence, being the best I could be. I’ve come to value other things, I said, with the smug maturity of someone who has been (relatively) successful in life. Each time she sees me Mo asks for my marathon PR. I suspect she’ll stop when she beats it.

While hanging around and spectating on Saturday, I found out that there was a trail marathon at the same state park the next day. How could I resist? It didn’t matter that I hadn’t run farther than 12 miles for the past six months. The singletracks were beautiful, around a submarine-deep lake. I could do what I’d told Mo I do — just go out there and have fun.

As soon as the gun went off I realized I was a big fat liar.

I’d sized up the other runners at the line and knew I had to win. Around 5 miles in there was a short out-and-back. I was shocked to see another woman no more than a few minutes behind me. I’d assumed I’d built a strong lead. So for the rest of the race I ran scared. When I got tired and wanted to back off, I kept pushing. I’d forgotten how stressful it is to be in the lead.

I crossed the line first. The next runner was more than a half hour behind me.

I won.

Or, as I am wont to say, modestly, humbly, I WON! I WON! I WON!

I didn’t run well or fast. And I was happy I won only because the alternative was to feel like a loser.

That day there was a half marathon, the full 26.2-miler, a 50K and a 50-miler. All my friends, runners who can kick my butt without breathing hard, were doing the longer races. There were only four people in the marathon, all women 40-49 years old.

So you see, claiming victory is an exaggeration. But the experience provided an important lesson.

I have friends whose goal in every workout is to destroy each other and themselves, friends who think if you can’t run fast you don’t deserve to buy shoes. You’re missing something, I tell them. No one cares about your times any more. Why do you care if other people are slow?

But maybe I have been missing out. There is something profound about having to work so hard you hurt. I used to know that the only way to get better at something is to be with people who challenge you; that racing yourself into shape is efficient, and that humiliation can be a powerful motivator.

While I tell myself that it’s OK to be less competitive, to take it easy, too much of that puts you at risk of stagnating. I believed what I told Mo — that I was done with all striving — at the moment I was saying it. But the next day, sore and tired, I was happy to find that I hadn’t matured as much as I thought I had.

For a long time my closest friends and I have been making January 1 resolutions. We give the coming year a title, meant to reflect ongoing effort. I’ve had the Year of the Dollar (disaster — still didn’t make money), the Year of Moisturizing (success! It continues!), and The Year of Losing Electrons (trying to be more positive — don’t ask).

I am resolving that 2011 will be the Year of Doing Things That Suck. I will seek to put myself in situations where I am the dumbest person in the room, the least capable at whatever I’m doing, and the slowest runner in the group. In middle age, when we’ve achieved certain measures of success, it’s easy to get lazy and complacent. It’s good to remember the importance of doing things that challenge us.