Some Thoughts on Competition

I’m about to run a “race” tomorrow, but to be honest, I’m not very interested in being a competitive runner. I actually don’t think of it as a race as much as my own 13.2-mile run, the culmination of, and tribute to, months of training, on a beautiful trail, in the company of other members of the often quiet crowd that is the running “tribe.” What I love about races, no matter the distance, is the energy and adrenaline I feel from being around other runners.

I admire athletic competitors, and the more I get into my running, the more I can appreciate them. Sometimes I watch the track athletes on the university track near my house, lifting their knees high, doing sprints, or just jogging around at ease in their lithe bodies. Competition, a desire for personal achievement of a better time, a better performance…all of that motivates the genuinely athletically driven and gifted people of the world, who dazzle us with the beautiful possibilities of the well-trained human body and the mind, focused on better, higher, stronger, faster, more intense, more alive. I appreciate observing those athletes who compete in high school or college, or who run races like the one I’m about to run in order to win, or to get their personal best time. It’s all pretty inspiring.

But all this isn’t really what motivates my running. Sure, during a race, I sometimes get the urge to pass someone who seems passable. Getting out in front of that person becomes a short-term goal in the midst of a long run. And yes, I’m glad I have a respectable, mid-range time in my age group when I run 5ks in my community and the results are posted online. And I would be happy to get something close to the times I got in my last two half-marathons.

Still, running is an intense hobby for me, but not something to add to my many arenas of drive for self-improvement. It’s a really important thing I do to have a life outside of work and family, to connect to my body and mind alone or in happy companionship, to be close to nature, to maintain my physical health, to enjoy feeling in shape and learning what my body is capable of, to make it possible to continue to be a passionate devotee of eating good food without putting on too many middle-aged pounds, and to manage my anxiety. It’s hard to imagine my life without running, which anchors me so I can do everything else I do as a family member, a professor, and in all the other roles I play.

But I get enough striving for excellence in the rest of my life. Everyone who knows me knows that. When I took the Gallup Strengths quest test a few years back, one of my top five strengths was “Achiever,” which basically means productivity obsessed. In the Gallup organization’s explanation of strengths, “Achiever” is the only one I’ve found that includes the basic message: “and you just have to live with yourself,” meaning, this may be a strength and all, but you’re the kind of person who needs to be productive every single day, and you can drive yourself crazy with that.

Productivity for me isn’t always about work. I’ll arrange my Saturday chores around some kind of quality time with one of my children, organize a gathering to bring people together who rarely see each other, or make elaborate meals…things like that. And then there’s work, where I just finished writing a book, and in the middle of it, took on other projects, like team teaching a course with a colleague in another department. In a word, I’m busy—a LOT. My to do list is endless, and there always seem to be ways I push myself to be better at things, whether it’s parenting, teaching, or lending my time to causes I care about.

Achievers, I suspect, are driven by a lot of insecurity, at least if I’m any kind of prototype of this group. I grew up with the weight of generations of angst about the wolf being potentially right there at the door any minute. I’d say that anxiety and the desire to please drive a fair amount of the (feminine-socialization-enhanced) productivity extravaganza that is my life.

But running is something else. For the most part, I don’t have much to prove to myself or anyone else with running. I never invested my identity in athletics. Though I was a swimmer in high school, I was in maybe in the top third (barely) of the pack on a team that was at the bottom of the pack in our area. I was only in that top third because I loved to practice so much that I went to optional morning practices plus afternoon ones. The singular achievement I remember was beating my own time (1:14.99 for the 100-yard backstroke, if I recall), not besting any particular competitor or winning any particular race.

As a middle-aged runner, I don’t even care much about my own time, much less besting others. I just do it because I want to. Yes, the smart observers will notice that it’s kind of a productivity thing to train yourself to run 13.2 miles and then go race. No argument there. I’d say that I’m just using my strength to give myself more space in my life to do something that brings me pleasure, and if it happens to feed my need for constant productivity, well that’s okay too.

I treat enough of the rest of my life like a race that I don’t want to bring that mentality into my running. If anything, I’m trying to bring what I learn from my gentle approach to running, and to myself while I run, into the rest of my life. So, with that, wish my luck on tomorrow’s “race.”

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About Jodi Vandenberg-Daves

Jodi Vandenberg-Daves writes about learning to live by loving to run.
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2 Responses to Some Thoughts on Competition

  1. Jess Witkins says:

    I hope it goes well! I’m envious of the feeling you describe when running. I’ve never been a runner. And I’m frankly not all that coordinated. It always takes me a lot longer to learn a dance or exercise step than other people. I have to practice a lot. I’m totally the girl going the opposite direction in zumba class! LOL. But I do it because it’s good for me. If only writing was a sport! I’d be so buff by now!

  2. Thanks for the good wishes, Jess. It did go well! (More or less… I’ll post soon.) Anyway, I can’t dance even a step! And when I’ve tried it’s been a humorous for others, embarrassing for me. So I don’t know if coordination is really necessary! Kudos for you for devoting yourself to the truly brave and demanding discipline of writing!

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