The thrill of competition

I have a confession to make. I am a habitual competitor.

Yes, I may as well have a permanent bib number tattooed to my chest. For me, the aisles at Walmart are nothing more than a series of 200-meter tracks, and it’s a competition to see how fast I can maneuver through, check out and get to the car.

Give me a pile of laundry and I time myself to see how quickly I can get it folded, put away and out of my life. After hours of sitting in an uncomfortable skirt and high heels, every Sunday afternoon is a race to see how fast I can change into my beloved sweats.
I always win.

Yes, I love healthy competition. The key word being “healthy.” So, what’s the difference between healthy and unhealthy competition?
The difference lies in how the competition changes you.

Unhealthy competition brings out the worst in people. Those involved often point out the flaws in their opponents to make themselves look better. It’s what people hate about negative campaigns. Rather than talking about their stance on the issues, some politicians choose to highlight their opponent’s mistakes. What does that achieve? Not much. No one walks away with any valuable information about the issues. In fact, the offender usually comes out looking worse than the offended.

On the other hand, healthy competition brings out the best in people. I’m not a huge fan of reality television, but I do love “The Amazing Race.” I love to watch teams work together and balance their strengths and weaknesses to achieve a goal. Tearing each other down usually leads to a team’s demise. This teamwork is what I find missing in most other reality show competitions.

I see unhealthy competition out on the roads all the time. Runners comparing and pitting themselves against other runners – judging their performance by another’s measuring stick rather than by their own internal standards. Someone else’s success doesn’t bring them joy, just a sick feeling in their stomach that they, somehow, aren‘t good enough. I’ve known people like this who were nice enough in daily situations, but if I did well in a race, suddenly vanished. No congratulations. No handshake. My success was their failure.
Happily, they were the exception, not the rule.

What I love most about the running community is the support and encouragement from other runners. As a whole, runners are incredible people. They seem kinder, more thoughtful and more generous. Find a trail populated with runners on a Saturday morning and it’s a parade of waves and hellos.

I’ve witnessed many during a race stop to help another runner in trouble. I, myself, was the recipient such kindness from a van full of strangers during last year’s Ragnar race when I was met with some GI distress as a result of the dental surgery I had undergone just two days earlier. I’m happy to say that my experience was not unique.
Healthy competition drives us to be better. Those we compete against aren’t our enemies, but rather goal-setters. They set the bar high, offer a challenge and we go after it.From the archive

Last year I ran speedwork with a group at the Oval every Tuesday evening. One of my fellow runners was Mel, who was a little older and a lot faster than me. It was my goal each week to pass him on one of our sprints. It rarely happened, but when it did, Mel always gave me a congratulatory pat on the back and a “nice job.” He then proceeded to pick up the pace that I would try to hold until my legs fell off. There was no animosity between either of us when the other pushed past. I didn’t think less of myself when he would go on to beat my half-marathon record by more than 10 minutes, nor would he give me the cold shoulder if I happened to blow past him on an 800 sprint. OK, he had a tight hamstring that day, but my confidence soared! Simply put, running with Mel made me a better runner.

Last year I ran the Park City Marathon. I came into the race a bit under prepared since I had taken a few weeks off before to nurse an injured hamstring. I felt great for the first 16 miles, but as soon as we started our descent from Deer Valley, I felt some familiar IT band pain. For the next 10 miles it was a test of mental endurance. Somewhere around Mile 18, my friend Heather flew past me. She looked amazing and her pace seemed effortless. It was beautiful. I tried to catch up, hoping that running with her would make this ordeal more bearable, but it was clear that my knee would not allow that to happen, so I wished her well and watched her go.

She had a great race and beat me by a good 15-20 minutes. It never crossed my mind that she bested me. I was disappointed in my outcome, but overjoyed for hers.
The great part about running is that the competition is largely within ourselves or at least it should be. The achievements of others can inspire and motivate us, but in the end, it’s just us out on the road trying to be the best runners we can be. If someone else finishes a race before us, it doesn’t diminish our own success and achievements. If that were the case, none of us would toe the starting line in the first place.

Most sports have a clear winner and loser, but running is special. The majority of runners will never win a race or place in their age group, but no one loses. Don’t believe me? Be a spectator at a marathon. Stand at the finish line and watch runners sprint, shuffle, hobble and crawl their way across the timing mats. It’s no less spectacular to witness those who have been out on the course for six hours than to watch the elites finish. In fact, I find it even more inspirational. I dare you to find a loser in the bunch.

So, keep that bib number handy. Find that runner who’s just a bit faster than you and keep up the chase. Battle it out on the hills with a friend and see who can get to the top. Cheer each other on then try to blow past them as you make your way around the track. It’s all in good fun.

But I guarantee you I can still fold my laundry faster than anyone.

Kim Cowart is a wife, mother, 24-Hour fitness instructor and marathoner. The weekly Walmart not-so-fun run is one she has never lost.

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