When we think of competition in running what do we think of? Tactics meant to outwit or demoralize an opponent? Elbows flying at the start of a track race? Fist pumping in triumph as a winner passes a despondent loser? Competition means one person basks in the thrill of victory, while another experiences the agony of defeat. Right?
Despite these widespread views about competition, the word itself comes from a Latin word that means “strive together.” Think about that. Strive together. Competing isn’t about pushing someone else down to raise yourself up, it’s about striving for your best alongside others. I’ve known this for a while, but I didn’t fully understand it until Saturday.
Pow went the starting gun. Beep went my watch (2 seconds after crossing the starting line because I’m uncoordinated) and there I was running a 10 mile race. In the past, a race meant I’d been pumped up on adrenaline with a time goal compelling me forward in hot pursuit. But not lately. It’s been 4 years since my running peak, 4 years of ups and downs, of a third pregnancy, a heart condition, a heart surgery, broken abs, low iron, overtraining and there I was caught up in the race stream, feeling just the slightest bit aimless.
Not long into the race, maybe a half mile, I felt a presence near me. I turned my head and there was Margaret. Vivacious, striving Margaret, next to aimless me.
“Come on girl!” I said motioning for her to join me for however long made sense. And she did.
We ran stride for stride chatting about everything. Mostly running, but other stuff too. One mile, another, and another. We were in a rhythm, clicking off nice even splits. The race course is more or less straight for 4 miles and then a hair pin turn from there back the way we came. This meant at 4 miles we could see how far ahead the other women were. My friend Katie was way ahead of everyone. “Go Katie!” I cheered. About two minutes ahead of us was another woman who neither of us knew. “Maybe” we agreed. And another woman was about 45 seconds ahead of us. “Definitely,” we decided.
The other great thing about this hairpin turn business is that you pass every single person in the race who is behind you which means friends and cheerleaders! Margaret is very active in our local Moms Run This Town group and seemingly knows every single female runner with kids in Northeast Ohio. “GO MARGARET!” “YOU ROCK MARGARET!” “WOO MARGARET!” “Yeah Salty!” “MARGARET! MARGARET! MARGARET!” I laughed and told Margaret it was fine–I was just pretending my name was Margaret. It was actually awesome and I did get a few cheers of my own for sure! But we were having fun with it. At one point I jokingly yelled at one of Margaret’s friends to cheer for me too! Ha!
As the crowds of racers faded near mile 6 our future was taking shape. “We’re definitely going to pass her. She’s fading, ” I said to Margaret about the woman in third place ahead of us. Margaret started to speed up. “Not yet!” I told her, maybe because I didn’t want to risk blowing up… Or maybe because I was smart, or maybe because I was having so much fun with Margaret and if she sped up and I might not be able to keep up. “We don’t need to rush. It’s inevitable,” I assured her. Sure enough, within half a mile we were in third and fourth place in a race that recognizes the top three.
After that reality settled in. In between chatting I was thinking. Should we just tie? Should I drop back and let Margaret take third since I’ve placed in this race before? Should I *gulp* race against her instead of with her?
By mile 7 in a 10 mile race in which you’ve run most of it with another person it’s not right to make that decision alone. “Margaret, do you want to tie?” I asked her, only half joking. She thought about it. “No. I say we push each other and work for it.” Gulp. “Ok,” I agreed.
“WOOOOOOOO! GO MARGARET!” I heard. “Oh! Those are my BGR friends!” Margaret informed me. Seven and a half miles in and she starts dancing as we pass them. I’m screwed, I chuckled to myself.
And all this time we were racing stride for stride. We came to a hill. She pushed and then I matched and we got back into a groove for a while until about 8.5 when I admit I started to have the urge to throw it to her. Oh, just let her win. This is starting to hurt and you don’t really care that much, remember? But I didn’t.
Mile 9 and something clicked. It occurred to me that, with my historic inability to out-sprint anyone at the end of a race (big leg muscles can be deceiving!) my best chance of coming out ahead was to get a gap … RIGHT NOW! GO! I started to push, but there were so many turns. Every time I’d start to gain momentum I’d encounter a tight turn, sometimes with accompanying sand from the beach. I got ahead, but once off the turns Margaret was back with me and we were really working now. We were both breathing harder. About 600 to go and I think I told her to go ahead, but then she started to and I went too.
And then we came around the final turn and I started to sprint.
I moved ahead. I was going to do it.
I was pushing with everything I had. I disregarded the feelings of nausea. I embraced the inevitable chute puke. I was so close. Just feet from the finish.
And then I heard someone scream. “GO MARGARET! PAAAAAASSSSS HER!”
And she did.
Margaret came in third with 1:07:52 and I was fourth in 1:07:55. But to explain how close it actually was, there were three timing mats at the finish. Margaret pushed through to the third mat, but after I crossed the first I started walking and it seems like I didn’t register a finish time until the second or third mat. Oopsy! I suspect if I’d pushed all the way through I would have clocked just one second behind her, as she passed me right before we entered the chute. We pushed each other hard to the very end!
After I stopped moving I almost puked, but didn’t. It’s been a long time since I felt a chute puke coming on! In some ways it would have been easier on the ego to have let her take third. It stings to give it everything you have and come up short no matter how much fun it was or how happy you are for the one who beats you–and I am, because she earned it! But that’s not what Margaret wanted and I wouldn’t have been satisfied with that anyway. She was right to make me race – it was so much better! We both broke 1:08 which we surely would not have done if we decided to tie or if I gave up third place. We competed. We strove for our best side by side and by fighting for it we helped each other perform better than we would have alone. Isn’t that the point?
Have you ever risen to or backed down from a competitor’s challenge?