Tuesday, May 21, 2013

5ks and Competition

Recently, a friend posted on Facebook about his weight loss and--probably more importantly--his efforts and successes at becoming more fit, which included working up to running a 5k (and now he's aiming for a half marathon!). That's a pretty cool accomplishment, in my book, to go from not being able to run a 5k to actually running a 5k. I know other people who've made that journey.

I'm not really one of them. I mean, yes, there was a time when I couldn't run 3.1 miles all at once, but it was sometime before I went to college (or, anyway, before I graduated). And it was at least 5 years after I was regularly running 5 miles at a time that I ran in my first organized 5k, so I wasn't exactly feeling suspense about whether or not I could complete it. Basically all my adult life, I've felt pretty confident that I could complete a 5k. This was true regardless of whether I was running daily or getting all of my exercise between the couch and the fridge (shout out to Pizza Rolls and beer every night, aka "spring schedule" movie nights in 2005 and 2006 and to Tastefully Simple's beer bread and spinach dip, aka every night in my first year of marriage and to massive pool of molten cookie dough covered with ice cream, aka every night of Lauren's first pregnancy). But really, I still could manage a 5k, even if it would hurt the next morning. And at the same time, even at my fittest, I've never been a fast runner (again, excepting short sprints to the fridge), so it didn't seem to make any sense to care about times. They were never impressive enough to care about.

Saturday, I ran an organized 5k for just the third time in my life. And I'll be damned if there wasn't a part of me that really wanted to brag about it, to say something about it on Facebook, or whatever. Where does that come from?

Only my shrink knows for sure.

But by the same token, as I've already outlined, it's hard for me to feel like running a 5k is anything to brag about. Now, this might have been my fastest organized 5k, but it was a run rather than a race, so there was no official time. I didn't even time it myself, so all I have to go on is what a friend who finished 30 seconds ahead of me said, that I'd finished in 24:00 even. He didn't feel like he'd run it as fast as all that, so my friend wondered if maybe the course was short, but yet another friend had some kind of GPS or something and it said that we'd all run 3.23 miles, so 24:00 would be even better than I thought.

Still, that wasn't the sort of time that put me anywhere close to the fastest finishers.

Of course, all this thinking just brought me back around to something that I've known for a long time: we should remember that if we're competing, we're really competing against ourselves. It's the only competition that's meaningful. Seriously, what would it matter if I was faster than my friend? Maybe if we were always running against each other, if we had some kind of back and forth where he sometimes wins and I sometimes win, but even the, so what? I could win while failing to improve or lose while getting a personal best. So who cares?

And yet, there's a sense in which competition does matter and is important. There's a sense in which the answer to my rhetorical question is: "I do!" Take my experience at the run. Somewhere in the last half mile or so, two girls from our school passed me (which, of course, I resented!). Up ahead of me, one stopped to walk and the other kept running, and I decided I was going to beat her to the finish line. I caught up and started passing, then she sped up to stay with me. So it's not like I was the only competitive one here. By the end we were in a full sprint, equally matched, and ended up in a photo finish that I absolutely won. In my own mind--she might have seen it differently. In any case, I'm sure we each ran faster and pushed ourselves harder because the other was there. For that moment, it was all about the competition.

As soon as we crossed the finish line, it didn't matter who "won." I clapped her on the back: "great finish!" (For the record: I won.)

And before that, my friend alluded to earlier spent most of the run about 20 yards ahead of me. The fact that he was there and that I had a vague sense that his mile splits were near where I hoped mine would be, I pushed myself to keep at least that close and maybe play a little catch-up when I could (mostly, I couldn't). Again, I probably ran faster because of the "competition" than I would have if I had just gone out for a nice jog by myself. Hypothetically, I know this could have worked against me: if I'd picked the wrong "competition," I might have started too fast and not been able to finish. But that's all part of running at this amateur level: figuring out whom to measure oneself against. It seems to me that if you have a general sense of how fast you can go / want to go, you can figure out as you go who's who. There was a joy, too, in discovering along the way people that got ahead of me earlier in the race that I could later pass (some were left behind, some passed me later; so it goes).

If it wasn't already obvious, I state it for the record: I'm a pretty casual runner. There was a time in my life when it was my primary form of exercise, when I would go for 5-mile runs three to five times a week, but now I hardly ever run any distances. Instead, I gravitate mostly to weight training and tennis. Which, really, are the opposite ends of the spectrum, with running squarely between them.

Hitting the weights is, for me at least, pretty purely about competition with myself. I'm not going to be entering any strongman competitions, and I've learned long ago not to bother with comparisons. If someone's lifting a lot more weight that I am, well, good for them. Maybe some day I can get there. Maybe I can learn something. If someone's lifting a lot less weight than I am, well, so what. Everyone has to start somewhere--there shouldn't be any shame in being a beginner. If you're showing up and doing the work, you're in the club.

While I still sometimes do it, mostly I don't judge the workouts that other people are doing, either. Sure, I might feel like some of the kids are spending too much time just on bench press and curls or that some people should venture away from the cardio machines and join in the fun of moving heavy weights around, but the bottom line is that we're all on our own journey with our own goals. We've found our own "information," and I'm happy to share what I "know" (I put it in quotes because I recognize the provisional nature of that knowledge), but I don't think there's one right way that everyone should be working out.

Then there's tennis. I can wax Zen on the subject of tennis, but really, it's pretty competitive, whether I'm playing against a former D-1 college player in a tournament or against a JV player in our local league. I want to win, and basically so does everyone else you encounter on the courts.

If we were just competing against ourselves to play the perfect game or to improve, we could "just hit" and I could be happy because I've been more consistent with my forehand or I'm getting more zip on my backhand or whatever. Most of the people I know who play tennis are bored with hitting about 30 seconds in and will suggest taking some serves and starting a set. And then best two out of three.

In the summers, I play in a league. It's set up to provide roughly equal matches, to an even greater extent than the format of high school tennis, where there's a similar organizational principle, with teams required by both rules and a sense of fair play to present their singles players  and their doubles teams in order of ability. But for most of us, whether our opponent is "better" or "worse" than us (and most of us have made a judgment about that within the first 10 seconds of hitting with them), we're there to win. That's probably why tennis players, as a category of people, tend to be so poorly adjusted. We have an intense desire to win, but we're constantly losing. Even when you win a game, you're likely losing points. Even when you're winning a set, you're likely losing games. But anyway, we care about winning and losing.

I've rambled long enough for most and far too long for some. If there's a point here, it's simply this: we humans have a natural tendency to compete, and that's not a bad thing. It can push us to do better in whatever it is that we're doing. But at the same time, for myself at least, I know that competition is just a thing of the moment. My ultimate worth isn't on the line when I'm under the bar, on the race course, or stepping up to the service line. It's all about perspective: we should embrace competition exactly to the extent that it makes us better, that it pushes us to work harder and achieve more, but beyond that we have to let it go and appreciate the moment of competition itself more than result of that competition.