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home > community > viewpoint > keep the fire burning: how competitive can you get?

Keep the Fire Burning: How Competitive Can You Get?
Here's the most sure-fire way to become the best runner you can possibly be: get competitive. Really competitive. Down and dirty, nasty, refuse-to-lose competitive. It's not the healthiest way to approach running, but it sure does work, for a while anyway.

Keep the Fire Burning: How Competitive Can You Get?

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Test Your Competitive Nature

By Don Allison
Posted Monday, 16 June, 1997

Here's the most sure-fire way to become the best runner you can possibly be: get competitive. Really competitive. Down and dirty, nasty, refuse-to-lose competitive. It's not the healthiest way to approach running, but it sure does work, for a while anyway.

The thing about competitiveness, it's hard to instill in an athlete. Coaches have trying to do this for ages, with mixed results at best. Some people are just born with the fire turned up to maximum intensity, while others have a gentler view of sport. Watching Michael Jordan will himself through illness to play top-shelf basketball in game five of the NBA finals the other night got me thinking about this topic. Jordan's competitiveness is well documented. It permeates every aspect of his life, not just basketball. He simply hates to lose - at anything. This trait serves him well on the basketball court, as he has been blessed with natural talent to match his competitive nature. It's gotten him into trouble in other venues, such as in baseball, on the golf course, and in gambling casinos, where his talent is not quite equal to his desire to win.

It's amazing to consider the difference in competitiveness among runners. We all have learned by now that to achieve the best possible performance, we must allocate our energy reserves carefully over the allotted distance to be run. Starting too fast can result in an ugly crash and burn finish, especially in the longer distances. Better to start slowly, with caution. Then if the coast is clear later on in the race, pick up the pace and finish strong. Don't worry about anyone else in the race. The real race is not with the other runners, it's with the course. We are all winners no matter where we finish. This suits many runners to a T. These are usually the kind of folks who have picked up the sport later in life and are in the sport primarily its aesthetic beauty, health and social aspects.

For those of us born to compete however, this approach is not just unnatural, it's a bunch of bull. We just can't do it. As much as we know objectively that the cautious approach is best, we simply can't execute it. As soon as the gun goes off, rationality goes out the window and we run the fastest pace we can get away with. We will worry about what happens later in the race when it gets here. Then we will fight tooth and nail to the finish line, squeezing every ounce of energy out of our bodies. It's not that we don't know better, it's simply that we cannot overcome our competitive instincts. When we see other runners ahead of us, we immediately begin to wonder if we can catch up to and perhaps pass these runners. We know our limits. Sometimes we even have split times pasted on to wristbands as a reminder of the need for caution. Forget it. Once we get to mile one ahead of pace, we think we can hold that faster than planned effort, regardless of history or how we feel.

The poster boy for running with high octane intensity was Alberto Salazar. Has there ever been a more fierce competitor? Salazar drove himself unmercifully in training and in races to be the best runner in the world. Amazingly, he achieved that goal. For a short period of time in the early 1980s, Salazar was virtually unbeatable. He set all kinds of records and won the New York Marathon three years in a row, even setting a then marathon World Record in 1981 of 2:08:13. In the process, Salazar treated many of his competitors with disdain. He dismissed all other Americans as weaklings on the world scene. Many loved the brash Salazar, but many hated him as well.

Eventually, Salazar's competitiveness caught up with him. In the 1978 Falmouth Road Race, and again in the 1982 Boston Marathon, he drove himself to the point of complete exhaustion, suffering severe dehydration and heat prostration. In 1983 the wheels began to fall off, and Salazar began to slow down. He fought on, but his body would not comply. Eventually Alberto was confronted with the reality that his competitive days were over. He simply could not run at the high level he had set for himself, and could not settle for being an also ran. It just was not in his nature, so he gave up racing altogether. A similar scenario has played itself out many times with other elite athletes. Just look back at the results of a road race from 10 years ago. You will read names of people you have not heard from in years, and wonder where they went. Ask Salazar. He knows where they went.

Those blessed (or burdened?) with a strong competitive nature often acquired it in team sports played as a youth. We were taught to win at all costs, no matter what it takes. "Never give up","fight to the finish", "give 100 percent all of the time". These were the messages we received that told us how sports were to be played. In team sports such as basketball, baseball, and football, this approach is the right one. High intensity can make up for other shortcomings, resulting in a greater chance for success.

Now that we have adopted the individual sport of distance running, we need to un-learn these old messages. Wanting to beat our fellow runners is not acceptable in the PC 90s. We are told to run our own race and not worry about where we place. If we run our best race, winning the race or an age-group division will take care of itself. Besides, we all cannot win anyway. Those blessed with superior genetics have an advantage we will never be able to overcome. Trying to compete with these genetic freaks is pointless anyway. Running just to finish or to do our best is good enough.

The problem is that within all of us, no matter how outwardly non-competitive, lies a ferocious tiger within. If we are not careful, the tiger can escape from its cage. I have seen some unbelievable things happen in races: people elbowing each other for position, yelling or swearing at each other and race officials, fistfights breaking out in the finish chutes in a battle for position. If you want to really see the inner competitor emerge, see what happens if runners go off course. Then the fireworks really begin. All bets are off then; innocent aid station volunteers are often yelled and screamed at, even though they had nothing to do with the problem. The bottom line is that we simply would not run in races if we were not at least a little competitive. I say that beneath the placid veneer of many runners lies that competitive tiger just waiting to break out.

The trick in racing is to compete, but not so intensely that it becomes detrimental. So how can we achieve this desired result? I feel semi-qualified to provide some suggestions. I have spent nearly the entire twenty years of my running lifetime trying to tame my excessively competitive nature. Here are a few tips:

* Don't run in a race unless you really mean it. There is nothing more frustrating than going to a race injured or unprepared, just because you think you "should be running," then being unable to run your best. Unless you are truly the rare individual who simply does not care how you place, this practice only ends in frustration and sets a bad precedent for future races.

* Remain as calm as possible before a race. "Psyching up" is unnecessary. We already have all the adrenaline flowing that we will need. Yelling or jumping around before the race is a bad idea.

* Run in smaller races. Mega-events tend to add to the overall aggression level. There are more people fighting for space; this in and of itself can bring out your fighting instincts. Save your best efforts for races in which there is plenty of room to run.

* Don't look around at the starting line trying to figure out whom you can and cannot beat. This is a losing game. You can't keep track of them all during the race anyway, so just look ahead and think about your own race.

* If you have a problem going out too fast, make yourself hit a certain mile time, one that is equal to the overall pace you hope to run for the entire distance. The split at mile one can be the most important piece of information you receive the entire race. Know that split and what it means to you and your race effort.

* Hang out with less competitive types. Crawl inside their heads and see what makes them tick. Maybe some of it will rub off on you.

* Don't confuse being overly competitive with being overly confident. Sometimes even the most highly competitive runners can lack confidence in their ability. Wanting to do well and knowing that you can are two different things altogether.

* Be happy with who you are as a runner. Just because you once ran a 2:59 marathon does not make you a 2:59 marathoner. Be realistic in what you are capable of accomplishing. Otherwise your competitive instincts will rage out of control, in frustration over not being able to beat runners you think you should be.

* Gain some perspective, please! Racing is just not that important in the overall scheme of things. Even those who finish fourth in the Olympic trials get over it. I think then that you can handle your less than stellar marathon or road race. It's supposed to fun, after all. You can be competitive and still have fun. In the end however, it's not so much the race results you will remember, but the experience and sharing it with others that will really matter. Remember, it's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice. But also remember that if we see each other during a road race in the near future, I will be trying like hell to beat you.

Take the test to determine just how competitive a runner you are.



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