Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Gift (& Occasional Curse) of a Competitive Nature

It has been suggested, upon friendly Trivial Pursuit matches or backyard badminton games that end in blood, that the word 'competitive' is an adjective that could possibly occasionally sort of maybe sometimes describe my nature.

Blame it on a childhood stuffed with little league tournaments and Saturday viewings of Double Dare. Perhaps it was that I'm the youngest in a family of four that included a two-years-older brother who was my primary playmate and eternal nemesis. Whether it was Nintendo or stuffed animal baseball or even reciting movie quotes, Tim would win virtually any game. I like to think fellow younger sisters-to-older-brothers grow up under similar circumstances, eventually realizing they have two options when it comes to approaching such activities: accept inevitable defeat or continue to try knowing ONE DAY, that glorious ONE DAY, she can declare herself the victor.

At the somewhat adult age of 32, I am now able to temper my competitive nature to a certain respectable extent. If I'm playing Candyland with a five-year-old, I don't NEED to win. (If, on the other hand, the five-year-old in question is cheating, I will insist on stopping the game until justice is reinstalled.) But when it comes to a board game get together, pub trivia, or adult softball league, the fighter inside me cannot be tamed.
So how does this affect my running? In a word, oddly. See, I'll never be the best runner. I'll probably never be the in top half of any race run by two-legged human beings under the age of 75. Unlike other activities that I pride myself on excelling at (such as identifying the plot of any Law & Order: SVU episode within the first 10 seconds of a rerun), I am completely aware that comparatively, I'm not that good. I'll NEVER be that good. 

As you might imagine, competitiveness plays a very specific role in races. Forgetting the insanely fit Adonises who glide through 6 minute miles to win actual trophies, the simple act of running beside hundreds of others is a mind game of its own. 

Allow me to make myself sound like a complete and utter jerk: when it comes to something as challenging as running, it feels really good to be better than someone else. At my second half marathon, I finished with a time of 2:21:33, not a spectacular prize-winning number for a somewhat healthy 31 year old but certainly the sign of someone (especially of my size and lack of experience) who worked hard to earn it. Initially, the number didn't excite me much but when I was able to view it in context with the other participants, I saw a few things that made me proud:
-At 1084th place, there were a good 412 runners who came in after me
-As a female, I finished 665th out of 993, far from the top half, but a decent chunk above the lower 10%
-For my bracket, I was 128th out of 207
-I beat my previous time (which admittedly, was in a half that involved trails and constant hills) by a hefty 8 minutes

I'm not making the all-star team with any of theses numbers, but for some reason, when I was able to see how I fared against other runners, my confidence got a huge boost. It's that similar shot of uppers when I can pass someone that looks like a REAL runner on the sidewalk or outlast a skinnier neighbor on my gym's treadmills.
For many people, exercise is an incredibly personal endeavor. Part of its appeal is that, much like soccer, you can do it anywhere in the world, any time of day, with virtually no accessories or equipment. But for those of us who might originate from more sports-like backgrounds, where a game is played directly against someone else, running can sometimes lack that added element that lights the fire in your feet. Sure, one could treat every workout as chance to improve on the last, but for those who need to SEE the face of the enemy (or, you know, who NEED an enemy in the first place), it's a comfort to know that it's always possible to make one.