The Fast and The First
My whole life all I ever wanted was to win — at everything.
The competitive impulse which shaped by athletic career spilled over into every area of my life. I'll give a quick example.
In the summer of 2003, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (book 5) was released. My best friend Ben and I waited hours in line outside the local bookstore to get copies. I'm not a big book. In fact, as I type this I can't believe I waited in line for so long for a book. What was I thinking?!?
Anyways, once we got our books we shot back to my house and stuck our noses between the pages total nerding out. When I read now, I like to put accents on characters and occasionally read out loud in the voice I suspect that particular character would sound like (it's fun, try it!), I read slower but with more enjoyment, it's taken me years to accomplish this.
But at 15, I was a slow reader. I like to tell people I savored my books. After an hour, I glanced down and saw that I had read 12 pages. Heck Yes! I felt friggin' accomplished! Only to be gob smacked to see that Ben was on page 20. Grrrr. You know the feeling you get when someone cuts you off in traffic? That frustration of knowing there really isn't anything you can do about it but stew in your anger? Yup. That's how I felt then. Losing the number-of-pages-read-in-an-hour-competition left a sour taste in my mouth. Incidentally, Ben read way to Dartmouth and graduated with distinction, but hey, he still can't run for sh4%.
What's my point?
Well, that's the kind of competitive attitude which fueled my college (and early pro) racing. On the track compared to the library I could do something about being behind, I could change the outcome. And I believed I could change it every time because I hated, I mean, H-A-T-E-D to lose.
I raced for first. I raced to win. I raced to beat everyone. But above all, I raced for my team and 10 points. Always. That's just me.
I never cared what kind of shape I was in. I never asked my coach how fast he thought I could go or what my workouts "indicated I could run." I was unaware of the details of the day's session until I arrived to practice. I'd simply show up, put my head down, get to work, run my best, accomplish my job, and clock out. It was simple. It was fun.
Sure, there were times when I would whimper about the pace, or my ankle, knee, calf, hip, shoulder, bladder, toes, heel, stomach, sleep, water, rain, my last race, shoes, shorts, shirt, tights, socks, or anything I could think of. I think once I even complained about a fallen eyelash irritating my cheek.
Looking back on it, I'd say that 12% of what I complained about was worth mentioning, the other 82% was noise. Just childish chatter aimed to get out of a day's task. Thankfully, I had a great coach. He recognized what was worth concern and what was worth a laugh. “Coach, I think I might have a kidney stone,” got a good chuckle. I used that one twice. It didn't work either time.
At no point in my competitive running career did I care about a PR. That wasn't me.
I raced for the rush of storming down the homestretch, seeing how many guys I could pick off in the last 100m. I loved the thrill of the pursuit. When the Ducks were in season, we'd turn the tables and go hunting. Oh yeah!
Sadly, my final years as a professional found me checking the clock with each lap, doing the math, calculating what I had to run to hit a qualifying mark. I acted more like a professional accountant than pro runner. I wasn't racing, I was working out. If the pace was slow, I got discouraged, which would make me question why I was competing. That doubt would creep into my legs and my performance would suffer. It was no fun. In fact, it sucked.
I then began to wonder, why the hell did I sign up to race if I'm just going to watch the clock for four laps? I could do that on the practice track.
To the coaches reading this, remember PR isn't the be all brilliance in this sport. It's a stepping stone, something to get recognized in the short term. But I think, ultimately, in the long run, is irrelevant. What made my coaches so great for me, was that they never talked about running fast times. Our conversations were always about how to position myself in a race that would give me the best chance to compete for a win.
To the athletes, I challenge you to ignore the clock on race day, instead focus on how many people you can pass the final 100m of every race, even if it is just one. That number matters more than how many seconds you PR by. If you're leading in the later stages of a race, I challenge you to put your heart and soul into not getting passed in the final 100m. Seek to win the race.
Take it from me, winning a slow race will always be a more glorious moment and fonder memory than losing with a "fast" time. Champions do run impressive times, but they focus their efforts on racing for medals. The victor is always faster than those behind them that day.
Which leads me to the question every runner must ask themselves: Would you rather finish mid-pack but run a ridiculously fast time, or cross the line first to win the gold?
I accomplished the former, but I always strove for the latter.