|David Grear Finishing the Fort Ebey 10K in Dirty Dude Style|
The man in the picture above is called David Grear. He is, indeed, a Dirty Dude. If you doubt me, check out the shirt he is wearing. I met David about a year ago at Route 16 Running & Walking. He showed up for my Momentum Monday's class. He positioned himself very close to the door, and I had a feeling he might leave before the class even started. "I'm not sure why I'm here," he told me by way of introducing himself. "I don't even know if I like running." Flash forward a few months. Here we have David, post the Ruston Way 5K, being told that he CAN'T run due to a fracture (the result of a subversive tree root). All too sadly, the moment you first realize you love something is often the moment in whence you lose it. You can't run through a fracture. Period. After some wheeling and dealing, David agreed to keep coming out to Momentum Mondays, doing our running workouts on his bike instead, and doing his PT exercises in the company of friends instead of in the isolation of his home. He became a role model for other runners, showing them that even though it was hard work to commit to the recovery process, the act of doing so doesn't have to be an exercise in torture and banishment. Like all runners I know, David struggles with being hard on himself. The need to "keep up" affects him like crack. He claims he can't help himself. In response to the competition questions I recently gave to several of my students, David has written a brilliant essay on Healthy Versus Unhealthy Competition that shall become required reading for all my students!
Competition and Its Affect on Otherwise Normal People
By The Dirty Dude David Grear
Arthur Ashe said of competition, “You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy”. This sounds great. I just have to set my own standards, work hard to achieve them, and repeat. The end result is reasonable growth in a chosen endeavor. The problem with this idea is that as soon as another person shows up to run with me, or near me, or generally the same direction as me, my own goals and standards go out the window and I adopt that person’s goal as my own. I don’t really know why I do this because I have never been an accomplished runner. Ever. What I am is competitive regardless of activity or even talent. If we are playing a board game my desire is to crush you into tiny whimpering bits. If we are in a class together I’m going to try to set the curve and earn every point possible. And if we are in a training group together I want to make every run a full speed workout so that at some point I will be faster than the people around me.
I don’t think that is a bad thing necessarily. Healthy competition can be a great motivator to push through to the next level. Competition gives us a reason to train, to push, to strive for more. The problem comes when this spirit of competition is unhealthy. I believe that happens for me when I forget my own experience, my own ability, and my own goals and compare myself to others who have been running longer, are in better physical condition than I am, or are just more naturally gifted that I am. Then I am competing against an unbeatable foe. What happens next is over-training syndrome, injury, disappointment, and at its extreme, strained or broken relationships. The key to finding the real joy that Arthur Ashe spoke of is in the end of his quote, “when you reach your limits”. To stay healthy I have to compete within my own personal limits, push them of course, but recognize that my limits, and therefore my standard of success in my running, are not going to be the same as any other person I train with or run against.
So, how can we have mixed ability training groups and not have unhealthy competition develop? This is possible but takes a certain culture within the group to achieve. It starts with the leadership of the group. A good coach who recognizes the difference in ability amongst the runners and strives to group similarly abeld athletes together and design workouts tailored appropriately will keep the competition healthy. Creating an inviting, non-judgemental environment for new runners is key. I remember my first meeting with Alexa at Route 16. She let me know that “slow” was not a word we used there. We talked about “kind pace” and perceived effort. I learned that my perceived effort running a mile in 13 minutes was exactly the same as an experienced runner running that mile in 8 minutes. Along with inviting leadership, experienced runners with a mindset towards helping new runners achieve their goals and become healthy enable successful mixed groups. When that is the culture of the group everyone from experienced to the newbie leaves the workout feeling the same sense of accomplishment regardless of pace.
So clearly, because I run with a fantastic mixed group with a great coach and helpful, caring, experienced runners I don’t struggle with unhealthy competition right? Of course that’s not true! I fall victim to unhealthy competition because I’m human, and naturally competitive. It sneaks in under the radar. Very insidiously, slowly, almost unconsciously. I just can’t hold back and run a smart pace when a group is running faster. I WANT to keep up, I NEED to keep up. It has been suggested by my coach that this need to keep up with the pack is biological, that we are driven to stay with the group because of an ancient pack mentality in which the slow (read weaker) become lunch for a predator. I’m sure there is some truth in that but surely human kind has evolved to a point at which we know there are no lions in Gig Harbor waiting to pounce if we run a 10:30 mile (though there have been some nearby cougar sightings). But I do think that the group plays a role in the desire to compete to keep up. If I am to be a part of my running group I feel like I need to keep the pace or I don’t really belong. In the back of my mind I’m being judged for my pace. I want to impress my group and show them that I’m strong enough and fast enough to run with them. As a result I push myself when I’m running with a group so that they will not see my need for growth (read weakness).
Another factor that leads to my tendancy toward unhealthy competition is comparing myself to other runners. It would be one thing if I compared myself to my fellow runners when they had the same experience as I do. But I don’t do that. I compare myself to what they are now and feel driven to push myself to achieve my friends’ level of success. This is most unhealthy. It’s ridiculous to think that this is even possible much less wise. And yet I do it all the time. It’s usually in the form of average pace. I look at my average mile pace from a year ago and compare it to now and feel quite good about myself and my progress. This is healthy comparison. In the next thought I compare my current pace with that of my running role models and feel quite bad about myself and my progress. The next step in this unhealthy thought process is to push harder than my body can handle to run at their pace. Then, not only do I feel awful because I can’t run a 7:30 mile but I’m injured in the process and have just taken a backward step in my growth as a runner. The only way for me to combat this is to continually limit my comparisons to my own past performance. I think that way I continue to feel good about myself and see growth while remaining injury free. My hope is that if I continue to do that I will wake up one day in the middle of the results for my age group rather than the back.
I think that I have started to embrace a healthy view of competition over the last year. It has been a struggle to keep my self-doubts at bay. I still struggle with not feeling like I deserve to be tired if I don’t run a certain pace, or haven’t “earned” an injury because I wasn’t working hard enough or running fast enough to have a “real” running injury. The good news is that I’m learning to view my running and training as a long term endeavor rather than something that has to come to fruition in a few weeks or months. I still want to be competitive, but I want it to be a healthy competitiveness that allows me to enjoy the people I run with, have fun in the races I compete in, and most of all, reach my own personal limit and find true joy in my running.