Chasing a Phantom: The Case for Irrational Competition

There are hyper-competitive people in this world and then there are people that just aren’t competitive at all. There’s a good chance those competitive people annoy you. They annoy most. The people that make simple things black and white, winning and losing. Growing up these were the kids that did slide tackling in gym class soccer, full on tackles in flag football, would spike and scream during volleyball games. There may be a synonym for them: assholes. Then there are those that just don’t care about outcomes. Either feign indifference or genuinely don’t care. Their passions may lie elsewhere than athletic events and I don’t fault them. I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m competitive enough to rise to a challenge, set goals for myself, and care about how I do. But I’m not going to get too down on myself nor will just be satisfied. The hyper competitive types at 5Ks will be doing electric jumps and casual sprints before races, those that don’t care probably won’t be there toeing the line to begin with. I will probably be towards the front of the starting line. But, I will probably be standing there…waiting for the gun to go off.

I believe in friendly, not fierce, competition. I enjoy challenging myself, maybe challenging others. I know (I think) when to push harder and when to be happy with what I’m doing. For instance, during last September’s Reach the Beach New Hampshire, my second leg was fairly challenging. I was running around 10 at night. The first mile and a half was up hill entirely. I ran at a steady pace, passing maybe 8-10 other runners. Each time throwing some words of encouragement as I trotted by them. I ran at a pace I knew to be comfortable, I had another 7.5 miles to go after that first hill was over. Once my leg flattened out, it was fantastic, I felt I was running at a brisk pace. It had been warm during the day but the colder night are was mixing with the heat coming from the pavement. There was a string of lights blinking and up ahead of me, the way I’ve heard the Ho Chi Minh Trail looked at night. After cresting a slight hill and rounding a sweeping left turn, there was a dark expanse that had to be a valley, but I couldn’t see it. It was at that moment someone ran, and I mean ran, passed me. He said something encouraging and then joined the line of blinking lights ahead of me. I had a decision to make – either I could continue at the pace mere seconds before I had been happy with or kick it into a different gear and chase this runner down. I decided to stick with my pace. I still had 5+ miles to run and another leg to run after reaching the next transition area and barely getting sleep. It was the right decision at that time.

Last night though, I made the other choice. I met up with Meg to run Crossroads again. I’ve been having motivation issues, as you can read about in my last post. I love running. But, sometimes when I’m having fun, I’m not having enough fun. I need something more. We were running at a pretty decent pace, low eights. We ran by a pair (man and woman) on Heartbreak. The guy good naturedly yelled after us, “what’s the rush?” I replied, “beer, my friend” and kept cruising. Once we crested the hill and crossed the street to the BC side, we noticed the woman had significantly picked up the pace and was cruising on the opposite side of Comm. Ave. Megan said she saw my animal instinct kick in and I started running faster. I said if she was still ahead of us on Beacon, she was done for if she was headed our way. We got on Beacon and there were many runners along the sidewalk. Megan had taken much better stock of what she was wearing and told me she had a purple jacket, so I focused on finding her and running her down. We got stopped at a few lights which didn’t help my cause. Megan said she would stick with me as long as she could on my mission When we got to Coolidge Corner I made the point that maybe she wasn’t headed to Crossroads, she could have turned off any number of side streets or stopped altogether, but if I was chasing a phantom, so be it. I had to try. After Coolidge I realized that I was still talking to Meg, but Meg wasn’t there. I kept seeing dark silhouettes running ahead of me. Surely one of them had to be the purple jacket. I ran by a trio near St. Mary’s and was about to tone it down a bit. But then, going toward the light at Audubon Circle, I spotted her. I caught up at a red light. She was jogging in place and commented that she kept thinking the light was going to change but never does when you want it to. When the light did change, I darted out and kept pulling. I glance back a few times but saw nothing. I got back to Crossroads and ordered a beer. I had already had a few sips when she came up the stairs. Megan needed to run an extra mile so she came in afterward and told me she had caught up to the phantom right at the entrance to the bar and that I must have broken her spirit.

If you run and you run races, an air of competition is a good thing. It pushes you to move beyond whatever is just easy and improve. Knowing the difference between overdoing it and testing yourself is very important. I was not running a race last night. I don’t know if this runner I chased down was even giving it her all. But, I needed it. I needed to break my comfort zone. I needed that impetus to elevate my training. I needed a phantom to chase.

As runners I think we need artificial goals. I tell my sister to always just pick something, a stop sign, a tree, a light post and then run to them then pick another and then another. Anything to keep moving. During races picking someone ahead to pass is motivating. If that person passes you, you’ve motivated them, and maybe that will then get you moving again. Whether it’s friendly, arbitrary, non-existent a little bit of competition can go a long way in improving your running.

I hope to see you all at the Super Sunday 5. I’m bib #15. Chase me down and maybe I’ll chase you down.


About Graham Runs Boston

Bostonian running around Boston. Team RaceMenu distance runner. Oyster appreciator, beer lover, outside all the time when I can, loosely pursuing a BQ
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