I have long been a believer that if you really want to test yourself, if you really want to see what you are made of then you need to compete. Competition causes people to really push themselves beyond their own perceived limits. "I never thought I could go that far, or that fast, or that high or lift that much, but I really wanted to beat that person or my previous best time, etc." People can never really do more work than is possible but people can always do more work than they thought was possible. I learned this lesson way back in high school.
It was my senior year and I was running what I suspected would be my last official race representing the school colors. It was the Fall of 1985 (I did not have a Members Only jacket but I did have an Indiana Jones hat, acid washed jeans and big hair. I was listening to Squeeze and George Thorogood and The Police) and I was one of the stars, well...participants, of the cross country team and I really wanted to beat this one particular guy from a rival school. Why was I so concerned with this dude? I'm not sure, we were both middle of the pack runners, we rarely if ever figured into the scoring of our teams (only the top 5 score for each team, I was usually the 6 or 7 runner). But this dude really bugged me. First of all, he was a big guy. What the hell is a big guy doing in a cross country race? He was built like a linebacker or a power forward (a private prep school version not a college scholarship version), he didn't look like he could run far or fast!!! I, on the other hand do (well...did), look like I could run far and fast. In fact, I feel like did both... regularly!!! Second of all, his running style made it look like he was not even trying, he looked like he was running slow, jogging. He kind of lumbered down the trail, with heavy feet and slumped shoulders and a protruding brow. OK, not really a protruding brow, he wasn't a caveman but you get the point. So early in the season when out teams ran a dual meet and he passed me with a mile to go in the race. I tried to follow him, this Neanderthal with his distinctive style. I was getting more and more frustrated that this big dude with the slow feet was beating me, the fast kid, at my sport! You don't see me trying to slam dunk over big kids on the basketball court. I never did catch him but I never forgot him and 3 weeks later our teams met again, this time at a big invitational meet with 25-30 teams of 9 kids each. I wasn't sure I'd even see him. I just wanted to run my race and do my best for the team. But with about a mile to go I spotted him up in the distance. He looked brutish and awkward, like he was going to trip any second. I picked up the pace a little, I was going to catch him about 200m from the finish then blow past him as I whoooshed into the finishing chute and into the arms of the cute cheerleader. But, again, it was not to be. He felt me closing in and right at about 200m to go he broke into a sprint that sucked the will right out of me. There will be no beating rivals this week, no self-indulgent pride, no confidence boosting cheerleaders. So we flash forward several weeks to the conference championship race. All 8 teams, best 9 runners each on the toughest course on our schedule all running the one race that we all have been training for all year. The one race we wanted to win more than any other. It was a cold and windy day in late November, everything was gray and stark. The only color was the red on our cheeks and the Blue and Gold on our singlets. I lost sight of my unknowing rival and soon forgot about him. I was simply trying to run as fast as I could in order to stay ahead of the 2 or 3 guys breathing down my neck. But again with about a mile to go I saw the lumbering fool. This time I was going to leave nothing to chance. Impossibly, I picked up my pace even faster and not only did I pass him I flew past him in two steps, like he was standing still. "When you pass don't look back, just look ahead to the next guy you are going to pass!!" I heard my coach’s voice in my head. "Looking back is a sign of weakness," is another one of his sayings that kept bouncing around. I was right at my limit, right at the red line. I broke out into the last open field. The finish line was just at the other side 300m away and closing fast...250m and my season and my rivalry would be over...200m and my lungs were searing and my legs were on fire but redemption will soon be mine...150m and I started to hear a load cheer from somebody's dad, "Go Dexter GO!!" 50m to go and the finish line is close enough to touch, then out of nowhere Dexter blew past me so fuckin' fast I swear to this day I heard a sonic boom. The lumbering idiot beat me again. I finished one second behind him and pretended my momentum (or frustration) caused me to push him over in the finish chute. I was pissed. I cried a little, more because it was the end of my scholastic running career then because I couldn't ever beat the guy. I have been known to cry at the end of really hard events that leave me completely drained. So what's the lesson here? What can be learned from getting beat by the same guy three times? 17:52 that's what. It was, is and always will be my fastest time ever in a 5k. I have never before or since come close. I've gone under 20 minutes a bunch and even under 19 once on a downhill course but never could touch sub-18. I was able to push myself beyond my perceived limit because the competition caused me to force my body into new territory.
Here I am again, pushing myself into a new territory, running on familiar trails with some unfamiliar shoes and a forefoot striking stride. I raced twice on the last two consecutive weekends, 5 mile trial races both. My feet hurt but the pain is eased by the pub glasses I brought home by placing in the top 5 in my age group each time. In true cliff hanger tradition I'll report more on those two races next time because this blog has gone on long enough.
Bottom line is that competition brings out the best in us and I like it. Who wants to join me next week? www.ex2adventures.com