Sunday, December 5, 2010

Competitiveness

That sounds like such a clunky word. I got onto an online thesaurus and did a search to see if there were any better words. The English language is rich in synonyms and I thought there would definitely be a more elegant word to describe the same concept. No dice. Perhaps that says something about our culture.

Anyway back to the subject. I've had some strong realisations recently in a whole range of areas of my life, and I've had a paradigm shift about what it means to be competitive in racing. A paradigm shift means seeing something that you've been looking at in one way for a long time in a totally new light.  I use the phrase because I like it and I'm showing off.

Previously I tended to think about being competitive as an aggressive state of mind, actively trying to beast the people around you, get higher placements, get faster times, get better results. Being competitive was all about the results of the race - better results meant you had been more competitive and worse ones meant you were just being a loser.

This didn't really sit very comfortably with me - for one I didn't like the overly aggressive stance this portrayed, and also it meant that I could do a strong race but if the results were lower than my expectations, then I would view the race as a failure (and consequently myself a failure, following on from my last post).

I've realised that this is actually completely wrong and totally misses the point of what it means to be truly competitive.

I was relatively academic at school and got some good results. The school I went to was not known for its academic strength so I was a big fish in a little pond. There was one report card at the end of the year that I particularly remember, and it was for Latin. The teacher was a young woman and she really struggled to control a class full of puberty age boys, who were merciless at jumping on any sign of weakness. I remember at least one class where she was crying at the end - not one of our proudest moments.

Basically she got bullied and although I did not play an active part in this, I think I still must have contributed to the misery she experienced in the short time before she left the post.

This is because of my report card. I remember the 2 numbers distinctly: a 1 and a 2. The 1 meant I came first in my class, and therefore first in my year. The 2 meant that out of 5 I got a 2 for effort. 2 was the lowest you could get - they didn't give 1s for some reason. Great so that means I didn't have to work hard and still 'won' right?

Wrong. I think that is the saddest statement - it says that I had a talent and I couldn't be bothered to do anything with it. I imagine that teacher writing out my card - here is her star pupil and yet he couldn't give a damn. On top of everything else, how depressing.

Competitiveness is not about being at the front of the field, competitiveness is about competing against your greatest opponent: yourself.

It does not matter where you came in the field, it doesn't matter what your time was, the one and only thing that truly matters is did you give everything you had to give? This is actually a big relief, but also a big challenge. The big relief is that you no longer have to worry about external (superficial) results. The big challenge is that if you want to be competitive then by definition it is going to be hard - very hard. It means going beyond yourself to a place you thought you could never reach.

What is great about this, is that everybody in the race has the opportunity to express their competitiveness to the full. It may be finishing the race is a huge step for you, it may be beating a PB, it may be a high placement, but it is not the result. It is the manner in which you race the race.

Take Chrissie Wellington. In Arizona recently she won the race. But that meant nothing - she could win the race by coasting through with a moderate level of effort. However she is truly competitive - she squeezed every ounce out of herself and beat the world record. The reality for her is she wants to beat all the men too. One of these days she might just do that.

Do you remember Usain Bolt in the Olympics? Yeah sure you do, but do you remember those qualifiers where he got bullet fast times, metres ahead of everyone else, but he basically coasted the final 20 metres or so? It just seemed quite bland, in fact sometimes it really hacked me off - what we really wanted to see was him giving everything he had to give, competing against himself to provide his own personal optimal effort. Thankfully we did actually get to see that in the finals and it was truly something to behold.


OK a controversial point now. Sergei Bubka beat the world record in the pole vault 35 times in his career and was repeatedly voted the world's best athlete. Does anyone see what's wrong with this picture? The reason why he beat the world record so many times, was that he always did just enough to raise the record by a centimetre or 2. That way he got paid more money. Now you can't blame the man for that - he was doing his job and he was doing it damn well.

But the world's best athlete? Absolutely not. The truth is we never saw the best of Sergei Bubka - what would have happened if he had reached deep down inside himself and tried to give the absolute best he could give, and he did that time and again? For one, we would not have seen 35 world records, but I bet we would have seen something even more spectacular - a Beamon-esque jump of breathtaking proportions. Did we ever see Bubka being truly competitive? I doubt it.

The other side of competitiveness is showing yourself what you are made of and marking out your territory. This is where your opposition come into the equation. This seems to me a pretty primeval concept similar to survival of the fittest. By racing to your fullest you are marking out your ground and anyone who threatens to walk on that ground better have a damn good reason for it. Anyone who comes close, you put your foot down and say Nah, that's not going to happen, not on my watch buddy. It is your duty to do the very best you can do, and that does mean beating people.

I reckon this is something more for the end of the race. Competing against yourself is what you do for 95% of the time out there - you are trying to get from A to B in the fastest time you can with the tools you have on race day. But when it comes to the end, then it's more about beating the competitors around you. Doing this will push you beyond what you think is possible and take great mental strength.

I think this is powerful stuff, and it has consequences. Firstly I don't think you can be truly competitive in all your races. You'll burn yourself out. Some races you may want to practice different strategies - nutrition, clothing, pacing, etc. Some races you may do for fun. And then some races you turn it on. But once you have committed yourself to be truly competitive, you know it's going to hurt, it's going to take everything you've got and if it works out, it's going to be bloody memorable.

The results, the times do not matter, but you will know when you've done it right. A few indicators will be your pounding heart rate, your gasps for breath and your feeling of elation at having dug right deep down inside yourself for the last ounce of available effort. And you should be proud of yourself too, because you have done something special, something which maybe even the guy (or gal) up the front of the race did not do. You competed.



The image at the top of this post is Haile Gebrselassie racing Paul Tergat in the Sydney 2000 Olympic 10K Final. 2 people fully committed and competing to the best of their abilities. The youtube video of the final stages of the race is stirring stuff.

If you have understood this post, then you will recognise that there were 2 winners at the end of this race.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Moth To A Flame

I wrote a while back about why I do this sport and I talked about a lot of the positive effects that the sport has had on my life.  I stand by that, and I strongly believe that triathlon and long distance triathlon in particular has basically changed my life.  I won't go back over those points now.

Today I'm going to talk about the flip side of the coin, because I'm not being honest with you if I just tell you about how great the sport is, and how I'm so great because I do it.  So much of what I read about triathlon is all balls to the wall, HTFU, MTFU, inspiration and everything is just like totally amazing yeah.  Awesome has to be the most overused word in triathlon circles, and I hear myself saying it over and over again!

So what are the other less glamorous reasons I do triathlon?

I broke up with a girl about 4 years ago, or in actuality what happened was she walked out of my life without a word and it took me 3 weeks before I managed to convince her to meet with me and talk about it.  We had been together 15 months when this happened and I was very much in love.  I was completely emotionally wrecked and the physical pain of this lasted about 6 weeks.

I'm not telling this story to gain any kind of sympathy, it is just to put what I have to say in context.  The truth of the matter is that she gave me a gift, and that gift was a realisation that I had to make significant changes in my life.  If I think about the long road towards better mental health that started when she left me, I am very grateful indeed for what happened.  She's married with a baby boy now and I give her joy of her new life.

I had been running and doing marathons for a couple of years already, and the first thing I did was join a running club - I thought it would be good for the social aspect and also I threw myself into it to numb some of the pain.  Gradually I got more and more involved in endurance running.  The coach there told me that I was a middle distance runner - I had strong speed but not great endurance.  He told me to focus on 3k, 5k, 10k and leave the marathon for later years.  He was right but I thought stuff that, I want a real challenge.

This process brought my marathon time down from about 3:30 at the time, to 3:02.  I remember going back to my coach one day after running a 1:22 Half at Silverstone and his comment was an all time classic in my book: "Wow, that's almost like real running".  That guy knew how to motivate me!

So what was actually going on here?  What was happening was that I had no real self esteem - I did not fundamentally believe that I was a good person and that people would like me for who I am.  And therefore I trained hard, because subconsciously I thought that if I could get good times then people would respect me and that I would feel good about myself.  And this worked.  For a short period of time.

The glow after a good race would die off after a while, and so I was pushed on to try bigger and harder events.  I started triathlon, I was drawn like a moth to a flame to Ironman.  Crossing the finish line at Ironman Western Australia in 2007 was an incredibly emotional moment for me and that made me feel good for a long time - that was the biggest and best hit I have ever experienced, bar none. I had found a legal and socially acceptable drug and I wanted more.

And so I have to face up to this.  The truth is that I also do triathlon to try and gain respect from my peer group and to try and believe that I am a good person because I can cover 140.2 miles faster than many people who try.  I have to face up to the fact that a very large part of why I am trying to qualify is just so that I can get a bigger hit.  In some place in my mind I think that if I can get into Hawaii, then everything will be alright, I'll feel good about myself forever more and people will like me because of what I have achieved.

This is very poor reasoning.

The truth is I have not been getting out the door to train that much at the moment.  And this is not because I am weak and unmotivated and depressed.  No, this is because I am growing as a person and getting healthier and I am building REAL self respect for myself, not the empty self respect that comes from a fast time.

You should know that I am not giving up.  I am taking my bike to Cape Town in January and I am going to be living, working and training there for 2 and a half months.  Then I will come home and shortly after fly to Utah, where I will compete and give everything I have to give.  But it may be that I don't take it too seriously this time.  It may be I goof off some workouts and go do something different instead.  It may be that I let go of striving for Kona for the time being.  My reasons are wrong and I need time to think about that.  Maybe Kona's in my future when my reasons are right, maybe not.

Ultimately I love being outside doing crazy shit with my mates, so I'm still going to do big rides, big runs, big races.  But from now on I will only do these things if I'm having fun.  If it's to try and prove something to myself then I may as well pack up all my stuff and sell it on ebay and use the money to pay for therapy.

And actually by the way, yes, I do see a therapist.  And starting that process 2 years ago was the best decision I ever made.