Often times, the athletic world seems to advocate that pure competition is only a matter of whether you won or lost. There are hundreds of ads, post event interviews, articles, and the like that focus our attention on what it took to win, rather than what I consider to be the best part of sport: experiencing new levels of performance unlocked by competition with others. Neither internal nor communal competition alone is golden, but rather the pure and awesome moment when the two ideas blend into one epic performance is what is truly special.
One of the finer works of fiction in the past 20 years, Infinite Jest, has an exemplary passage about creativity in competition: “Locating beauty and art and magic and improvement are keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play (which) is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern.” The quote is from a tennis coach that is espousing how the most intelligent tennis players aren’t waiting to make calculated moves based on historical success, but rather they’re looking for new, original, creative ways to play. This isn’t unheard of in other sports: in the early 2000’s Crossfit was merely a website that posted workouts for special operations units to complete for friendly competition and fitness. Eventually times were shared and posted, which led to boxes (Crossfit gyms), which led to competitions, which all allowed athletes to see new styles and methods of competing pushing them to perform at higher levels than they ever did alone. Even in a relatively simple sport, the principle of communal competition provides for new styles of competing and higher performance.
Still, there’s quite an allure to self-competition. Practicing yoga alone, one finds stillness and the truest concept of self. When attempting to reach a pose on your own, there is an opportunity to hear the body speak to the mind and to focus on breaking the barrier between your muscles and brain. There’s plenty of noise in our world, and when you’re able to escape it and hear your breathing and muscles moving into position, there’s an amazing rewarding feeling of self-mastery. This could almost be enough to turn one’s back on the world of competition, if one was content with consistency.
Inevitably though, I find myself as a runner signing up for races to inspire new levels of performance and flow. When I line up on a starting line, I’ve prepared for battle as best as I can, but I am still fully aware that there are unknown race strategies to be seen from other runners that will illicit responses out of me that I would never have if I was running alone. The magic of going mile for mile with another runner is only positive when I’m focused on creative, new, unique tactics that propel me towards the finish faster than ever before, not when I’m thinking of ego or trophies to fulfill shallow desires.
I’ve beaten and been beaten by many runners, and quite frankly the role I fill is not the defining grade of my performance, but rather how well I pushed myself and what my competitors inspired me to do. The result is merely where the competition stood when time or miles ran out. In so many words, I’ve won races and not been satisfied with my performance, and lost races and felt great pride in my running. The key idea in competition is not what the results were, but whether you felt flow. For what it’s worth, the best results generally come when you are chasing your own limits more than mere ego.
The greatest underling human desire: the pursuit of happiness, requires all athletes to compete with a hunger for the sweet blend of organic oats and flax seeds-no, no, I’m hungry and describing a Probar- the pursuit of happiness requires a hunger for the sweet blend of internal and communal competition. To take the best parts of internal focus and flow and blend it with the inspiring performances of competitors is to find your perfect moment of sheer indulgence of mind and body.
That at least is what I’m getting up at 5AM every morning for.
Dominic Grossman is an Ultra Runner from California. For more stories and training tips, check out his blog.