I had entered the Clarksburg 30K and was running the race non-competitively, as a long training run for the upcoming California International Marathon.
At five miles, I settled in behind two women who were setting a relaxed, even pace. One woman was chattering happily while the other listened silently, focused on her running. I was feeling good as I passed them and moved perhaps 200 yards ahead. Then I heard the pitter-patter of feet double-timing behind me, and someone breathing hard. The quiet woman, who’d seemed so self-possessed, pulled 10 yards ahead and settled in at her former pace.
This provoked feelings of merriment. I don’t much care about competition that proves itself by “beating” others. I mused on how a new kind of cooperative running might be possible, where each one helps the other by doing his utmost best without ego-involvement.
Here are Mark Plaatjes’ words after he won the 1993 World Championships marathon:
Still, it never entered my mind that I could actually win. And then, maybe 1½ minutes later, I turned a corner, hit a straightaway, and there he was! Lucketz was only 200 meters in front of me. His cadence was slow, and he was in trouble.
Right outside the stadium, near 41 kilometers, the gap between us closed very quickly, and I had to go for it. There was nothing else I could do.
It should have been the best feeling in the world when I caught him, but it wasn’t. I had a strange mixture of emotions. I felt terrible. I didn’t want to do this to Lucketz because he’s such a nice man and had been passed like this in the last kilometer of his last three marathons. I almost hesitated before I got up to him, but then I thought, he’s 27 years old and will have many more opportunities. I had to pass him; this was my opportunity.”
When runners “compete cooperatively,” everybody wins, because everyone helps pull the best out of everyone else. When we compete the old way, everyone loses, because the result is contractive, each ego wobbling atop its rickety tower. In a deeper sense, there is no competition, because in our higher Self we are one with each other. Perhaps competition in the future will be a kind of mutual, joyful striving for excellence, each one goading the other to achieve. To reinforce these feelings, I prayed: “May she do well. May I do well. May we create joy together.”
The serious woman’s companion caught up, and I heard her say, “I’ll probably pull back pretty soon, because this pace is too fast.” The other woman murmured a reply, but her tone and body language said that she was indifferent, focused on her run.
I pulled even with a gray-haired woman who wore a singlet that said “50-Plus Fitness Association.” She seemed an upright, cheerful soul, and the singlet was beautiful. I smiled and said, “How do I join the Fifty-Somethings?” We chatted for a while, and she said she’d see me after the race and give me the information. She told me about her homes in Lake Tahoe and Carmel, and we talked about the Pacific Crest Trail 50K race, which she’d run that summer and I had run the previous year. I thought how pleasant it was to share in an upbeat way, without a hint of competition.
At seven miles, I felt warmed up and picked up the pace. At the turnaround, I pulled 250 yards ahead of the competitive woman and didn’t see her again.
It was a lovely day for running, sunny and cool, and my body kept finding more energy. I wanted to set a pace that would be challenging, but wouldn’t keep me from recovering in time for the marathon.
Hall of Fame professional football player Gayle Sayers said, “When you step onto that field, you cannot concede a thing.” That may be true in football. I know it’s true in competitive running. But “not conceding” doesn’t have to mean building the ego. I wasn’t in the Clarksburg 30K to compete, but that was my decision. I ran the race in near-effortless fulfillment of my plan. It was an enjoyable long training run, and I did it without inflating my ego at anyone’s expense. And the result was joy.