Do you have a particular someone in your life with whom you compete or whom you envy? For me, it’s my partner. Not surprising. We are most likely to compare ourselves to those closest to us. Love and envy are flip sides of the same coin. In my case, the bar is high. My partner is super smart, engaging and well-liked, successful in his work and (this is the part I’m going to get into in a moment) he’s physically gifted. That’s why I love him. That’s why he is a source of more frustration than I ought to admit.
I train harder and faster than he does and when we get to the starting line of an event, some inner switch flips and he often performs better than me. I should also add, he’s eleven years older than I am. WTF? Well That’s Fantastic, as a 9-year old friend of mine says.
Back in May it was the North Face Endurance trail half-marathon event near Bear Mountain in New York. At mile 8, he breezed past me. My mind switched to Radio Self-Laceration; the volume at level 11. Life is too unfair. Why do men have it so much easier in the world? Why do I try at all? What’s the point of even training? I’ll never be good enough. And so on. I pulled myself together enough by the finish line, so that I didn’t melt down (as I’m embarrassed to say I have done in the past, and, okay, in the past month on a run with several much younger mountain goats, who had the same starting line motivational effect on my partner).
My partner has pointed out that my competitive streak means I’m rooting against him. I want him to be slower than me, so that I can feel good. True. I’ve tried nuancing. I want us both to do the best we can, but my best be better. This line of logical reasoning is not a credit to me. Being competitive is not a bad thing, as Sam and Tracy point out in their book. But it’s not so healthy, when I can’t respond with the same aplomb whether I win or lose, following tennis great Chris Evert’s counsel.
This past weekend, we did another long running event. The Sierra Crest 30k –technical mountain trails; at altitude; and lots of climbing. For the week before the run, I was in mental prep mode. Counseling myself to just let it go. Let go of my competitive desire to do better. Let go of my idea of fairness. Let go of my tendency toward self-sabotage.
Easier said than done.
Race day. The smoke from California forest fires is the worst it’s ever been (some volunteers at aid stations are wearing face masks). My partner gives me a hug and kiss before we start. I press play and start listening to Krista Tippett podcasts, something I’ve never done before during an event. Off I go, ahead. After a few miles, David passes me. Off he goes, leaving me in the dust. I will not fall apart. I will not fall apart. I’m listening to a podcast about love in politics. I see my partner far ahead of me up a hill. I am overwhelmed by the small heartedness of my competitive streak. How can I not just be proud of his strength? I want to catch up to him, so I can say, “Have a great race. You’re amazing!” But he’s too far away. I feel lighter. Like maybe I’ve let go.
At the first aid station, I see that he’s refilling his camelback. I was never planning to refill, so I keep going. Besides, I always worry that if I stop, I won’t be able to start again. A couple of miles later, on the steepest downhill switchbacks, he waves to me from one switchback above me. He’s so cheerful. I’m already pretty spent. I use his imminence as incentive to keep going. Not because I want to beat him anymore. I’ve accepted that’s not possible and it’s fine. I just want to do my own best time.
Two more grueling hours pass on the trails. Mostly I’m alone. Three men pass me. None of them are my partner. I pass two of the men back. I catch a woman. We chat about the smoke. She unearths some new zest and takes off with one of the men who passed me. I never see either of them again until post finish line. I listen to interviews with Cory Booker, a US Senator I’ve long admired; with Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist whose specialty is moss; with Luis Alberto Urrea, a writer and poet; and with the great cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.
I finish in 3:53. I’m second in my age group (same as at the North Face run) and 10th among women. My partner finishes 8 minutes later.
How do I feel? Relieved. Surprised. Pleased. Competitive. Displeased with my competitiveness. Uncertain about whether I actually let go.
When it comes to my partner, finding the balance between my competitive spirit and the ability to let go of an outcome is as challenging as the rockiest, tree-rooted trails.
Please tell me I’m not alone in this. How do others solve for this balance?
Mina Samuels is a writer, performer, fableog-ist, citizen, traveler, enthusiast and author of Run Like a Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives and other books.