The Nature of Competition is Up To You

by Ben Heller

Part of our shared human experience is dealing with suffering. I suffer, you suffer, your family suffers, your friends suffer. I have researched the topic from every angle and it is an inescapable truth, just like taxes. The nature of our suffering can take on many different forms; for some it could be annoyance, for some frustration, for others jealousy, for some rage, sadness, physical discomfort, or sickness. We participate in a sport that contains many elements of suffering. Who gets the highest praise in running culture? It’s the person who perseveres through intense agonizing physical suffering to achieve their personal record, beat that one runner they never could, or win that race. The greater the suffering, the more reverence achieved. How many of us revere Michael Jordan for playing in the NBA finals with the flu, piecing together a game-winning MVP performance in a body that could barely stand up? How many of us revere that athlete who plays in the pivotal playoff game on an injury of season-ending caliber just to go for the glory. Admit it, we do. We all know the sayings: “No Guts, No Glory” “Suck it up buttercup” “Play like a champion today.” I have spent most of my life wanting to prove my own tenacity. Perhaps that is why I feel so at home as a marathoner. 

At the same time, we owe it to ourselves, and to those in our lives, to ask another question. Does our pursuit of glory maybe just end up creating more suffering in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones, and if so, how do we balance that so that we can be our best selves both on the road and in the home? If you want to skip ahead and find the magic antidote, go ahead, but you won’t find it. If I had that kind of answer, I would have shared it with you.

What I can share with you is that we as a culture put our heads in the sand when it comes to understanding and dealing with suffering. It is all around us, and let me tell you, as someone who competes regularly, it infiltrates the running scene through and through. Most of us on some level have a desire to compete, to prove ourselves, to prove the effectiveness of our training. Why else would we race, if it were not to chase that sense of accomplishment or victory, whatever that looks like. If we are not careful, that competition can consume us, and the thrill of the chase can poison our lives. Just this past weekend, I participated in a virtual race, pushing my body to the point of passing out, and of course, suffering. 

Because I didn’t deal with the aggression and agitation that comes with a race, I spent the next few days acting unkindly, short tempered, and ill mannered. That has been an unfortunate theme throughout my career as a runner, leading to such nicknames as “Oscar the Grouch,” the “Angry Chimp,” and “the Mini Hulk.” I wish that wasn’t the case, but because I did not deal kindly with my body, my soul did not deal kindly with me or those in my life. In the future, I must be more aware of the nature of competition, so that it remains a pursuit of fun and joy, not suffering and agony. We do not get bonus points or extra money for suffering more. There is a healthy balance to it all that I have yet to master but will keep working on it. When it is race time, there will be discomfort and some pain, but we must manage it, like anything else in our lives, so that it does not consume us. If we cannot compartmentalize the suffering we feel on the road, it can bleed into our lives and poison us. 

However, the suffering is not isolated to the physical pain. There is another form of suffering prevalent in our community. I have seen it time and time again in our running community, from the very first moment I took competitive running seriously. One of my first takeaways from the running community when I became serious about running was this overall sense of toxicity. Our roads are plastered with the stories of running related dramas, team versus team strife, runners coming to blows at the start line, trash talking on social media, ostracizing others, acting violently towards our fellow runners. I have heard enough of the stories. I have spread that toxicity into my own life, regrettably participating in those battles. What do these fights and beefs accomplish? SUFFERING, SUFFERING, and more SUFFERING. I have been through several and not once has it ended in a glorious victory. I do not really even know if there ever is a total victory in these situations. Think about it, even if you win the “war,” you still participate and spread suffering. Even if you were on the right side, you did not make a positive contribution towards the sport. What outsider wants to participate in a sport that engages in such aggressive and hurtful behavior? The aggression, backstabbing, and hurtful language only serve to turn people away from our sport. If we want our running family to grow and prosper, then we must have an honest conversation with ourselves. 

You have gotten this far and maybe feel a sense of despair. But there is hope. I have seen so much good in our community. I have seen us rally around an injured runner, taking care of each other through difficult times. I have found some of my best friends in the running community, the kind of people you can depend on, the kind of people who know what it is like to struggle. Think about it, friends, we all share that common knowledge and embrace the struggle when we lace up our shoes. That means we can turn away from bitterness and suffering and embrace each other as human beings.

Because we are human, we all suffer. That can be taken in a depressing context, but at the same time it is liberating. If we all know we suffer, then we have more in common with our adversaries than we think. We can be kind to ourselves and our competitors. We can remind ourselves that we are a running family. That doesn’t mean there are not disagreements and sometimes conflict, but it does mean that we share the common bond of running. We are united in sport, united in passion, and can be united in healing as well. We can be united in standing against suffering, we may not be able to limit the suffering in our world, but the least we can do is limit it in our own home. 

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