Big Losses, Small Wins

by Stephanie Mumford Brown

          A couple years’ worth of mementos for placing, or at least participating,
                                    in local races. The cookies are long gone

I don’t just run for my body, I run for my brain. That may explain why, in the seventh decade of life, I continue to pursue plastic trophies and fake-bronze medals with the avidity of an 8-year-old.

Three years ago, I didn’t think I was taking up running to compete. Sure, I got started (with three whole weeks of practice) so I could enter a friend’s small trail-race fundraiser, but that was just to prove I could finish. Which I barely did, after twisting an ankle and limping the rest of the way.

But even at this infant stage I had a goal, finishing in less than an hour, that was my first taste of the runner-geek’s self-competition. Thanks to the ankle, I lost, so of course I had to try racing again. And again and again. And eventually I began winning the competitions with my own data and taking home age-division medals and cookies.

We all go through defeating periods as time marches on, and I’ve lost the people who used to root for me in life: father, mother, husband. My list of expirations in the past decade also includes three friends, two companies, a couple of romantic relationships, a hunk of money, and a dog. Although things have settled down recently, the long-term trend is inevitable; that’s why they say aging ain’t for sissies.

Is a little gold plastic loving cup an antidote? Substitute? No, but it’s a palliative metaphor. Small wins provide a tally of positives that can offset life’s dings and dents, and even help with smashups.

Both instinct and science tell us that physical exercise aids in dealing with grief. There’s also a fair amount of research on emotions’ role in sports achievement. Do angry athletes win less or more? The scientific answer is, it depends.

Research is less evolved in the opposite direction: the impact of athletic achievement on emotion. A 2007 study of hockey and soccer team members found that:

Differences in well‐being were observed following wins, losses, and during the control period. Specifically, athletes reported lower depression and anger after a win compared to a loss, while lower levels of vigor were observed after a loss compared to after a win and the control period.

Well, duh.

                                            And then there are the golf trophies….

So here’s my hypothesis. Small wins have an outsize ability to offset big losses because they give the winner some hope that her efforts get results—in the context of fails, blows, and jolts that suggest outcomes are random. At the very least, small wins remind the victor that the random outcomes of life can swing positive as well as negative.

I don’t know whether this is science—specifically, psychology—so much as philosophy.

Human functionality relies on the construct that there’s a relationship between effort and end result, yet the more we see of life, the more we see the power of forces and factors we don’t control. I put a huge effort into trying to save my husband’s life from a congenital disease, and he still died.

In the year that followed, I dealt with grief by putting a huge effort into playing golf, and achieved my lifetime low handicap index—this in a sport that’s notoriously random. For once, I got what I deserved, or so I thought, and that thought was cheering.

Running offers a much more reliable input/output equation than golf. Even so, when I got into running, I confess, to try to impress a beau, he nevertheless handed the rose to another woman. Still, I kept on running to offset my sorrow, started training fairly seriously, and within a year began placing in my gender/age division. At least that running input yielded output.

There are many good reasons to run, and to race in particular, especially now that we’re returning to In Real Life events and communalism of endeavor (if not yet to the thrill of the pack start). One of those reasons for racing, let’s all admit it, is the fun of winning something.

I get a kick out of winning when I run, and so do you—whether the win is in the Left-Handed Female Born on a Tuesday in 1960 Division or against your own GPS watch. For one teensy iota of incremental time, the universe seems rational. Tiny triumphs rule.


Stephanie Mumford Brown is Chief Wiseacre at Wiseacre Press, where she’s trying to compile the missing assembly instructions for the second half of life.


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