Whether you choose to believe it or not, you’re always competing with yourself. I know I do. It’s inevitable that we compare our current selves to our past selves. We want to know how we’ve grown or changed. We ache to know we’re improving somehow, becoming better people, surpassing our old selves, or surpassing our young selves.
But here’s something to consider. Perhaps what we’re all doing by competing with ourselves is not the best strategy for self-improvement in the long run. Pun intended.
Don’t get the wrong idea. We’re not about to advocate lowering your standards here. That’s not what self-improvement is all about. We will advocate understanding the nature of your standards and what healthier competition with yourself really looks like.
It all starts with knowing your realistic baseline. For me, I know that baseline has shifted slightly with age. At age 25 (shown in the photo above) I ran 31:10 for 10k.
This past year at age 56, I ran 45:00 for 10K. That’s a 14 minute difference, or about a 30-second loss per year in terms of racing speed. I once averaged 5:00 per mile for 10k. Now I run 7:00 per mile and don’t actually expect to get a whole lot faster than that.
But also learned that I could not run a whole lot faster than 5:00 per mile at age 25. And I beat myself up at times for not being national or world class. That meant at times I did not enjoy the success I was having in winning or placing high in some races. Sure, I was proud to win at times, but the angst at not being even faster hung with me.
There are some things you learn with age. Thinking back on the reasons why I ceased competing in road racing, they turned out to be good choices. I had a young family to raise. My career needed more focus. I decided for better or worse not to put so much time into long distance running. The 80-mile weeks were not conducive to those other things in my case.
It was also true that I needed an emotional makeover of sorts. So much of my self-esteem was tied up in running that I needed to build a richer identity. Competing and training had long been my way of making myself feel better about myself. But as noted earlier I still did not allow the success to actually become a foundation for self-actualization. That was kind of screwed up, actually. So I set out to change that aspect of my personality.
Throughout the 1990s I kept running for fitness and fun and stress relief. I’d still run races but not for competition’s sake. I did team duathlons at times, or jumped in a road race when I felt really good. But obligatory running was out of the question in my mind. I’d done that from middle school through my middle 20s. I’d given myself over completely to the sport, and to a flaw at times. There was more to life, I realized.
No longer running from yourself
Perhaps you’ve worked through periods of your life where you considerately worked on your mental or emotional health. I know I did. It started in my late 20s when I recognized some anger issues from my upbringing. Then it became evident that anxiety was part of my makeup. Then a friend told me that depression is the flip-side of anxiety. A whole bunch of things in life began to make more sense as a result. I acknowledged my family’s history going back through my grandfather who experienced emotional challenges, especially during times of stress. I worked at understanding these emotional patterns and built a foundation for mental health that was less susceptible to old triggers and habits of mind that opened the gates to emotional instability. I became a stronger person supported by a liberal faith that looked for healthy resolutions in work, family and life in general.
So I was grateful when I’d done some preparation work when real life challenges came along in the middle 2000s. That’s when my late wife was first diagnosed with cancer. It turned our lives upside down. But by that point I was no longer running from myself. I knew how my brain worked and knew when and where to get help. I sought counseling during times of great duress. I took mild forms of anti-anxiety medicine and anti-depressants to cope with the ups and downs of cancer survivorship.
Wisely I’d also recognized that communication was important to the foundation of marriage. Before my wife’s cancer came along I set out to improve that aspect of our relationship, and it paid dividends.
And when all that piled up I went for long runs when I could, and took up cycling as a complement to the running because my legs and knees and hips were telling me they needed balance. Strength work became part of the routine as well.
Life as a competition
Some people don’t like to think of life as a competition. There are entire religions, zen and Buddhism and many others that try to help us release the ego from the front of our brains so that the rest of our minds can grow in awareness. And I agree with some of that, but have also found that competition can be a healthy thing. It’s fun if you understand and accept that to lose can be as instructive and gainful as winning. That is the yin and yang of life as a competition. Winning and losing really are the same in many ways.
Now when my wife was sick and I went out with buddies to train and could not keep up because I was so stressed out and on drugs, it was hard to accept that I could not compete with them or even with myself. I had to accept that I had a form of PTSD brought on by the repeated impacts of dealing with cancer, financial challenges, work and life changes.
But sooner or later you come to appreciate in that circumstance that it is moving that counts, not how fast you do it. Every step is thus a triumph, especially the first one.
Keep on moving
So I now look upon my training and racing as an expression of life, not just a competition with myself or others. That combines my love for the arts as well,. It turns out that competing can become more like a dance, not just a fight.
All of life opens up when you view it through the lens of expression, not just competition. I look at the photo I created above and realize that all the running and riding and swimming I now do is an expression of that person that is constantly growing and changing through these activities. From new friends discovered in these sports to the writing I do about them, it’s all about expression. And competition just comes along for the ride.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship. It is available on Amazon.com.