When competition is more than a zero-sum game

Here is what I remember about running the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon — crying. Lots of crying. No joke. I cried a lot. I cried during training. I cried when my friends who were going to come and be my support crew bailed. I cried at the first checkpoint when I couldn’t get my Camelback opened to refill with water. I cried at various points on the course, the 26.2 miles that wound through Letchworth State Park on the Finger Lakes Trail, wondering why I thought I could do this, doubting pretty much every fiber of my being.

At the second-to-last check point, I got a pep talk from a friend who was volunteering and a time check. I had made all the cut-off times and it looked promising I would finish. Still everything hurt and I thought I was going to die, although I knew that wasn’t true. I would pass out before dying.

That was when I saw her. The young woman in the turquoise blue top.



She passed me at that checkpoint. I caught her. Then she caught. We leapfrogged for much of the next few miles. I had a competition going in my head now. I wanted to try and stay in front of her, or catch her when she passed me. It was game on.

But here’s the thing, this interesting twist to competition. I wasn’t thinking that I had to beat her. I didn’t want to crush her. I didn’t make up nasty stories about her. Sure, I was trying to stay ahead, or at least keep pace, with her. But it wasn’t about her. It was about me. It wasn’t about winning (in this case winning = beating this particular person). It was about gutting out the final 10K of this trail marathon. It was about using the competition to bring out the best of what was left in me, to wring out the doubt and find those wells of confidence that were buried deep in my aching body.

In the final few miles, we struck up a conversation. We did those miles together, alternating between running and walking. Angel anded up finishing a minute ahead of me and we became Facebook friends.

Here is what I know: I would not have finished that marathon if Angel hadn’t started playing leapfrog with me on the trail.

I’ve been thinking about characteristics of athletes lately and have talked with many women about what they think makes them an athlete, or what keeps them from defining themselves as an athlete. The idea of competition comes up all the time. Athletes enter competitions. They compete for tangible things (medals, championships, podium spots). They are competitive.

But then, what does it mean to be competitive? Do you have to be gunning for the top spot? A PR? A course record? Is competition automatically a zero-sum game?

I thought about Sehgahunda and Angel. Competition with her helped me shift focus from all-encompassing self-doubt to a challenge. Stay with her, Amy my inner voice whispered. Not from ill will. Not because I hated this stranger (soon to be friend). But because somewhere I knew I could do this. The competition allowed me to find that knowledge and put it to use.

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