I’ve had plenty of running rivals over the years. Hundreds, I’d say. Some names I remember. Most I’ve forgotten. A couple names are burned into my memory. Ask a lot of runners, and they’ll tell you that they are their own greatest rival. I get that. It’s about that post-race feeling that today we weren’t able to get out of our own way. But even when we say, “I beat myself today,” we are usually saying so with reference to some external benchmark: the clock, or a rival. How else would we know that we had beaten ourselves? And why would it matter? So until I see my name listed twice in the race results page (dismissing the occasional glitch), I’ll consider that I don’t really count as my rival.
So who are our real rivals? In a race, for 99% of us, 99% of the time, there will always be the runner just in front of us, and the runner just behind us. We paid entry fees to ensure that these rivals would be there. In every race, there are scores, sometimes hundreds, of races within the race. These are the best races because they are each products of a kind of natural selection. Forget waves. By the middle of a race, we know these few competitors actually qualify for this race-within-the-race (based on no wishful thinking, no soft qualifying race run eight months prior) because they’re running right beside us, just in front of us or just behind us. They are running our race, and we are running theirs. We may make the mistake, as I see it, of deeming some such rivals insignificant on the grounds of standard race divisions. She is a she. I am a he. He is young. I am not. We reason that it doesn’t matter what we do in relation to them. This may be true enough with regard to the results page. But it is not true with regard to our psyches. Intellectually, we may be dismissive of the opposite gendered runner on our heels. But viscerally, we know a true rival when we are in the company of one. And besides, what’s the point of making someone invisible, when they’re breathing that hard? Is that any way to honor their effort? (Incidentally, the rival who catalyzed my most transcendent 15 minutes ever in a race, whose name I’ll never forget, was 10 years my senior and always outside my age division.)
Sometimes we will know our rivals’ names. Most times we won’t. It doesn’t matter. This is a case where the psychological tactic called name it to tame it won’t work. Still, let’s call our nameless male rival Bob, both the one behind and in front of us: together, they’re the Bobs (see the film Office Space if you don’t get the Bobs reference). If it’s Bob’s day to best you, knowing his milquetoast name or even calling it out as he passes you, won’t help. But that’s not to say that Bob can’t help you. Whether you or he is aware of it, you just ran 30 seconds faster for the mile during which the hope of beating Bob floated. Of course there’s the possibility that in that burst you ran Bob’s race and not your own, and thus redlined to a degree that will come back to bite you in about 10 minutes. But probably not. Most recreational, mid-pack runners are not fully committed to the game of precision pacing (and may not even know what their perfect pace is); if that is their game, their rival is the urge to go out too fast or the siren song that features the feel good lyrics, “You’re looking strong today. Better ratchet up the pace.” If Bob is jockeying for the spot just ahead of you, he is probably no more than marginally better than you (at least today) and will have benefited in similar fashion in the attempt to overtake you. This synergy is well documented. We’ve seen it play out from Alberto Salazar’s and Dick Beardsley’s storied 1982 Boston Marathon “Duel in the Sun” to the high fives, thank yous and good jobs in the finishing chute banter of the local race.
Psychologists recognize these two types of people: those who are more interested in people and relationships; and those who are more interested in ideas and things. This is seen in racing. Observe the runner who rarely looks up from her sports watch. She is interested in—even obsessed with–the idea of time. Ironically, she has no time for the runners around her. One wonders why she didn’t opt to spend the morning with just a track and her sports watch. The irregularities of courses (especially in this region) will render the clock competitor a vexed soul, lashing out at herself for again failing to make her time on long courses, hilly trails, and winding pathways on which the phrases, “I got my time!” and, “I nailed my pr!” were said by no one, ever.
Competitiveness can be ugly; I needn’t supply examples. It’s true that racing the clock is a way to distance ourselves from all of that. Better, we reason, to proclaim, “I killed it today!” when that it is time, than to proclaim, “I killed Bob today!” But perhaps we might, in more carefully chosen words, gloat of besting a rival who, if he’s a true rival, was under no compulsion to go a bit easy on us by making the goal artificially attainable (comfortably hard as the oxymoronic saying has it). If we fail to give our best against the clock today, it will not feel disappointed in us nor will it experience the hollowness there is in having beat one who gave less than her best effort. We feel defeated, and it feels nothing. At least when we lose to a person, that person gets to feel elated for a bit, especially if they know we’ve turned in an honest effort. Our loss will have been someone’s gain. There’s all the time in the world to race time. The race one is having with Bob at this moment in time is fleeting. A cosmic eye blink. Bob is fleeting. You are fleeting. But at this very moment, the question is, which of you will be the most fleet of foot?
You, Bob and the present moment represent the opportunity for a human interaction that is immediate, primitive and genuine, with no time for the sort of overthinking and rule-book consultation that too often lead us into the superficial, exsanguinated dealings that characterize the most humdrum of our workaday interactions. Instead, trade leads with a fierce rival for the duration of a race-within-a-race, and your heart will literally not soon forget the experience; the two of you will end up blood siblings in a way that requires no open wounds and leaves no visible scars, just the memory of a muscle maxed out. I submit that nowhere else can one engage a perfect stranger so fully without hint of guile or impropriety. Thoreau lamented that, “…the laboring man…cannot sustain the manliest relations to men. He has no time (my emphasis) to be anything but a machine.” Here’s that word time again. And here’s the perfect way to kill it. Enter a race. Maybe even leave your timing device at home. Make a pact with yourself to be the nemesis of whoever is just in front of you, while fending off whoever is just behind you. Don’t worry, they’ll both be there (unless you are an outlier). And whether you beat Bob or not in your race within a race, you don’t want to make the mistake Dr. Marvin makes in the film What About Bob? In other words, do not let Bob follow you home.