I'm a really competitive athlete. I have been from the minute I started playing sports in sixth grade, and probably before that in gym class and on the playground. If an expert were to psychoanalyze this compulsion, he or she might surmise that it stems from a fear of failure brought on by, perhaps, a traumatic event in my childhood like my parents' divorce.
Or maybe I just like the rush that comes from beating someone's ass, sprinting by him or her on my way to the finish line.
Normally, when I run (and do well) in the shorter New York Road Runners races in Central Park, my "strategy" goes something like this: almost sleepless night, nerves, nerves, panic, gun goes off, sprint, pass people, rhythm, check watch, more nerves, finish line approaching, panic, sprint, impressive time, relief.
Based on this fear-oriented plan of attack, I didn't have to participate in the lottery to get into this year's New York City marathon--I'd qualified with my time for last year's Manhattan half-marathon. Actually entering the marathon, then, was an inevitability--it was the natural step in taking my competitive urge to the next-level.
I did all the right things: long training runs, lots of sleep, proper-nutrition (although I'm not entirely sure if two glasses of wine and Steak Frites at Pastis the day before the marathon counts as carb-loading). In the midst of all this, I decided I wouldn't be happy unless I broke three hours and forty minutes, in order to qualify for the Boston marathon. I figured I'd run a 1:30 half marathon, and conventional runner's wisdom suggests doubling that time and adding twenty minutes for a person's estimated marathon time. Piece of cake.
But no training, racing, or competitive instinct can prepare a person for what it's actually like on race day. Thousands of people (almost thirty-eight thousand to be exact) line up at the starting line, running into and around each other, like baying cattle on their way to certain death in the slaughterhouse. Some are jumping around excitedly, some look grimly determined, and some just look like they want to throw up.
Marathoners, for all of their various shapes, sizes, sensibilities, attitudes, emotions, and nationalities, are the toughest people I've ever seen. The winner of the females--a Brit named Paula Radcliffe, who finished in just over 2:23--gave birth this year . And I thought I was tough.
Tough, and competitive for that matter, I'm learning, is relative. I finished in 3:47, missing my self-imposed 3:40 goal. But I'm prouder of that "failure" than I've been about anything I've ever done. Because for the first time in my athletic life, a switch flipped. I was going to be part of something historic and for some reason, that fact superseded my "only the strong survive/pain is a sign of weakness leaving the body" mentality. I woke up calm and happy, and from the moment the gun went off, I ran a relaxed race with a smile on my face, sticking with two of my friends the whole way. Instead of wildly tearing through the course and feeling awful in the pursuit of a goal time, I simply set out to enjoy (as much as one can truly enjoy running for 26.2 straight miles) the thousands upon thousands of people cheering me on (literally: my name was emblazoned on my shirt), and run.
On Sunday morning, WNYC talk show host Brian Lehrer opined that the marathon is "an amazing testimony to optimism"--in other words, sometimes there are more important things than competition. This time, the battle was with me, and I won.