Better than you?


From time to time the fact that our children are not taking enough exercise, are eating too much and are likely to have lower life expectancy than preceding generations triggers a debate around getting them more active.  One side argues that what is needed is non-competitive sport.  They argue that children who never win, indeed can never expect to win become demoralised and give up before they discover the joys of sport. The counter view is that competitive sport is vital to a child’s development.  It teaches how to win and lose, the element of competition improves effort and performance.  This argument is presented as an either/or choice.  You have non-competitive ‘exercise’ or you have competition.

I do think that this rather misses the point.

25-30 years ago my Dad was paying me a visit and I was running a 10k race one evening.  I was, at that time, a very committed runner.  I was in good shape and thought I could get a good time.  So I asked him to come on down and watch the race.  It was a local race with a small field in the seaside town where I lived.  From the start we climbed a very steep cliff road, then an out and back course to plunge back down the hill ready for a seafront finish.  I wanted my Dad to be proud of me (what child does not?) and so pushed hard.  In the last stages of the race I was behind someone I knew always posted good times and I determined to hang on.  I pounded down the cliff and emptied myself in the finishing straight.  For me it was a very fast time, in fact a lifetime best that I have never beaten.  I nearly threw up with the effort.

When I met up with my Dad and while waiting to get the official time he looked puzzled “I don’t get it.  You were a long way behind the winners.  You had no chance of winning, so why bother?  You must be daft.  And this lot still finishing well they are beyond belief.”

I didn’t know it at the time but he had just summed up a zero sum view of the world.  In this world only the first place counts.  Second place is first loser.  And unless you can win there is no point in competing.

Much more recently the BBC presenter Clare Balding summed up an opposing view of the world.  After watching her brother run the London marathon her niece asked her if Daddy had won and she replied “Not quite.  Everyone did.”

I have never been lucky enough to run a big city marathon but even in the local races I take part in, the same spirit exists.    Other peoples times and positions are quite irrelevant.  They set a general benchmark of what is achievable and as such the competition spurs everyone on.  Apart from a few at the very front of the field we are all running our own race.  My winning does not prevent someone else from winning their own race.  I am competitive and I will race individuals from time to time during races, I’ll also shout encouragement to those I pass, I try to cheer the marshals and have even applauded spectators for cheering us all on.  When I have finished I sometimes wander back along the course to cheer on those still running.  You see it’s nice to win, but it’s nicer if we all win.

The problem with the zero sum model is that winning equates to beating. Every person who finishes in front of you diminishes your achievement.  Everyone behind you has to be ‘worse’ or inferior to you.  With this mindset it is hard to truly celebrate the success of others whether they are in front or behind you.  Winners don’t want to help losers (after all they might turn the tables) and winning is everything.

Sadly this attitude usually starts with the parents.  My Dad may not have understood why I race when I can’t win but at least he wasn’t overly pushy. We have all witnessed pushy parents, they crop up everywhere and the sports field and school sports day brings them out in droves.  All that matters is that their child wins and is seen to win. Their zero sum mentality that means that others have to lose and they are quite prepared to help that losing along.

There will always be someone better than you and this attitude can only lead to frustration and disappointment.

Fortunately I do think we can have it all.  We can have real competition, with winners and no losers.  We can all aim to be the best we can, to improve our performance, learn from those who are better than us and encourage and teach whenever we can. And if you think that isn’t possible then look at the finish line of any marathon and show me a loser.

There will always be someone better than you
Even if you’re the best
So let’s stop the competition now
Or we will both be losers

I’m ashamed I ever tried to be higher than the rest
But brother I am not alone
We’ve all tried to be on top of the world somehow
‘Cause we have all been losers

I don’t wanna be laid down
No I don’t wanna die knowing
That I spent so much time when I was young
Just trying to be a winner

So I wanna make it clear now
I wanna make it known
That I don’t care about any of that shit no more

Robbie Williams _ Losers




In the past year I started running again.  In October I ran a half marathon and by following a pacemaker to about mile 8 I managed a pleasing time of 1 hour 48 minutes with a lot of optimism that I could improve on that. With the competitive streak in me being given full rein I entered what was billed as a flat and fast half marathon in spring with the aim of getting a better time. In fact I had a spread of target: worst case 1:45, best 1:40.

Unfortunately an injury restricted my training over the winter, with barely any running at all until February and only then with caution.

A week before the race a friend commented that I was obviously ‘…very serious in doing that race.  It’s very competitive and full of really good athletes, all proper runners.’ My injury had flared up again and just getting to the start line was my current target.

On the morning of the race, with rain sheeting down, my injury aching and my wife telling me that ‘no one was making me do this’, I set off with many reservations.  It was clear at the start line that indeed everyone did look  like ‘proper runners’.  However the rain had stopped and despite a cool breeze and overcast skies it now looked like a good day to run.

In distance running, as in many things, pace is everything.  If you set off too quickly you might ‘blow up’ and end up with having a terrible time in all ways.  Running at a even pace is desirable and a ‘negative split’ i.e. the second half faster than the first is highly sought after. Yet it is notoriously hard to reclaim the time lost by setting off too slowly.

I had a decision to make.

Being more than a little competitive I decided to race it and hope to get 1:45 by running at just under 8 minutes a mile.  I’d do the first three miles at that pace and if all was well I’d hang on, if not I’d drop off at three miles to a steady and pain free rate.  The gun went off and there was the usual shuffle towards the line and then we broke into our stride.

Running has been transformed by technology.  In shoes I feel it is a bad thing but in providing data it is superb.  I was able to check my GPS watch to monitor my pace and in the early miles I did so frequently.  The first mile was 7 minutes 30 seconds.  Too fast, that would be good for a 1:38 race.  I slowed to 7.45 in mile 2, around the 1:41 mark.  This was still faster than planned but felt good. Given that I might well slow in the latter stages and the distance covered is usually more than 13.1 miles as you weave around other runners etc. I decided that this would work well for me. The next mile was about the same.

By now the field was strung out and I was running in a small group who were all running at the same pace.  I stopped checking my watch and settled into a rhythm, matching pace with those around me. A guy in those foot glove things pulled away from us easily and I wondered if it was faster barefoot, I let him go and stayed in the comfort of the group.  At the next mile marker a quick glance at my watch showed that we had slowed to 8.15.  I hadn’t noticed but I had slowed considerably.  I now had to push hard to get back up to my desired pace and doing so put me in no-man’s land between groups.  Over a mile or so I caught then passed the next group and saw foot glove guy up ahead.

By mile 8 I was running just behind foot glove guy and was having to work to hold the pace, whilst he looked effortless. We chatted about barefoot running and past races.  Then I noticed that again the pace had slowed.  Now I had a real dilemma.  I could run with foot glove guy, we’d no doubt hit the 1:45 target I’d settled for at the start and it was tough enough holding this pace even though we were slowing.  Or I could push on, pick up the pace and venture into no man’s land again, risking really struggling later on.

I pushed.

I could barely manage a sprint finish  at the end, but with a time of 1:43 I was very pleased.  With no injuries and better training 1:40 is likely – in fact I am thinking about 1:35 as a target!

Back home I could barely stay awake.  As I lay on the couch with a celebratory bottle of red I reflected on the event.  I could have cried off , I had good reason.  I could have turned up but taken it easy.  I could have settled into a nice steady pace and ‘raced’ in the first group, maybe feeling good about a nice pick up in the last mile to break away and beat them all.  I could have stayed with foot glove guy and achieved my target.

It struck me that in many things the targets we set and who we compete against affects our results.  Hitting an easy target is hardly an achievement.  Racing in a slow group is good for the ego and hurts less, but leads to mediocre results.    As our performance fluctuates we have to adapt our targets and who we see as the competition. It would be stupid of me to have tried to race the winners (1:12), but I can hold them up as examples of excellence to see what I might learn from them and one thing they do is keep pushing themselves.

The truth is that in life and business we have to run our own races.  If we seek excellence we have to set tough goals and compare ourselves to excellent competition. We have to keep pushing. We must take calculated risks. And we have to continually review how we are doing against our targets and our real competition, not against those who just happen to be around at the time.

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say

Time Pink Floyd