On Competition

Once again this year’s The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships, which happened less than two weeks ago, was one of the most competitive races of the season. Since its inception nearly 10 years ago, the large prize purse has helped this event to be consistently labeled with descriptions such as “the most competitive 50 miler ever”. This year’s race was no exception, and I heard this description used at least a few times in the days leading up to the race. Much has been made over the past several years about these types of high-competition races and the effects they are having on the sport as a whole, but one thing that has not been discussed nearly as often is just what it means for a race to be competitive, or for that matter what it means for an individual to be competitive.

There are many ways to look at this question, but I am interested here in discussing the more emotional, individual (i.e. subjective) aspects of competitiveness as compared to the more scientific or objective aspects. I’ve seen plenty of algorithms and pie charts which attempt to define which races have been the most competitive, and I won’t go as far as to say that none of this information is useful, but I will say that I have yet to see any entirely objective interpretation of a race’s competitiveness that doesn’t have very noticeable flaws and/or limitations. To me, then, despite the obvious potential for inaccurate biases and human error, the most effective way to determine the competitiveness of a given race is for highly knowledgeable individuals to make careful judgments as to the overall ability of the runners in a race (for example, Bryon Powell and Meghan Hicks–just saying).

Isn’t this after all what we are really talking about when we discuss the competitiveness of a race? Are not the most competitive races those which have the most capable field of runners in relation to other races? Or to take it one step further, races which would be the most difficult for anyone not running the race to be able to place well in or win. For me this is the most logical way to judge a race’s competitiveness. The higher the likelihood that someone already entered in the race would win the race no matter who else ran, the more competitive the race is in my mind. As I’ve already touched on here, I think this is something that knowledgeable individuals can generally judge more accurately than any scientific calculation.

Moving then from races to individual runners, what does it mean for an individual to be competitive? This is where things take a full turn in my mind. Certainly the term can still be used to define runners in the same way that it is used to define races, which would thus imply that a competitive runner is a faster runner or a runner more likely to finish near the front of a race, but more often when we talk about an individual being competitive we are referring to their desire to compete and/or their desire to succeed/win.

This is an area where I have generally come to believe that there are three distinctly different types of people. There are those who simply aren’t generally competitive, those who are competitive due almost exclusively to a strong desire to compete, and those who are competitive due primarily to a strong desire to win. At quick glance, these last two might seem like one and the same, but I believe they are in fact very different from each other. Having a strong desire to compete is generally a very different personality type and approach than having a strong desire to win. I’ve certainly come across very accomplished runners whose primary drive is to succeed/win, but through my observations I have come to believe that it is actually the runners who simply like to compete (regardless of the outcome) who have the best chance of succeeding, and who generally seem to be the runners who win these highly competitive races.

I think there may be several factors contributing to this, but I believe the most significant is that the more we enjoy something, the more likely we are to succeed at it. This isn’t to say that I don’t think people who compete primarily for the purpose of trying to win don’t enjoy the experience, but I do think that when winning is your primary reason for competing you are much less likely to consistently enjoy the experience, and thus become less likely to actually achieve your primary goal of winning/succeeding. Certainly I have seen people transition from one of these three types to another, but in most cases I feel like people are typically one type for most or all of their lives.

The vast majority of runners fall into the category of being competitive by virtue of having a strong desire to compete. This is evidenced by the mid- or back-of-the-pack runner who has no chance of running anywhere near the front of the pack, but who goes out on race day and gives 110% to push themselves as far as possible in relation to the other runners. This is also evidenced by the front runners who keep coming out in huge numbers for races like the TNF EC 50 Mile, despite the fact that there are hundreds of other races throughout the year that they would have a much better chance of winning. I think there is a common mindset that brings so many of us together as runners. This is that we are extremely driven to compete, but not necessarily driven by winning.

On race day, we want to go out and run against as many like-minded runners as possible, and the more driven other runners are to compete in a particular event, the more driven we become. In the end someone has to win, and in nearly every major race, the winner used an immense drive to compete, and put in the preparation to be able to go out and execute a race in which they run faster than everyone else on race day. Down the line, though, all the way to the very back of the pack, there are runners who are just as competitive, and who can take just as much satisfaction from going out and giving their all. Sure, there is something very special about winning a race, but not simply because we won, but instead because we gave our all and our bodies responded in an efficient and satisfying way, something which is completely independent of what place we finish in a race. Winning is great, but it’s really nothing more than a bit of extra icing on the cake that is competing.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Which of Geoff’s three categories would you classify yourself into? Are you non-competitive entirely? Are you competitive for the sake of the competition? Or, do you compete to win?
  • What do you think about the subjective versus objective ‘measures’ of competitiveness that we see filtering among our sport over the past years?

There are 13 comments

  1. Carsonaceae

    To me, the most competitive race is the one with the greatest number of runners with a proven pedigree or likelihood of a podium finish.

    1. grroes

      The flaw with the 'likelihood of podium finish' view is that as a race has fewer and fewer faster runners it has more and more people with the likelihood of a podium finish.

  2. ClownRunner

    You know, it's interesting, the little film that JB Benna did of you racing against Uli Steidl in the 2009 race was pretty much the first cool trail running video I ever watched. Now I watch all sorts of footage put to music, etc–but it was such a novel thing for me then, watching you guys tear down those trails overlooking the Pacific. So, tell us, was your level of competitiveness pretty high during that race? :)

    1. grroes

      That was certainly one of the more satisfying competitive events i've ever been a part of. As i touched on in this article, my competitiveness on that day was all about a strong drive to compete, as compared to a strong drive to win. The fact that Uli ultimately got the better of me that day was unfortunate (for me), but doesn't really take anything away from the overall experience.

  3. ericneil

    Interesting! One difficulty here is that in defining these two sense of competitiveness we are helping ourselves to the notion of having a `desire to compete', but it is the notion of being competitive which we are trying to understand in the first place. I agree that there is a difference between a comparative sense of being competitive–having a strong desire to run well in relation to other runners in the race–and a stricter notion of having a strong desire to win the race. As you note, someone who has no chance of winning (and who knows this) can still be competitive in the comparative sense: they can still be driven by a strong desire to push themselves as far as possible in relation to other runners. But, in the case of those runners at the front of the pack–the top five or so at TNF 50, for instance–I wonder–and I'd be interested to hear the thoughts of any of these runners on this–if the two senses of competitiveness may coincide. That is, is the desire to compete in this case really distinct from the desire to win? It seems clear that in this case trying to outrun the other runners one is competing against is trying to *win the race. (And if being driven by the “desire to compete'' is not simply trying to outrun other runners, then I am not sure what it is.) Of course, this isn't to say that one's only goal is to win, or that one doesn't just enjoy the *attempt to outrun one's competitors. And it certainly doesn't mean one doesn't intend to try and push oneself as hard as one can, just for the sake of doing so, or for the sake of seeing what one is capable of. But it would mean that, insofar as someone in this position wants to compete, s/he wants to win.

    I'm not suggesting that all of the runners at TNF 50 who were actually contenders were necessarily trying to win; but surely *some of them were. Moreover, I'm supposing that at least some of these runners–the ones who were contenders and who were trying to win–were competitive in the “desire to compete'' sense (what I'm calling the comparative sense of being competitive). The question I'm raising, then, is whether, for this (small) class of runners, the desire to compete was just the desire to win. Or whether we should say that they really had two desires, the desire to win and the desire to compete.

    1. grroes

      yeah, I suppose that the very top level runners are inherently 'running to win' by virtue of having a strong desire to compete. In my experience though, the desire to compete has always been much stronger than the desire to win. Finishing 2nd or lower in a race that I feel I gave 100% and had a strong run has always been more satisfying than winning a race that I'm able to coast through. If winning were the primary desire for most front runners you wouldn't see so many of them flocking to a race like the TNF 50 where the chance of any of them winning is so much lower than it would be at nearly any other race they could do. This isn't to say that folks (myself included) don't go into a race with the mindset that they are running to win it, but I haven't met too many runners who go into a race where winning is their primary reason for running the race.

      1. ericneil

        I see that for many front runners (Sage, for instance) the desire to win is not the primary desire for many front runners, even if it may be one of the desires involved. To me that seems natural and appropriate. Though I wonder if TNF 50 is really the best indication of that (especially given its substantial prize purse! :)). While it's true that the chance of any one of them winning is much lower than it would be at nearly any other race, at best what their entering the race anyway shows is that their primary goal is not winning just any old race—for all that, it may still be that their primary goal is winning that particular race. And, of course, there would be much more satisfaction in winning a race like TNF 50 than there would be in winning a race where there is much less competition. So it is understandable that someone would have a stronger desire to win TNF 50, than s/he would have to win a much less competitive race. At any rate, I think you're right that not many runners (or, ultrarunners anyway) do enter a race where their primary reason for running it is to win (even if they know they have a good chance of doing so). But the issue, after all, isn't whether winning is the primary desire. It's whether the desire to compete is, at least in some cases, identifiable with the desire to win. (I grant that in many (most?) cases it is not; the question is whether it is not, even in the case of the frontrunners who have a clear desire to compete with one another.) If these are identifiable, this doesn't mean the desire to win must be the primary desire, or even that winning is seen as an internal goal or intrinsic good. (And as Sage suggests, it is not plausible that winning is an intrinsic good.) There could still be other, stronger desires involved, such as the desire simply to run one's best. In my own case, I think this may be what drives me more than anything. But it is sometimes hard to be sure what your motivations are, let alone their relative strengths. In local races where I've finished in the top three (a far cry, of course, from a race like TNF 50 but maybe not different in kind as it relates to the topic) I find it sort of hard to distinguish my desire to compete–insofar as I have this desire, anyway, which isn't always clear to me–from my desire to outrun the others. On the other hand, ClownRunner mentions the 2009 race between Uli and Geoff, and this is a compelling one for me anyway. It is tempting to think this race clearly shows the view I'm considering is false, because it shows that in Geoff's case the desire to compete was completely satisfied (as he puts it, Uli's winning did not take away from the overall experience), whereas the desire to win was not. So they must be distinct desires.

        Anyway, the nature of competition is a fascinating topic and one I will continue to think about. Thanks for reflecting on it. Cheers!

  4. jonharr1

    The nature of competitiveness is very elusive, as Geoff expressed. While it is fun to speculate about who will perform best in any given event, the variables that come into play in this sport are plentiful and make it difficult to value previous performances based on our limited observations as spectators. As the sport evolves, I believe reporting and record-keeping will keep time with it and we will, ultimately, have an ample supply of data from which we can gain a more well-rounded perspective of specific performances and the implications they may have for the prediction of future performances.

    Here is a prototype of a system/formula that could be useful in assessing the competitiveness of runners:

    In order to rate the competitiveness of a runner in any given event you must determine their Projected Performance Rating (Ppr). To do this, you first must determine the entrant’s Performance Percentage (Pp) for each previously completed event and/or FKT-style effort.

    The first step in calculating a runner's Performance Percentage (Pp) is finding their Efficiency Rating (eR) for the event.

    The eR is determined based on the following two variables

    Average 3 hrs distance covered on 1) smooth track, 2) dirt road, 3) roots and rocks, 4) super technical/scrambly.
    —1) smooth track & roots and rocks weighted 1.0, 2) dirt road weighted .87, 3) super technical/scrambly weighted 0.8.
    —Miles 25-60 of an event weighted 1.0, miles 60-75 weighted as 0.87, and miles 1-25 and 76-100 weighted as 0.8

    Average 15 mile split time (in minutes)with: 1) 6000 vertical feet (weighted, .75, 2) 4,000-5,999 ft (weighted .87), 3) 1,800-3,999 (weighted 1.0), 4) <1,799 (weighted .75)

    Next, you determine the Performance Percentage (Pp) by taking the eR of the competitive event or FKT-style effort, adjust it for strength of competition (the relative eR of finishers within 3 hours for 100-mile events), Transitional Efficiency, and Closing ratings, which are outlined below.

    -Transitional Efficiency- this statistic is a reflection of crew and runner as it determines the efficiency of an aid-station refuel based on how many miles preceded and how many came after, and the Efficiency Rating for the respective sections of the course.

    -Closing- speed (mph) at which last 15 miles of the 100 mile event were completed

    Runner Rating (rr) is determined by considering all Pps, weighted appropriately based on distance from event (IF older results less accurately reflect projected performance).

    Using the Weather Index, Runner Rating, and Course & Elevation Ratings, the projected eR rating for an event can be determined

    -Individual performance percentages are awarded a Weather Index-temp score, which is derived from the eR for previous events and their race day conditions (temp, precipitation, humidity) and then compared to the projected forecast for the event.

    -Course & Elevation Rating- Courses are rated based on the terrain type and total elevation gain, these ratings are formed by comparing previous participant’s eR for distinct sections of the course with other similarly rated sections.

    Next, we consider the projected eR relative to that of other relevant competition in the event and determine the Projected Performance Rating (Ppr) for the event in question.

  5. @SageCanaday

    While it is very nice to place well and earn prize money in a race, these are ultimately still external goals. What I get a kick out of the most (and what I think most MUT Runners do…heck any distance runners for that matter) is the intrinsic goal of pushing oneself 100% and finding that sense of self improvement. I think that is still the ultimate goal and what keeps us coming back from more. Having other runners around us to push us certainly helps bring out the best in us when it comes to fighting through the fatigue/pain/self-doubt…And it's there where one finds "flow" and where the real, lasting rewards come from (for me usually remembering back to when I doubted myself somewhere in the middle of they race and then "flipped the switch" and just attacked the suffering/fatigue). Passion and heart in running (as well as mental fortitude) triumphs quantitative data any day!

  6. Bradturf

    Geoff's 3-categories summarize the membership of global running clubs and USATF association teams. So join a club to win as an individual, compete and score for your team, or just enjoy the social aspect! If you live in CT, join the Mohegan Striders!

  7. johnnyb2122

    There are always races where maybe the mid pack runners or back of the pack runners put in more effort personally than the front pack. When saying a race is competitive, it has had the same meaning since the early days of track. It doesn't mean that anyone can win it. It just means that the runners in the field are more of high caliber than other races. Lets just use a 5k for example. Race A has the winner run 15:30, 2nd 15:45, 3rd 19:50, 4th 20:30. Race B has the winner 15:30, 2nd 15:45, 3rd 16:00, 4th 16:15. It doesn't matter what the effort level of the runners were, Race B is clearly more competitive. This years Northface was just plain crazy competitive. The overall quality of the runners in the race far exceeded any Ultra I can think of. In my opinion and discussions I had with friends, I really only thought there were 4 possible guys that could win. Three of those guys went 1st-3rd. So like many races, it was clear who was going to compete for the win. But the 4th -50th were just crazy fast debt and great runners. Ten years ago, some runners could go to tons of Ultra's all over the place and pull out a win with little effort. Now days, a lot more races are more competitive and the same effort level won't work. That's all "competitive race" race means. I think what is being more described in the blog is "Effort" a runner puts in a race. This is only the way I see it and know I could be totally wrong and most likely am because I usually am.

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