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Character and Competition

Sabrina Little wonders about the character we can build through competing with others.

By on April 20, 2022 | Leave a reply

Last fall, I returned to trail racing after a couple of years away. I had not intended to be away from the trails for that long. This was following the birth of my daughter and the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic when many races were canceled, as well as a stretch of time in which I prioritized road races.

In the six months preceding, I raced from eight kilometers to 50k on the roads, until I grew nostalgic for mud, switchbacks, and finishing races with twigs caught in my ponytail. I signed up for a trail race.

My return to the trails occurred at the 2021 Cave Run Marathon, on my local trails in Kentucky, last October. When the gun sounded, I tucked into second behind a fast man. Within a few miles, three more men passed me on a long ascent into the hills.

It was too quick of a pace for me, too early in the race, so I held back and told myself to be patient. I passed one of them a few miles later. Then, for a long time, I ran alone.

I do not know where my mind wandered to that day (books? family? research?), but, because I was alone, I mostly did not think about the competition. No one was in striking distance.

Around mile 23, I saw two men ahead on a switchback. Instantly, I shifted into race mode. I quietly stalked them, gaining ground, until I could make a decisive pass. Then I surged ahead of both men, accelerating all the way to the finish. I placed second, still well behind the fast man who gapped me in the first mile.

Sabrina Little - 2021 Cave Run Marathon 1

Sabrina Little finishing the 2021 Cave Run Marathon. All photos courtesy of Sabrina Little.

What Makes Us Go?

I often wonder about the motivations that sustain competition — or what, exactly, it is that drives us in moments like the one I described. I am not a sneaky or aggressive person in other spheres of life, so what led me to quietly stalk my competition through the switchbacks? What was responsible for the surge of energy I felt when I saw my competitors, which sustained my hard finish that day?

And, setting this specific instance aside, are there vicious forms of competition? I am certain that there are.

Competing Well

As distance runners, we are fortunate to participate in a sport that is structurally amenable to growth in character. I mean this both in terms of the format of competitions and the kinds of qualities reinforced in competition.

Structure

First, our sport is constituted such that, in order to win, you have to outdo or exceed the competition, rather than physically thwart them or undo them by other means. At a race, competitors line up, shoulder to shoulder on a start line, with a shared intention to do their best.

In an “iron sharpens iron” way, racers bring out the best in one another. Furthermore, the excellence of one’s competitors does not detract from their own performance. Instead, it often calls their own racing to a higher standard. This can be edifying.

There are other sports that are not structured in this way — in terms of exceeding or outdoing — and instead involve making gains through impeding a competitor’s progress. I often wonder whether this translates well into the rest of a person’s life.

For example, in conceiving of an opponent’s yard gains as one’s loss, does this offer practice in thinking of others’ assets as our own losses in other spheres of life? Thankfully, in running, we do not need to ask this question because we can all be excellent at once. Running competition offers practice in emulative relationships, or in outdoing one another in good deeds.

Qualities Reinforced

Second, running is structurally amenable to growth in character because a lot of the same qualities that enable us to compete well in running, also position us to live rich lives outside of it. For example, perseverance, joy, patience, resolve, and courage are good-making features of an endurance athlete.

In developing them, we can perform better. But they are also virtues, or constitutive features of a good life, which help us to self-govern well and to be better community members.

Sometimes people speak as though there is something “pathological” or objectionable about wanting to win, or about being competitive (1). But, at least for running (and likely for many other sports), I do not think this is necessarily true.

Running competition is not inherently problematic or inescapably sustained by vice, particularly when thoughtfully managed. Still, there are at least three ways in which competition regularly leaves the rails.

Vicious Forms of Competing

Envy

Example: Janet won the race, and Susan placed second. Susan resents Janet and wishes Janet never showed up that day.

Søren Kierkegaard defines envy as a kind of “unhappy self-assertion (2).” It involves “feeling bitter when others have it better (3).” Unlike greed — which is plainly acquisitive and just wants what others have, too, envy wants the very thing the other person has (4).

Thus, envy would be appeased if the other person ceased to have that good thing so that neither of you had it. It is fueled by feelings of comparative inadequacy, so resolving a perceived imbalance, in whatever way possible, appeases envy.

Earlier, I described the structure of a running competition as one for which all competitors can be excellent at once, pulling each other to greater performances than they may have been able to accomplish alone. Envy involves the misperception of success as a limited good — that one athlete’s good performance detracts from that of others.

But if everyone gets the best out of themselves, everyone has an achievement worth celebrating. Furthermore, defining success in terms of one’s finishing position is forgetful of the arbitrariness of whoever happens to show up that day. The field may be weak or exceptionally strong. Finishing position is not often a reliable measure of a runner’s performance.

Undermining, Rather Than Outdoing

Example: Janet is a better athlete, so Susan takes performance-enhancing supplements to give herself a fighting chance at victory.

A second unvirtuous form of competition is to give oneself a competitive advantage by undermining the competition. This can happen through cheating behavior such as performance-enhancing drugs, course-cutting, or by some other means of making the competition unfair.

In these situations, the athlete subverts the terms of success for others. Should the athlete win under conditions of cheating, the victory is meaningless.

Other Unfitting Motivations

Example: Susan digs deep to defeat her competition, motivated by a superiority complex. Her head is so big she floats around the course like a hot air balloon.

Aside from envy, there are other motivations for competition that may make you a fierce competitor but also offer practice in being a certain kind of person you may not want to be outside of sport. An example is the vice of pride — an inordinate desire for one’s own excellence, or an inflated sense of self (5). This can involve “finding satisfaction in being superior to others (6).”

Pride crowds out the love of others through self-importance, so it is a bad quality in a neighbor or a friend. A second example is vainglory — “the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others (7).”

Attention-seeking behavior can be a powerful motivator, but we would not be inclined to call the vainglorious athlete’s competitiveness virtuous or well-ordered.

Sabrina Little - 2021 Cave Run Marathon 2

Sabrina Little and her daughter at the 2021 Cave Run Marathon.

Final Thoughts

We can compete well for lots of different reasons. Some reasons are not good ones. It is worth investigating why you push hard when you do, to figure out the kind of internal character you are reinforcing in a competitive setting.

Last fall, I returned to trail racing and rediscovered the joy (and oddity) of competition — how it enables an athlete to dig deeper and fight to perform well. I often have no idea where this drive comes from, but, for the sake of our own integrity and the integrity of the sport, our competitiveness is certainly worth examining.

Call for Comments

  • Where do you think the tendency to compete comes about in you, be it in running or another aspect of your life?
  • Is there anything about competing in running that has translated into elements of your character in the rest of life?

References

  1. M. Johnson. (2020) Three kinds of competitive excellence. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 47(2): 200-216, 200.
  2. Kierkegaard, S.K. The Sickness unto Death. Edited and translated by E. Hong & H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. p. 86.
  3. DeYoung, Glittering Vices. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009. p. 41.
  4. DeYoung, Glittering Vices. p. 43.
  5. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae 162.2.
  6. M. Johnson. (2020) Three kinds of competitive excellence, 202.
  7. K. DeYoung. Glittering Vices, 60.
Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little is a monthly columnist for iRunFar. Sabrina has been writing at the intersection of virtue, character, and sport for the past several years. She has her doctorate in Philosophy from Baylor University and works as an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. Sabrina is a trail and ultrarunner for HOKA and DryMax. She is a 5-time US champion and World silver medalist, and she previously held American records in the 24-hour and 200K distances.