On Competition

Geoff Roes discusses the current competitiveness of trail ultrarunning.

By on December 17, 2014 | Comments

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?
Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.