The need to compete

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

Over the weekend I went for a run with a good friend James over some hilly and boggy moorland in Cornwall. It was my first run for over three years, having stopped abruptly with a broken bone in my foot while trying to complete the Race to the Stones ultra marathon*. Despite the fact that James is younger, fitter and demonstrably more talented than I am, a little competitive voice was whispering in my head, telling me to up the pace going up hill. This was ridiculous given that James could have overtaken me at any stage but had the patience not to. Although we only jogged (definitely not ran) 6km I ached like hell afterwards and even more so the following day. How is it that I can ride a bike for 8 hours, but a 40 minute run destroys me?

While I was away in Cornwall a number of club mates took part in a handicapped race on zwift using the Road to Ruins course. I gave it a try this evening giving myself the excuse that as my legs were tired I would only push a bit after half way. This gave me the ready made excuse for not getting anywhere near the faster times and has allowed me to imagine that I would obviously be much quicker if I was taking it seriously.

The previous weekend I took part in my first ever off road event, the Falling Leaves Rough Ride - a 42km route around Staffordshire moorland. This was billed as an event, not a race. You turned up at any time within a 90 minute window and set off at your own pace. The ride was timed but there were no prizes or places. The ride itself was the hardest 42km I have ever ridden / walked. There was plenty of walking to, given that some of the terrain was impossible to ride over. The non-competitive part of it really appealed and Mrs B and I had a great morning riding around together. The goal was just to finish. You couldn't take it too seriously given the fact that it was hard just to stay upright half the time. I won't post the pictures of me digging mud out every part of my Aesir because it would probably make the guys at Meteor Works cry to see what I have done to their beautiful bike.

But the three sessions have made me think about my need for competition, but only the right sort (the sort I can win obviously).

I am caught between the desire to be tested against others and the need to do my own thing.

I am a not a tourer. Despite being interested in other cultures, people and places, I have little desire to keep stopping along the way to investigate, learn and report. I have read books and talked to others who have enjoyed more leisurely journeys by bike than those I have completed. But I don't see myself setting out to cross continents on my own for the sake of exploration or enlightenment. I don't need to go somewhere distant to find myself. I can't see me writing volumes about the views, the landscapes, the monuments I have seen etc. In any case it seems to me that the people who read my blog aren't looking for my advice on the greatest street food you have ever eaten while on a round the world trip to find your inner peace. No. They want to read about the pain, suffering, failure and the small triumphs of middle aged bloke who swears a lot and is rude about Belgium.

And yet, I am not really a racer any more. I have lost most of my desire to compete against the clock.

This is partly because as I age I realise I cannot beat the performances of my youth or frankly even of my thirties and forties. I recognised long ago that it was easier to go longer than it was to go faster for instance. When I reach for books or films about other people riding, I am more attracted to those who have endured and enjoyed individual suffering rather than those who have conquered the world. In part though, I have come to see racing against the clock and against others as futile for me. I have never won anything nor even troubled the top half of the results in most events I have entered.

I am competitive, but more with myself than with others. I think.

But even as I write this, I recognise these are lies. I am intensely competitive. I check my Strava stats and those of my friends. I compare my results to those around me and feel the pleasure of knowing I have ridden faster or further than others in any given event, week or month. I am motivated to try that little bit harder when a friend does something special. I like being recognised within my small circle of friends and followers for the longer, multi-day challenges I have completed. So is my reluctance to race more about my fear of failure rather than a diminishing need to compete? Do I just avoid racing so that I cannot be found wanting? So that I cannot be a loser. What if I can't complete? What if I am last? What if I just embarrass myself? Or do I just lack the guts to take the pain of pushing myself to the limit?

By setting my own goals I can avoid any comparison. There is nothing wrong with setting your own direction, with only challenging yourself. In some ways it is braver to set your own course and better your own limitations, beat your own fears. There is great satisfaction to be had in beating a very personal challenge, but you are unlikely to get much external validation - unless it's from others who also long to conquer the same challenge.

I have heard from others over the past year who also wanted to ride trails, to complete an audax distance, to bikepack and wildcamp. These are the messages I enjoy the most because they come from others like me who recognise that just overcoming one fear can be enough to make you feel like you have won something. So, COVID permitting 2021 will still be a year of another long ride home. Perhaps solo, perhaps with company along the way. I will choose my own route. And it will scare me and excite me in equal measure. I will choose a starting point that makes me wonder if I can actually make it home. Riding my own way. With no clock. And it will be epic. Just me against me.

But still, the Transcontinental looms large in my imagination and will not go away.

*there was absolutely no need for me to name drop the fact I was doing an ultramarathon and this only illustrates my desperate need to show off my competitive credentials. What a wanker. I could of course had edited it out, but leaving it in only further proves my point.

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