“Okay, who’s gonna win?”
Friend-and-personal-tri-guru, Ted, tells the story of being in the big pre-race meeting at Ironman Coeur d’Alene and the race director asking the crowd of 2000 Ironman competitors this question. Half a dozen guys raised their hands. “Okay," he said, "you guys listen to these race instructions, everybody else…follow them!” The crowd roared in laughter.
At Ironman California 70.3, Charlie was standing on the shore waiting for the swim start and he said to the guy next to him, “Man, I’m nervous.” The guy looked at him and said, “Nervous? You gonna win your age group?” Charlie laughed, “Uh, not even close.” The guy said, “So, what’s to be nervous about?”
Last Sunday, at Ironman Canada I was at mile 19 when I calculated that, aching back and all, if could maintain the pace that I had been running since the turnaround that I could finish in just under 14 hours (one of my personal goals). But, just under. In fact, I’d probably have to “sprint” to the line. But here was the rub. I really wanted to break 14 hours. That time felt like a "victory" to me. But, if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to stop for a few seconds and have my kids hold my hands and trot with me to cross the line. And because many people have time goals like that, it would probably more competitive coming down to the end (which would also make it difficult to run in with my kids). So, against my nature, I slowed down. I finished in 14:06 with both my kids with me, and that moment was one of the greatest of my life. As the camera picked us up on the big screen, the announcer said over the loud speaker, “Now that is one happy Ironman!”
I “lost” the time goal, but won so much more. Which leads me to my next lesson for both triathlons and life: If you compete, you lose. It was the first hard lesson that I had to learn. If I tried to run with the guy trying to pass me, stay with the cyclist trying to drop me, hang with the swimmers who effortlessly stroke away from me, I will most likely end up "blowing up" and will have to stop the race. The only thing I really had to worry about was whether my competitive nature would make me lose out on all that I was training for.
We live in a very competitive society. Most of us think that life is zero-sum game and only the winners survive. And undoubtedly there are many, many places in life where it, at least, feels that way. But for most of us, competition only brings out the worst in our human nature. While there is nothing wrong with the desire to push yourself to be and do the very best you can, competition, as opposed to excellence, is all about beating someone else (or every one else.)
On the way home from the Philippines I read the recent Business Week issue on “competition”. Indeed, the front cover blared teaser headlines about how the “competitive gene” is alive and well in American business…well, kind of. In story after story, the emphasis was shifting. Competition is more about doing your best in all of life, not being the best at one thing. We may (deservedly) laud riches and accolades on the Lance Armstrongs of the world, but in truth we want to be good at what we do AND have a good marriage AND a good relationship with our family AND some other meaningful pursuits in life. Many of us know all too well, that you can “win” at work and lose in life.
The problem is NOT striving for “excellence” but instead striving to WIN, to beat others, to secure the spoils of life just for ourselves. But, I must quickly add—and this is such a trap for triathletes or anyone else who has been dedicated in the pursuit of a big goal—many of us are in constant competition with a foe we will never, ever, ever defeat: our idealized self.
No matter how well we do; we almost pride ourselves on demanding more of ourselves. Our internal voices are the harshest coaches and before long, the very activities and accomplishments that we undertake for the joy of it, become another way in which we are just not measuring up. Instead of excellence, we seek perfection. Instead of enjoying learning, stretching and growing as a person, we berate ourselves for how far we still have to go.
My wife and kids observed at the Ironman that the slower a person’s time, the happier was their face, the more they were relishing in the accomplishment, the more they seemed to be enjoying themselves. And the faster, the more gifted, the more fit and accomplished a person was, the more uptight and self-absorbed, surly and miserable they seemed. The joy of an event that was dreamed up 30 years ago by a bunch of people who just wanted to see if they could do it, was lost in "split times" and attempts to “qualify for Kona” or whatever "winning" meant to them.
In so many ways, I see the same thing happening in the church. While we may never admit it, many pastors have lost the joy of doing something that is just an amazing privilege. We put pressure on ourselves to have the biggest church, to become a notable speaker or respected leader. We want to be consultants or teachers who are in demand, we want our ministries to be admired by others. What is interesting, however, is how much more the church cares that we are just faithful pastors who love and lead them well. They cheer us on for even running the race and accepting the mantle of leadership. They are just glad that we don’t give up.
Just like the people in the pew, the crowds at Ironman all seemed to get it even more than the “competitors”. The crowds lined the streets until midnight cheering us on. They understood that the people pounding the pavement well into the evening were just regular folks who were stretching themselves to the limit. And the later it got, the louder it got. As one person noted, “In triathlon, the slower you go, the bigger the cheers.”
If I had tried so hard to compete with myself or someone else, I wouldn’t have had the “victory” of running across the line with my kids. And that moment is worth more to me than any marker of what someone else (or my own internal critic) thinks is a victory. This is a good thing to remember the next time I think I have to compete with the pastor of the mega church or the guy with big book contract. “If you compete, Tod, you really do lose…a lot.”