Running was the first sport I’ve ever really participated in over the course of my life. Though I rode recreationally, I was never a competitive equestrian and only ever participated in 3 shows that were my barn’s version of a dance recital. There were no team sports of any kind, either.
In a lot of ways, then, running as it currently exists has really framed the way I approach fitness, sports, and racing. In running, it is commonplace for people to compete against themselves. In running, you get a medal for finishing the race, for completing your training, and participating in an event. Maybe for some of us, “race” isn’t the right word to use–maybe it’s more of a dance recital, a way for you to show off all the training runs you’ve completed and the effort you’ve put into covering x distance.
Races are appealing not (always) because I’m going to win (though I have signed up for 200 person 5ks for a shot at placing in my age group) but because it’s nice to be around other runners. It’s nice to get up and just shut down an area to do something I (typically) genuinely enjoy doing. I don’t think of as a “parade” of the slow, but more like an opportunity to revel in and enjoy my pastime with others of like minds. Sure, I push myself often and try to see what I’m capable of doing that day, but even on those days there’s no guarantee I’m running my fastest pace ever.
So when it came to races for my former club, I brought that attitude, the experience I had as a recreational runner. While everyone else was saying, “I’m not getting in a boat if we’re not going to win,” I was thinking of a race day as a fun way to spend time with other rowers and kind of revel in this thing that we all collectively enjoy. One woman recently informed me that she wasn’t racing if she wasn’t going to be in the A boat that was going to win and I just stared at her blankly and said, “But, that makes no sense. If you’re not in any boat, how can you possibly win? Isn’t being in a boat and rowing hard, like, a win over not doing anything?”
It was that old running slogan, dead last finish beats did not finish beats did not start (DLF>DNF>DNS) except I was the only one who spoke that language of what I now think of as “fun failure.” To a bunch of people who participated in competitive sports in high school and/or college, my ethos of “losing can still be kinda fun” was completely foreign and downright bizarre. This isn’t to say that runners are collectively lazy or lacking in the competitive spirit, because even us slower recreational runners have placed a target on someone else’s back that we want to beat, but rather that it’s directed differently.
Some might say that my generation generally has lost the competitive spirit. That everyone gets an award, and thus your finisher medal is meaningless. I would disagree with this by saying it’s not that I’m not competitive or that I don’t strive to improve, it’s just that I have always been expected to function that way in other parts of my life (like school or my job) and running has been a way for me to shelve that. To find something I just enjoy doing and to do it on my own terms and with my own definition of success that requires no annual review or input from anyone else.
So as my time with my former rowing club came to a close, I really struggled with leaving, with why I wanted to leave, and why I felt so unhappy there. I realize now as summer race season looms before us that it was because participating in the team meant surrendering the sense of “success” I had crafted through recreational running and the sense of agency and control I had over it that allowed me to adapt it to meet my current emotional and physical whims or needs. There was now a review process wherein my success was judged by an outside party (erg tests) and race participation wasn’t fun unless it included outright winning. Suddenly, it was a job and I already have one of those.
I’ve since retooled. I’ve changed rowing clubs and am with a group where the competitive people have their boat and then I’m in another; racing and erg tests are optional and the fancy races are limited to the competitive teams that have many more requirements than my easygoing rec program.
As for running, I continue to shift my definition of success, which lately means getting out for any run at all. And I’m quite okay with that.
Do you think recreational running has affected how you view and participate in sports?