Competing or Completing?

I spent a happy hour browsing running related videos online yesterday and one that I watched really struck a chord with me. It was the highlights of the 2010 Chicago marathon. I thought that the video was rather nicely made with sweeping panoramas of the runners and some great shots of the city. It really made me want to run the Chicago marathon one day!

But the thing that really made me think about all this marathoning, when I watched the video, was the difference between those who were there to compete and those whose aim was to complete the course. I thought about the difference between the elite and the fun-runners and the relative positions of those in between these two extremes.

Paula Radcliffe is a racer, putting everything on the line for the win

For most people in a marathon, running is something akin to a hobby: a way of staying fit. A personal challenge to rank alongside succeeding at work or going on exciting holidays. An item in their bucket-list.

For some however, the marathon is much more than that. It defines who they are. It shapes what they do, when they do it and why. Career advancement is sacrificed for the chance to train more and more effectively. Relationships are moulded around the everyday requirements of training and racing. These people strive and strain and put as much as they can possibly afford into running.

But where is the boundary? Is there a point, somewhere down the field, where racer turns into runner? Where competitor becomes ‘competer’? Or is it more a state of mind that can be found all they way through the field?

My personal feeling is that there are racers and competers all the way through the field of a race. I will always remember standing on the start line of a cold, wet and wind-blasted 20 mile race a couple of years back when the man next to me – a tiny, lightweight runner in a saggy vest and ancient running shorts – informed me that whilst he might finish in the final few of the race overall, he would make damn sure that he would beat “that bloke over there” – a similarly tiny, lightweight under-dressed chap who I was informed was the current holder of the over-70s winner’s medal from the year before (by the way, my compatriot did indeed win the Vet 70s race that year – apparently he and his nemesis swapped the cup almost every year!)

Taking time to high-five spectators = enjoying, but not racing.

For me, racing is a state of mind. It is wrapped up in the desire to be the best one can be. It is about looking at every aspect of one’s training and preparation and working out how to make it better. It is about making choices, every day, that are designed to result in being a better runner.

I believe that those whose aim is simply to complete a race aim to do what it takes to get through the distance. Time and position in the race is a secondary issue to actually finishing.

For racers the equation is slightly different – certainly, finishing is important, but achieving a PB or achieving a certain position or a time that qualifies the runner for something like the London marathon’s Good For Age entry system, is equally if not more important and not finishing or blowing-up before the end, is a risk worth taking for the chance of achieving something greater than just finishing.

So what are you? Completer or Competer? Do you have goals that feel at the limit of your reach? As my coach is fond of saying: anyone can cover 26.2 miles if sufficiently motivated and fuelled. It might not be pretty, but it is manageable. But for a racer, just getting around is not enough. Are you one of those runners not satisfied with just getting round?

And that was what struck me about the Chicago marathon video. The camera showed the entire gamut of runners as the film cut from those who were most definitely competing – Sammy Wanjiru and Tadesa Kibedi dueling it out in one of the most thrilling races I have ever seen – to those who were just looking to get to the end. I wondered why some people choose to race whilst others choose to get round? And what do you choose?


  1. I believe that once a runner has completed their first 5k, 10k, half-marathon, marathon, or whatever, the minute they enter their next they cannot, possibly only sub-consciously, help but attempt to better their last effort.
    I may never (apart from two charity fun-runs and one poorly attended Parkrun) end up on the podium, but the desire to get a PB or better the time of one of my colleagues in my group at Gateshead Harriers burns strongly. When age catches up with me and my performances dip, I will still be aiming to beat the 20-year-old lining up alongside me and gaining immense satisfaction when I do!
    Competing is in our nature. To deny it is to deny your humanity. Race or die!!!!!

  2. Hi Simon,

    An interesting topic, but I’m not sure there’s such a clear distinction between competing and completing once you get beyond the speedy end of the field. I know quite a few people who don’t necessarily count themselves as runners, but who will enter a race once a year (or sometimes less frequently) and will be as acutely aware of their personal best or previous race time as I am.

    Personally, I think the marathon accentuates this. The phenomenal athleticism of those pushing the limits at the front of the race can make a 3-hour marathon seem meaningless. But, every runner is running against themselves. Perhaps they want to achieve a Good for Age time, perhaps they want to beat a personal best, but maybe they want to prove that they can finish the 26.2-mile slog. For an event that can attract tens of thousands of runners, I’d say the vast majority are racing against themselves.

  3. I think the issues surrounding marathons are far more complicated than simply between completing and competing, though you raise some interesting points. I also think that although many thousands of people have now ‘run’ a marathon, however prettily or scrappily they get to the finish line, the huge amount of physical and mental commitment involved, at least for the first marathon, is a massive personal challenge that really stretches ‘average’ human beings to a limit. The achievement of completing a marathon is, in many cases, life changing.

    More than any other distance, I think that crossing the finishing line in a marathon is a huge personal achievement and most people set their own goals and are not competing or interested in competing with those around them.

    This year I sprinted up the mall when I saw the clock and realised I could get under 3:40. I’d held something back as I wanted a quick recovery to get back to shorter races, where I really do compete.

    For me, it was to run ‘a’ marathon that got me started as a runner in the first place, age 50. I’ve since discovered other distances, which I seem to perform better at, in terms of both competing and improving yet I still feel attached to marathons (and long distance running) and the desire to perform well. The problem is wanting to be the best I can be at every distance at which I compete, which this year has been 800 metres to marathon. I know I should settle on training for 3,000 and 5,000 and it’s useful writing it here to remind me! Although, the dilemma exists as I did my best age-graded marathon this year and still have the desire to get under 3:30.

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