Who the hell am I racing against?

In the second in a series of very self-indulgent posts this weekend (sorry!) I want to answer the questions: who am I competing with? Who am I measuring myself with? Who am I racing against?

Watching the best of the best

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Gwen Jorgensen winning the World Triathlon Series race in London against the best in the world

I watched the the women’s World Triathlon Series race that took place in Hyde Park yesterday, whilst relaxing on the sofa after a long run this morning and a picnic in the park with Julie at lunchtime. Gwen Jorgensen, from the US, took on the best triathletes in the world who made up the field of other elite women over the 750m swim – 20km bike – 5km run race course. It was magnificent to watch and fascinating to see the others in the race respond and react and in the end race for the minor places.

One thing that struck me as I watched the race – which, like pretty much all elite Olympic and shorter distance triathlons that I have seen recently, came down to the run – was the fact that Jorgensen was a couple of kilometers into the run and there were still elite athletes racking their bikes and heading out for the 5km on foot. The first thing that crossed my mind was “why bother?”

These are elite level athletes. Almost certainly all of them make their living from triathlon and coming 63rd out of a field of 65 is – in terms of their earnings and career prospects – totally pointless. Why not just rack the bike and go for a recovery shake and get ready for the next race when they might do better?

No expectation of winning: just doing the best you can

But then I realised that most of us – and I mean 99.9999999% of the people who do any sort of sport – aren’t doing it with the expectation of winning. Most of us have other reasons for training and competing. We must have, because we sure as hell aren’t going to win.

So now I am back to my initial question. Why do I care about what time I get in a race or what position I get? In reality I am never going to win anything (certainly not anything worthwhile or meaningful) so why care?

Well I think that the answer is that I am racing against myself. Trying to match up to the standards that I aspire to for myself. Half of why I race is so that I can feel proud of what I have achieved because – especially with endurance sports (and thank you to my training partner on my run this morning, who reminded me of this point) you get out what you put in. So if I get a what I think is a pretty good result, then I know that I have worked hard and achieved something. The beauty of this, of course, is that it applies to everyone, no matter how fast they are. So everyone can know the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from having put in the effort and come out with a result.

My results & my frustrations

Mario Mola, winner of the men's race in the World Triathlon  Series race in London
Mario Mola, winner of the men’s race in the World Triathlon Series race in London

So… why am I frustrated with myself at the moment? Because I know I am not putting in the work and I am therefore not getting results that I think I can be proud of. For me. Not results that someone else thinks they would be happy with: results that I would be happy with. The irony is, of course, that it is entirely possible to win races and still not really be proud of what you achieved, because there is no one there to challenge you – you get the bling but it is meaningless without meaningful challenge. What I love about sport like the Elite triathlons at the weekend, is that there are so many people at the same level that, for example, in the elite men’s race in Hyde Park this weekend, the winner can feel immensely proud that he beat the best in the world. Same for Jorgensen. Same for you and me, if we beat the expectations that we set ourselves!

And what about me? Well, I got what I deserved in the 5km run that I did on Saturday: a taste of blood in my mouth, sore legs and a sinking feeling that age and lack of training are catching up on me.

But you want to know the best thing? I know that I can pull it around. Whether or not I feel proud of my future results is entirely in my hands – I just have to work for them. Sounds pretty good, eh?


  1. Great post. I often wonder this myself. Interesting that you centred it around triathlon. The more I think about it the more I realise I’m pretty desperate to qualify for something triathlon related. I’m pretty sure I have more PBs at all distances in me, but to qualify for an AG Tri place I need to really get out of my comfort zone and dedicate some time to swimming. In some ways more of a challenge that any weekly mileage target, and hence more interesting in a lot if ways. Saying & doing are two different things though, as I’m finding out.

  2. I was thinking about this very question while watching the women’s marathon during the olympics. I don’t think I have ever seen television coverage talk about the bulk of the athletes in this sort of competition (by which I mean the Olympics and not just the women’s marathon) who line up on the starting line with no realistic chance of a podium spot. It seems like there are really useful lessons about pride, work ethic, and focus here from which many people would benefit. Yet in our endless pursuit of triumph we lose sight of the many people who are quietly accomplishing personal victory of their own definition.

  3. Setting challenges against yourself is great and I love improving against myself, however you don’t have to be at the sharp end to compete… for example the Met League XC has such deep fields you inevitably find yourself battling the same runners over the series – so a little unspoken rivalry!

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