Here's a question I've been debating for the past 45 years. Are all runners, at heart, competitive? Are all humans? You may think the answer is obvious: it's Darwinian, it's in our nature. I don't know.
When I started Running Times in 1977, the idea was to have a magazine for "serious runners." I lived in Washington, D.C., and the D.C. Roadrunners would put on races every week or two, year-round. Maybe 50 of us hard-core runners would show up for each race. But there was a new phenomenon developing in those days -- the advent of the "jogging," and the booming popularity of recreational running as a means of losing weight, looking fit, and meeting members of the opposite sex. Some of us road racers found that whole scene a bit annoying. It was too commercial, for one thing. We began to see ads for ridiculous jogging products, apparently invented by people who wanted to cash in on the boom but had themselves never "jogged." One ad was for a jogger's rear-view mirror, which you were supposed to strap on your arm near the elbow. Of course, when you run your elbows swing back and forth, and I tried to imagine a runner swinging his head back and forth trying to see what was in his mirror. Wouldn't it be easier just to turn his head and look back? Another product we saw advertised was a pair of shoes with giant springs built in, ostensibly enabling the wearer to run in giant leaps like a kangaroo. I never did see a pair of those shoes at a road race.
Within a few years, though, most of us hard-core types had relinquished our scorn. We were won over by the sheer enthusiasm of the joggers, some of whom were our own wives or kids. At Running Times, we received -- and published -- voluminous reports of people going from fat to fit, giving up smoking, overcoming depression, lowering their cholesterol or blood pressure, and finding new vitality and enjoyment of life. Many, when they ran, talked as animatedly as if they were at a party. Competitiveness seemed to have little to do with why they were there. And I'd seen this in marathons and ultras, too. As I grew older and slower, I'd find myself among groups in a race who were regaling each-other with stories, clearly enjoying the companionship and appearing to have no interest in beating each-other's brains out.
On the other hand, they were doing this in races, which sometimes they had paid good money to come to from hundreds of miles away. And within a few years, the number of fun-loving runners entering races reached staggering numbers. One year in the 1980s, if I recall, over 100,000 men and women ran the Bay-to-Breakers 8-mile in San Francisco. About 80,000 ran the Bloomsday run in Spokane, Washington. Last year, over 40,000 ran the New York Marathon, and a similar number were turned away. Wasn't there, under all that chatty camaraderie, at least a little flame of competitiveness?
There's also the not-insignificant matter of how Americans have been exposed to an almost never-questioned doctrine of "being competitive" as the key to success in all things. Whether it's school, sport, business, or national supremacy, we're taught that the goal is to be winners. I don't know how many times I've heard a political or business leader quote the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, saying "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." I've never heard anyone challenge that. Yet, addicted to competition that I am, I think Lombardi was wrong.
As anyone who is an alcoholic or who struggles with an addiction to cocaine, or cigarettes, or gambling knows, addiction gives us our momentary highs but in the end is crippling. America was on a half-century-long high up until the first decade of the 21st century, but half a century is only a moment in evolutionary time. If the human journey on this planet began around 5 million years ago, as the most recent finding suggests, that half-century high out of a 5-million-year evolution is the equivalent of less than the last second of a 24-hour day. And now we may be starting to feel some of the crippling.
Back in the 1970s, there was a lot of talk about the "positive addiction" of running, and the "runner's high." There was some joking about LSD, which was a popular narcotic in the 70s but for a few of us stood for "Long Slow Distance". Running can trigger the release of endorphins, which can mask pain and may be part of what's going on when you find yourself in what athletes who've just had fantastic performances call "the zone." But undeniably, competition can be addictive in ways that are not always positive. How else to explain the fact that many of the 400 richest Americans, who together have as much wealth as 150 million other Americans combined, recently fought as if their lives depended on it to win still more of the country's wealth by extending the Bush tax cuts? They can't stop! Fighting the rest of the country for financial ascendance is the only game they know.
Having been a competitive runner for over 54 years, I know I probably can't stop what I do, either. There are times when running feels terrific, just as there are times when an alcoholic or a compulsive gambler claims to feel terrific. But ultimately, any addiction--even a "positive" one--is a burden. I no longer tolerate cold weather as well as I once did, and on a dreary winter day I can experience a wrenching internal tug-of-war between two parts of myself -- one wanting to keep training for the next race, the other wanting to curl up with a blanket and good book. Sometimes the book wins; sometimes the frigid outdoors. I also know that if I weren't addicted enough to get out for at least a good many of those forbidding days, I wouldn't be in touch with the genetic messages I'm accessing from my early hominid ancestors -- about what terrible ordeals they endured, and how their experience and adaptations to hardship ultimately enabled us modern humans to have the adaptive capabilities we now enjoy. We wouldn't have had the endurance, patience, and ability to envision a place that still lies out of sight ahead of us (to dream, to plan), if our hunter-gatherer ancestors had not built these capabilities over many millennia.
Sport can sometimes be painful, exhausting, or disappointing, but at least it doesn't leave us dead on the side of the road, like the losers in a war over ideology, oil, or control of territory. Sport allows us to compete with others without maiming or murdering them. And if I'm, still wondering why millions of people who don't seem as compulsively competitive as I am still run races, a conversation I had one day with the former NFL football player David Meggyesy (see my earlier blog) may offer an answer. David offered an explanation for the seeming paradox of players beating each-other up yet still being good friends: "The players need each-other. If they don't have the other players, they don't have a game." And of course, that's true for runners too: it helps to explain why there's so much camaraderie even in a competition. If we don't have other runners who are friendly and not trying to spear us like enemy warriors, we won't have a way of enjoying the social ritual of running together -- we won't have a race. On a global scale, competition can stimulate new inventions and more efficent production, as economists stress. But if the great majority of people can't do it with good will and mutual cooperation, we won't long have a human race.