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Competitiveness Versus Fun: Why Does It Seem All Runners Are Performance Fanatics or Slap-Dicks?

Posted by on Mar 16, 2012 | 19 Comments

In the running world, there seems to be two polar opposites.  One group is hyper-competitive.  The other group has a good time.  The fast runners scoff at the idea that running is a recreational activity.  The fun runners shun any hint of competitiveness.  It would seem there’s not a lot of middle ground.

In reality, the vast majority of runners fall somewhere between those groups.  We try to do our best and take steps to maximize our potential given the time we have available, but we also like to cut loose and have fun.  Unfortunately this group is a silent majority shunned by the others.

The fast runners deride our lackadaisical attitude toward training.  They cannot understand why we would enter a race we have no hope of winning.  They ridicule our decision to occasionally skip training runs or place a higher priority on things like family or other hobbies.

The fun runners can be just as judgmental.  They don’t understand why we’d try to run fast in a race to beat a PR.  They discredit our desire to get faster or train hard.  They don’t understand the competitive fire that burns within us.

This “middle ground” embodies the implicit philosophy of my group of running friends, the Hobby Joggas.  None of us are elites, though some are very close.  Most of us are mid-to-back-of-the-packers.  We do things like drinking the night before races, stop to take pictures during a race, and lose a few seconds to chat with aid station volunteers.  At the same time, we’re acutely aware of our race times and will bust our ass to reach our potential.  It’s a weird internal balance that each of us finds.  It’s personal.

Perhaps that’s why we don’t discuss it.  Since the goals are so intimate, others wouldn’t or couldn’t understand.  Instead, we try to fit in with one of the more polarized groups.  We hide who we are to assuage a group to avoid being judged by those that don’t understand the balance we’ve struck.

Screw that.

I’m happy to admit I could be a better runner if I were a little more dedicated.  I like hanging out with friends and putting back a few beers the night before a race.  I’m also happy to admit I sometimes obsess about some of my finishing times.  I’ve even run races harder to beat a particular person.  If others don’t understand my motives or question my decisions- tough shit.  I maximize the enjoyment I get for the amount of effort I give to this sport.  It works for me.

What about you guys? If you’re in the silent majority, how do you deal with the pressure from the polar groups?  What is your particular balance?



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  1. Mark Cucuzzella MD
    March 26, 2012

    Jason…to me every run is a fartlek. FUN and PLAY

    With this attitude you can still mix it up in a race now and then too.

    off to Boston and hope for another marathon at sub 6 a mile at age 45 (2:37.00 2011)


  2. Eric
    March 21, 2012

    I haven’t considered an Event a Race in years.
    I’m a participant, not a competitor, I’m trying to finish, and enjoy, not win. Or as a friend likes to say “I’m here for Pleasure not for Speed”. I haven’t done a Short Course Tri or a 5K-10K, or a Bike Race, since 1996. It’s been all Centuries, Ironman, Long Runs at Altitude, Pikes Peak. What I like to call ‘Life-Time Achievement Endurance Events’ and not even because I’m ‘good’ at them in any competitive sense of the word.

    On the other hand, I PR’d at 50 last year in the Pikes Peak Ascent. My previous PR was from 2006. I’m solidly in the middle of the pack, not Wave 1, but again this year I will attempt to PR. I don’t think it will last long, but I have found an Event I want to Race, if only my own Mid-Pack PR.
    I do hear from some runners that Ultras are nuts, “Why would you do that?” etc., but when we label others’ goals not worthy, we fail to realize it’s all about Enjoyable Challenge, whether it’s a 5K, or a 50miler at altitude, or Iditarod. And we each define Enjoyable, and Challenge.
    Enjoy and be Challenged my friends, in whatever measure suits you.

  3. ramzev
    March 20, 2012

    I was going to go for a training run this afternoon but decided to read your blog instead. Now I’m effing confused whether I should run or drink a beer. Screw the man! I’m gonna throw some Mike’s hard Lemonade in a sippie cup and go for a trot around the neighborhood. Maybe I’ll even get dressed first…

  4. Chris
    March 20, 2012

    mostly run for myself and wouldnt take part in that many races. Like getting out there for a bit of personal head space.

  5. Richard
    March 18, 2012

    I run, smile, drink beer, and repeat.

  6. Robyn
    March 18, 2012

    I fall in the middle to back of the pack because I used to be the Type A runner in high school. Running was never fun then because if you didn’t place well, you were off of varsity. There was no stopping if you were in pain. Man up and push harder.

    That Type A running is also why I took a 7-year absence from running or exercising. Now that I’m back in it and older, I love seeing and experiencing all of the things that I missed. Now I get to enjoy all of the trails and scenery that I blew by then. I took a few pictures during my first ultra yesterday. The scenery was amazing and gorgeous.

    Back of the pack rules!

  7. Nate
    March 18, 2012

    I’ve never felt pressure or scorn from either the speed freeks or the party pack. Most runners I encounter are completely fine with however you want to run. The biggest concern I hear from those at the front is “don’t stand up front if you don’t belong there” and the biggest concern I hear from the back is, “are there any porta potties that don’t have a long line?”

  8. Erik
    March 17, 2012

    Can we safely conclude that beer and seriousness are inversely proportional? Has there been a Harvard study done on this?

  9. Chris
    March 16, 2012

    Here’s what I tell my friends that strike out to do a 5K, 10K or even a half-marathon: Someone is going to win or place in their category; someone is going to win or place the overall event. That person is not going to be you. So go run your own damn run, stop if you feel like you’re about to tear something out, and remember to enjoy yourself.

    All hail the mid-packer.

  10. Franklin Chen
    March 16, 2012

    I have never been an elite runner and never will be. However, when I race, I’m serious about doing the best I can under the circumstances. If it’s gonna hurt (and it always does), I might as well make the most of the pain; I see racing as a way of learning something about myself. Outside of racing (which I do less and less of), I run mainly for fun, but in preparation for a race will try to do some things to improve my performance.

  11. Dave
    March 16, 2012

    I too am a middle guy, alternately training hard for a goal race, to taking pictures of pretty scenery along the race route. I guess I tend towards competitive on race day, trying to beat as many people as I can on as little training as possible. I.e. I should track pulling-the-race-out-of-my-ass PRs more than strict goal times.

    Judging by the number of ‘middle’ people responding, it’s clear that barefoot/minimalist running enthusiasts are not a good representation of the population at large. As a group, we’re pulled between trying to get better (improving form, minimizing weight, reducing training time lost to injury) and trying to get more in touch with how we feel when running (i.e. all the hippy dippy stuff).

  12. Sam
    March 16, 2012

    I used to be quite competitive but have taken on the attitude of that it should be enjoyable. Since I’ve relaxed and started just doing what I want to my running has improved heaps. Now that I have less pressure on myself I really get into it and run more than ever. Way better to be middle of the road

  13. Scott
    March 16, 2012

    I’m in the middle for sure, but I usually don’t feel any pressure or judgement from either end of the spectrum. I think that has something to do with the races I run, which are usually small, local trail races. Different/better crowd there I guess. The few times I’ve felt what you are describing was when I ran bigger road races. Of course, non-runners simply don’t get any of it at all…

  14. Aaron
    March 16, 2012

    Man, I am solidly in the middle with you. Sure, I like to do well in races, but I’d rather do a race/run just to participate and enjoy the scenery and company. If I PR, great! I used to be more competitive (primarily against my own PRs), but, since turning 40 and discovering barefoot running and proper form, I have mostly ditched my Garmin and now run how, when, where, and with whom I want to. I have a friends who are faster and more competitive, and I wish them the best of luck. Thankfully, we all realize that we have different goals and different reasons for racing. If they judged me by my how I run, they wouldn’t be my friends.

    By the way: Thanks for adding the word “slapdick” to my vocabulary. I will use it well and often.

  15. Troy
    March 16, 2012

    Depends on the distance here. for 5k’s I can get very competitive because I know I only have to push really hard for 20-30 minutes. 10k’s are all about the fun. half-full marathons tend to ignore speed, make an attempt to enjoy myself, but mostly just to go far (this is more about the full more than half actually).

    but then I must live in a geographical oddity: the fast guys and fun guys don’t seem to judge each other here in kalamazoo. I know a bunch of the fast guys, and they are super cool to me despite being a slow “for fun” type of runner. I know a lot of “for fun” type runners who hang out with fast guys and they mix really well. the fun guys enjoy the fast guys stories and the fast guys enjoy hearing the fun guys stories… long story short: I’ve never known runners who were any other way.

  16. Brad
    March 16, 2012

    I maximize the enjoyment I get for the amount of effort I give to this sport. It works for me.

    Me too.

  17. Rob Y
    March 16, 2012

    I go in cycles. While I do have seasonal “goal” races (mostly long or very tough ultras) that I do train hard for and attempt to maximize my potential (the up cycles), I do have plenty of down cycles where I’m just doing an event to participate, socialize and just have fun (BTW, I do have fun even doing the hard effort, hard races, just a different kind). Most of the time though I sort of shun racing or events all together. For me it’s all about the experiences; experiencing new areas, trail systems, etc… and this can be in training or even doing some epic stuff outside of actual events (who needs another t-shirt anyhow? :) ).

    BTW, I think Runner’s World or some other magazine did a story on this very subject a while back (probably multiple times) on Type A, B and C runners. The Type-A’s are what you’d expect the fierce competitors (like you described) the Type-C’s were the social runners, the participators. And the Type-B’s were somewhere in between, more into the journey and experience but who can put up Type-A efforts on occasion (I think that’s where I fit in).

  18. Trish Reeves
    March 16, 2012

    Stop writing posts about me. ;-p

    I am also on the middle ground. I think I’m mostly there out of my own mediocrity, but also because I run out of enjoyment and if something made me start to not like running, I’d probably stop running. But since running is good for me in many ways, I make attempts at embracing my back-of-the-pack mediocrity by running only enough to keep from getting bored or injured, and drinking lots of beer before races.

    I mean – look at me: I have my first ultra marathon in two months but I haven’t even done a long run in over two weeks. And, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to do back-to-back days because I’m so prone to stress injuries, so I’m just gonna do……well……what I want to do. If I fail? Well, who will be surprised, anyway? :-p

  19. mike
    March 16, 2012

    sounds how i like to run. for fun but i am aware of what i’ve done and will do, trying to get better while having fun. only difference is the only time i talk to station volunteers is to get another beer, after the race.