Compete or complete?

The idea for this post came as I was watching a very moving, yet brilliantly shot documentary about Ayrton Senna last night on the plane home to Sydney. Ayrton tragically died aged 34 at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. The reason why this film inspired me is because of the way the documentary captured so accurately the type of person Ayrton was and just how much of a driven competitor he was on the track – he was a born winner.

I’m of the opinion that you can spot people like Ayrton a mile off. They’re the type of people that have an extra something about them that makes them not just a champion, but someone who utterly dominates a sport so much that they become part of this elite group where the status of ‘legend’ is appropriate. Michael Schumacher, for whatever you may think of him was the same. Kilian Jornet is fast becoming this person as well.

For those not in the know, Ayrton was a Brasilian Formula One racing driver who by the time of his accident had won three world driver championships and was clearly head and shoulders above the crowd. He was a national hero in a country which was struggling socially and economically. He represented hope for millions of poverty-stricken Brasilians who looked up to their hero as a God of sorts. Ayrton was in turn very publicly open about his relationship with God, and some say that it was this attitude of putting his faith in God that may have ultimately seen his downfall – while he didn’t think he was invincible, there was certainly an amount of trust and faith that he put in God when racing. The weekend of his death was without doubt the worse in Forumla One history. In practice, Roland Ratzburger suffered fatal injuries in a horrific crash which left the community stunned, and then in the race itself, Ayrton lost control of his car and was killed too by a wheel axle that unluckily smashed into his head.

So why the inspiration? Well, the documentary showed for me two perfect traits that Ayrton had that made him stand out from the crowd. The first was humility, the second was the single-mindedness to win at whatever cost. These two traits are undoubtedly required for any sportsman wishing to make a success of the thing they love, but it strikes a lot of parallels with ultra running.

This article will create some debate for sure and will divide people but I think it’s an important one to have given where ultra running is right now in Australia. As ultra runners, we all tend to know each other given the close community here in this country, and for the most part there is a sense that the crowd is a nice crowd to be part of i.e. we all get along and there’s a good respect for each other. But here’s where I think ultra running needs to get a little nasty for want of a better word if Australians are to succeed on the international stage. Generally, we’re all pretty nice and given the range of emotions that one goes through on a long race, there tends to be more of a sense of being happy just to complete – after all, it’s only running isn’t it?

But are we happy with just completing, or should we be taking this sport slightly more seriously and should we start getting a little more focused on competing? There’s no doubt that ultra running in Australia is still in its relative infancy and that we are going through a growth phase right now, so will this see more of us competing now? Certainly this happens at the top end of the sport in this country, but what about a little further down when you get outside of the top ten? Are we really that bothered?

Here at Ultra168, we do tend to have a little joke and a giggle about the ‘joint finishes’ we see in races, but just how much does it matter? If we took a half-marathon for example, I’m sure we’ve all seen those fighting for 124th and 125th spot sprinting for a finish at the Blackmore’s… so why doesn’t it happen in the bigger races?

I’m not proclaiming to know it all here, nor am I fighting one corner or the other, but when it comes to ultra running… are we  just a little bit too nice? One thing I will say is that in ultras, there is a tendency to spend a lot of time with one another on the trail and in the race. So when it comes down to the final few kms, it can make it that much harder for one guy to push on and leave the other given the emotions you’ve been through together. But should it really have got to that point in the first place? Is it the sign of us being too lazy to push on ahead in the early stages to take this out of the equation? Are we simply happy just running with our mates and having a merry singalong? But isn’t that what training is for? A race is a race is a race.

Back at GOW100km in 2009 I had been merrily running along the course not really expecting much at all. I found myself in third place at the final checkpoint, just as my good friend Gareth Parker was leaving in second place. It then hit me that I was actually in a race and not some tree-hugging competition to hold hands with one another. I ran as hard as I could to try and catch him as I wanted to beat him for second place. I didn’t catch him, but for the first time I’d actually ‘raced’ a race. Admittedly this was for the higher placings, but should it matter which place? I argue no. I had the same instance at the 2008 Deep Space marathon in Canberra. I was sitting in last position and I sure as hell didn’t want to finish last, so I tried as hard as I could to catch the next person, but failed. The fact was it was still a race.

I remember chatting to Andrew when he came back from Western States and he recollected just how hard it was to make up places once you hit the top 50. People fought for their right to hold that place and would make it damn well clear to those trying to take it that it wouldn’t be given without a fight. So why don’t we see that here? Are we not mature enough yet in terms of race numbers for that to happen? Does it happen here but on a smaller scale in the top five or ten?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, hence why I’m putting the questions out there for you to debate. One things for sure, is that we could all do with a little bit of Senna in us. Humility is a must for any self-respecting sportsman, but so is a single-bloody mindedness for a desire to achieve and win if we want to become truly great. Over to you…

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

22 thoughts on “Compete or complete?

  1. Be careful what you hop for. One of the best things about ultrarunning is the decency and camaraderie in races, something that, in my opinion, is missing from say bicycle racing, where mid-pack racers are brutally competitive and narcissistic. We don’t need that.

  2. A topic close to my heart Dan. I posted something on CR a couple years ago about marathon running, the gist of it being: allowing for constraints you have placed on you (family, work, other ‘committments’) are you prepared to put it on the line in both your training and your race and, in event, run as hard and as fast as you possibly could, whereby, for instance, another 500 metres would be too much – I mentioned no time.

    The responses I got, aside of making me feel like my post was nothing short of heresy, erred almost entirely on the conservative. Most are happy to complete I think. Personally, as unbiased as your posting is, I’m with you Dan! Next year Brick!!

    1. Cheers Alun. OK, I’m slightly biased. I do believe in competing, but I can also see why others chose not to and that’s their decision. It doesn’t make them a worse person because of it… and of course there are people in the shorter distances that do it just to complete too. Either way, I do think that for the sport to be more competitive over here, we have to toughen up somewhat in terms of competing.

      I also agree with your sentiments Carol. We still need decency and humility in our sport, otherwise all respect goes out of the window too.

  3. One of my favourite topics Dan.

    My view is that when you pay your money and take up a spot on the start line, and in this day and age deprive others of their chance to race, you are forming a contract with yourself that you’re going to train like you’ve never trained before and turn up to see how fast you can run but at no stage should you ever voluntarily DNF. That’s the short version.

    When you look at it like this it doesn’t matter whether you’re going for 1st place, last place or any place in between, you know deep down whether you gave it the your very best from the start to the finish and every step in between. Some of the most brutal finishes are those people surfing the various cut-offs of events. So this is not an elitist post, it’s a matter of discussion up and down the checkpoint log, have you given it your best for the entire duration of the event or have you been a slacker hiding in the bush holding hands for hours only to emerge near the finish and run the last 400m of a race waving to the crowd so you feel good about yourself.

    Take GNW for example, the desire for a Gold medal (Sub 24 GNW finish) is just as worthy as the desire for a Silver medal (Sub 30 GNW finish) or even one of those brown ones Dave gives out for finishing the event within the walkable cut-offs. Fact is each person knows when they hit the beach at Patonga whether they have “done good” by their own measuring stick or whether somewhere in the 175km between the start line at Teralba and touching that beach whether they gave up on themselves, walked when they could run, sat when they should have been walking, went off course when they should have been paying attention rather than discussing how many 5km PB’s they’ve set in training for a 100 miler and how they can’t wait to skip along merrily in 19 days time at the next walkathon with the “most wonderful people I’ve ever met in the whole wide world”. Yeah, we’re a nice bunch, but cut the backslapping and just race each other then at the finish you can tell each other how good you were out there over a beer and a hamburger, not during the race.

    How about some of the best finishes at GNW? Any of Bill Thompson’s, Bluedog’s 2008, Gordi’s 2010 (check the pictures of the finish line if you don’t agree), Eagle 2006, Lisa Lee-Johnson 2008, Tim and Dave 2007 in a race record time that has stood for 3 years so far and nobody has even got within 60 minutes of it, 2 only within 120 minutes of it.

    How about the heartache of Seris in 2010, Horrie and Belinda in 2009, Clarke in 2010 in the 100km all great examples of people who find quitting genetically impossible. Or Buzz in the second longest DNF ever at 230km at C2K. You’ll never here an excuse from these guys straight back out there and smashing it in the next event.

    I mention the joint finish in 2007 as a way of showing that a joint finish is not necessarily an indicator of a “completer”. Take Gordi and Spud or Dave and Dave at Glasshouse 2011, I bet they weren’t slacking, sometimes a joint finish is an indicator of a mutually beneficial agreement, . It’s totally different to the tea drinking, tree hugging, hand holding skipping walk ins with massive group hugs and a team meeting in order to all do the synchronised touch of the finish post together. Tell me whether half that group gave up somewhere along the line and decided “just to walk it in” hoping to hide out in the group.

    Pay your money, turn up, run fast and run far, put a time on the board and then work out how to beat it. No point claiming a PB when you walked 73km the year before.

    When can we discuss the “you can’t DNF a 24 hour race”?

  4. I think people that run to win a place still compete and go as hard as they can, but maybe some people are racing their previous timing (it is entirely an internal competition) and doesn’t matter to them if they are 53th or 54th! or maybe they stick together to be safe and supportive like the 3 first male finishers in UTMB, although competitive they ran a long distance together. I think it is also important to take note that many competitors in ultras are of mature age (do we become less competitive with age?!) Some people enter races as for tempo training or covering distances etc. and not necessarily going for a PB. Running (esp ultras) is such internal private journey that I doubt you can get everyone run competitively. However the hard racers and runners are very inspiring, make the sport very attractive and we do need more of them.

  5. One of my biggest racing regrets was leaving someone behind. The 1st year I ran Great North Walk I had never done anything like that before. I wasn’t sure if I would be eaten by wild animals, get lost, explode, fall down, or if all my muscles would spontaneously combust. I was reaching into my enth degree. During the early night I caught up to Ron Schwebel and Peter who were travelling together. I stuck to these great guys like mud. Then at 100km I dropped out of the race leaving Peter to go on and he didn’t finish but made it to where the final cut off is now. We didn’t have one there back in the old days. I felt guilty about dropping. Could I have made it. Who knows.

    The next year I came back for more. I trained harder, I was resolute. Through some fluke I end up running with Peter again. He lives in SA. I never see him except in the race. We again ran through the night together encouraging each other. Just on dawn I met my pacer at Somersby and they rushed me out of the checkpoint without Peter. He said he was coming and allowed me to go on but the bond wasn’t broken yet and I always regret leaving him there. Luckily he did finish the race but I could see how hard that last section was for him. I always wondered if he left the checkpoint with us how it woud have panned out. I wish I waited and knew. Perhaps too because I didn’t make this decision. Some groups break down in a nod when someone can’t keep up. This hadn’t yet happened.

    People and experiences like that are not easy to find. Now I am a more experienced runner I don’t think I will ever feel the same way that I did that time. Those moments travelling on the trail with those guys is something pretty special. It is like going to war.

    So I think hand holding has a place. Not all races, not all the time but sometimes it makes the race something even beyond the race. It turns something as simple as a race from Point A to Point B to something sublime.

  6. hi dan, great topic!

    I personally think that in general the large proportion of runners are competitive and do lay it on the line when it comes to race day. This would certainly be the case in 5km to the marathon. In these races its obvious to see as the pace is so much faster. Even a relatively slow person is still running at 5min/km pace for a 25minute 5km time, way faster than the 8.13min/km that is required for a Gold medal in the GNW100.

    My point is i think its hard to quantify how much effort people are putting in during the ultra events as they go on for such a bloody long time. You dont run flat out during an ultra generally but that doesnt mean you arent trying your hardest. An observer may see someone shuffling along at 8min/km pace and think they are barely moving but the runner could be going as fast as they can.

    Anyway, like Andrew i have no time for the handholding picnic casual walkers who spend hours at the aid stations. Fair enough if they enter because they want to do a long walk with aid stations but i genuinely think they should give up their spots for people who want to put their body on the line and see what they can really achieve. anyone can walk 100 miles.

    I think Spartathlon has the right idea with quite strict cut-off times at aid stations. I’ve heard the first 50 miles sorts the men from the boys. Perhaps if more races in Australia had stricter cut-off times this would encourage people to train/race harder.

  7. Great post Dan,

    I think the modern era of Ultrarunning will see more racing and not just at the pointy end of the field. I think it was Anton Krupicka who said that less than 2% of the field of any 100miler turn up to race it. I think Andrew’s experience at WS100 clearly shows that that is no longer the case. I know how hard he had to work just to pass a single runner, one place took us nearly 40 minutes to make up, it was that hard fought.

    On a personal note and I am sure most of our readers do the same, is that you set a series of goals or objectives when you get to the start line, most often one of those objectives will be to not DNF, followed by a time/pb and then go from there. Whats been refreshing to see in the last couple of years is the level of actual racing that now occurs, this years WS100, UTMB and GH100 had us riveted to this site waiting for any snippet of information.

    Emil Zatopek has a host of great quotes but my favourite is “Why should I practice running slow, I already know how to do that, I want to learn to run fast”

    The best thing about ultras are the race reports that show the race within the race going on right the way to the final places. Personal battles with the course and colleagues/rivals just makes it all the more special.

    At the end of the day, how many sports allow you to stand on the startline next to world elites and even run with them for an albeit short distance in their marque event. Last time I checked, the marathon segregated its elites into different starts. We are lucky to get to the start line healthy and as such we should see a race as a race and not another training run which gives you the right to hold hands and update your FB status looking for lots of back slapping.

  8. Love this topic dan,

    personally i agree i strive off competition and will do nearly anything to even gain one place.
    so im starting from scratch and buliding from the base up. I will see you when im capable of KICKING YOU ARSE.

  9. great topic Dan;
    at the end of the day it is a race ! if you dont want to race ,they’re team sports like cricket and netball where you can have fun in the sun, but to me running is a solo sport against my competitors and more importantly myself,every time i run i time myself and document my efforts,splits etc…. i want to better myself while i can , one day i wont be able to mix it with the best-i’ll be all banged up from years of pushing myself !! BUT i dont want to look back at 70 and go ” yeah we ran together that race,how lovely,but i could have beat them if i wanted”? well you didnt beat them and it would have been a race it you had a go but you chose the soft option and hand holding .

  10. Dan
    Thanks for your post
    I have to been fortunate to have spent some time with ultra168 in the early days and absorbed what I see as their philosophy Camaraderie, mateship, start together-end together, fantastic fun but when it comes to race day the essence is you must do your best or you are not doing yourself, the people you’ve trained with or the race justice. That is not just a light phrase but something I feel strongly. I hadn’t even met ultra168 when I ran the Deep Space marathon in 2008. I was second last but would have expired on the trail before giving up that position
    The ultra168 philosophy has sustained me a few times when it would have been easy to ease back and run with others. I’m sure there are occasions when joint finishes are natural and for mutual benefit I’ll bet you would not have even considered this when you were wearing your beer bet shirt!

    1. Martin, great to have you posting on here. I remember that Deep Space marathon, it was your second last spot I was fighting for 🙂 A few more kms and I would have got you 🙂

    2. Martin, I first remember meeting you for the first time just before the final descent to the caves at 6FT one year, we were both pushing each other and as we climbed the last small hill, you said to me “You are going to run this aren’t you?” and I said “Yep” and took off with you in hot pursuit, you then gapped me on the final descent. Great racing and camaraderie was shared in the dip in the lagoon afterwards. Hope to see you out on the trails in NSW some day



  11. Each to their own. For me I need to go Internationally to find that burning fight for places and K’s that Andrew describes. I would never finish a race in a tie – I have been in that situation in the Brindabella Classic some years back and I believe that both runners owe it to themselves to push it- friends or not. I will be happy to sit back and cruise at the back of the pack when I believe it is time. But in the meantime I think I should extract all knowledge, skill and ticker to see what is possible,

  12. I think you are selling some of the pack finishes at races like GNW short. I have been involved in a few now and trust me, all those involved left nothing out there. Ask Ray, Tim and USPhil about me dragging their arses through the final stages in 2007. Ask Nikolay and Jane how they would have gone on their own in 2010. Ask tall Geoff and Nick Barclay how much hand holding was going on as we all pulled each other through to beat the cut by 10 minutes in 2009. In 2010 I ran the last 30km with Beardy for equal first. I had opportunities to leave him but it was his first 100 and I knew the course well so stayed with him and had a great joint finish. But one of my best races was a few years earlier running from 5th at 50km to win the Prom including chasing down 1st and 2nd in the last 15km and then running into the night without lights on to avoid detection from the other contenders.
    There are times to race. And times to help one another. For some it becomes more about survival than merely completion. And the race is within, not without. Some of the greatest bonds in ultrarunning are forged through the shared experience. Race and go hard by all means, but remember that sometimes there is more to it than your placing on the finish list.

  13. Nice article on Ayrton Senna Dan.

    I also am not a fan of ‘finishing’ – as opposed to racing and extracting the best possible result out of yourself.

    However, circumstances sometimes dictate that a ‘reasonable finish’ is the logical result that one should be chasing; e.g. my current state in overcoming serious injuries and having to show a litrtle patience and common sense (not my strongest points) before returning to serious racing (hopefully at the back end of next year).

    Another example may be an excellent runner looking for a strong hit-out in a minor race and utilising it as preparation and building towqrds a bigger goal.

    “Love for fellow competitors’? Well for example you have guys like ‘The Laddy with the Lamp’: – Florence Nighting-Whippet that trot along near the tail of the field and relieve the suffering and anguish of every broken ultrarunner found upon the trail.

    Alternatively, I’m religious like Ayrton Senna. Simply kick the busted ones off the trail and let God sort ’em out. “Trample the weak, hurdle the dead” as they say.

    Ayrton and I also share other similarities. We’re both way ahead of everyone else on our day. Champions; revered by our respective nations. And humble. Don’t forget humble.

    I believe he loved being referred to as ‘The Brasilan Blue Dog’.

  14. Some good comments guys and gals… and what I don’t want to do is confuse people towards the back of the pack with hand-holding. That’s not the intention here as I think they can often be closely associated. I ran 150kms of Northbun on my own, mainly because that’s how I like it. I don’t often like running with other people as I don’t feel I’m running my own race if I do. Invariably you run too fast (to keep up with the other person), or you run to slowly (i.e. sandbagging your way round because you can’t be arsed to run harder).

    I certainly don’t mind chatting to people along the way if our pace is similar to one another – I remember doing it in GOW in 2009 for a few kms with someone. But as soon as I don’t feel I’m trying hard enough, I have to move away and do my own thing, be that at the back of the pack or nearer the front.

  15. I generally try not to become overly competitive and place and/or time focussed in a race. I want to make the race more about the experiences and interactions (with other people and nature/the course) rather than obsessing over numbers. That said, a relevant point has been brought up regarding competitors in events with capped fields. If you are taking up a spot in the race, you owe it to yourself and other athletes who would love to be in your shoes to give it your all. After all, it is a race. If you want to run around and take some photos, don’t take up a race position.

    But I am definitely not against a joint finish at GOW 🙂

    1. Thanks for posting Anthony and welcome to Ultra168. some very valid points and as we say throughout there’s never a right or wrong answer – just opinions. It’s a very contentious topic that I know brings out some strong feelings. Once again, welcome to the website and hope to have many more contributions from you in the future. See you at GOW.

  16. Interesting comments.

    Go Hard or Go Home!

    That doesn’t mean you can’t go hard with someone else on a similar pace. I am used to running by myself in the longer stuff but as we see more and more runners getting into ultras and fields deepening, inevitably you will have more company out there. Running with Gordi at GH was a novel experience for me. First time in 6 runs at GH that I was not alone for most of the race.
    This worked well as we pushed each other to a decent time, all the while trying to close the gap on and chase Maggot down. To be honest I doubt I would have run a PB this year without our ‘team Spordi” hook up. 🙂
    Horses for courses… I do like to race, but I also have fond and valued memories of time spent with others on the trail, if that’s hand holding….

    As an aside…what are people’s thoughts on pacing (in 100s)…is it a form of handholding?
    Maybe a topic for another discussion..

  17. I would think the core of running community is competitive in one way or another BUT to what lengths depends on the person.My first Ultra was done where I was happy to survive and have a nice warm fuzzy feeling about myself and finish.As you do more and the more you run with the competitive guys you find your ego needs to be fed ” Can’t let Gordi kick my arse “. For me I like to do both,I love the pressure the Andrew Vizes,Spud’s and the ” zimmer frame” Blue Dog puts on you I also have enjoyed the social side.

    They say that you will pass out before you die so with that in mind I will line up to GNW and compete in C2K I will line up and take a more relaxed approach and make sure I sit down and enjoy Paul’s icy poles.

    I see a lot of guys talking themselves up BUT is this how they really feel or is it their ego telling everyone they are great.Bunch of PRETENDERS

    I wonder what Gareth’s & Terry’s comments would be on this.???.

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