Compete or Complete?

David Byrne at 6ft Track this year - which is won by the way
David Byrne at 6ft Track this year – which is won by the way

The first version of this article appeared a few years ago, when we posed this scenario. But times have changed a lot since then and Aussie ultra running has become a lot stronger in-depth. So why are we revisiting? Well a recent post from David Byrne over at The Long Run has reignited the debate, so we thought it was timely to chip in with a slightly revised version and to see how attitudes have changed since we first published this over two years ago.

In his article, David argues that ultra running needs a kick up the backside, especially those at the top end – the so-called elite. He terms it the ‘ultra copout’. To put it mildly, he says that people should cut out the bullshit, and get on with the job of racing. If they fail on the day, then stand-up to that, admit defeat and move on. Or if you want to play in the mountains, save yourself an entry fee and hire a mountain hut for the weekend and ‘play’.

We’re not going to focus too much on the opinions David has put forward – they’re his, but he does raise some good points. Our initial post a few years back asked if ultra running needed to get more competitive overall, and not just at the elite end of things. It asked if we were too nice to want to race?

The original inspiration for the article came as I watched a very moving, yet brilliantly shot documentary about Ayrton Senna 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.

You can spot people like Ayrton a mile off. They’re the type of people who 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. The likes of Michael Schumacher and now Kilian Jornet are the same.

Most will know this, but 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.

For me, the documentary showed two 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 – which was ultimately his own life. These two traits are undoubtedly required for any sportsman wishing to make a success of the thing they love, but where is ultra running right now in regards to this? And do we even need it?

Where have we come from?

Go back eight to ten years and ultra running in Australia (and perhaps around the world) was quite different to what we see now. There were far less runners, fewer events and less competitive fields. Sure there were a few guys up front that would battle it out, but generally that was it. For most people, entering a race meant a test of one’s self against a course and not against others. This is really what attracts us to the sport. It’s escapism in its purist form.

At the time of writing this article a few years ago, I used the phrase, ultra running in Australia needed to get a little ‘nastier’ if it wanted to succeed on the international stage. Has that happened?

Aussie ultra running has come a long way in the last ten years
Aussie ultra running has come a long way in the last ten years

Well the term used was rather strong and wasn’t meant to be taken literally – it’s more so that there needed to be more of a competitive edge to our racing. We’ve seen the recent success of our guys at a number of international events recently, namely the Skyrunning World Champs, Western States and the Ultra trail Lavaredo too. But have those guys and girls become ‘nasty’? No, they’ve simply learned to train better, smarter and harder, which in turn has created other harder, smarter and better trained athletes.

The argument for completion

But what about the rest of us? 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 has evolved and I think we are seeing more and more people in the middle of the pack ‘competing’ now. Is this a good thing? Do we wish to create a narcissistic culture of idiots that permeates through other sports?

I know at times, I’ve had a little laugh and a giggle  about the ‘joint finishes’ we see in races, but just how much does it matter? Are we  just a little bit too nice when it comes to ‘racing’? Or should we let sleeping dogs lie and simply chill out a little?

As ultra runners, we also 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.

There is a tendency to spend a lot of time with one another on the trail and in a race too. 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. You also have to understand the motivation for that particular individual too. For some, maybe many people a higher placing or time simply doesn’t matter and finishing with someone provides a far greater sense of satisfaction. Top Aussie ultra runner, Stu Gibson has been on both ends of the spectrum.

Stu took the winner's plaudits this year at TNF in a very close finish - he decided that he'd done his time for joint finishes at this race!
Stu took the winner’s plaudits this year at TNF in a very close finish – he decided that he’d done his time for joint finishes at this race!

A few years ago he was involved in a joint finish with Andy Lee at TNF100. The same almost happened again this year when he found himself running with Andrew Tuckey for first place. The two had a right old ding-dong in the last 20kms of the race and it would have been simple for them to hold hands… but this was a race…

The argument for competing

Stu Gibson decided that he didn’t want another year of hand-holding, so he sprinted for the finish. There was a lot of sympathy for Andrew on the finish line. He’s come so close in this race year after year and here he was, left for dead 200m from the finish by someone who wanted to win. Did this leave a bad taste in the mouth for ultra running? I argue no, because of the humility and respect each of the runners had for each other and the course. There was no wild celebration or outlandish behaviour from Stu, simply because ultra running (for the most part), doesn’t attract sociopathic narcissists, Stu was extremely gracious in victory and the pictures at the end of the race exemplify this.Here Stu explains his rationale for both races, firstly his joint finish with Andy in 2010, and his win this year:

“The 2010 & 2014 TNF runs were completely different on many levels for me, hence my approach, prep and thought process during this years’ run was incomparable.

“Two main reasons affected my thought process in the way the race unfolded in 2010 between Andy & myself. Running together for +80km was the real catalyst for it all. Personally I had no expectation about how I was going to perform on that day, again this was a main contributor for the decision making process in my mind as we approached the last few km’s back in 2010.

“In saying that, there was still a very competitive edge to it all. We both tried on several occasions to break away from each other, even in the last 10km! It was me that initially broached the idea (of finishing together). It was around the 98km point as the pace slowed a little, we both knew we would be under the 10hrs mark (in fact we both commented that ‘sub 10 was looking good’) – it was homogeneous idea that just felt right at that precise moment in time.

“This years’ event (2014) was entirely different mainly due to the expectation levels (both internally and externally). The level of confidence within was at a far greater level during the run, coupled with the fact that I had run much of the 100km on my own, at my own pace. These were the driving factors to race and sprint it out with Andrew right to the end. I really enjoyed the competitive aspect of the last 9km’s with Andrew. I knew he was pushing really hard, perhaps the increased intensity of that last few km’s was another factor to have that sprint at the end – the dynamics were just different and I feel very privileged to have experienced it.”

This picture sums up everything you need to know about how to compete
This picture sums up everything you need to know about how to compete

In my view there’s nothing wrong with competing, even if you’re fighting it out for 127th spot at TNF. You’re in a race because you paid your money and you want to see how you can perform, not just against a course, but against others. You want to know that you gave it your all on the day. It’s not necessarily about beating someone else when you’re in the middle or back of pack, it’s about self-respect and looking yourself in the mirror to know that you gave it your best shot. As long as that is carried out with respect and humility for your fellow competitors, then I think ultra running will grow in a healthy manner, and not like some of the other sports that have seen rapid growth, but with it, sociopathic behaviour.

The final word

Race hard, race fairly and with respect for others. Be humble and leave the excuses at home.



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6 thoughts on “Compete or Complete?

  1. You can really tell David comes from a track background! Having come from the same the attitudes and atmosphere of trail and ultra running is refreshing and welcoming. I’m defiantly not saying what David said is wrong, I personally still carry a lot of track mentality – the need to know I ran as fast as hard and aim for as high a placing I can. But to see so many abilities and attitudes is humbling and something I think is special about this sport. Dan I think you’re spot on with your comments let the racing be racing.

  2. Great article and spot on with some of the comments. I do think though that one aspect is missing when it comes to compete or complete, and to me that is my ability over the distance I’m about to tackle. Or simply the question of how many times have I done this particular distance or race. My first 100k at TNF in 2012 was clearly a complete. The following year, after 2 more 100k races under my belt, it was a compete. My first miler was a complete. Now 100 milers are compete, or from my mid-packer perspective, at least race against myself. When I go for the Tahoe 200 in September it will be 100% complete and I’m not even dreaming of racing this one.

  3. DK… I think what you’re saying is missing…Stu Gibson summed up about his 2 races.. 2014 he had a greater expectation than to just finish. He wanted the win. Superb article! The ever increasing popularity for this sport makes me wonder if our trail community can keep such respect and courage amongst all who enjoy it, from the bottom to the pointy end. It’s just such a pleasure to be part of and a shame to lose that. As far as racing goes…everyone runs a race for a different reason…respect to that, whatever that may be. However, it does annoy me that people feel the need (most often heard from the same players) & even more interestingly enough, they’re not from the pointy end, to make excuses for their results. If you cannot stand strong and confident enough to be proud and grateful to have participated, completed or podiumed without the need for excuses, behaviours or justifications, then please don’t affect others with your negativity. Just be silent and be. Exceptions: there is room for high spirited, positive exhaltations!

  4. Not only do the elite Ultra runners need to go to a higher level, so do the Track and road runners. The track runners struggle to run times which other Australians ran in the 1960’s. The Marathon runners struggle with running Sub 2-10 nowadays where as the rest of the world run Sub 2-06 (We don’t have any Sub 2-10 men running at the moment). And the Ultra guys have got to get serious. Look at Don Wallaces Six Foot track record from the 1990’s, it took a long time for somebody to break it, and even now, it is rarely surpassed in a race. Don also holds the fastest 2 times by an Australian at Comrades, and I think his 100km road time has only been bettered by 1 or 2 runners, and the Wallace times are getting onto 20 years old. I won’t go into detail about the women, but their current performances from track to road to Ultra’s in recent times have also been at a lessor standard then those who went before. Basically, if you want to be an ‘elite runner’ and you want to enjoy the benefits of sponsorship, at least show us that you have some potential to become Australia’s best, and then produce the times which show that you are worthy of it.

  5. Once again, the emphasis here is on elite runners, whether they be track, road or trail; the rest of us are just dragged into the discussion simply by association. I’m 69yo and have been seriously trail running for 5 yrs. I started out with a highly competitive attitude, a carry-over from my previous sporting background, but after a while I realised I was missing out on views and experiences that most people never see or have. For me, it’s not about competing, but completing and enjoying as much of the experience as I can; a complete trail running package. Good article Folks.

  6. With the obvious exception of Sally Pearson, Australian track & road athletes could only dream of obtaining a result like the one in Chamonix the other week. Whatever it is that David believes our ultra trail runners need, it certainly won’t be delivered by replicating that cosseted sheltered workshop in Canberra, which produces athletes of average ability, and questionable mental strength.

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