My wife and I flew up to Ferndale for a wedding. It's a farm town with a Victorian main street up near the Oregon border. The ceremony wasn't until 6 p.m., so we had a day to fill. After breakfast on the main drag, we wandered past the volunteer fire station and into a bookstore, where we asked directions to the county fair. This seemed like a brilliant way of killing several hours, which is how we soon found ourselves in an enormous barn ripe with the smell of livestock and alfalfa, watching goats being paraded before a judge. She appraised each of them in a knowing way before handing out blue ribbons to the winners.
I had never given goats much thought, but I found myself wondering if maybe raising a few competitive goats would be a nice pastime. They looked cute enough, and it seemed like there wouldn't be much to it. But as with all new endeavors, you don't know what you don't know. What seemed simple on the surface would become an obsession. I like to win. I'm not embarrassed to say it. And all-consuming passion is very often what it takes to win.
Soon enough I'd be visiting goat websites, laughing at insider jokes about goat life, visiting a top breeder in some faraway town to purchase an extremely expensive prospective champion show goat, and basically filling my life with goats, goats, goats. It wouldn't be enough just to win a small town fair. I'd be jetting all over the country with my goats, eventually hoping to show my expertise by winning a national championship. If there is such a thing as a goat Olympics, chances are I'd be trying to win that, too.
It would be funny if it weren't true. I've followed that competitive rabbit hole all my life, first with running, then writing, and most lately with coaching. The initial desire to just go out there and have fun becomes a burning desire to be the very best.
It will take over your life if you let it.
Which is why it bothers me when people claim they're not competitive. The worst are runners. "I am NOT competitive," some insist. These people say it like Gandhi, spitting with disdain, as if it's the other "c" word.
But every runner competes. You see it most easily among the elite. Less obvious is the back of the pack, such as those who stop at a pre-arranged spot a half-mile from the finish, where a waiting loved one hands them their finisher's medals from other races, to be proudly (and loudly, given the heavy weight and metallic construction of medals nowadays) worn across the line.
You see it in the costume runners trying to outdo one another for most outlandish attire, shiniest sequins on their running skirt, or garnering astonished looks from the crowd as they scuttle past in full Mary Poppins regalia, right down to the handbag, umbrella, and cute little hat pinned neatly in place. You overhear it in conversation at the coffee shop, as men and women who would otherwise consider themselves casual runners disclose their half-marathon times. The slower runner almost always emits a sheepish response, something like "I didn't really train for it."
It gets fun when the reply is a brutal, "Neither did I."
And then there's the third "c" word.
"She says she broke two hours," my wife informed me of someone she has known for years.
Calene swears she is not competitive.
"I was ten minutes ahead of her at the turnaround, then she magically crosses the finish line five minutes in front of me. But she never passed me. I'm pretty sure she cut the course."
A week later, and Calene still wouldn't let it go. "She cheated," she reminded me when the woman's name came up over a glass of wine. We were sitting in the backyard, right about where the goats would be sleeping. "She's a cheater."
"Maybe you didn't see her go by," I replied. "Maybe she passed you at an aid station while you were drinking water."
I'm such a fool sometimes.
"She cheated," said Callie, her tight-lipped scowl ending what until then had been a very promising romantic conversation. She took her wine glass and walked inside, but not before adding: "And now she's telling people that she beat me. I don't know how she can live with herself."
It's not just running. A lady down the cul-de-sac used to brag when her kids pooped in a toilet for the first time, tied their shoes for the first time, and rode their bikes without training wheels for the first time. She was just being proud. But what I heard was that my own sons — none of whom seemed in any hurry to conquer either of those milestones — were destined for lives of menial labor and an addiction to daytime television.
I pretended not to care. "I'll start worrying if they aren't potty trained and riding a bike without training wheels by age thirty," I would joke.
But I seethed. It's been twenty-five years. I still haven't let it go.
There is part of me that wants to be at peace, to ignore the competitive side of life. To not judge my visit to the bank by whether or not I choose the fastest line, and am thus somehow a winner. To not care when I get cut off in traffic. To hear footsteps approaching from behind during a trail run and just be content to let that person pass by, offering a chipper hello and a friendly comment on the sunshine as they trot past.
Last night I woke up at 3 a.m. My mind was filled with worry. I tried to pinpoint the source. That's always a good way to fall back to sleep: specify the anxiety, realize that in the light of day it will (most likely) be an insignificant blip, then console myself with that knowledge and return to a deep slumber.
Turns out I wasn't worrying. I was planning. My mind was constructing workouts and pace charts for my runners. With the first race of a new cross country season just two weeks away, I was making myself miserable micro-managing Week Ten of a twenty-two week training cycle, terrified that I was missing some vital component of aerobic development.
Why? Because I want to win. And I know other coaches are doing the same.
So, no. I won't be buying any goats. It's one thing to obsess about high school distance runners. Watching them run is glorious. As their coach, I owe them a sleepless night or two.
But I don't want to be reliving the same scenario over an animal that would just as soon eat my hat as listen to my training methodology. I'd become that guy at cocktail parties cornering people with tidbits of trivia about the goat life and how awesome it is to raise goats, swiping through my camera roll for pictures of my winners and their blue ribbons, saying things like, "Isn't she cute?"
Life is competition. It just is. We're all the result of a zygote kicking ass on its way to the egg. That's where it starts, in literally our first moment of being.
So go out there and win something.