“Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.” – Steve Prefontaine
This week’s quote speaks to one of my top five strengths. I’m talking about my competitive nature. In high school, I played pretty much all the sports, but in college I focused on track and cross country. I love competition. I love winning – winning anything and everything. Whether it’s a contest, board games or duking it out in 5k, I love winning. I also really despise any place after first – 2nd place to me was “first loser.” I know how arrogant that sounds, but I’d be lying if I told you anything else. I believe that winners never train for anything less than the GOLD and for giving their very best performance on race day. One of my biggest struggles has always been handling defeat. Back in the day, I’d get so angry when I lost that I’d need to be alone to vent. I have always practiced good sportsmanship to my opponents, but once alone, I’d let my rage fly. Learning how to handle defeat or failure has seriously taken me years of concentrated effort. These days I am much better at taking losses because I’ve learned to evaluate and learn from them. I’m better than I used to be, but I still have room to grow.
I have always enjoyed reading about Steve Prefontaine – or “Pre” as he was called. He is one of my heroes and is the greatest runner in U.S. history. Reading about “Pre” makes my competitive spirit rise. As I write this, my energy levels are starting to spike and I am itching to lace up the running shoes and crank out a personal best. Back to “Pre,” though. It’s obvious that he lights a fire in me. Remember last week’s quote, “exhaust myself for the mission”? Images of “Pre” finishing races are legendary. The look of utter pain on his face says it all. He went all out from the starting gun to the finish line like a bat out of hell. Many times, he was physically exhausted to the point of needing to be held up or else pass out. He dared his competition to come along for the ride of their lives. Few could go with him, fewer tried, and of those that did try, very few ever surpass him. “Pre” was an unbeatable force.
Why was he unbeatable? What made him so dominant? Runners today still speak of him like a god. What made him unbeatable was his ability to push himself and work harder than anyone else and then push himself to his own limits – reaching his full potential race after race. There is a lesson here for all of us. Regardless of what your specialty is, we can all learn something from this runner’s story.
Have you ever pushed yourself to the brink of exhaustion in order to accomplish a goal or dream? Have you given every ounce of your effort toward something because you demanded it out of yourself the most? Often, we value comparison and competition because it brings the best out of us. “Pre,” however, never…. never… never… compared himself to his competition. He always ran with all of his heart, all of his soul, and at the end of a race, he was completely spent – he had NOTHING left in him.
One time, in high school, I can remember racing against the conference champ in the mile. This guy had recently run a conference record that easily smoked my personal best. He happened to be in the paper the day of our meet because he had been invited to an elite race at a national relay invitational event at the end of the week. We were racing each other mid-week – just a few days before his “important” race. I remember this race like it was yesterday. We raced on his track. He and his teammates set a ridiculously easy early pace. The strategy was obvious – reserve as much strength to race against the elite competition in a couple of days. No need to go all out against a guy who they knew couldn’t beat him. Their strategy ticked me off.
After a lap and a half of this pathetic jogger’s pace, with my anger boiling because of this blatant disrespect of my abilities, I took off. I went on a dead sprint for the next lap. 55 seconds later, my opponent’s coach, none too pleased at my assault on his prized miler and his strategy, recognized that he woke up a monster. He knew I was angry, hungry to win, and more than able on this day to make his boys bleed. The next two laps were about to become a war. I still remember hearing him shout to his boys, as I ran by with the lead, “Quit fooling around guys, LaRue’s hot.”
So instead of getting his walk in the park, easy mile run and victory jog, my opponent had to really push and work at it. He did work at it, I assure you – to win. His time was slower than usual, but faster than he wanted to go on this day. He had to work harder than expected to get the win. On the other hand, I ran a personal best, breaking my record by 15 seconds. What was most important for me that day was the respect I earned. How did my opponent do at his elite relay? He ran poorly that day. I’d like to think I had something to do with that.
This is a great “glory days” memory for me, but the point of this story is instead of going into this race prepared to go all out, I relied on my competition to fire me up to run the best mile of my life to that point. Had I been capable of running this time coming into the race that day? Of course – because I did it. Going into that race, I had never even considered that I could run that fast of a time. I had never challenged myself to run my best race and give my best performance. I learned that day that I always have more in the tank than I believe I do. This is true of you, too. You always have more in the tank than you think. If you are relying on your competition to bring out your best, then you are in second place…even if you win the race. Why? Because you are beating yourself before you ever step foot on the starting line!