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Run Your Own Race

High School was a long time ago for me. It wasn’t a particularly bad time for me, nor was it anything close to the highlight of my life. I don’t have “moments of glory” from my high school days to reflect back at. It was, however, a time and place of defining moments, and one of those moments came one hot and dry day, while on a training run for my high school cross-country team.

I was a back of the pack runner out on a stretch of the dike alongside of the Coweeman river (near Kelso, Washington); a regular training route for the Kelso High School cross-country team. I had run the dike many times before, and been near the back on most of those runs. What differed on this particular fall afternoon would stick with me to this day.

It was my senior year, and we had a new coach in the mix. He was a former Kelso graduate that had set records in college, and could run in the company of world-class distance runners. I didn’t know more than that about him; just that he was really fast.

It wasn’t my experience that coaches, especially coaches that were world-class in their own right, would spend much individual time with the kids that wouldn’t be helping to win tournaments. Joe Stewart wasn’t like that. On that training run, he came up to me from behind, and matched my pace. As we ran together, he gave me feedback on my form, advice on how to improve it, and words of encouragement. After running together for a bit, he sped up and met up with the next runner in the pack.

It was clear that I wasn’t going to take a top place in any meet, nor, as a senior, was I material to build on for the future. That didn’t seem to matter to him. What I suspect mattered to him, was that I was out there. I was doing it despite trailing the pack. Instead of berating me for running slow, or telling me to “suck it up”, he encouraged me to run my own race. He told me that running my own race, that bettering myself, and measuring myself against my own goals and my own performance, was the most important competition I would ever have. I’ve kept that with me through my life and career.

Running your own race isn’t just about athletics. It’s a metaphor for a philosophy of life. It’s a way of thinking, a defense mechanism against anything and everything that life can throw your way.

Now, some people live to overtly compete with others. These folks are largely extroverts. They have to look around them for motivation and measure. The way of competition – of external motivation –  isn’t better, nor worse than the way of running your own race. It’s just different. Competing against others is always an option. It’s easy to do. If that’s you, go for it. But know that it’s not necessary.

Measuring against others can limit your potential. If you stretch and gain a lead against your competitor, once ahead, your motivation diminishes significantly. It goes from offense to defense, from “playing to win” to “playing not to lose.” It becomes more difficult to think in terms of improvement. You can quickly fall into the trap of looking backwards, not forwards.

If you think in terms of competing with others, it’s easier for judgmental people to hold you back. People sneering at you or jabbing at you can have a tremendous negative effect on you if you’re living to compete. Yes, it can trigger an “I’ll show you” response, but again, once you’ve “shown them”, you go back to defense. You become vulnerable again.

Certainly, it is possible that your best is only just a little bit more than your competition’s best. That could happen, but it’s much more likely that you have a lot more to give beyond what competition is doing. By living for external competition, you put all of that extra potential at risk.

On the other side, if your best really is slightly less than that of your competitor, and your motivation is to beat that competitor, you may never be good enough. You’ll put what motivation you do have at risk. You put yourself at risk of switching from motivation as your driver to desperation as your driver. That rarely helps.

Run your own race. Let the others, individuals or organizations, compete with you. Let them see you as a threat. Let them live defensively. Set your own goals based on what you can or would like to achieve, not based on what others are doing. When you pick your own definition of success, you can’t be beaten.