Duality: Competition and Camaraderie

two friends

By Francesco M. Sunseri

It’s 4am, your eyes are sleepy and still heavy from the restless sleep you had the night before. As you shut off the alarm and adjust to the searing lights above, an ember in your soul ignites into a burning desire. You are propelled out of bed in a manic fashion, overtaken by a specter come to life.

There is nothing glamorous about the morning check list: make coffee, poop, coffee, breakfast, more coffee, pace around the house aimlessly, try and poop again, more coffee, put on my clothes, eat a snack. There is an anxious energy inside me, but I am not nervous. I put in the work and I am ready to perform my best today. Now the anxiety turns to intense focus. What is my goal pace? How am I going to approach the hill at mile 18? These are not questions, but affirmations of all the grunt-work and planning in the previous training block.

Pre-race poop

I stand at the start line, lightly bouncing on my toes with my headphones on, music quietly playing in the background of my thoughts. The people around me are conversing and laughing, some look intensely focused, some look terrified. A friend comes up to me and wishes me a good race, I respond in kind. But behind the smiles and the well-wishes, I came here to hunt every one of you mother fuckers down. I intend on devouring your soul in the next few hours: I came here to win.

But that competitive spirit is derived from a foundation built on intense love. Love for this sport, love for the community, love for nature, love for the struggle we endure in a hard-fought race…together. This may seem odd, that this rabidly competitive nature could be built on a concept like love and picking up those around you. So you go out on race day, how do you separate these feelings?

Answer: You don’t, embrace them both.

Mountain Runner
God Mode with the Tetons

You can exist in both planes; having and intense desire to perform well and exhibit sportsmanship while you do it. In an extremely competitive environment, this can be hard to juggle at times. Did a runner near you get injured and could use some help? Would you run right past that person in need? Only you can make that decision in that moment. I would hope I continue to choose to stop and help; no matter the cost. Because although I intend to beat you, I am still human and we are still a family of misfits. I will make sure you are ok, then I will continue to hunt. Camaraderie and Competition are a duality that go hand-in-hand.

runners on leafy trail
Running at Lookout Mtn. 50 Miler

A perfect example of this in action is when it happened to me recently at the Lookout Mountain 50 Miler outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. If you read my race report, you’d know that the ankle-roll at mile 13 was pretty freakin’ bad. When it happened, I stumbled and struggled to catch my balance, flailing like a drunken orangutan until I finally caught a tree. Mason came to a stop just ahead of me as he slowed, “Hey man are you ok, I heard that.” Grimace on my face, I responded something in the like of, “Yeah man , I’m good, keep running, I’ll catch up.”

swollen ankle
Ankle post-race, let the swelling begin!

Ultimately, I didn’t catch up. I would end up rebounding and making that stupid ankle work the rest of the way, coming in 4th overall. Mason, he won the race. He stopped to help a fellow runner, with true concern on his face and willing to help in any way. In those moments when we get caught up in the competition, it’s times like this that make me pause and remember we are all here together.

In a previous piece I wrote, Edge of Limits, I discuss how the running community brought me in, and held me tight, giving me hope and purpose when I was at my worst. The camaraderie of this community is what keeps me coming back to these events, the competition is just that beautiful cherry on top.

So if you ever come across another runner in need, and you are their only help for miles, just put yourself in their shoes. Remember that this sport is a game within the game of life.

In the end, which one are you trying to win?

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