How to Win

I’ve lost hundreds of races. Literally. I haven’t been the first one across the line since high school. And that was in the slow heat of the quarter mile (it was a long time ago) in a dual meet in small town Vermont.

It is true what they say – everybody who climbs off the couch and gets out running is a winner. In some sense. But another cliché that is equally true is that second place is just the first loser.

Running is rewarding for its own sake. Otherwise, given my level of success, I would have quit long ago. But I have had enough success to know that all else being equal, winning is a lot more fun than losing. So for the majority of us, who chose the wrong parents or have jobs, families, or injuries that keep us from being that one guy on top of the heap, how can we experience the joy and satisfaction of coming out on top?

The typical way that your garden variety mid-pack runner challenges himself is that old standard – race yourself. Everyone can train harder, put in more miles, eat better, and strive to beat last year’s time in the local 5K.

Yeah, but. Let’s admit it. We want to beat people. Other people. We want to be the one who congratulates the lesser runners for putting forth a good effort. We want to modestly tell others that it was just a good day, and that some other time, you’re sure they’ll come out on top. All the while, inside you’re dancing and shouting “In your face, slugs!”

The key to achieving the victories we all crave is to find an environment conducive to your success. You want to find races that play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. Maybe you’re strong on hills or especially sure-footed on rough trails. Maybe you run best first thing in the morning, or in the heat of summer. Maybe you’re better off if you avoid races with free beer. Figure out what works best for you, search out the race that fits, and sign up!

But what if, even in the perfect race for you, after a great season of training and a good night’s sleep someone faster shows up? Face it, that’s usually the case. What then?

Well, then you have to create the environment that allows you to succeed. Narrow things down, twist the rules if necessary (not too far!), get choosy enough, and you too can be a winner!

When you join a running club or go to a weekly local event, like a pub run, you’ll soon begin to recognize other regulars who always finish at about the same time you do. Get to know them. Drink beer with them. Learn their kids’ names. And beat them. Friendly races within the larger race can be a lot of fun.

If you try and try, and just can’t beat your friends, sign up for a relay race with them and let the faster runners carry you to victory. Relay races are a nice break from the solitary routine of running. If you choose your friends carefully, you’ll be sharing the glory in no time.

Look for races with multiple events. Maybe a 10K with a 5K or a marathon with a 10K. The faster runners always go for the marquee event, leaving the other race open for you to sneak in with a win. Note: don’t go so far as to enter the children’s races – that would be tacky.

The most common way a runner like you can increase your chance of success is to grow old. Age group awards were created just for this purpose. You might not be able to run with the young studs, but you can compete with other old farts like you. Keep at it long enough, and soon you’ll be heading to the awards stand regularly. Long enough may mean into your seventies or later, but no one needs to know that there were only two people in your age group, and the other was using a walker.

There are other categories you can aim towards. Handicapped people tend to frown on people who walk up to register for the wheelchair division. But anyone can be fat. Look for races with Clydesdale and filly divisions, and clean up at both the awards ceremony and the post-race spread.

If you find that the Clydesdale prizes end up being won by tall, fit guys rather than short, fat guys, maybe you can create your own division. At the 2006 Boston Marathon, two men competed for the title of “World’s Fastest Joggler.” They didn’t have to race the other 20,000 entrants for that title. You’ve got to imagine that they would have had to struggle to find a third competitor. There are plenty of other choices. Races have divisions for runners in red dresses, runners pushing beds, even naked runners. Surely you can find something that no one else wants to do?

If all else fails, go small. Any of the ideas we’ve discussed are more likely to earn you the coveted win if you apply it in a race with a total of 30 people. When you’re on a vacation in the country, look for a race in a nearby small town. Find races that run on weekday mornings. Run early on New Year’s Day. With the internet, there’s no excuse for missing out on those hidden gems. First place is first place – the trophy doesn’t say how many people you beat.

I’ve used all these techniques, and have a (small) pile of hardware to show that they work. All it takes is a reasonable amount of training and an eye for an opportunity, and you can have something to show for a race besides a t-shirt and sore feet. You can be a winner too!

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