What I learned about racing by not racing

Racing delineates my life. I commenced organized swim competitions at age nine, but distinctly recall my desire to be the fastest runner in pre-school by the age of four. Athletically, I never took a break…. baseball, soccer, football, track, and swimming explain my childhood through college years. After college I progressed quickly to triathlon, with bike racing and running also notorious arenas for my smug pursuits. I achieved quite a bit. Three large bins full of trophies, ribbons, plaques and medals. County Championships, State Championships and even a National Championship.

Athletics was my most conspicuous outlet, but far from the only one. Other “competitions” I engaged in are routine for most males… sex, money, power, accumulation of stuff, and a big one… always having the correct answer, otherwise known as being in control. In hindsight, it was all the same pursuit, seeking to regain the self I had forfeited early on. As Bell Hooks writes “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands is not violence towards women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional part of themselves.”

Like most boys, I was deprived of much of my emotional intelligence early on. Taught all the statutes of manhood such as “don’t cry”, “man up!”, “men don’t hug”, “don’t touch too much” etc. Like most boys, I had my friendships with other males reduced to transactional affairs. Friendships of proximity with guys on the same team or in the same club.

I’ve spent the better part of half a century struggling to grasp how I could win so many competitions, both athletically and otherwise, and still be isolated and unfulfilled. Beyond a very fortuitous choice of spouse, my life has often appeared to be a game of “bad decision whack-a-mole”. Violence and aggression, addictions of diverse flavors, failure to express emotion, financial insecurity, inability to work well with others, and sexual indiscretion have all been crushed under force of will, only to instantly emerge in other forms, in other corners of my existence. Only recently have I started to glimpse (or care to glimpse) what is the problem behind all the problems.

I’ve always thought of myself as separate – an island. I’ve always rationalized life as a zero-sum game – “For me to win, you have to lose”. I’ve always understood the expression of emotions to be signs of weakness; “Boys don’t cry”. I’ve always theorized that the purpose of my existence was to dominate.

It’s been over five years since I entered a race, and it has taken that long to have the vaguest notion of where it all went wrong, though ‘never went right’ is closer to genuine. Why I experienced debilitating anxiety before every race as an age group swimmer. Anxiety that arrived undiminished, though more carefully concealed, with adulthood.

Racing should be a celebration of our shared humanity, while for me it has been a battle to dictate outcomes. My entire self-worth rested upon winning, accumulating, and dominating. The illogical fears that inform us that to have enough, someone else must go without, are the same engineers of the emptiness that provoked me to race, purchase, consume, fornicate, and live through domination of my world.

I am realizing that it is possible to best a person in a race and not diminish them, but rather dignify them, and myself in the process. Perhaps more importantly, that it is ok to not win. When I can race from this place, maybe I will race again.

More urgently, I’ve grasped that it is possible to possess in such a manner that others need not possess less. It is possible to live by connecting to humanity, instead of taking from it. Knowing these things are true, yet presently impotent to live them unconditionally, my current undertaking is cleaning house. Going back. Letting go. Forgiving. Connecting. Seeking balance. I desire to race again someday, but my deeper longing is to find and live with joy, and if I race, to race with joy, disregarding the results.