Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 03 Jan 2014 05:41:04 -0500

Competing Interests

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from June 1988.)

I’ll forgive Bil Gilbert for spelling his first name without the second “l” and making readers think I’ve misspelled it. He’s a longtime writing hero of mine, one who both thinks deeply and writes clearly.

Gilbert once coached an age-group track team, but he rarely writes now on sports as we know them. His Sports Illustrated articles deal mainly with nature topics. I read them only because he wrote them.

An old article of his made me an admirer forever. In the early 1970s Gilbert defined three levels of competition: “True Sport,” which is child’s play at any age; “High Sport,” which is play elevated to an art form, and “Big Sport,” which is playing for pay.

In running terms True Sport is training alone and for our own reasons. High Sport is testing our skills at racing. Big Sport is watching the pros compete.

Gilbert’s essay gave little thought to big-time sports. He pictured them as “decreasingly concerned with sport and increasingly show-biz operations [concerned with] commerce and politics.” At the same time he pronounced the other two levels of sports “in as good or better shape than ever.”

Gilbert predicted running’s future. Fifteen years later, True and High Sports have blossomed. Big Sport has burgeoned, too, but it also is increasingly commercial and political.

A writer with such insight earns careful reading in a Sports Illustrated article titled, “Competition: Is It What Life’s All About?” It looks closely at the competitive ethic, and notes its flaws.

Gilbert, the naturalist, says first that kill-or-be-killed, survival-of-the-fittest competition isn’t the natural force it is held up to be.

He writes, “The win-or-drop-dead model of evolution is at odds with the fact that, through the eons, life-forms on earth have become increasingly numerous and various. The multitude of species reflects the evolutionary drive to find a small edge – a niche, zoologists call it – that enables creatures to go about their business without always fighting with others with the same appetites.”

Runners, too, have become more numerous and various in recent years. This isn’t because only the fittest have survived, but because more of us have found our niches.

I’m a survivor, but never have been super-fit or much of a competitor. Years ago I took a psychological test devised by Bruce Ogilvie and Thomas Tutko at San Jose State University.

The fittest, most competitive runners must score well in tough-mindedness (the will to train and race hard) and aggression (the urge to beat other people). I flunked in both areas.

The computer placed me in the bottom 20 percent of athletes in mental toughness. The scorecard labeled me “tender-minded.”

In aggressiveness I fell to the lowest 10 percent. The computer judged me “an extremely non-aggressive athlete who rarely asserts himself. [He] feels the aggressive elements of sports are unappealing and non-rewarding.”

However, I scored near the top in one category: trust. The test showed me as “not inclined to be jealous or suspicious of others.”

I don’t covet what other runners have or suspect them of trying to take what is mine. Instead of competing for a goal that only one of us can achieve, we can cooperate to accomplish more together than any of us could do alone.

“As a practical matter,” writes Bil Gilbert, “cooperation is the tactic most commonly used to get what we want. Getting what we want by taking it from somebody else in an overt contest is usually for us, as for other species, a last resort. Therefore a good argument can be made that life is mostly about avoiding competition.”

Instead we seek a niche where we don’t have to beat others but only to improve ourselves. Says Gilbert, “Humans have long had a high regard for niches, which allow us to occupy positions in which competition is completely eliminated or greatly reduced.”

Running offers as many of these niches as there are runners. Here, winners aren’t judged by how many people you beat but by how well you do against one tough-enough competitor: yourself.


Two current trends seem to support Bil Gilbert’s conclusions made a generation ago.

The first: as running grows bigger and bigger, fewer and fewer runners know (or seem to care) who finishes first, wins the prize money or sets the records. I used to write about this part of the sport but can’t (without Googling) name the winners of the latest Olympic Marathons.

Second trend: cooperation among runners has never been greater. More and more of them group up to train, as in the university classes I teach and marathon/half teams I coach. They run to help, not to beat each other.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Just released was Joe’s Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

Previous Posts