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Lee County 7 1 20
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Great competitors make a sport better
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Great competitors use the successes of others to make themselves better. - photo by Kim Cowart
Mile 12 of a tough half-marathon. My hamstring is tight, ready to snap like an overstretched rubber band. My lungs are full of fire. My head is pounding harder than my feet. I will run nowhere near as fast as I usually run. No PRs on this day, yet I feel prouder and more accomplished than ever.

The last year had been rough. Id run seven of eight marathons with strep throat and ended the season with a stress fracture in my foot. After taking a few months off, I decided to have my tonsils removed. Despite what television told me to expect, this was no pleasant procedure. No relaxing in bed while smiling family members bring ice cream and flowers. Apparently the older you are, the worse the recovery, and the ice cream felt like daggers down my throat. It took me over an hour to choke down a bowl of oatmeal. Consequently, Id lost weight and strength. To make matters worse, an old back problem reared its ugly head and I was in excruciating pain. It only hurt lying down or eating. Or breathing.

This half marathon was my first real run since recovering from that wreck of a winter. My only expectation was finishing.

Mile 12.8 I could see the finish. I was reveling in my return to racing, mentally patting myself on the back when I was jolted out of my thoughts.

Thats it! Reel her in! Shes got nothing on you! Easy prey!

I looked to my left to see a red-faced man in a black trucker hat on the sidelines a few yards ahead pointing at me. Apparently I was the prey of which he spoke.

Now running alongside me, the screams followed.

Do it! Youre better than her!

Wait a second, I thought. He doesnt know me.

Mile 13 she passed me. Black trucker hat guy really lost it then.

Yes! You killed her! Go! Go! Go!

She came in 23rd. I came in 24th. She beat me by mere seconds. Not exactly shattering any world records, but I felt as though I'd lost big.

I would like to say those words rolled off my back. I would like to say they didnt bother me, but they did. My moment felt a little less victorious -- a little less celebratory. This incident happened more than two years ago and I still think about it from time to time.

What bothered me most wasnt this guy cheering on his friend. It wasnt even that I was a target. It was that his comments became so personal. To lift up his friend and build her confidence, he had to tear me down.

On the flip side, the 2014 Park City Marathon will go down in the books as one of my favorite races ever. A girl from California was using the race to prep for Ironman Kona. She brought with her a twin sister, a husband, and a few close friends. She was in the lead from the beginning, but as the second place female, she was never too far in front of me. From mile eight to the finish, her cheer squad followed her along the course. She would pass, but they always waited until I passed and offered me encouragement as well. Sometimes they would crack a joke. Sometimes they offered a chorus of cowbells. Once her husband even told me exactly how far behind I was and egged me on to catch her -- to make her sweat a little more. I know he really didnt want to see me catch her, but he made me smile nonetheless.

She beat me by 90 seconds. No sooner had I crossed the finish line than her family and friends grabbed me for pictures and high-fives. Camaraderie in the competition. I loved it. My smile couldnt have been bigger had I won.

Competition is good. It drives us to train. It drives us to improve. Many a race Ive set my sights on someone far ahead of me and willed myself to close the gap. Its a way to focus my efforts, to take myself out of the present pain and push forward. Without a doubt, Ive often been that distant person someone has their sights set on, too

Good competition brings out the best in everyone. Personal success is not contingent on someone elses failure.

Was I successful at that half marathon years ago. Yes. I had a goal and I met it, humble as it was. Did Trucker Hats friend succeed? Yes. She beat me fair and square. Even had she not passed me, she definitely turned it on that last mile and pushed herself to her limit. That alone is success.

Running is an individual sport, yet theres so much strength in its community. I love that two runners can train together and be each others biggest fans, and then kill it on the course. I love that your biggest competition can also be your biggest fan. No need to attack each other with words when we can attack with our feet.

The brighter your light shines, the bigger the spotlight on all of us.