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Competing to win

Competing to win

Words: Alexandra Hamlyn

Seventeen former champions participated in RacingThePlanet:Namibia 2009, but is competition a healthy or a bad thing?


Call it the selfish gene or human nature, but survival of the fittest is a race all life on earth partakes in. Competition is inherent in so many different scenarios: school, work, athletic performance, commerce and gain. However, beyond the obvious ways that competition can bring you to the front of the field, where does one draw the line between improving your own performance, and simply getting one over on another person?


RacingThePlanet is a unique set of rough country foot-races that brings those willing and able to far-flung places in the world for a series of 6-stage, 250km self-supported events. For those who have partaken in several of the 4 Deserts series, or even the RacingThePlanet ‘Beyond’ races, such as Vietnam, there is certainly something phenomenal and also subtle that draws competitors back for more, again and again. For previous champions, it would seem that the pull to win again is as addictive as the test of physical ability and duress.


RacingThePlanet:Namibia 2009 has a record number of past champions present at the race with a grand total of seventeen participants who have won their division, be it men’s, women’s or team. What this means is, that from the onset of registration, huge attention was given to the inherent challenge presented in competing in unchartered terrain, as well as reuniting with former rivals and competitors who once tested you to your limits by adding the element of competition into the mix.


Sissel Smaller (Norway) placed first in the Atacama 2006, and has returned to the racing world, but this time in a team. “80% of the race is psychological and like anything with a huge challenge it is rewarding the reach the finish. We are all here to meet the challenge, keep fit and to meet nice people. As a finisher, you gain inner strength that you can’t explain,” Smaller said about her personal reasons for entering this event. “In terms of competition though,” Smaller continues, “I must admit that the first time I ran, it wasn’t immediately about competition. This is something that I put on myself. But this time as I am in a team, it is more about finishing and working together than anything else.”


Many of the other former champions agree that the obvious attraction to participating in this sort of event is learning new things about yourself and discovering one’s own personal capacity to draw strength from an untapped reserve. It makes sense, when you are out there, you have a lot of time to think and on top of this, you are away from the outside world and therefore nothing interferes with your inner process.


Nina Breith (Germany) says that her love for the multi-stage desert events differs vastly from race to race. But the one common denominator that binds the continental and topographical intricacies of these events for her is how she physically experiences them. “For the Sahara I was extremely prepared and well trained, but for this race I was ill before I came, and it shows in my performance because physically and psychologically I am not centred,” Breith admits.


Even then, when it comes to finishing, Breith makes no excuses for her desire to push herself to her ultimate limits. “I push for the best every moment that I can, and take it stage by stage, but to be honest, Lucy Hilton (United Kingdom) is so far away from where I am in the field, that it isn’t even a factor anymore.”


Stephanie Case (Canada) was the first placing woman in RacingThePlanet: Vietnam 2008. Due to stress fractures in her leg and tendonitis incurred prior to this event, Case admits that her expectations have shifted. This is a similar sentiment shared by Lucy Marriott (United Kingdom) who now concedes that she just wants to finish having found the first stage of this event extremely challenging, despite doing exceedingly well in the overall standing. Case admits, “with this race, from day one I didn’t know whether I could finish, but I came for myself, and to see what I was capable of.”


In terms of outright competition, there is always a cost – and to what extent competitors make this sacrifice depends on how they quantify their own sense of the word. For some, like Case, “It is important to be aware of when you are crossing what I call ‘the stupid line,’ and sometimes I don’t know where that is in terms of pushing myself too hard. This is important to me right now particularly because I am injured, but in that way, my situation took a lot of pressure of my desire to perform well, because I already knew that I was working with a set of limitations that I couldn’t do anything about,” she said.


Experience counts, especially for Dave Kuhnau (United States) who commented, “sometimes, people think that because you have experience, that you will perform well regardless. But there are other factors to consider such as terrain and unexpected variables that can really make or break your performance.” Competing in a team also adds a different dimension the notion of competition too, as confirmed by Joel Burrows (United States), Kuhnau’s and Jacob Hastrup’s (Denmark) teammate. Hastrup is also a former champion who said that he likes competing in teams more, because, “it is fun.” Burrows said, “competing as a team, is a totally different race than competing as an individual. In a team, you are only ever as fast as the weakest person in your team – it is important to work together, and to put your ego aside at all costs and adapt to the dynamic in order to achieve your full potential as a group.”


For individual racers such as Ryan Sandes (South Africa) and Salvador Calvo Redondo (Spain), who are currently vying for first place at this event, the competitive aspect to their performance is more forthright and clear. But in some ways, their interest in competing directly conflicts with the notion of “healthy competition” as they are obviously pushing their bodies to their ultimate limits. It can be dangerous physically to do this. Sandes, who won the Gobi March (China) 2008 and the Sahara Race (Egypt) 2008 admits, ”this is definitely the strongest field I have ever competed in. Every day I have tried to have a solid race, and at the same time there have been moments when I needed to back off slightly,” he explains. “Competition is a natural and healthy thing, and it pushes me and keeps it exciting. There are times when the things I want to do with my body are beyond common sense, but the adrenaline in the course of the race keep me going  - but  I also push for equilibrium, psychologically, and physically.” With new sponsors and a potential career as a professional athlete, Sandes certainly has a lot on the line.


Salvador, a veteran champion of several ultra-marathon events and RacingThePlanet:Vietnam 2008 shares this philosophy, although adds, “this is about competition with myself, not with any other person. I am here for my own realisation of what I want to achieve, and what I have trained very hard for. Every day, I run with the intention of improving my performance, and I am hard with myself.”


But for most of the competitors, the desire to see new places overrides their need to win. Lia Farley who placed first in the women’s division in the Gobi March (China) 2008 said, “I do these races for the travel aspect, and there are visual things that I don’t want to miss – I sacrifice time for the opportunity to memorialise those moments with my camera or by running with someone that I meet along the way. My want to enjoy these races far exceeds my desire to compete.”


Kuhnau concurred. “RacingThePlanet is a great way to see the world – I have now raced on seven continents,” he said.


What emerged was a consensus that beyond running in competition with other people is the risk of losing sight of your goals and pushing too far to achieve them. Matthew Chapman (Australia) and Philipp Mosimann (Switzerland) who as a team took their division in RacingThePlanet: Vietnam 2008 discussed this very point.  “I want to compete, which I think is  a natural thing, but at the same time not to push myself too far,” Chapman said,  “and I don’t want to cross that line in your mind where you run the risk of harming yourself – so knowing when to pull back is definitely something that comes with experience.”


Farley summed it up nicely by explaining that maintaining a healthy outlook is by far the most important thing to attain. “The more competitive I am, the more I risk turning the event into a death march.  The things I take away from these races, is nothing that you can put your finger on, but it definitely changes you as a person,” Farley said.


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