I’m pounding along, heart fit to burst, legs screaming and a voice leaping out of my throat with the immortal words “I can’t”. But I could. 500 metres to go and one last surge as I push to the finish. It’s 9am on a freezing cold Saturday morning and I’m hauling my spent carcass up the channel for finished runners, to give in my number and get my time. I’ve knocked 10 seconds off my personal best. Now there were hundreds of runners in front of me and hundreds behind me but it wasn’t about them, or how my time compared to theirs. That was irrelevant. Some were twenty years my junior, some were professional athletes, some had legs like giraffes, some were in it only for the gentle shuffle and a chat. Each had their own agenda and parameter for what they wanted to get out of putting one foot in front of the other for five thousand meters. I took up running a year ago. I didn’t want to go long distances; I found it boring, it took up too much time, and gave me injuries. What I set myself was the goal to run 5K as quickly as I could for my age and fitness. The more I did it, the fitter I became and the faster I got. It was a definitive goal and at the time of writing I am still beating my personal best. It’s a gratifying achievement when, in the rest of life it’s all so much more amorphous than setting yourself up to do something and being given actual numbers that prove you have improved. A month ago my PB was 29 minutes 22 seconds. Last week it was 28’ 22 and this week it was 28’13 including the 5 seconds it took me to stop and tie up my shoelace. That is a measurable progression. It gives me satisfaction, to shave off those few extra seconds. Striving, training and achieving. There is a simple equation in that which shows numerical results.
But how do we translate that into real life with its shifting targets and challenges? What can we learn from the concept of a runner’s PB that is useful for everyday living? What can we teach our children about reaching for their own potential that is not about comparing or competing in a way that depletes their sense of self-worth?
Some people thrive on competition. Beating others gets their juices flowing and ups their game. But for the rest of us that cult of comparison and competition simply lowers our self-esteem, dampens our self-confidence and quells our spirit. When you compare yourself with someone else and find yourself lacking, you experience a sinking sense of defeat. Or, if you beat someone your chest puffs up in direct ratio to your swelling ego; a balloon to be popped next time someone better than you trundles along. School is a battleground for competition and the triumphant bask in glory while the runners up and the no hopers, trail in their wake; in the shadow of the exultant winners’ prizes and trophies. I did well at school. Not because I was striving to be better than anyone else, but because I was attempting to be better than how I’d done last time. If I put a competitor into my mind’s eye, I felt myself back down and stop trying. I’d hear that negative voice rise up and tell me that there was no point in trying because I’d be sure to lose. But if I focused on what I wanted to attain for myself, with no thought to anyone else, I felt the challenge lift my spirit; I could feel myself fill with energy, excitement and determination. I was powered by a positive force that made me want to do my best, go to my limits, reach for my potential. And if I failed, that was ok too because I’d done what I could. And there would always be another time to try. It was the same mindset I’d rediscovered on the Saturday parkruns.
Last weekend my partner took part in the Watford Half marathon. He came 800 and something out of 1500 and something. So when it came to podiums and prizes he wasn’t hanging round in the hope of stepping up to receive anything other than the medal that all the runners got for taking part and for finishing. What gave Paul his thrill for the day was being part of this throng of people tackling inordinately steep hills in a head wind that was forever against them, for crossing the finishing line and for beating his personal best on the course that he’d done the year before. He didn’t care about the 800 people reaching the end before him, he cared that despite being a year older and having crossed the 50-year threshold he was still faster than his former 49 year-old self. When we do the parkrun, we are overtaken by kids who haven’t even reached double figures in age, but who are bounding round with infinite energy and springs for legs. They don’t have the ferocious expressions on their faces that the front-runners do; they’re relaxed and enjoying going at their own pace, whatever that may be. It’s refreshing and liberating. It makes me smile. We cheer them on and jokingly ask if we can attach ourselves to their shirt-tails. But they’ve already scampered off ahead into the gaggle of runners in front.
Instead of just celebrating the top 1%, the oligarchy at the top of the school, let’s give something higher for everyone to work towards; something within their own control that they will always have within them, whether they are 5 or 50. Let’s give them the ability to understand that life is about setting out to achieve their own personal best, whether that’s in learning to tie their shoe-laces or in helping an old lady cross the road. It might be in getting the best results for them or just learning to understand enough to get through exams and onto something practical or useful or creative or meaningful that they can excel at. It doesn’t matter what we strive towards, as long as it’s reaching towards somewhere higher than a place of suffering and unhappiness. It’s about learning what it is important to you and then doing your best at it, because you want to, because it makes you feel better, because it raises your spirit and your sense of self.
The charity Young Minds UK offers further information in supporting children and young people towards mental health and wellbeing
Lou Hamilton is an artist, writer, filmmaker, life coach & author of Brave New Girl- how to be Fearless. brave-new-you.com