Kelly Bouchard is writing his thoughts from the run for Canadian Running. He is no longer obsessed with being first.
When I was in grade two, my elementary school started a running program. There was a path that circumnavigated a patch of forest in the corner of our schoolyard, and each day some teachers would sit at a table on the path and count how many laps we did over the course of our lunch hour. Participation was voluntary, but there was a prize at the end of the semester for the kid in each grade who recorded the most laps. Everyone tried hard in the beginning until the emergence of obvious favourites a week or so in slowly brought the slower kids to drop out. The competition between the fastest of us intensified.
I was locked in a battle for first place with a kid named “T.” He had blonde hair cropped into a mushroom cut and each lunch, when the bell rang, we tore out of our adjoining classrooms into the mudroom and avoided eye contact as we fumbled with our shoelaces. He always managed to get outside ahead of me, and I’d feel a panic rise in my chest that didn’t abate as I trailed him by a few seconds lap after lap.
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I was terribly afraid of losing. If T was too, he never showed any sign of it. He presented a flinty-eyed determination, the same brazen streak that made him the boy-king of our grade, whose claim to fame was that he’d once beaten up a kid in grade five. I, on the other hand, was a quiet kid who didn’t want to be king, but I didn’t want other kids having power over me either. Once entered, the running program seemed like a trap where one couldn’t be accomplished without the other: to avoid losing, I had to win.
Every day I’d arrive in class with butterflies in my stomach, thinking that this might be the day T tapped some inner strength and outpaced me. The teachers clearly had no idea what was going on for me. I felt terrible. At seven years old with no real sense of who I was, the competition became of monumental importance in determining my identity. Was I a winner or a loser? Was I better or worse than T? Was I higher or lower on the social hierarchy? The semester moved on and my anxiety grew and grew.
In the end, I found a way out. I started pretending to be sick. I’d convince my teacher to call my mom so she’d pick me up before I had to go out at lunch and face the music. At the close of the semester, the prizes were handed out. With my periodic absences, I wasn’t even close to winning. When they announced T’s name, I told myself that I hadn’t really lost, that I had been sick, choosing to forget that I hadn’t been sick at all. That notion was enough to get me home before I started crying.
It was the start of a pattern that repeated for years to come. My need to win, or at least to not lose at running, had become entangled with my whole idea of how people saw and evaluated me, not just as a runner but also as a person. I routinely cracked under the pressure. I’d bow out of track or cross-country races at the last second, claiming a headache, or I’d cross the finish line complaining of terrible knee pain.
I was 16 when I finally lost my first race without resorting to an excuse. It was a cross-country 10K that I was sure I could win, but with one kilometre left, the real winner pulled away despite my best efforts to hang on. For once, I didn’t pull up or complain, and I remember being amazed at how little losing actually hurt. Nothing catastrophic occurred. People didn’t look at me askance or curl their lips. I put in a kick over the last 100m and the spectators applauded when I crossed the line well back from the leader.
On the ride home in my parent’s car, I was grinned from ear to ear. It was like emerging from a nightmare to find the monster you’ve been running from isn’t even real. I felt good: exhausted, bested, but good all the same. After the race, I’d shaken the winner’s hand and said to him: “I’ll get you next time.” We raced three more times that year, but I never beat him. He was a better runner than me. Even today it surprises me how easily I can admit that.