08/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Perilous Journey 3: The Need to Compete

As I was doubled over sucking in air during boot camp the other morning, after sprinting across a vast lawn sandwiched between two triathletes-in-training, I found myself pondering the usefulness and pitfalls of the need to compete. Okay, that's a lie... at that very moment, it was all about filling up my aching lungs, and my brain was getting so little oxygen that there was very little cogitation going on up there at all. The pondering came later, but you'll forgive a little literary license here, right?

By nature and nurture, I tend to be extremely competitive. I am definitely inhabited by that innate itch to excel, and specifically to "beat" everyone else in any sort of group activity be it sport or game or exercise or even daily life. My upbringing did everything to encourage that -- and I'm happy about it, I like being competitive. Now I'm discovering it's a useful trait when it comes to getting the most out of boot camp; yes, Franco and Ana can verbally encourage me all they like, but there's nothing that motivates like a flying body about to overtake you and leave you in the dust, or a guy pounding out more and faster pushups than you're producing.

The morning boot camps are small, most sane people preferring to torture themselves a little later in the day and not at 8 in the morning, so lately it's been mostly me and those two guys who are training for triathlons. It's an interesting dynamic. One of them is tall and blonde, strong and ripped, with all the self-satisfied hubris of his 24 years; the other is closer to my age, he's 43, and in great shape as well, but with the humility and wisdom that comes from fighting against age and lassitude in order to achieve fitness. So guess which one brings out the ravening competitor in me? The callow youth of course... The older guy inspires comradeship and mutual encouragement, and yes we compete but in a supportive way, each glad to see the other advance. The younger inspires nothing so much as the urge to take him down a peg, to demonstrate to him that youth and beauty do not always conquer unchallenged.

Ignoble, I know... churlish even... and foolish as well, since in point of fact I can rarely do anything faster or better than he. But boy does that urge push me to do ten more pushups, to pump my complaining legs a little faster, to keep doing that crab-crawl across the wet grass when my entire body screams for mercy.

And somewhere in that process, I discover that it isn't really the callow youth that I am competing against. He instigates the fever, yes... but what it comes down to in the moment, in the second-by-second negotiation with my aging bod, it is myself I am competing against -- my innate laziness, my desire for ease, my willingness to settle. The experience becomes a constant testing of myself against myself, to see how strong my will can be, how persistent my dedication can be, how much I can require of myself and deliver.

So I guess the tall blonde is a good idea, eh? and I bet you can find your own "tall blonde" in whatever endeavor you're undertaking that challenges your will and tests your stamina, and you can turn the "urge to beat 'em" into something helpful. Just remember, it'll always be yourself that you're up against in the moments that count, and you can win...

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