Looking back on it, I’m not sure if my credit card had cooled off from paying both the registration and the processing fees for both of us before the chiding began.
My male coworker from India, forever looking to fill his spare time with physical exertion, found a discount to run a mud obstacle course. Other than me, none of his other friends, male, female, Indian, or American, were ever interested in participating in anything. From tree obstacles to 5ks, few wanted any part. But I was always game.
We were both excited about signing up but once monetarily committed, I was surprised to hear what I had thought was united camaraderie turn into instant competition.
“My goal?” he’d start, ironically using an English saying that I taught him, “Is that I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun YOU!!”
And over the next three or so months, it cycled. Our usual friendly discussions would devolve into his seemingly only goal of making sure he was ahead of me.
So, I’d think, out of what could be hundreds maybe thousands of participants, if I were the very last person crossing the finish line, number 5000, for instance, your only objective is to see that you are number 4999?
“My goal is to make sure I don’t get stuck in a tree and cry like I’m twelve years old,” I’d deflect.
But make no mistake, I was wounded. And seeing that neither of us had ever done anything like this before, I researched what I could. What to expect, what fabric we should wear, how best to train, what to eat or not eat. And his research was asking me what I was doing.
“I’m buying gloves. Oh, and don’t wear cotton anything. It’ll slide off of you after the first mud pool.”
“Ok!” he’d confirmed. “Will do!”
But my research did more than tell me what to wear. It gave me a sense that this type of race was less competition and more about getting to the finish. Teams were encouraged to sign up. Soloists could maybe expect total strangers to help if they got stuck. Lifelong friendships welded figuratively by fire and literally by sweat were made.
How encouraging! Except that the only person I would know, and ultimately care about, had made sure to constantly let me know that his only real goal was to beat me.
After a few weeks of talking about our training, I’d thought that perhaps the competitive edge had subsided. Until a coworker spotted us the Friday before the race and wished us good luck.
“My only goal,” he repeated, “is to beat my co-runner!”
I kept my composure and reiterated my same response, as at the time it was true. My goal was to try to finish the race without stopping and crying.
But between that time and the morning of the race, I felt dejected. I was back to an old, familiar feeling. One of feeling utterly alone, continually having to do almost every single thing, from big life goals to stupid little distractions, by myself. Even expressing myself to someone else seemed a novelty. While almost everyone came to me to vent and frustrate, I often found that when I needed someone to talk to, no one was there. Even when I tried cramming what could be hours of complex emotions into 30 seconds of sound bite, what typically happened was the other person getting called away, usually notified these days by a high pitched ping from some device. Not only did I not have anyone to really talk to when times were bad, when I was losing to the other rats in this life maze, I didn’t even have anyone to talk to when times were good.
And that was even more depressing. And now, one thing where I had initially assumed would not be one more battle was incorrect. This event would be like almost everything else in my life. Me against the world.
I texted another friend the night before that I was doing everything I could to keep from ditching the next morning. I hadn’t had any time to train since the previous week and even that training hadn’t gone well and how I was in a really bad headspace. I walked away from my phone to spare myself the jolt of not getting any response but found a little relief when hours later I saw that he had called.
The morning of the race I felt a little better and got to the event. Families, teams, young, old, able-bodied, and those put back together. Everyone was in a good mood. An hour before the gun, I bumped into my coworker. We hung out and talked about various things. I braced myself for at least one last competitive jab. I was ready. I knew I was on my own. The jab never came. Instead, I got a confession of vulnerability.
“I’ve been worried about beating you for weeks! Especially after seeing you run during that one workout. You move like…like a deer! I don’t know how I’m going to catch up to you if you get too far ahead.”
Had our cultural differences got in the way? Did what had really been compliments to my ability or potential get lost in translation? I know that he didn’t know that I had felt slighted. And how was he to know that my middle-aged emotional baggage would eventually twist his words into fuel for me to, once again, battle the world?
I stood beside him, listening and gaining clarity. The clock was ticking. Voices and loud music mixed in a hum of adrenaline. I better understood where his dramatics came from. But it was too late. Ten minutes of realization wasn’t going to change a mindset built by hours, if not days, of unwarranted self-pity and despair.
As the official counted down the last minute before the horn to start our wave, I held out my hand. “Good luck, friend.” He shook my hand and replied in kind. “And if you see me lagging behind, don’t worry,” I gave my blessing. “Just keep going…”
With uncertainty he gave a half nod. And as we re-positioned ourselves, moving from handshake to runner’s pose, I finished the thought in my head.
…’cause I ain’t waiting for you.