May 11, 2012
This is usually the first question every competitive athlete hears from family and friends. If you define winning as being the first person across the finish line or the competitor with the best score, the answer to the question is a resounding "NO." With more than 12,000 finishers in the 2012 Boston Marathon, the changes are slim to none you "won" unless your mailing address is Nairobi. Even if you broaden your definition to winning to include the twenty age-group winners, you changes are still less than 1%.
The etymological root of "win" is the Old English winnan meaning to "fight, strive, or endure." Nothing there about crushing, humiliating, or obliterating an opponent. A more reasonable approach is to embrace a more nuanced view of winning. There are many ways to win. Of course a confirmed couch potato may call this rationalizing, but the real test of how you view your own athletic performance is how you feel about your effort. To help broaden the meaning of "winning", here are a few ways I have measured my sporting endeavors. Not all these approaches apply to all sports, But I have found them useful in answering the question, "Didja win?"
For the first-time competitor, especially in endurance events such as ski marathons, long-distance running, and triathlons, winning can simply be getting to the finish line. "Compete to complete" is sage advice for the novice. These events are tough on body, mind, and spirit. No one enters her first marathon thinking she is going to be the first one to break the ribbon. Get real! Running 26+ miles or cross-country skiing 25 kilometers for the first time is a triumph, regardless of how you place. You can't win without competing and, for the novice, finishing is a victory.
Better Than Last Time
Ideally, your performance is progressive. Even with a modest amount of training and preparation, you should expect some improvement. However, be warned that improvement is rarely linear. You don't knock ten seconds off your time every race. In fact, you may go for half a dozen or more races with basically the same result. But, if you are training, there will come a time when your performance jumps forward. This is both wonderfully startling and a great motivator. This year, in the USMS One Hour Swim Championship, after several years of declining performances, I improved my time over last year. For me, at 70, battling the forces of age, this was a win.
In some competitions the circumstances of each race vary so much that comparing one race with another is almost pointless. For example, two whitewater slalom races may be held on different rivers, with a different number of gates, a different alignment of gates, and different wind conditions. To finish one race in 2 minutes 30 seconds and another race in 2 minutes and 5 seconds really won't tell you much about whether or not you've improved. But many competitions, including long-distance running, track & field events, swimming, and weightlifting minimize external variables. In these events many competitors keep a careful record of their finishes. And when, during a magical day, he bests all of his previous finishes and achieve a "personal best" the feeling is its own gold medal.
Beating Out A Rival
If you're a seasoned competitor, a regular at local and regional contests, you know most of your opponents long before the competition begins. In my case, I have a good idea of who will be jockeying for position at the starting line of a kayak race even before I get to the venue. These are my rivals and friends; the guys that make me paddle hard. And I have a clear sense of who should win and an inkling of how we will all finish. However, this inkling is not writ in stone and when -- because of an uptick in my biorhythms or the fickle finger of fate -- I can edge out a paddler who has regularly left me in his wake, I count it as a win. It doesn't happen often, but when it does -- how sweet it is.
Percentage of the Winner
I'm hardly a math whiz. An English major with a very mediocre SAT quantitative score, I'm not even sure of my multiplication tables anymore. But with the help of a calculator, I can figure out how far behind the winner I was and what percentage of the winner's score I was. As my 8th grade teacher, Miss Hough, would demand, "give me an example and show your work." OK, here goes:
In 2001, at the age of 59, I competed in the USMS One Hour Swim Championship in the 55-59 age group. I managed to swim 2,800 yards in one hour. The winning distance was 4,995 yards and my performance represented 56% of the winning distance (2800/4995=0.560561). The next year, 2002, I moved into the 60-64 age group and swam only 2,660 yards -- a full 140 yards less than the year before. The winning distance in my age group was 4,315 yards. So even though my distance was less than the year before, my percentage of the winning distance was 62% (2660/4315=0.616454). This was enough to make me quietly cheer for myself.
Two sports, notably swimming and track & field, have gone to the trouble of developing age-graded tables. These tables, based on historical data, provide "age factors" and "age standards" which allow an athlete to compare his or her performance with any other athlete, regardless of age. The tables for track & field have been developed by the World Masters Athletics ("WMA"), the international body governing track & field of Masters Athletes.
Here's how it works. Using a running event as an example, put your age, gender, event and time into an age-graded calculator, such as this one The calculator will then give you a percentage, the baseline standard for your age, and an equivalent performance by a 25 year-old runner. On a really good day, as a 70 year-old male, I can run a 5k in about 40 minutes. The calculator shows that the baseline standard for my age and gender is 17 minutes and 27 seconds. So my percentage is 44.029 (40 minutes x 0.44029 = 17 minutes 37 seconds). Furthermore, my time of 40 minutes is the equivalent of a 25 year-old running a 5k in 29 minutes and 27 seconds.
In other words, this device allows me to compare my times with runners anywhere in the world and to note my progress over time.
Yes, once in a while, after rigorous training and great focus, you may be the very first competitor to cross the line, or hit the end of the pool, or win the match. Of course winning is fun. But for me, behind every such victory is a nagging question: Did I win against the very best competition. And this is a topic for another article.