In a recent interview, Kobe Bryant was asked about friendships, and he responded pretty much like you’d think a singly-focused, consumed-by-winning-championships, uber-successful superstar athlete would:
“Well, yes and no. I have friends. But being a “great friend” is something I will never be. I can be a good friend. But not a great friend. A great friend will call you every day and remember your birthday…”
My first thought was that Kobe has a pretty unreasonable idea of what friendship in your late 30s with a full-time job, wife and two children looks like. I mean, who has time to call their friends every friggin day?
Then, as with most things, I thought about me and whether I am a good friend. Turns out that I am. I’m not the warmest, fuzziest, most demonstrative person, but I am reliable and loyal, and I will tell you if I think you’re getting yourself into trouble or have food in your teeth. You definitely want me in your corner…Except when it comes to racing.
See, the problem is that at my core I am competitive. Some (most) of it can be laid at the feet of my Filipino Tiger Mom, who impressed upon me the importance of being Number One and beating everyone. Everyone. I think her family crest probably read “You no win silver, you lose gold!” One of the places this competitiveness has cropped up in my adult life is during races. Now this in itself is not a problem, but it can have some interesting results when neither you nor your friends realize you are racing and you think you’re running a race “for fun.”
When I started running in my late 20s, I was happy with just finishing races. I had spent a lot of time in my early 20s living a very active social life (let’s just keep it vague, I’m sure you can use your imagination), and I had finally gotten my act together and was living this healthy lifestyle. Wee! So for a couple years, a girlfriend and I just ran a bunch of races and trained for a marathon together. Every training run, every race, including the 26.2, we chatted the entire time. There was no “racing” involved. (BTW, this sounds like hell to me now. I seriously could not imagine talking to someone non-stop for the 4 hours and 52 min. it took for us to run that marathon.)
But then things changed, and that thing that was dormant in me came back to life. At some point I didn’t want to run races for fun anymore – I just didn’t know it.
First there was the San Diego Half Marathon. Another friend and I had trained together and had done the same easygoing chatty training runs. The morning of the race I got sick with food poisoning; however, being a trooper, I chose to run the half marathon once things settled down even though I was exhausted and dehydrated. B. stayed with me the entire time and kept my spirits up. She could have gone faster, but she was so sweet and encouraging for 13 plus miles. Then, as we neared the finish line, she said something like “Awww, this is great, we’re going to finish together!” I don’t know what happened, but the words must have struck something deep inside of me because my body instinctively kicked into gear and burst into a sprint for the last 100 yards, leaving B. in the dust. I thrust my arms in the air. I won!!…Oops, oh shit. Boy, that was an awkward two hour drive back to LA.
More recently, I trained and ran the 2010 LA Marathon with a couple friends. We did all our long runs easy and talked throughout. It was really collegial and fun. Then came race day. Again, my little childhood friend was triggered, and I was tense with wanting to do well and hit a certain time, even though I hadn’t trained that way at all. Anyway, my friend E. had been teasing me a lot that morning. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I rounded on him and started screaming at him. My tirade ended with something like “Who the fuck do you think you’re dealing with?!? I will cut you out so fast …you’re fucking dead to me!” Yeah, then the starting horn sounded shortly after. I didn’t see E. after that. Things didn’t get much better. At about mile 8, my other friend A. had to use the bathroom. You’d think I’d wait the couple minutes, right? Nah. I kept going. She caught up with me at about mile 20, and as I started cramping and couldn’t run anymore, I told her to go on without me. A. looked strong and like she could finish easily, but unlike me, she chose to stay. In fact, I remember her looking at me and saying “I won’t leave you!” Holy crap, what a good friend. This only hammered home my own awfulness. (BTW, I apologized to E. and we are still friends.)
Over the years, and in other areas like school, I’ve made peace with my competitiveness. It’s part of my DNA. I can laugh at myself, and even though it’s still there in me, it’s not driving the bus. In fact, I actually like that part of me as long as it stays at a reasonable level (read: non-psychotic Kobe level) because it’s that competitiveness that gets me out of bed at 4:45 a.m. to go run X miles when it’s dark and cold. At the same time, you can invite me to play Cards Against Humanity, and I won’t throw my cards into the garbage because they suck and obviously you guys are cheating. I just hadn’t come to terms yet with the fact that I had transitioned from a “fun” racer to someone who is competitive and wants a fast race time.
So this is what I’ve learned. I’m not a good friend to go to races with. I like going to races by myself, and the past few years, that’s usually what I’ve opted to do because it’s just better that way. I like to spend the considerable amount of pre-race time just chilling in my car, listening to music, maybe napping, and thinking a little about my goals for the race. It does not calm me down or make the time go by quicker for me to chat with people. I also don’t want to worry about where another person is, and I don’t want them to worry about me. I just don’t want to deal with it, so I prefer to go to races alone.
However, while I may not be the best friend to go to races with, I am a good “friend” to the racers and race personnel in general. Meaning, I did learn something from my friends who stayed with me and kept me company and didn’t bother with their finishing time. It’s OK to really go for it and want a fast finishing time, but it’s also important to be kind and encouraging to people. Since that horrible 2010 marathon, I’ve made it a point to thank the people who hand me water, occasionally wave at the spectators cheering us on, and if along the way I see someone struggling, I say an encouraging word. In fact, the next LA Marathon I ran, I really really wanted to finish under five hours. I had trained hard for it. As I came upon the last mile or so, I saw an older guy just struggling. This time something different kicked in. I ran up right next to him and said “We’re almost there! We’re going to do it!” I stayed with him a few strides, made sure to make eye contact with him, and gave him the thumbs up before I went on to finish. My finishing time was 5 hours and 33 seconds. It was the best missed goal race that I’ve ever had.