I always thought that my penchant for outdoor sports boiled down to some kind of “pure” engagement with myself. My passion for self-improvement was somehow distilled; removed from the sometimes-toxic world of team sports and organised competition. But then I saw that bloke on the trail.

There he was. A third of the way up the massive hill that Strava calls the “Berry Burst”, a neon figure shod in trail runners. Hitting the incline, my eyes became fixated on his brightly-coloured form. Am I gaining? I wonder how long he’s been training? Maybe he’s also foolishly signed up for a half marathon…

I lengthened my stride, set my shoulders and straightened my hands into two aerodynamic blades, just like they do in the Olympics. My muscles fired and screamed, fired and screamed as I sucked them dry on the race to the top. But I was gaining.

We crested the hill in tandem. I’ve done it, I’ve reeled him in. What. An. Epic. A true Aussie underdog story. Lanky bloke in old cricket shorts bests experienced runner in colour-coordinated activewear. I can hear the crowd roaring. No, wait, that’s just the blood rushing in my ears. Oh man am I tired. And my chest hurts. Maybe if I just hyperventilate a little I’ll get some more air in there.

What the hell dude?

What happened to pushing your own limits? To the pure experience of running against yourself?  Did you just get competitive on me? My self-reprimands faded to white noise. I felt great. I’d tapped into a hidden well of power and sucked it dry. But now I knew where it was.

Maybe I Am Competitive After All?

I’d been wearing my anti-competitiveness like a badge of honour for years. Surfing, rock-climbing, mountain biking and downhill skating, it was always the same. “Nah man, I’m just pushing my own limits” was my catchphrase. The problem was, I’d now discovered that my limit was way up there. I just needed a push from someone better.

Climbing the sea cliffs at Point Perpendicular the other weekend I embraced this new ideology. I followed much better climbers up tough and frankly scary routes, not letting myself cop out with the “self-challenge” excuse. Yep, that’s what it was becoming, it would have been criminal to hold myself back with all of that extra power on tap.

What’s more, as the red mist encroached on the edges of my vision and my arm strained to give my fingers some purchase, the 70 metres of exposure to the ocean below may as well have been a body length to a bouldering mat. I was in the zone.

So what’s my point? It’s definitely not “be competitive always.” Often outdoor pursuits are about punching out a trip together. Whether it’s a multi-day trek through rugged backcountry or exploring a new river system, you’re only as fast as your slowest member.

But if you’re really looking to push your limits, break a personal best or set a new record out there, don’t be afraid to challenge your friends or enter a competition. It might not work for everyone, but it certainly does for me.

Oh and for everyone’s sake, don’t be competitive about gear. It’s not about what you have, but how you use it.


Feature photo by Greer Knight @greer.knight

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