Competition in a small running club

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If it is summer, it must be the new racing season. For me, as I’ve explained before, that means the Summer League; a contest between six or seven London running clubs, taking in a 5 mile or 10k race followed by various 400 metre relays. There are also “tenderfoot” races, 1 mile for the 7-18s, and a 400 metre race for children under 7. Add in the involvement of all ages (participants include people running in all age categories up to “s75”), a free picnic, and you have a thoroughly enjoyable day.

My left-wing friends have been discussing whether should we be opposed to all competition. The idea we have are revolting against, I suppose, is the red-tops’ cliche about how primary school sport is organised by “militants” from the “Marxist-led NUT trade union”, i.e. in mythically grim occasions in which anyone who should win one particular race is sent to Coventry to their teachers and penalised by being sent to the very back for the start of the next race. (Whenever someone tells me that this is how the left “does” sport, I’m reminded always of how assiduous the Tories have been at compelling schools to sell of their sports grounds…). Against the myth of compulsory egalitarianism, I’ve heard it suggested (and I think agree) that there should be a space for socialist competition, i.e. teams competing against each other in a more playful spirit, where the purpose of the competition is to maximise dynamics of solidarity and people compete against themselves as much as they do against anyone else. My friend Josh Clarke tells me that this is true of Rugby Union. Clubs play each other but the rivalries are complex and different teams’ supporters drink together. The negative image here is football, and the glee with which (for example) many Celtic fans welcomed the near destruction last year of their great rivals Rangers.

Josh suggests (and I think I agree) that this is a peculiarly self-defeating way of being. Sport, unlike politics, is made more interesting by rivalry. The logic of the competition dictates a certain sympathy for the people you are competing against. Should they be obliterated altogether, that doesn’t leave your team standing solo, “the winner” for all time. It just means that the particular sporting contest in which you have been involved is finished, and no-one can derive any pleasure from it any more.

Now that I’m over 40, my running ambitions have changed. At the moment, I’m running relatively well, by which I mean that I haven’t had an acute injury (i.e. something that disables me from running for more than three weeks) for more than two months. After a winter which was a complete write-off, that’s a victory of sorts. But instead of intense injuries, I seem to be suffering from fewer, more chronic injuries. Every time I run my calves and achilles tendons are sore, typically it takes me between 5 and ten days before I feel capable of running again. I find myself reading websites aimed at people running in their 40s. Much of their advice is relatively generic: hydrate, improve your diet … I see suggestions that I should not train more often than four times per week – in truth, I seem to be maintaining speed with only 1-2 runs a week (I find this both encouraging and troubling).

Racing in the Summer Leagues, I find myself conserving energy for the relays at the end. My best pace for 10k ought to be about 50 minutes or so (last year, I ran it in a best of 51:30). Earlier this summer, I ran a 10k in 63 minutes. This is a slower pace even than my slowest in a marathon. (it brought me home 17 seconds behind runners thirty years my senior). But by conserving energy I seem to leave something behind for the sprints. The image at the top shows me racing an anchor leg in the 400 metre relay. I felt fastaround 70 seconds pace, and quicker than anything I’ve run on the track in quite a while.

The most successful Renton in the summer league is my youngest son, the reigning Summer League age 13 champion from 2012 in the 1 mile category. His triumph appears to have been assisted by a transcription error. When he ran the race last year he was not aged 13 but only 3. Someone misread “y3” as “year 3 of secondary school” (i.e. 13 years old) instead of “years: 3”, which is what we had intended. Of course, if there had been an under-4 age category he would have won that fair and square. His brother also ran the same race, his face turning back every 5 metres to make sure that the younger boy did not catch him.

Our club, the Mornington Chasers, were recently featured on the Running Stories blog, where we are described as “relatively small compared to other London clubs, with a modest 260 members, but the advantage of our small size is that we get to know each other well”. That’s my sense too as a relatively new member (about 13 months in the club). In a smaller club, it’s easier to get to know people, to find people who run at a similar pace, to “drop in” to a training programme that suits. Even just running as occasionally with the Chasers as my injuries allow, I have found it easy to join in, to meet people, to benefit from that running dynamic where sometimes I am the one who encourages others to keep going, and sometimes others support me.

The Chasers’ rivals in the summer leagues include the Serpentine Running Club (red vests with orange hoops in picture above) who with over 2000 members boast that they are “possibly the largest running and triathlon club in Britain”. It is a small point of pride to note that the Serpies rarely do well in the Summer League, compared to the Chasers (green orange and white vests), who seem to end most matches in either first or second. I do not pretend to have an adequate explanation of the Serpies’ relative failure. But in a format that rewards participation by the largest number of people, of as many different ages as possible, my “hunch” is that they just don’t have enough young and old runners, enough people running second- and third-string relays, enough people running as a team.

They are not the Chasers’ only rivals. In the relays, i.e. the 400 metre sprints, the usual winners are the Ealing Eagles (white vests with a black trim), who almost always seem to do best in the men’s races in particular. Malicious gossips suggest that they (gasp) …  train for the races. The Chasers’ refusal to do this , to select within our club our fastest six runners, to practise handovers; all of these are signs of what I like about club running. We compete, we refuse to be competitive. We run together. We cheer each other on. No money ever changes hands. If a  neoliberal should watch our sporting competition they would grumble that we barely seem to have grasped the point of competition at all.

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