What is it, that feeling you get when you’re stopped at a red light, and another car pulls up next to you, and you’re both waiting for the light to turn green, and when it turns green that feeling escapes, overcomes your better judgment, and you peel out and try to stay ahead of that other car? Sure, not everybody does that. It’s really not safe. I don’t do it. Well, I don’t try to do it. Every once in a while that feeling comes out of nowhere, it’s overwhelming, and it’s really stupid. What compels us to naturally want to compete with each other, with complete strangers, over something so stupid?
I ride my bike to work everyday. This feeling is much worse on a bike because, unlike in a car, you really don’t have any reason to keep yourself in check. It’s not like you’re going to kill anybody by riding as fast as you can. I know you still could, but it’s way less likely. I’ll be riding over the bridge and I might be coming up on somebody. On a bike it’s not like you’re just going to fly past another rider. If you’re going only slightly faster, you’ll just kind of gradually creep up on and then overtake them.
But the thing is, as soon as the biker up front notices that I’m right behind, he or she will always start pedaling harder. And it’s like, what is this, a race? So I start pedaling harder also. And now it really is a race. Both of us giving as much as we’ve got. But the bridge is only so long, and so even if you win, what do you do when you and your competition both come cruising to the end? You’re eye to eye now, do you say something? If you lose, do you say congratulations to the victor?
It’s all very silly. But when you’re in the moment, it doesn’t matter if you know that it’s silly. All that’s important is getting there first. One time I went running, and I was crossing the same bridge. It’s like a mile across. And I was just kind of zoning out, timing my strides with my breath, when all of the sudden this other runner comes out of nowhere and runs ahead of me. So now I’m thinking, OK, I can either let it go, go back to concentrating on the rhythms of my lungs, and just maintain the pace that I was maintaining all along.
Or, I could up my speed and take back my lead. The only problem with that is, once I make that much of an effort to get back in front, I’m the one officially making it a race. Before, it was just two people running their own separate runs at their own individual paces. But this, no, I’m doing my own pace, seeing his pace, and then deciding to match it. One, I had better be sure that I can keep this new elevated pace for the duration of the bridge. Nothing would be worse than sprinting ahead only to have to slow down thirty seconds later, out of breath, clearly trying too hard to be a big shot, with that other guy effortlessly taking back his number one spot. And two, I also have to realize that, after I move up front, if this guy makes another run to overtake me, I absolutely have to up my speed again, a second time, and keep upping it, until one of us gets to the other side first. So I made that choice and ran ahead. And I didn’t look back. And by the time I got to the other side, out of breath, giving it much more than I thought I had, I turned around, imagining this guy on my heels the entire length of the bridge. But he wasn’t anywhere near me. He must have just maintained his own speed, like it wasn’t a race at all, like it was just me acting crazy and engaging in a competition with nobody.
But that’s not always the case. One time I was in the reverse situation, where I came running up to the bridge and I was in my head, again, concentrating on my pace, and I wasn’t looking around at anybody else, but I started to come up on another runner, and as soon as I passed him, he made it obvious that he wouldn’t take that lying down. So he started sprinting, and I had no time to think, to talk myself out of engaging in another race with another stranger. All I knew what that I would not let this guy get back up front.
This was the uphill part of the bridge, and we wound up, the both of us, sprinting as fast as we could. It was like the four hundred meter dash, but for idiots. When you’re in a footrace, it’s not really running anymore. It’s something else. There’s a primal feeling in the pit of your stomach, a discomfort, a palpable fear that you’re going to lose. It must be some sort of built-in survival instinct. And I had to really dig down for energy, to go a little faster, to stay up front. And I did it. But then I was so far ahead that I kind of just got back in my head again. And I ran all the way until the bridge started going downhill. Everybody knows downhill is a joke, so I was just kind of taking it easy. I had assumed that the race was over once the uphill climb ended. And this guy wasn’t on my heels anymore so it wasn’t a big deal. But then like halfway down, all of the sudden he comes up from behind, flying, sprinting, to the point where even if I tried to match it, he was already way too far ahead, he caught me by surprise, and he got to the end first.
And I was just thinking, who really won? Was it a race to the top or a race to the bottom? Because I totally stopped racing once I got to the top. But only because I thought that I had already won. It’s so stupid. Because we were totally in a race and now he was ahead and it bothered me. Because we were just two random people deciding to engage in a stupid competition. Why does everything have to be a competition? Every once in a while I’ll be riding my bike to work and I’ll get in the same exact type of race. But it’s always lose-lose, because if I lose, well, then I feel weak, like a loser. But if I win, it’s obviously because I was trying way too hard, and I’m on my way to work, so I’m not dressed up in exercise clothes, so when I do finally get there, I’m all sweaty and gross and I have to deal with the discomfort of damp underwear for the entirety of the day.