The venue is the same, but the course changes a little bit every week. Here at the start line, I nervously cinch my shoestrings and gloves and adjust my protective eyewear. There’s a whole flock of pre-race butterflies in my stomach as I check and recheck my rig. Will today be the day I set a new personal record? I’ve already walked the route, assessing the conditions - noting the obstacles. The weather is good. I’m hydrated. I like my chances.
A deep breath, and then in quick succession: stab the Go button on the stopwatch, squeeze the safety bar on the handle, pull the cord, and sprint. I’m not sure when mowing the lawn became a competitive event for me, but it did. I remember my friend John - years ago - joking about his weekly lawn mowing time trial. That was before I had a lawn of my own, so I couldn’t really relate. But then I bought my own house - got my own grass - and I started to understand.
I’m old enough and I’ve been doing this long enough that I’m not sure how much faster I can go. I look for competitive edges wherever I can find them. I’ve kept weight to a minimum by getting just a simple mower with plastic wheels and there’s no heavy self-driving mechanism. Just like a Formula 1 pit crew, I put in just enough gas to get to the end because fuel is heavy and slows me down. I’ve considered doing some more focused training, like taking the mower to the nearby cemetery and doing intervals on the hill, but that might be weird.
This competitive streak shows up in other areas of life, too. On Mondays I go to Lions Club. There are eighty-some people in our club and as I sit at one particular traffic light, it’s a pretty good bet that the car ahead and the car behind are going the same place that I am. Once we’re through that intersection, we have a choice of about three routes to the meeting place and I always choose differently than the car ahead and then push the limits of good sense to get there first. It’s ridiculous and immature and I have to be careful because the police chief is in the club and he might not appreciate losing to me.
Then there’s competitive writing. This past week I entered an essay in a writing competition. Until I stumbled upon an advertisement on a writers’ website, I hadn’t realized that arranging words on a page could be competitive, but once I DID know, I was totally in.
The essay I chose to submit is not one that has been published here at the Upstairs Project, and it proved to be very difficult to write. I’ve been wrestling with it since February. There’s a committee that I’m on that occasionally takes me inside an institution that most people would prefer not to enter, and allows me to interact with some people which most of us would choose to avoid. Those meetings always give me a lot to think about: issues of judgmentalism, punishment, acceptance, trust, and safety. It’s heavy stuff that raises more questions than I can possibly answer, and writing about it helps me to get my thoughts in order. Sometime later this summer, I’ll share that essay with you.
There’s the saying that competition improves the breed, and I wholly agree with it. I write these blog posts every week and I’m pretty casual about grammar and punctuation, but it’s a different deal in a competitive situation. Likewise on my bicycle, I can head out for a bike ride with the intention of working really hard on the local time trial course and I will end up doing exactly that - working really hard. But if it is an actual time trial, with an entry fee and a liability waiver and guy holding a stopwatch, it’s amazing how much harder I can work, and how much better I can be.
You’ll notice I’ve talked a lot about competing, but not much about winning. Having a competitive nature and actually being good at stuff are two different things. I have precious little experience on the top step of the podium. For me it’s about the thrill, the challenge, and the learning opportunity, rather than the win. There’s something about actual competition that causes us to find and push our limits and the result is that we learn things about ourselves that we otherwise wouldn’t: toughness, fear, priorities, victory, defeat, and grace.
In the thirteen-plus years that I’ve lived in my current house, my lawn mowing time has dropped from the low fifty-twos to the high thirty-eights. Anything under forty is really smokin’.
In the end, I’m the only one who cares about this. MSL sometimes mows the lawn and she doesn’t bother to keep track of how long it takes her to do so. She does a little bit in the front yard, takes a break, does some in the back yard and takes another break, and then she’ll ask me to finish the hilly part. And she’ll do all of that without ever looking at her watch. She’ll even slow down to pick up sticks and talk to the neighbors - that’s probably why she knows their names and I don’t. Maybe there’s something to be said for taking life slower, after all, but I’ll say it later. Right now, the clock is running.