Dan Rook­wood on find­ing his com­pet­i­tive sweet spot.


Per­haps my worst flaw (I have a few) is the fact that I’m a ter­ri­bly sore loser. Em­bar­rass­ingly bad, al­ways have been. No mat­ter whether I’m go­ing for a job in­ter­view, try­ing to find a park, or locked in an in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive and lengthy Rock Pa­per Scis­sors ‘best of three’ (OK, make it ‘best of five’), I need to come out on top. Dur­ing fever pitch FIFA marathons with my uni­ver­sity house­mates, “Let the Rook­iee win” was a fa­mil­iar re­frain. (A play on my nick­name “Rooky” con­flated with Han Solo’s sage ad­vice to C3PO in Star Wars about not up­set­ting the Wook­iee, aka Chew­bacca, dur­ing a game of holo­gram chess.) Though I like to think I’ve mostly got a han­dle on my overtly com­pet­i­tive streak now (*sits on hands, face twitches in­vol­un­tar­ily*), I strongly sus­pect that any suc­cess I’ve had in life to this point owes less to tal­ent than an in­grained will to not be a loser. Th­ese days I’m less com­pet­i­tive with other peo­ple – es­pe­cially now that I’ve pretty much hung up my foot­ball boots and my Plays­ta­tion con­troller. But it doesn’t help some­one with my re­lent­lessly com­pet­i­tive dis­po­si­tion that life is now one long com­puter game. The per­son I now most like to beat is my­self (not like that, stop snig­ger­ing at the back). I try to best know how many steps I took yes­ter­day to the point that the concierge in my apart­ment block once asked me if I was OK be­cause he’d seen me on CCTV pac­ing up and down the hall­way in or­der to hit my tar­get. Also, I’m forever racing my per­sonal best times on the Map My Run app, over-ex­ert­ing in the process. “Why?” asks my ex­as­per­ated wife as I dou­ble up with re­sul­tant stom­ach cramps. But this is nor­mal, right guys? Guys? I’m cur­rently plod­ding to­wards the New York Marathon later this year in a vain ef­fort to stave off dad­bod. So it didn’t help to read about Josh Grif­fiths, the pre­vi­ously un­heard of and in­ex­pe­ri­enced 23-year-old am­a­teur run­ner, who ran the London Marathon re­cently in an as­ton­ish­ing 2hr 14min 49sec – 41 sec­onds faster than Paula Rad­cliffe’s women’s world record – to beat ev­ery sin­gle Bri­tish ath­lete in the race and qual­ify for this sum­mer’s ath­let­ics world cham­pi­onships in London. At the age of 38, I’m com­ing into my phys­i­cal peak, ob­vi­ously, and could prob­a­bly still turn pro if I wanted, but I have to give it to the boy Grif­fiths. Im­pres­sive. It’s nat­u­ral to won­der about the lim­its of hu­man per­for­mance. Are there ab­so­lute lim­its to the hu­man body – a speed no run­ner will ever ex­ceed, a dis­tance no long jumper will ever eclipse, a weight no power lifter will ever sur­pass? Th­ese are some of the very ques­tions that sports sci­en­tist John Brenkus at­tempts to an­swer in his ex­cel­lent book Per­fec­tion Point. For ex­am­ple, he cal­cu­lates that the per­fec­tion point for the marathon – the fastest a hu­man be­ing will ever be able to run the dis­tance of 42.1km – is 1hr 57min 58 sec. The cur­rent world record sits sig­nif­i­cantly back, at 2hr 2min 57secs, but in May Nike staged ‘Break­ing2’, an of­fi­cially un­of­fi­cial race with some of its top ath­letes in or­der to breach the elu­sive twohour bar­rier, just to prove it is pos­si­ble. (Oh yeah, and maybe to also sell heaps of new run­ning shoes.) Kenya’s reign­ing Olympic cham­pion, Eliud Kip­choge, was tan­ta­lis­ingly on track for sub-two hours be­fore drop­ping off the pace right at the end. He crossed the line at 2hr 00min 25sec. Records are there to be bro­ken – that’s sports sci­ence. But there are some records that may never be eclipsed and the sus­pi­cion of doping (the wrong kind of sports sci­ence) hangs heavy over some of them. Faster. Higher. Stronger. This is the Olympic motto, so long as you’re not off your nuts and pumped up on testos­terone. At var­i­ous points in the game of life you’ve prob­a­bly tested your­self just to see what you’re ca­pa­ble of – and then tried to beat it. There’s a healthy bal­ance to strike here if you can find it. At one ex­treme, the will to win can be so de­struc­tively ob­ses­sive it will turn you into a real dick. (Trust me, I’ve been that dick.) And if you run full throt­tle re­lent­lessly, even­tu­ally the en­gine will burn out. At the other end of the spec­trum, a com­plete ab­sence of com­pet­i­tive spirit usu­ally re­sults in aimless drift­ing and un­ful­filled po­ten­tial. The sweet spot – our per­sonal best – lies some­where be­tween the two. Sharper. Smarter. Bet­ter. This is GQ’S credo. Now, about that game of Rock Pa­per Scis­sors – shall we make it ‘best of 10’?


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