Wanting to Win

10.13.09: I'm No Lady


I had planned to post today about post-race recover and my plans to run a half-marathon on Nov. 15. My muscular therapist who I trust and revere told me I need to take off from running in order to recover, but another issue has arisen this week that seems more pressing.

As I continue to recover from last week’s near miss for my BQ time, I have been called "competitive" more times than I can count.

And while some have meant it as a compliment, "wow, you really are a competitive woman,” a fellow marathoner said to me right before she offered me a freelance position writing for the company. Others have meant it in a not-so-nice way. "You are way too competitive," a friend who shall remain anonymous recently told me. Intimating that perhaps my trouble with making (and keeping) female friends stems from this.

Most recently a male friend pointed out that he has noticed two kinds of women in the world, "those who will admit they are competitive and those who won't for fear of appearing unladylike."

Any guesses as to which camp I belong?

I am competitive (and ambitious and abrasive and Type A). Very. I like to win. I like to be the best (or my own personal version of that). I like to set ambitious goals, meet them and then set new and better ones. I am not ashamed of this and I don't care if it makes me unladylike.

If a lady is good with thank-you notes and always dresses impeccably and has hot meals waiting for guests, then I suppose it is true: I am no lady. I have always said if you can't think of 3,000 more interesting things to do than clean the house, then I probably don't want to be friends with you. A lady definitely has a clean house.

Among "ladies" competition might be seen as vulgar or even crass. Some of the most competitive women I know will not admit to it for fear of being seen that way. These are the ones who say they are just "happy to be here" but don't want to "win" (meanwhile secretly seething while people beat them).

I say: what is so wrong with admitting you have a drive to win? In men, we reward competitiveness. We encourage it. In women, it can make you not want to be friends.

While I was training for my marathon, I had a lot of people—and mostly women—tell me "not to focus on time". They told me to "just enjoy my experience." And while I am not judging anyone who chooses to run this way, that is not my style. I don't need to beat Kara Goucher (as if I could), but I at least need to know that I pushed my own personal limit and did the very best that I could. If that makes me competitive, so be it.

Competition gets a bum rap among women, but I say it is what separates those who win from those who are mediocre.

For my daughter's sake, I really hope we get past this idea that a woman who pushes herself and takes winning to heart is somehow less "ladylike" than one who runs (or does anything else) without an ambitious goal.

Of course, like anything else, being "too competitive" can have its drawbacks. I am almost never content. I always feel like I could have run better, pushed harder, shaved more time off a PR. This competitive streak carries with it a level of perfectionism that can be difficult to overcome. Sometimes even when I meet my goals, I am still disappointed, believing I could have done better.

Outside of running, I always feel like I should have been able to land that dream publication or lost another five pounds. My abs could be tighter and my resume more impressive—for instance I went to a "little Ivy" for undergrad, but it will always bother me that I did not push for the Ivy League.

Even when I know that people envy my position or give me compliments, it is often very hard for me to acknowledge because I know with just a little tweaking, whatever they are admiring could be that much better. It can be exhausting, this drive. No matter how much I succeed, there is always someone better. If I can whittle my marathon time down to 3:20, which someday I am hoping to do, there will always be that woman who can run 3:10.

But I would not have it any other way. The fact is, I believe in my abilities and myself and have very high expectations for what I can achieve. I want to succeed and win and I am disappointed when I don't. Is confidence always tantamount to cockiness? Something we attribute to arrogant men? Or can we admire a woman who knows what she is good at and pushes herself to be better?

I say we can.

I would not be satisfied by a performance I did not think was my best. And I would not trade this truth about myself in order to be more relaxed or happier.

When I look at my life, it is the times I was the least "ladylike" that I got the most; the times when I stood up and said, this is what I want and this is how I am going to get it have always produced the highest rewards. Contentment is a nice thing, but I always know I can do better than just be content.

I hope my daughter is competitive, too. I hope she is able to see her strengths, of course, but I also want her to push herself to be willing to be "unladylike" at times and refuses to take no for an answer. I hope she demands the respect she deserves. Because the naysayers are always there, telling us we can't or we shouldn't or we should feel guilty for wanting too much or pushing too hard or "being too much like a man."

But I will tell her: compete away. Know what you are good at and kick booty doing it. Always.

Because while she may hear that she is "intimidating" or "crass" or "unladylike" (all things I have heard and continue to hear) the women who choose her friendship will always be more interesting and confident and worthy of her friendship than the ones who do not.

Being ladylike is great and all, but "Miss Congeniality" is just a nice way of saying last place. It is the winner who takes all.

Sasha Brown-Worsham is a writer, a mother and an unabashed, unashamed runaholic. Check her progress each week as she trains to qualify for the Boston Marathon.