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First Place?

I’ve just now elbowed myself the mental space to look back at 2017 — the highlights, low moments, the ebb and flow in between. One highlight was running the Timberline Half Marathon in June. Completing all 14.2 miles (it was a half marathon plus) of mountain trails was accomplishment enough. But when I crossed the finish line, an official rushed up to me and told me that I had come in first, and draped a medal around my neck.

First! Yay!

First in my age category — 65-69 year-old men.

Okay, but still — yay!

First in my category of 65-69 year-old men which numbered . . . wait for it . . . two. Yep, two. I came in first out of two.


But that’s not the thing that, upon reflection, really stands out. The thing that stands out is that for a few fleeting moments I got all puffed up about being first. I fell into the cultural mindset that sees life as one big competition, with the results always tallied in a vertical hierarchy — I’m on top! This is huge! The rest of you are losers! — and then, just as quickly, I didn’t like that feeling.

It’s not that I’m against competition. I realize that it is part of life, and I enjoy a friendly game of cards, a sled race to the bottom of a snowy hill, watching college football. But I do think that our emphasis on being first above everything else flies in the face of reality. As a species we have proliferated — which, at least from an evolutionary perspective is viewed as “success” — because we have largely worked together to thrive. Cooperation had been our ally, and is the only tact that will help us solve the many problems in the world today. Now, looking back at the Timberline Half Marathon, the thing that sticks in my mind is not when I crossed the finish line. What matters is the camaraderie and sense of cooperation and support among the runners as we encouraged one another — “hang in there!” “keep going!” “you can do it!” — to all make it across. In my mind, that’s winning, and that is the best kind of “first.”