Are You a Competer? Or a Completer?

It’s a relatively new-found question, but one that is really becoming more and more common in endurance sports.  The difference between competing and completing may be a blurry line for some; for other’s there’s a clear line of demarkation.  The unequivocal fact is that the number of people who compete in endurance events has increased significantly over the last several years. With this growth in participation, the pendulum may be switching more towards those that describe themselves as “completers” versus those who are “competing”.

At some point, perhaps when we each started our journey of becoming an endurance athlete, we potentially were all “completers”.  Perhaps that qualifier shouldn’t be “all” but rather “many”.  Regardless, we started with a 5k or 10k.  We may have decided that our goal was to run a marathon before we were 30 years old.  Maybe the goal was just to get off the couch and lose a few pounds.  Chances are that our target for that first event…heck, maybe all of our events…was to finish.

You see this played out all the time.  Every day, people sign up for the Beginner Triathlete website and introduce themselves as a “newbie”.  People start blogs to capture their journey from couch potato to marathoner.  People take much joy in finishing that race.  There’s a huge population of folks whose only goal is to finish an Ironman event prior to the cut-off at midnight.

On the other hand, you also see lots of dialogue about how the vast migration of new participants to endurance events has watered down our sport to such a point that accomplishing 140.6 miles isn’t even that much of a big deal anymore.  This cohort would contend that if you can’t average 22mph on the bike for 100 miles or run a marathon faster than 3.5 hours, then you shouldn’t even bother.  “You can walk a marathon in that time….that’s not racing!” people would argue.  Folks would say that time limits should be shorter.  Events should be more selective in terms of qualification standards.  If you’re not winning an age group, qualifying for the USAT Nationals, or earning a Kona spot, then it’s not worth doing.

Sports Illustrated magazine features a good article about the state of endurance events in the US.  The article, written by Austin Murphy, calls out the growth of all sorts of events – like the Rock n Roll Marathon series, Tough Mudder, Color Me Rad 5k’s, and relates that overall growth to the explosion of “completers” in the ranks of participants.

So here’s my take.  Be a competitor if you have the ability.  Be a completer if you have the desire.  It doesn’t matter to me, because – quite frankly, I’m not racing you.  I’m racing myself.  I want to challenge myself to get better.  To be faster.  And if I happen to beat you, while I might be happy a little on the inside, I’m going to celebrate your accomplishment with you, too.


I did find one quote in the article a little interesting, though, and thought I’d call it out for you to ponder and perhaps render your thoughts/feedback.  In the article, Murphy interviewed Andrew Messick (the CEO of WTC, the company who puts on the Ironman branded races).  Messick claimed, “We sit at the pinnacle” of endurance sports.  His claim was that “eventually you notice that you’re racing next to or in a training group with someone wearing an Ironman hat or an Ironman finisher shirt, and you look at them and size them up and think to yourself, wow, I wonder if I could do that?”  Part of me understands his points, but they seem wholly arrogant to me.  Ironman isn’t the only show in town.  It may be the “biggest” show in town – especially in terms of offering sheer number of 140.6 races and brand recognition, but I would not posit that size and scale equals “pinnacle”.  My thinking is that the distance and not the brand makes iron-distance races the pointy end of endurance sports.  Besides, I can think of at least one other race company that puts on a superior product than WTC.


If you’re a Sports Illustrated subscriber or a reader of the magazine in general, look for Murphy’s article, “Mud, Sweat, and Beers” in this week’s edition.  You can follow Murphy on Twitter (@si_austinmurphy).

9 thoughts on “Are You a Competer? Or a Completer?

  1. Great post and I’m still in that somewhat state of flux between the two. I also couldn’t agree more with your take on it.

  2. I’m a total back of the packer that is content with being a completer though I compete against myself. I’m always interested in comparing my performance to a previous one and seeing improvements. I’m going further than I had before. Someday I might go faster, but I’m ok even if I don’t because I know I am healthier for it all and a better example to my children of living an active lifestyle.

  3. Joel do you know if Rev3 has any more plans to add more 140.6 races to the schedule? In order to say they are competing with Ironman, they need to have more of this distance. You know where I stand on this Ironman subject but I’m racing their event because Rev3 doesn’t offer more 140.6 and I have no desire to go to Ohio, been there done that. Are you racing Venice Beach? Thinking about doing that one!

    • Hey. Great question about Rev3 adding more full distance races. Frankly, I have no clue if they are. You may have seen that they just added two more half distance races for next year. I’d love to see them add another full..maybe here in the Southeast. Jax maybe?

  4. Wow…it poses a good question.

    I’ve had 12 years out from competing and the sport has changed in that time. It’s no longer new. Events are oversubscribed and I feel silly for having branded myself with a few ironman tattoos all these years ago.

    I’m still a competor who gets frustrated that I’m unable to knock out a fast run off the bike but the satisfaction of completing without my knee giving out is pretty pleasurable too.

  5. Personally, I think it takes at least 3 season to determine what side of the fence you are on. At first, when we are “newbies”, all we think about is the sport, 24/7, at the beginning, we are out of balance, over obsessive with the sport. We all want to compete, we all dream of Kona or Boston or Worlds. Once we get 3 seasons in, we have a clear understanding where we belong in the sport. By then, you know if your a poduim contender or a completer.

    Brings me back to an OWS practice about 5 years ago, there was a newbie and someone that just comleted an Ironman. The newbie said “wow, some day I hope to be as awesome as you” which the other person replied “What do you call the first person to cross the finishline in a triathlon? A triathlete. What do you call the last person to cross the finishline of a triathlon…… A triathlete.” Point made and it has stuck with me over the years.

    Another friend made a great point as well, there is over 2000 competitors in an Ironman with 2000 different and unique stories on how they got there.

    And lets be honest, when people watch the Kona special, they are not watching it for front of the packers, they are watching it for the age group stories and the midnight stories.

    My view of the sport has completely changed in the last 6 years. I race against myself only. I do not care if someone I know beats me, I dont care if I happen to cross the finishline faster than a friend, I dont care if I get passed or pass someone. I go into a race with a plan and try to execute the plan to the best of my abilities and what my body will respond to that day. I am there to enjoy the fact that I am healthy and strong enough to compete in these races. The training is the tough part, the daily grind wears on everyone, the race is just the reward for all of your hard work.

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