You just don’t realize how competitive you are, until you meet someone who’s slower.

There we were. Two middle-aged men in a Firebird on a summer night in southern California. The top was down, the V-8 was rumbling. We were just driving around, minding our own business.

There he was. A 20-something young man in some kind of four-cylinder Euro-sport sedan with loud mufflers. He kept racing his engine, waiting for the light to turn green.

I looked over at Ken. Without saying a word, we knew what had to be done. When the light changed, I gave the young man a lesson in what happens when you put all 300 horsepower to work at the same time.

Why? Testosterone? Fear of aging? Mindless machismo? Nope. It’s just a kick to blow the doors off someone who challenges you. And it’s just as much fun in a road race as it is on the streets of La Jolla.

I admit it. I’m a closet competitor. I enjoy passing people. I enjoy beating someone. I enjoy the strategy of setting someone up. I enjoy deciding on the precise moment when I will surge past. I enjoy pushing myself until I know that they will not pass me back.

Maybe the race number produces this effect. Maybe pinning on a number transforms you from a normal human being into a gladiator. Or maybe it’s just plain fun.

Some runners tell me they don’t feel competitive, even in races. They try to convince me that they never notice when someone passes them. They try to convince me that they never notice when they pass someone else. I don’t believe them.

I’ve heard the rhetoric. You’re not racing against anyone but yourself. You’re racing the clock. You’re just trying to do your best. Nonsense. Every runner except the lead runner is chasing someone.

Still not convinced? Watch the race for last place. Make no mistake, it is a race. I know. I’ve been there. I have reached deep into my soul and made deals with the devil to run down just one person.

It’s not an age issue, either. I’ve chased down youngsters. I’ve been run over by senior citizens. During a race, nothing matters but how fast you’re running and how fast they’re running.

My biggest enemy in a road race is my sense of humor. The idea of me and another runner of similar ability racing is often enough to send me into gales of uncontrolled laughter. I just can’t get over the absurdity – spending so much effort on deciding who will finish first among the last.

The ferocity of competition is especially rousing if the other person recognizes me. For them, it then becomes not just a matter of beating another runner, but of not finishing behind me. No one, it seems, wants to suffer the indignity of finishing behind the Penguin.

In the end, though, it’s all a matter of good fun. Besides, unless the awards are being given to the top 30 finishers in each age group, I’m only competing for my own bragging rights.

But I am not a competitor to be taken lightly. So consider yourself warned. The gauntlet is thrown down. That heavy breathing you hear behind you could be me. Those pounding footsteps could be mine. And if they are, you’re in for the race of your life.

Unless I’m in the Firebird. In that case, just give it up and wave goodbye.

Waddle on, friends.

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