My first experience with competition was a minor disaster. I was nine years old and it was my first season with the Fergus Flippers swim team. Our season opener was a friendly swim meet in the town of Walkerton. When my event was called, I headed over to the marshaling area and sat with the other swimmers. As I looked around, an unfamiliar sensation crept over me. Leaden legs and fluttery insides. The pool was a vast heaving sea, my competitors were sneering giants, and the starter’s pistol cracked like thunder. With the crystal clarity of adrenaline, I realized my folly. I was going to false start, belly flop, swim the wrong stroke, miss the wall, choke on water, come last—I was going to fail.

Thousands of years ago, some caveboy stood where I was and had the same feeling. Only he was probably facing a saber-toothed tiger instead of a twenty-five yard pool. Just like me, all his thoughts converged on a single binary decision: fight or flight. And just like me, faced with this primal dichotomy, the caveboy made the obvious choice: run like hell. 

I took off. A marshal yelled after me, but I was gone. I ran through the building, across a field and didn’t stop until I reached some trees. There I spent a couple hours nursing my 9-year-old pride and deciding that competitive swimming was insane. My dad eventually found me and convinced me to swim my other events. It wasn’t the last time I’d choose flight over fight.

Poker face moments before the daring escape.

Years later, I was supposed to race the Individual Medley at the summer league championship. The IM is a mongrel of an event consisting of fly, backstroke, breastroke and front crawl—basically every stroke except corkscrew. I was a favourite to win the overall points competition and take home the gold medal. But I got psyched out and hid during my race. I clearly remember my coach searching the changeroom for me as I sulked in a stall. Not my finest moment.

I fared no better with karate. Instead of signing up for the beginner group with younger kids, I wanted to join my peers in the experienced group. At the first class, I cautiously lined up with the other little boys in their white karate gis. Without warning, the grizzled instructor hollered “HA!”. In perfect unison, the roomful of little boys replied “HA!” and executed a choreographed series of kicks and punches. I stood there, immobile, utterly bewildered. Then I turned and ran straight out the door. No, karate was not for me.

I could tell you that I’ve conquered my fear of failure, of the unknown, of change. I could tell you that I’m supremely confident after a year spent in silent meditation on a mountaintop. I could tell you that I have nerves of steel from my spirit journey in the wilderness. It would make for a good story, but I’d be lying on all counts.

The truth is that running away is still appealing at times. Even after countless races, exams, speeches, piano gigs, etc., the thought still creeps into my mind. Instead of trying to suppress this impulse, I embraced it and became a runner… Actually, these days I’m usually pretty relaxed before races, to the point that I need caffeine (lots) to get jacked up. I try to appreciate, if not enjoy, the nervous energy and channel it into the performance. Without it, the elation of crossing the finish line wouldn’t be the same.