The Thai Competitive Spirit
I hate running yet it is something I do most days of my life. It’s boring; so much so that on most of my runs I am usually sprinting just to get the damn thing over with. Yet as much as I hate running, I hate not running even more. After trying
several other aerobic exercises over the years, I finally concluded that running is the best aerobic and weight reduction exercise for me. When we were first married, my Thai wife was puzzled why anyone would engage in this activity at first.
Then, after seeing my body when I didn’t run for two months, she was pushing me out the door every morning. A year ago, she started to notice a few extra bulges around her waist and butt. So it was no surprise to me when one day she announced
she would join me on my next run. She was now the latest member of the “hate to but got to” club of runners.
Like all new runners, she started at a slow pace and on short routes. Unlike me, who runs as if my knees rusted out years ago, she has a fluid style of running that seems to use very little effort. After a few weeks, I bought her a quality pair of running shoes along with some running clothes. The next day, she ran with a confidence that Thai women have when they know they are wearing the right clothes in the right situation. After that, she shopped for new running clothes with the same discernment she would when picking clothes for the next Thai music concert. This had me thinking of that old question: do clothes make the Thai woman or vice versa. Now having conquered running fashion, my wife was free to do something I had great difficulty with; making running fun. Applying the Thai directive to make all activity as light-hearted as possible, we tried new routes and started talking and joking as we ran. Soon, our runs became our quality time together and not at all the drab affair it was when I ran alone.
One thing I discovered late in my running career was that races were not only fun but they allowed the competitive part of my personality some healthy exercise along with my legs. I am not a race-aholic though, generally choosing the races with good venues and convenient dates. At first, my wife thought the whole concept of racing was silly, when 1) you had no hope of winning, and 2) you could have saved money and time by just doing the same run from your house. On my last race, though, I described to her the experience of running through the streets of my country’s capital with thousands of others while crowds cheered from the sidewalks. It had been a beautiful day for weather and after the race; we treated ourselves to good food and good company. At that statement, I noticed a slight crack in my wife’s skeptical expression, as I had just described the essential ingredients of a Thai sanuk. I said nothing further and bided my time for the right moment.
As much as I liked to run races, I had never run a marathon. I discovered running late in life and though running middle distances was good for health and waistline, I considered marathons silly displays of masochism. One day, I decided to register for a popular local race sponsored by the Marine Corps. Although the main event was a marathon, I registered for the shorter 10 K event. When I went to pick up my race package, I noticed that the marathon looked no different from me. In fact, some of them looked quite a bit flabbier and less athletic. But when I saw that marathon goodie bags were three times the size on mine, I was determined this would be the last time I would suffer the indignity of walking outside with my puny 10 K bag.
The marathon race usually has over 30,000 runners and getting in requires long hours on the internet trying to register. When I found out that there was a 10K race in the Spring that guaranteed availability to register for the marathon in the fall, I decided to register for the spring race. But training for a marathon is no small feat, especially for first-timers. If I wanted to be successful, I knew I had to have buy-in from my family, and what better way to do that then to get them to realize the same dream. Knowing my wife’s skepticism, I knew I had to get her to drink the cool-aid a little at a time. So, when the registration for the spring 10K run opened, I registered myself along with my wife. When I told her what I did, I said it would be a great experience with lots of fun people. And as it was distance we were already used to, it would be a breeze of a run. As she is intuitively smart, I could see in her expression that she smelled a skunk. But after a while, she accepted this new challenge and as the race day neared, she was genuinely looking forward to it. I decided not to let the other shoe drop just yet.
Spring weather in this part of Farangland can be pretty spotty. It could be 25° C or -10° C, with winds sometimes bursting to near 60 km. Although a few days before the race had been unseasonably warm, the day before the race a cold front blew though our area. The next day, driving to the race, I noticed the temperature was O° C. Luckily, the wind was nil and it was supposed to be a clear day. As we walked the mile to the starting line, our legs did not seem to loosen up any. My sweetie was unusually silent. But when the music blared and the race began, we got into the moment and started running at a good clip down the tarmac. For the first three miles, we were mostly in the shadows of the trees as we ran down the main road of the base. My wife ran her normal pace which is a few minutes per mile below mine. No matter, I knew that time was not the major goal of this particular race. When we made the turn at three miles and started back for the finish line, the sun started to peak over the bare trees. The direct sun warmed the day so much that I almost took off my outer jacket, when I noticed that my sweetie was now a good ten meters in front of me and accelerating. I kicked into another gear but it still took me a while to catch her. By the time I did, I was breathing hard and couldn’t get the words out to ask her why she was running so fast.
Part of me was not surprised at this sudden burst of speed. The Thai competitive spirit behind the seemingly gentle smile is well known to many. I remember reading a newspaper article about the early days of the Vietnam war and American forces described the SEATO troops from Thailand as hard-fighting and cunning warriors. Then there’s the story of how Jim Thompson revived the Thai silk industry over half a century ago. He traveled to the last Thai families still making silk and at each stop, he showed them the silk he bought from the previous families. Soon each family was competing against the others, trying to make the best designs or the best quality silk. And even today, any farang foolish enough to start a fight with a Thai will usually end up fighting a group. Why? Not because they are cowards but because they are not going to let you win, period, even if they have to drag their grandmother in swinging a wok.
Although I know my wife was not competing against me, I wasn’t sure who she saw as her nemesis in the crowded field of runners. As we approached the finish line in the shadows of the small stadium, my sweetie started to slow down. I was sure she had run out of gas. Still, it was a gallant effort nonetheless and I was bursting with pride as we crossed the line together. After we caught our breath and downed some water, we started to walk back to the car. Finally, I said, “Darling, I was really proud of the way you picked up the pace, trying to beat out all those other runners.”
She looked at me with a puzzled face. “Are you crazy or what? I was running fast so I could get out of the sun quicker. You know how I hate it when my skin gets dark.”
I should have known better; the Thai competitive spirit in this case was for personal looks and fashion, and not athletic glory. Now, though, I know how to get my sweetie excited to run the marathon in the fall. I will show her how much nicer the t-shirts are for the marathon runners versus the 10 K. Shades of Jim Thompson.
Thais most certainly ARE competitive. Winning is as big a part of it as not losing. Face and bragging rights play a part for sure too.