The Thai Competitive Spirit – 2013
A couple of years ago I wrote for this site a series of articles about running with my Thai wife. These articles were not as much about running but observations of my wife’s burgeoning competitiveness that running brought out in her. This was quite a surprise to me, as one of her most endearing qualities is her calmness, even in the most tense of situations. It also was against the impression most westerners have of the Thais; people who seem more concerned with being polite than running a long distance race. So where did this competitive spirit come from?
Reading “In Buddha’s Company”, Richard Ruth’s excellent exploration of Thailand’s involvement in the Vietnam War, I was not surprised to learn that Thai soldiers quickly adapted to the adverse conditions of Vietnam. Their forces were small in number and skirmishes were few, but they more than held their own against the enemy and in many instances showed extreme bravery. This is not Mr. Ruth’s assessment but that of the Viet Cong soldiers he interviewed who fought against them. The Thai soldiers were also respected by the Vietnamese civilians for helping to re-build temples and showing respect to local spirits. Although quiet in their ways and displaying an easy manner, they were an effective expeditionary force that the Americans never really appreciated. Who could blame them? Wasn’t Thailand a third world country? What did they know about modern warfare?
A few years ago my wife and I decided we wanted to run our first marathon. We didn’t start well. The first couple of years we had to defer our races because of business or injury, but we kept at it. In the fall of 2012, we ran in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., and for the first half of the race we were doing pretty well. But after that my right foot started to hurt and by mile 18 I realized I had torn my plantar fascia. My wife, who could have finished the race, stayed by my side and helped me to get home. Whatever her individual goals, she gave those up and decided it was more important to help the team. What a gal.
Afterwards my recovery was slow. I could barely exercise at all and my weight started to balloon. When my wife and I visited Thailand in May 2013, I had my first (and so far only) attack of gout a few days after I arrived in Bangkok. Changing my ways, eating less and drinking more water than beer, I was soon on the mend. By the time I arrived back in America, my weight was down and I was ready to resume running. I wrote some stories about my trip and they produced a lot of email from people who had similar battles with gout. But there was one email in particular I did not expect. Caveman, normally my nemesis on this site, kindly wrote to me about the ill effects of modern diets, as in heavy meats and processed foods. He urged me to consider a vegan diet if I wanted to recover. I took his advice to heart and reduced my meat intake and ate more freshly prepared meals. With the new diet and using a more sensible training plan, the wife and I were running better than ever.
The sensible training plan meant using the Jeff Galloway method of run-walk-run. Basically, it’s run a little, walk a little, to delay the time when your body breaks down and can’t go any further. Using this method we were able to complete long runs much sooner in our training without any injury. Running the MCM again this past fall, we started strong and decided to break our run-walk-run plan and keep running continuously until mile 8. This was my wife’s idea as she really wanted to do well in the race. Why? I’m not sure but her competitive spirit certainly kicked in this day. After that we started to tire and switched to our run-walk-run. But by mile 21 it was clear we had run too long in the beginning and the fuel supply was getting very low. At mile 25 there weren't even fumes in my tank as I could barely walk. My wife could have easily finished early but again stayed close to me. I mustered enough strength to finish even running the last ¼ mile. We hugged at the finish line and we both got our salute from the young Marine 2nd lieutenant, a tradition at the race.
So far, it’s just a story of one Thai competing while staying with the team, something that’s not so unusual. But what happened next blew my mind. When we went to get our medals for finishing, we were told they had run out but would soon send them in the mail. I was fine with it but my wife said the medal was only important to her today. After that it would mean nothing to her. Walking to the race village, we saw a guy we had been running with most of the race until he pulled away at the end. He did get a medal and I approached him with congratulations. He was a Chinese-looking guy and gave us a big smile. Without missing a beat, my wife explained what happened and asked if we could have our picture taken with his medal. He gladly complied, gave us his medal, and took our picture. After that, I heard nothing more from my wife about the race, even after we received our promised medals in the mail.
Since then I have tried to figure out her mindset about this and other situations. Most people I know would be gushing for days or weeks about their accomplishment. Recently, my sister floated the idea that next year all three of us could do the MCM. My wife wasn't interested. She said she would train with us, even the long runs, but her marathon days were over. This seemed very odd to me until I realized that running the marathon was always my idea. She had run this only for me even though she is clearly the stronger runner. Now that she had helped me to accomplish my goal, she was free to run just for the health benefits, which was all she cared about. She had done her bit for the “group” and now it was time to move on.
I wonder how many westerners can parse themselves so easily between group and individual goals like that. I remembered a recent trip in Thailand, traveling by car with my wife and her friends, where everyone but me was fine with the eccentric ways of our driver. She is my wife’s best friend, and she played a silly Filipino re-make of pop music over and over again. I later made a snide comment about it to my wife when we got home. Yes, she replied, that’s who she is. It took me a while to figure out her odd remark. That road trip was her friend’s marathon and we were all supposed to be in the car to support her. I now understood how my unwillingness to do so had been so embarrassing to my wife.
I have seen this Thai devotion to groups in many other activities involving my wife. Like the time she and her friends jammed a mini-van full of people and snacks, and took off for a 24 hour trip to Niagara Falls, 16 hours of which was driving. How does a western individualist survive that? Or how our local Thai community comes together to share information, take care of each other’s kids, and support the local temples. Or the informal money-lending that takes place between family and friends. For me and probably a lot of other westerners, I might borrow money from a family member if I was in dire straits, but I would never ask my friends. Yet the Thais do this all the time and without any shame. Maybe it’s because they believe in an extended family; close friends become uncles and aunts, their children nephews and nieces. Now that my wife’s family has accepted me as a “good” farang, many of them regularly ping me on Facebook, text my phone, or ask to talk to me on phone calls. I’m sure this safety net of Thai resources will be very helpful when we retire to Thailand, but now I am wondering what my obligations will be.
This ability for Thais to quickly and effortlessly move between self and group goals give Thai society a resilience and vigor that is well hidden behind the smiles, politeness, and easy-going nature that tourists encounter in Thailand. Surviving and sometimes thriving through third-world poverty, wars, tsunamis, and corruption, Thais quickly learn how to cope in times of uncertainty. Indeed, some lament that Thais accept new fads and ideas too quickly, forgetting the wisdom contained in the old ways. Maybe that’s why the term “Thai Historian” seems such an oxymoron to some people. But in the end, even though Thai society may not be ready to make the jump to first-world status, they will survive any future ill wind that will surely come their way, and have a damn good time doing it.