Some of life's most strenuous competitions take place away from the athletic fields. They are held in high school cafeterias, in catering halls and on college campuses. We call them class reunions.

A class reunion is an opportunity to measure ourselves against those who started the race to adulthood at our sides. No wonder so few of us are willing to go to a reunion unprepared.

Training begins as soon as the cute note from the reunion committee arrives. "Hi, all you guys from the Class of '65. . . . Won't it be terrific to see old Mrs. Simonelli again, the only teacher to teach French with an Italian accent?"

We instantly renew our commitments to diet and exercise. We reevaluate our wardrobes and our spouses. One friend went straight to her hairdresser with but one instruction, "Make me look successful."

It may be too late to change our spouses, houses or careers. But it is not too late to change the way we describe them when responding to the inevitable reunion queston: "What is the former president of Future Accountants of America doing now?"

Homemakers become part-time potters, salesmen become marketing experts, doctors and dentists become slightly more swell-headed than they were before.

All of this primping and propaganda cannot wholly hide the truth. We relish the sight of the bloated and the balding fellow who once topped the "best looking" list. We compare the yearbook predictions of success, hoping that the class genius now works in a carwash and the class clown has been elected to Congress.

Most surprising are the late bloomers: the kid who couldn't add but made a fortune in the disco business, the former delinquent now enrolled in divinity school.

Some say the key to successful reunion competition is timing. One guy told me he skipped his 10th reunion because he was not yet a success--but can hardly wait for his 20th when he'll be wreathed in glory.

Why do reunions bring out our most competitive instincts? Why are we so busy rating our friends and ourselves that we fail to find enjoyment in each other?

Reunions bring us face-to-face with the choices we made along the way, the dreams we discarded or reshaped.

The real reunions at reunions occur when the people we are meet the people we thought we would be.

For me, the class reunion occurs annually, when my childhood friend Carol comes to town. Every June she shows up, fresh from her latest assignment as a wire service reporter in some exotic capital of the world. She carries tales of reporter's intrigue--and gifts of Thai silk or African batik. I bring baby pictures and behind-the-scenes stories about working in Washington.

In past years, we have compared work and waistlines--she always won. We compared homes and loved ones--I always won. We matched our lives point for point--and nobody won.

For my part, I always came away feeling like a failure. We started with the same dreams. How did she turn out to be Barbara Walters and I turn out to be Betty Crocker?

This year, I am determined to declare a truce. Surely, we have grown up enough to stop trying to prove the other failed in order to feel we succeeded. In our new maturity, we should meet as admiring equals and not competitors.

Even so, I can't help wondering what I should wear--just in case.