Inclusivity in the Running World (aka The Comparison Trap)

“The marathon is too hard a race to waste energy hating your competitors.” –Frank Shorter

Bear with me. There is something that has been bothering me lately. It has to do with what I perceive to be a judgmental attitude that pervades the running world. Some—certainly not all—runners compare themselves to others in terms of their running abilities, pace, race times, etc. I’m not sure why it tends to happen. Perhaps it allows some individuals to build up their running egos (“I run faster!”), but whatever the reason, it perpetuates a sense of superiority based on running pace and finish times.

I see this on blogs, discussion forums, and in magazines in the form of snarky comments and written commentary.  Daily Mile even promotes this comparison trap in a way, by allowing you to compare your stats to others. While not all comparison is bad (like when used for constructive reasons, such as learning from others) it can certainly promote an “I’m better than you” mentality. And let’s be honest, don’t we have enough of that already in the rest of our lives?

I think we can all agree on one thing: the vast majority of us runners are not elites, we’re amateurs. If you can’t run a marathon in 2:30, for instance, I hate to say this, but you’re an amateur. If you’re not paid to train (in Mammonth Lakes ;-)) and don’t have sponsors, you’re considered an amateur. Running a marathon at in 3:00 is great, and impressive, and I’m sure it makes you very gifted, but it doesn’t make you a “better” runner than someone who finished the same marathon in 4:30.

See? Fast or slow, we're all just...err...zombies? Ok, this isn't the most relevant pic but you get the idea

(source)

Even Homer runs...albeit just a little slower than probably all of us 😉

Wait wait WAIT…if I have insulted you by calling you an “amateur”…just hold on a sec. I don’t mean amateur in that you don’t know what you’re doing, but rather amateur in its literal definition, a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid basis.

I don’t know about you, but I got into the sport of running because it is by and large an independent pursuit. It is one of the only activities where it is you against yourself for the most part.

I'm number one in the race against myself.

You might say, “well, I’m running against others in a race!” and you are right! You are. You can be running with 50 or 30,000 other runners, but the race is still against yourself (unless, like I said, you are in the special elite corral).Unless you are toeing the line and have the opportunity to win some major moolah, you are pretty much in the same boat as everyone else.

I needed some support or affirmation or something to back up how I’ve been perceiving this “I’m better than you because I ran a marathon 20 minutes faster than you” situation. I searched the web and ran across a blog post by George Beinhorn of Fitness Intuition that basically says what I can’t seem to find the words to say:

“The 3-hour marathoners aren’t elites, by a long shot, nor are they ‘recreational marathoners.’ They’re somewhere in the middle, in limbo-land. And I wonder if that’s why they’re so tenacious in clinging to whatever ego-satisfactions they can squeeze from the marathonThey do work hard, no doubt about it, but perhaps the whiners among them are working hard for some of the wrong reasons – not in hopes that training for a fast marathon will expand their body, heart, will, mind, and soul, but in pursuit of “I-my-me-mine” ego balm”

What makes us (and I say “us” as in many people not everyone and not necessarily you there reading this ranting post) think that someone who can run a 5k in sub 20 minutes is better than someone who can run one in 25 minutes? Everyone’s body is different and every runner has different struggles. I, for instance, know that I have the capacity to be a much faster runner than my race times show. My 5k pr is around 20 minutes and my half pr is right at 1:40. But most of my other races are run at much slower paces. I have never broken the 4 hour mark for the marathon. The two main reasons for that?

1)   I am injury prone. No matter how much I work on my gait, cadence, muscles, or flexibility, I have to acknowledge that was I was born a certain way and there is only so much I can change. I choose not to train at a more rigorous level (higher weekly mileage and speedwork) because I choose not to get injured. Working through my ongoing (cartilage) injuries makes running a struggle for me and I’ll bet good money that those of us training through some sort of adversity, even if we’re doing it at slower paces, have more to overcome and thus more to brag about than those who aren’t.

2)   I run for stress relief and for reasons that are personal and unique to me. My goal with my running is not to set crazy PRs and brag to everyone. It’s just not why I got into the sport, and as you can see from my menu selections at the top, I have a life. Running is a part of my life but it’s not my whole life.

I didn’t qualify for the Boston Marathon, I raised money, trained, and ran it in a time that allowed me to enjoy all the sights from Hopkinton to Back Bay, where I lived for 5 years. Just because I haven’t set a BQ, and probably never will, does not make me less of a runner than someone who has.  I’ll finish my rant for the day and I’m so sorry if I turned you off but I just feel so strongly that we should help create a more inclusive rather than exclusive running community. Let’s be proud of ourselves that we stick with a sport that can test us mentally and physically. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the greatest sports in the world.

Young or old, female or male, short or tall, fast or slow: If you run–no matter how far– you are a runner. 

Got this from Hungry Runner Girl and it's taken from Mile Markers, a book I need to read!

“I often hear someone say I’m not a real runner. We are all runners, some just run faster than others. I never met a fake runner.”

-Bart Yasso

UPDATED TO SAY: Already you guys have left some really insightful and thought-provoking comments! I think what I didn’t do well in this post when I was writing it late last night was highlight that there is a fine line between feeling proud and sharing your running accomplishments and PRs and comparing yourself to others and possibly putting them down. Keep the comments coming, I love a good discussion! 🙂

Have you felt like a victim with the comparison trap in the running world?

And here is the grand daddy of them all: why do you run?

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27 Responses to Inclusivity in the Running World (aka The Comparison Trap)

  1. tdowell says:

    I love this post!! It’s so true–it’s easy to get caught up in worrying so much about a PR that you forget to just have fun running. I’m never going to be one of the fastest runners, but I’m out there running and I think that’s what matters. Last weekend I participated in the Remember The Ten run at Oklahoma State in memory of our basketball team that was killed in a plane crash back in 2001. I prayed for their families throughout the race and that gave me a whole different perspective on running. I wrote a blog about it today actually!

    ~Tiffany
    http://tiffanyd22.blogspot.com

  2. runningfarce says:

    This is a really interesting post. I understand everything you’re saying and one of the things I like most about running is that, for the most part, runners like to run. The “show boating” and trash talking that overwhelms most other sports just isn’t as prevalent in our sport and I think, in general, runners like talking about running with other runners and try to make it inclusive. But, can you really say that in the last 100 meters of a race there’s not even a little bit of you that wants to beat the person that is next to you? You don’t have to be elite to compete.

    • Claire says:

      I do agree with you for the most part that during a race you can want to “beat” the person in front or next to you. But I also think–and this could be because I didn’t clearly or coherently write out my thoughts when I wrote this late last night–that there is something to be said about the “second running boom”, in which more and more people are getting in to running (or run-walking even as Jeff Galloway promotes) and there can be a divide between the slower and faster runners. It’s a vague, nebulous thing that I can’t really put my finger on, which is why you’re spot on for calling me on it. It happens (in my opinion) mostly outside of races in informal discussions or conversations. And it’s not overt (can you tell that I am an educational researcher? All we do is try to capture and quantify the messy, noisy, “real” world 😉 )

      I think another interesting way to think about the inclusivity of the running world, which is obviously a bit unrelated to this post in particular, is the lack of people of color in the running world. It’s something I think I had acknowledged but never really thought about until after I read the Runner’s World article, Why Is Running So White (http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-243-297–14124-0,00.html). Anyways, I could go on and on. Bottom line, I appreciate your comments and love the discussion 🙂

  3. Thank you for posting this! i hear this type of thing all the time with people comparing each other and putting down slower runners. This happens in NYC alot because in all the NYRR races runners are put into colored corrals based on pace time. I’ve hear people in faster corrals saying some not so nice things about people in slower corrals. Why do they care?!! Running is an individual sport. You are really running against yourself in the end. I run for this reason, to prove to myself that I can do it. And to push myself to do something I never thought I could. Plus, it makes me happy!

    • Claire says:

      Such a great reason to run!!! And it’s funny you bring up NYC. The main reason why I wrote this post last night was because I knew the NYCM lottery was today and it got me thinking…

  4. Carina says:

    Great post! It pretty much exactly summarizes why I try never to post my race times or even training run times on my blog. I hate getting overly caught up in that stuff and don’t want to make anyone reading think about it either. I feel like I’ve been running long enough now (about 10 years pretty seriously), but since I’ve gotten faster over the years, I’m at an age (36) where I could still PR at a few distances. But I try to keep the emphasis on the P — the PERSONAL part. Tons of faster runners, tons of slower runners, but we’re all just running. That’s the best part about it. I try to measure myself against myself — comparing my times to my past performances, and to where predictors say I should be able to finish. Like everyone, getting an age group award is super exciting for me, but in reality, when that happens, it usually means it was a smaller race or a slower field. I’m not sure how long I’ve read your blog, but I was mostly just curious about which charity you did for Boston. I think it’s awesome that you did that!

    • Claire says:

      It’s so true, that if many of us do win medals it’s in smaller races. And I do think it’s ok to feel proud about acheiving certain PRs and/or awards (I boasted about my 3rd place age group medal on here from my last half for goodness sakes), but there is a difference between feeling proud and seeking affirmation and comparing and putting others down. So you’re SO right, that we should for the most part keep the P on the Personal 🙂

      I ran for Bottom Line, which helps underprivileged students access and persist in college. It was perfect because it was so closely tied to what I study and research so I felt like I was able to align my passions 🙂 Not sure I’ll raise money for another charity in the near future because it was a bit of work, but I’d definitely do it again!

      • Carina says:

        Yeah, I’m kind of torn about doing my NM race recap. I actually ended up winning first overall female (but of course, with a pack, so it was a small field and and of course weight means slow times; and if I’d run the same time a year earlier, it would have only been good enough for second), but I’m not sure if I even want to include that on my blog (which is why there’s still no race recap!). It was a cool accomplishment, and I’m thrilled and proud, but I really wouldn’t want to make someone think that means I’m “fast” or to feel like I’m putting anyone down or make anyone compare themselves with me. So I’m leaning toward saying something like I finished in just over half the time I’d originally estimated, so I was happy.

        I’ve never run a race where I needed to raise money. I think it would be a lot of work, and I could see why you wouldn’t want to do it again soon, that can kind of be a pain for everyone else in your life, like you’re asking them to support your choice of charity again and again. It’s something I feel like I should do someday though as a runner.

  5. Idlehide says:

    This is so true, it’s all about what’s your PR? (which I think is stupid.) I’ll admit, I dont ever want to be the last person to cross the finish line, but I race against myself. Will I ever get my dream sub 1:40 PR for a half? Maybe, maybe not. I love running and that’s all that should matter because there are so many people out there who can’t run due to physical barriers and I’m thankful everytime I run that I can! Great post:)

    • Claire says:

      That is such a good point, that there are people out there who can’t even run. I think having this irreversible cartilage injury in my knee has also made me more grateful that I can just run 🙂

  6. Well said! For me, running is personal. If I compete, it’s against myself. Life’s too short and there are farrrrrr too many runners to worry about comparing yourselves to others. The beauty of running is that almost anybody can do it. It’s definitely difficult not to get caught into the comparison trap though. God forbid someone told you or wrote a post about finishing a race and didn’t mention their finish time. That’s all that matters though right?? (insert sarcasm here)

  7. Jen says:

    Hi! I’m a random reader and first time commenter.

    I love love love this post and I wish I had something insightful to add. But I’ve encountered this problem so many times. It drives me crazy! I’ve actually stopped running with certain friends because they turn what is supposed to be a fun run into a compeition. I can’t run a race with them anymore because its too stressful. Instead of concentrating on how I feel and working toward my own goals, I worry more about them beating me and consequently rubbing it in that they beat me.

    Running is such a personal feat. Everyone should celebrate their own accomplisments AND the accomplishments of their friends!

    Jen

  8. loveeddd this! i am definitely guilty of comparing my runs to others. sometimes i’m like, pshhh i can run so much faster. and then other times, i’m like, wow i should just quite running because they are better than me. but then i stop myself because i run because i like it!

  9. Becky says:

    As a slower runner than I used to be, I love this 🙂 Running is such a powerful amateur sport because it allows you to compete internally. What & how others are doing has no role in the happiness running brings you !!!!! I love how so many beginners have taken the leap and signed up for a run, even if it’s just a fun run 5K. FAB!

    • Claire says:

      I know, we’re in the Second Running Boom and I think running will only become more popular. For the most part I’m really happy about that. It’s only when I apply to the NYCM every year and don’t get in that I start to wish there was a little less interest 😉

  10. Love this post! It’s very true! I think sometimes being competitive with yourself gets confused with trying to beat everyone around you. When I push it at the finish of a race, it’s because I know I have more to give, and I like to finish each and every race strong. It’s not because I need to make sure to finish ahead of someone, or because I know I’m faster than someone else. I run for me, and to see what I’m really capable of. 🙂
    While I think DailyMile, and other such sites, can fuel the competition between runners, I think it can also be helpful. When I see the work that my faster friends put in, and the race times they post, it motivates me to try adding more miles, and different speed workouts. That’s not to say that my slower friends aren’t working hard or getting results. It’s just helpful to see someone at my goal pace, and how they are achieving it.

    • Claire says:

      So true that perhaps we confuse being competitive with ourselves with beating others! agree as well that those sites can be helpful (Daily Mile was just the only example I could think of 😉 )

  11. Great, GREAT post! I love that you included that everyone is different; their bodies, their schedules, their goals, etc., and even though someone can train their heart out, their just not going to be able to do what others might be able to… and that’s ok! You should run for you and you alone, no matter what the reason- health, sanity, whatever! You can set goals for yourself, and even have extremely high goals, as long as you are able to keep the joy of running while trying to achieve them!

  12. Sandee says:

    Great post. I am a new runner. Older (45). Mom of 4. And super slow. Last year was my first 5k (33 min) . But man was I proud of that finish line!! I was super nervous before it started. I went on the run my first half (2:45). Sooo excited and on top of the world when I finished. Now I’m signed up for another half and hoping to do a full this fall. I did improve my 5k to 31 min but can’t seem to get much faster. I schlep along at around 10 min pace. I often ask about people PRs mostly because I’m so impressed. I have certainly learned not to compare myself. I have little goals for myself but honestly if I never get faster I will be just as happy just finishing and cheering on everyone that passes me.

    • Claire says:

      That’s so great!!!! I got into running by starting with 5ks too and they’re no joke! Sounds like you’ve been bitten by the running bug as well. 🙂

  13. Even though runners are awesome, there is a little bit of looking down on people who don’t know the “rules.” As a newer runner, I found it bizarre that there was an unwritten code that people were supposed to follow when racing. There seem to be an equal number of people who are willing to help you navigate the unwritten rules.

    I think it’s the same with competing. Some people are all about it, and some people enjoy it but also enjoy helping others enjoy it.

  14. vaashti says:

    Great post! One of the things I love about running is that ANYONE can do it. All you need is a pair of running shoes. And if you subscribe to this barefoot running phenomenon, you don’t even need that! Making people feel unwelcomed because they are slower than you is really the opposite of what running is all about. And really, no matter how slow you are, you are always faster than those just sitting on the couch!

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