"We run when we're scared, we run when we're ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time." Christopher McDougall (Born to Run)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fighting the Urge to Compare

The Urge to Compare
Last night I went to the gym to log a few miles on the treadmill.  I usually stretch for a few minutes while standing on the treadmill before I get going.  Last night, as I was stretching a tall, thin, young woman got on the treadmill to the left of mine and started running.  By the sound of her feet thumping against the rubber tread, I could tell she was going at a good clip.  Per usual, I took a peek at her treadmill monitor to see how fast she was going and saw she was close to a 7:30 minute mile (m/m).  Most of the time the people on the treadmills are running a 10 or 11+ m/m, which of course makes me feel great since I usually run around an 8:45 or 9 m/m, but this chick was haulin' berries!  I was instantly impressed, but also instantly thinking that I needed to pick up the pace. 

I set out to do a short 3 mile run.  I started out at around a 8:55 m/m pace, and then incorporated .25 to .5 mile intervals at 8:20 m/m, and in the end added some 8:00 m/m intervals.  While running, I looked over at Wonder Woman and saw that she was now running a 7:20 m/m, making me feel even slower.  Luckily, at some point a woman got on the treadmill to my right and was running somewhere around a 10:30-11:00 minute mile, which made me feel slightly less worthless.  All-in-all, Wonder Woman actually motivated me to both run a little faster and avoid taking any walking breaks, which was a good result.  But that is not always the case.

I'd like to say this was the first time that I actively compared my speed to others at the gym, but that would be a bald-faced lie.  I often look over at the other treadmill monitors to gage whether in the stupid hypothetical treadmill race in my head, I would be winning or losing.  Thus, the inspiration for this posting on fighting the urge to compare. . . .

I don't know what it is about how I was raised, or whether it is some biological instinct within me that I cannot control, but I am constantly making comparisons in my head.  This often causes me to be overly competitive in stupid arenas, such as the treadmill example or in a game of Monopoly or Scrabble.  Yes, I am fully aware of how ridiculous it is, so much so that I thought it might be funny to write about. 

Frequency and Popularity of Making Comparisons
Sometimes making a comparison is normal, even required, such as comparing car models prior to a new purchase or comparing the success rates of one new drug against another in a drug trial.  But often the urge to make comparisons can have negative repercussions.  For example, often we compare ourselves to others as a means of proving why we are better or worse off or substantiating something we did or failed to do.  In the treadmill example, I felt worse when confronted by a faster runner and better when confronted by a slower runner.  The media, in particular, constantly draws comparisons of people in an almost obsessive fashion at times.  In fact, after every single Hollywood award ceremony, television shows, magazines, and websites are devoted, for some brief period, entirely to deciding who was the best and worst dressed.   In the current pre-election cycle for the 2012 presidential election, we constantly hear superficial and substantive comparisons of the various political candidates.

In the past year, I've thought a lot about the positive and negative implications of making comparisons in the context of running, both personally and with others.  In many instances comparisons motivate us to train harder and run faster, but in other situations it can be self-destructive or even frighten people away from running entirely.

When Running Comparisons Are Harmful
I've heard countless stories from a host of different people about how they cannot run, or could never run a 10K, half-marathon, or marathon.  Two years ago, I myself said on a number of occasions that I couldn't picture running a half marathon.  And only a year or so ago I said that I couldn't see myself running a marathon.  On both occasions, I placed these limitations on myself because I compared myself to all the people I knew who had run a half-marathon or a marathon and determined that I wasn't the type of person that could run a marathon.  As I learned, that comparison was complete horse-shit.  Last year I ran three half-marathons and this past September I finished my first full marathon.  When I meet people who tell me how they couldn't possibly run a specified distance, I like to tell this story.  Lesson: Avoid using comparisons as a means of placing unnecessary limitations on yourself.

When Running Comparisons Are Helpful
In a race you are given a rank according to your overall finish times among all runners and those in your age group.  Race ranks can provide motivation to a lot of people (myself included) by providing runners with a goal such as finishing in the top of an age group, or perhaps just trying not to be the last finisher.  Race results can also provide feelings of self-satisfaction, especially for rock star runners like Wonder Woman on the treadmill, or for those lucky SOBs that find themselves in a group of slow runners in a particular race.  I recently got lucky and placed third in my age-group.  I was, unabashedly, super excited upon learning this news.

But, race ranks do not provide a runner with an evaluation of his or her objectively based performance, and for this reason can be disappointing in that they fail to recognize each individual runner's personal achievement.  As an example: even though you cut 5 minutes off your time for a set distance, your race rank could go down if the runners in the second race are generally faster than those from the first race.  Luckily, the concept of a "PR" in running is given a great deal of attention--at least in running magazines--offering runners a means of gaging their own improvement without making any comparisons to others.  Thus, where you cut 5 minutes off your time, but your race rank is in the toilet, you still have bragging rights for setting a new PR.  Advice:  Use comparisons when they motivate you, but avoid comparisons that undervalue your personal achievements. 

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