A Runner's Guide to Celebrating Personal Achievements and Avoiding Comparisons
Published on 05/3/2016
Foreword: Sit back for a good, in-depth read when you have a few minutes. This isn’t a subject that can be explained in a quick summary. It’s more like a chapter in a book. It’s meant to help you, the runner, unlock your ability to honor, share and explain your own achievements to your friends and family, while keeping things in perspective and avoiding comparisons.
The inspiration to write about it
One night, after watching 20+ of the runners I coach from ages 13 to 62 finish with some of their best mile times in their career-to-date, I was ecstatic. To me, it felt like they had won a world championship, yet it was just a simple, local get-together on a track, assembled by a fellow coach and running pal of mine. It was the very definition of low-key, with index cards handed out at the finish with their places and a stopwatch at dusk. In reality, I might have been happier than most of my athletes with their performances, though some knew exactly what they had achieved. The next day, I felt inspired as a coach to put together a reminder to my athletes about celebrating personal achievement, due to those amazing performances the night prior. Too often, people overlook their own accomplishments, don’t truly know what they’ve accomplished, or undermine themselves instead of celebrating the accomplishments. The reason for the lack of satisfaction that comes with a personal best is often due to the deleterious human behavior of comparing oneself to someone or anyone else.
The observations I’ve made with regards to runners and comparisons
After 27 years as a competitive runner, 21 years as a coach, and 8 years working in the running shoe industry, I’ve seen enough to know that it’s just plain human nature to compare oneself with Jane or John next door—we can’t help trying to see how we fit into the world and then end up feeling really good or really bad about it. Plain and simple, everyone wants to feel like they belong, runner or not. However, the thoughts of comparison that go through our minds as even mildly competitive beings can potentially bring mental ruin to us as runners. Don’t deny that you’ve had some of these thoughts:
- Why is s/he so fast?
- S/he weighs more than me and I finished behind him/her.
- S/he’s way younger/older than me --how is s/he so good? I can’t believe I was beaten by a 6/60/90 year old!
- S/he doesn’t even look like a “runner” and I’m super fit and I finished behind him/her in the race.
S/he ’s super fit—I could NEVER beat him/her.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of the self-destructive thinking that happens secretly and quietly (and sometimes outwardly) in the world of runners. In reality, these are fairly common patterns of thinking that allow us to assess our performances and bolster (or lower) our self-worth and self-esteem as runners, again helping us feel like we belong in the sport. Heck, most people won’t even begin running because they feel that they don’t stack up to the definition or look of a “runner,” whatever that may be nowadays. They’re too embarrassed to start, or even be seen, doing a sport that historically has been represented by humans with svelte, tall, small frames—hardly disturbed by an ounce of fat, bad posture, flat feet or lack of coordination. The picture of the Olympic-level runner, with video still-frame perfect form and a chiseled exterior, is misleading; they probably constitute less than 1 percent of runners worldwide. Today’s “runner” comes in all ages, ability levels, shapes and sizes. Running is a sport where people of any height, weight, gender or age can see amazing results; none of those characteristics are limiting factors. Realizing that and accepting that is a major step in the right direction mentally for all runners.
Getting an athlete to reflect on a performance
One thing I always convey to my athletes at every level is to reflect on each and every practice or race after it’s over. Learn from it. Determine what went right, what went wrong, and what can happen next time to make things better and more successful. I encourage them to find something good in every workout, urging them to question what were the positive and negative factors that helped determine their performance. What foods and drinks were consumed? In what quantities? How much or how little sleep did they get in the days prior? Were there any out-of-the-ordinary factors that would lead to fatigue? Questions like those get individuals to really learn about themselves as runners.
The good they find in their workouts and races is usually worth recognizing, even worth celebrating, but I still find that runners in general are quite reluctant to pat themselves on the back for the little (or big) stuff. There’s an ingrained thinking to be humble and not brag, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to celebrate personal achievements and everyone should give themselves a chance to do it from time to time. I’ll tell you how.
The world doesn’t understand the runner anyway, so help them understand what you did
Let’s face it, few people outside of runners truly understand the world of running and what runners go through and put themselves through, so it’s OK to say what you accomplished in general terms. They don’t comprehend all that we do—the early mornings to work out before work, late evenings to squeeze something in resembling a run before bed, weight training and cross training, balancing work/family/friends/free time/binge watching Netflix/stretching/foam rolling with the sport and all its demands. Don’t forget its extreme weather conditions, traffic, friends and co-workers calling you crazy all the time (mostly in awe, or so we’d choose to believe). Aside from all that, even fewer people know what’s considered a good time and a bad time for the mile or 5k or any distance, for that matter. They think every race is a marathon and there’s no reason they’d ever have to know the distance. It’s not like in baseball where if someone pitches a no-hitter, a fairly large percent of people would know that’s a pretty respectable feat. For example, if someone asks my current mile time at age 40 and I say 4:50, it’s usually met with “You can run a 4 minute mile? Holy crow!” No, that’s not it at all. Not. Even. Close. The 4 minute mile is a sacred barrier that very few people in history will ever come close to. Hence, time becomes completely irrelevant, plus it’s comparing apples to bananas when the average guy my age can barely break 6:30 for the mile or would never even attempt running one. I’m not your average runner—not elite, but fairly competitive overall and for my age. People tend to “size people up” as they say, in more ways than one, which is a crippling action and a major detriment for the mentality of a runner.
Why comparisons mean very little
We’ll use me as an example, since I experience this “sizing up” on some level on a daily basis at my place of work—Sole Sports Running Zone. First, I’m 5’9”, 148 pounds with a slender build, slightly more than noodle arms and chicken legs, but wiry. Aside from not being “chiseled,” per se, I appear to a lot of people to belong to the stereotype of what people mean when they call someone a “real runner.” Let’s take a brief look at the M40-44 age group results at one of Arizona’s most competitive 5k and time-honored races—the Phoenix 5k. To set a good example of what I’m attempting to communicate to you, I should say that I am very happy with my results and I did quite well at this race, and I did share my proud moment with my friends. Please note: I did not even come close to winning the race (15th overall) with what is a very respectable time; I did, however, win my age group.
- Flash Santoro 16:18
- Ian Chapple 17:16
- Terry Bia 18:15
Useless comparisons from my race in the M40-44 age group:
- 2 minute difference between 1st and 3rd place
- There were 35 total finishers in this age group
- Only 7 people broke 20 minutes
- The slowest finisher did 1 hour, 6 minutes—almost 50 minutes behind 1st place
The winner of the entire race, age 22, ran 13 minutes, 50 seconds
If I finished 100th place and I ran the same time, I’d still be on cloud nine. I ran well for myself, hitting close to my goals and expectations—not anyone else’s. In the grand scheme of things, these numbers don’t mean anything to anyone that doesn’t run, race, coach, study running, or have a spouse or significant other that runs. They usually don’t mean anything to anyone other than the individuals concerned in the race. I can personally guarantee that Sportscenter isn’t going to talk about them. In this particular race, everyone listed in the results actually finished the race and some of those people probably set new PRs, and maybe no one outside of the race will ever be made aware of that or understand anything about them. Hopefully now you can feel more confident in telling someone how you performed in your run with a positive spin—they’ll be impressed and/or happy for you! Next, we’ll look at just how to do that.
Wording to avoid (negativity and comparisons) when honoring your accomplishment (underlined)
Now that we’ve covered why comparisons don’t lead to mental success and determined that we should always find the good in our performances, it’s time to touch upon how to successfully express ourselves with regard to our accomplishments. Generally speaking, it’s best to avoid the use of the word “but” when talking about your achievements, as it means “contrary to expectation” or negates the first part of the sentence. “No offense, but you’re stupid,” is a prime example of how “but” negates “no offense.” I also recommend eliminating anything that can be construed as negative or self-deprecating.
- “I had my best time ever, but I finished dead last.” Bad because you’re undermining your performance instead of just celebrating it. You may have finished last with the limited crowd present that day, but think of the masses that didn’t come out to challenge themselves.
- "I set a new PR, but some 70-year-old lady beat me." Bad because you’re comparing yourself to someone based on gender or age, as if an elder or child isn’t capable of running great against someone younger or older.
- "Even though it was one of my all-time best, I’m really not that good. Somebody my age finished a minute ahead of me." Bad because you are comparing yourself to the entire world. In a race against the rest of humanity, you might beat millions of people. People think small time and when they make comments like that it’s like they’ve forgotten that most people won’t even attempt running because it’s too hard or for fear of failure.
"Aren’t you proud of me?" Most people that matter to you will just be happy that you’re happy about what you did. Only few important people in your life can really answer this with the authority you’d like. I suggest re-phrasing: “You would have been excited if you saw me run this one.
The best way to convey in person that you’re excited about your performance so that the general populace (non-runners/non-racers) can appreciate and understand what you’ve done (varies by audience)
This is the one time you get to use “I” and “me” in mass quantities and have it be valid; it’s a story about you, after all.
The soft intro - “Hey, friend/babe/dude/honey/kiddo, I did really well in my race/practice tonight. Let me tell you about it!”
Give generic, positive feedback with some background info - “I kicked butt tonight! I am really proud of myself. I ran a mile (insert your own distance), which is 4 laps and change (explain the distance to people) on the track. I ran what’s called a PR, or Personal Record (or PB, Personal Best). It was my best time by 10 seconds—you should’ve seen me! I felt great tonight!”
Further details - “I won/did well in my section. They divided it into different levels depending on what you thought you were capable of doing for the mile. Look at this swag I got! Look what I have to show for it.”
In-depth celebratory details - “It seems like the earth, sun, moon and stars were all aligned tonight. Everything came together. The weather was perfect. The wind didn’t affect me. I drafted off some middle school kid and pushed past him at the end. The weather was terrible but I overcame it. I ran with this one person the whole way and s/he helped me a lot. I beat someone I’ve been trying to catch for a while!”
Other positive spins on a performance - “I usually run about x minutes per mile and today I averaged x minutes per mile.”
The best way to post some of your accomplishments on social media, so that people can celebrate you and not think you sound like you’re bragging.
Below I’ll delve into the best way to state information and stay humble about your performance. I was a fairly successful high school runner and my coach knew it. He also knew the perils and pitfalls of allowing a goofy teenage boy to talk candidly to the newspapers about his athletes’ and teams’ races. Mind you, I was a teen who had never seen such sports success before in my life and carried an inhaler taped to my hand when I first started. I surely didn’t know how to celebrate a victory from doing something noteworthy in sports, never mind come across as eloquent immediately after crossing the finish line. Within a year of training, I saw some major improvement and then the regional and state newspapers were interviewing me. Coach Levinthal gave me some friendly advice on the matter—a script, actually. It was the following and it has resounded in my head all these year:
“You don’t talk about yourself first. You say that the other team(s) were outstanding today. You say that we did surprisingly well for this point in the season. You compliment the efforts of the teams and individuals involved. You state how we’re up against some great coaching and tremendous athletes and we just had a good day. You only answer yes or no questions and state simple facts about your own race. Be humble. The best runners must possess enough confidence to be great but shouldn’t ever come across as cocky. It’s not right.”
There’s no class in life that explains how to convey success aloud or in print, so that’s why so many people are turned off by Facebook. No one taught us the proper decorum. It’s often difficult for an individual or a parent of an athlete to explain their own or their child’s accomplishments without coming across like bragging and putting people off. There are some innocuous ways to do it, though. Here’s a good example of a positive, matter-of-fact, confident, celebratory post:
Today was a good day for me and I wanted to share it. I had a good race in my own right—ran a big 5k with thousands of people—a very neat experience seeing all these people working just as hard as me to survive. It was my first one ever and I met a bunch of people that told me of similar trials and tribulations in running. I’ve spent the last 15 weeks training for it—the longest I’ve ever committed to something athletic. I started out with running as a means to feel better about myself and get some cardio in. In the process, I’ve changed some of my diet and lost the weight I set out to lose, achieved levels of fitness I haven’t seen since we were forced to run in middle school and I’m sharing this to hopefully inspire my friends and family that when you set goals and put your mind to something, you can really surprise yourself with what you accomplish! Thanks everyone for the encouragement, accountability, patience and understanding during my transformation!
And now it’s time to put it out there
This week, make a point to find the positive things that happened in your workouts without comparisons to the rest of the world. Learn from the negatives and turn them into something positive next time. Share what you feel is important to share, but only to the most important people in your life, aloud or on social media. Don’t overdo it on social media, though. If you post on Facebook every ten minutes about every run and every workout, you’ll lose interest from your overall following,i.e., "Today I averaged 9 minute mile pace on my 10 mile run." No one cares and two-thirds of the people that “like” it are runners. If you share the really important stuff in just the right way, you could serve as an inspiration and not lose your crowd. Give it a go and work on your delivery until you’re comfortable. Start with the people that mean the most to you. Finally, remember it’s OK to brag a tiny bit. You are sharing your accomplishments, after all.