Fighting the comparison game

Taken from the Olentangy Trail

There’s a general rule of thumb about training for a race that you can either focus on speed or distance, but not both during the same run. Meaning that if you’re focusing on distance, don’t worry about running fast.

Six years later I still do this, as well as falling victim to the comparison trap.

I started running in 2016, at the ripe old age of 24. Okay, so 24 isn’t geriatric, but when you meet other runners who were athletes from childhood on (definitely not me) and they can run 8-minute miles with ease, and maintain the same pace throughout a half or full marathon, it’s hard not to feel like someone’s granny or wonder if the tortoise really should have challenged the hare.

Then there’s body comparisons. Contrary to what the stereotype might say about runner’s bodies, if you ever sign up for a race or plop down a lawn chair to spectate, there’s all kinds of shapes and sizes that participate in the races. Most runners are not long, lean and with seemingly minimal body fat, and it’s possible for a runner to have an average to larger frame and still maintain an 8:00 pace. For how much I might knock it, Instagram has been eye-opening about the different body types among runners who complete marathons, triathlons and ultras. I know deep down that if a runner is willing to train and put in the effort, it’s going to show and that just being skinny isn’t a guarantee of anything.

However, since we’re being real here – the elite athletes that run five or six days a week, who pull weekly totals of at least 50 or 60 miles – the ones that are aspirational and generally folks to look up to – are quite lean. At my racing peak in 2018 and 2019 – when I was 26 and 27, setting personal records and running four marathons during 2019 – I was ten pounds lighter. Admittedly, losing weight hasn’t been a priority over the past year, and I’m by no means overweight to the point of where it’s become a health issue. But I’ve definitely gotten myself into some vicious cycles.

Going back to an office to work – after first working from home and then being unemployed for ten months – has cut into exercise time. I’m tired more often and more easily, and I’m finding myself eating junk food to try and wake up when I’m at work. I used to be able to get up and run before the sun came up. It was only a month ago that I started doing that again, since I would wake up in the mornings and struggle over a cup of coffee. So I started running in the evenings, and now I’m getting tired of that too, since after a long day at the office, I just want to get home to kitty. So for the longest time I wasn’t exercising generally, my diet left everything to be desired, and I was just plain uncomfortable no matter what, in addition to being tired all the time.

For the longest time I attributed all of the upset to Grandpa’s passing – which did a number on me, but frankly, my Chick-fil-A habit is not on him at all. Or the one day I had bourbon balls and Swiss Miss hot cocoa for breakfast. Then it was my commute’s fault, then my desk job, then having to wait two months longer to get access to the gym at work. My behavior may have been understandable, but honestly, there really was no excuse for getting myself into that cycle and letting it go on longer than I should have.

It also didn’t help that I was listening to too many voices – some well-intended, and one hurtful – about my weight. The hurtful one belonged to someone who made passive-aggressive comments about my weight because of how it would reflect on them. God forbid they been seen with a girl whose waist wasn’t snatched and who (still) likes carbs, since “we” were in competition with peers and siblings. The well-intended ones were folks who gently suggested my eating habits were part of why I was bloated all of the time and my running was taking a hit. They weren’t wrong, but since I was already unhappy in my own skin, it just felt like salt was getting poured into an open wound.

It’s been a long and challenging process, but I’m finally breaking poor eating habits and feeling better. I’ve always struggled with low blood sugar since adolescence, which my pediatrician attributed to genetics and menstruation. Up until turning 30 I felt like I could manage it, but then as soon as I hit 30 – and took an unexpected break from running and started eating everything in sight – the dizziness came back with a vengeance. Getting sick a couple weeks back was my wake up call that I had prioritize eating right and getting myself back in control.

I wound up quitting coffee except as a rare treat in favor of electrolyte water first thing in the morning to get the blood sugar under control, and I have to say after two weeks of electrolyte water three times a day, it’s almost as though the dizziness has corrected itself. Breakfast, which used to be hit or miss, is now an English muffin, three scrambled eggs and vitamins. I’m forcing myself to eat more protein with my fruits at lunch, with dinner being my “whatever sounds good” meal. So far it turns out that changing up my breakfast and adding electrolyte water has done wonders to feeling like the old me.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve lost ten pounds and cut four minutes off my pace. I’ve got a while to go before I reach both of those markers. But I did notice this past Saturday on my long run that I felt better than I have in a long time. I felt strong and wound up adding an additional mile, topping out my long run at 15 miles. That’s the longest I’ve ran this year. And when I was passed by other runners who were taller, thinner and looked far better in their spandex than I do, I didn’t feel inadequate. Actually, I didn’t feel anything other than thirsty. So I took a walk break, got a drink and looked around Ohio State as I ran past campus.

Running is an individualized sport. Pace, how often, how many miles a week, what cross-training and rest look like – that’s all up to the person on the trails, for them to decide. Lately I’ve been trying not to fall into the comparison trap, and I know at some point I’ll be back where I am now and have to remind myself to mind the business that pays me, to not be concerned about how fast other people are or what they look like. In a month I’ll be running Marathon #11, and everything I’m bugged about now won’t matter once I’m back in the corral.

Comebacks aren’t reserved just for 20-somethings who dutifully eat cucumbers and kale. And comparisons rarely accomplish anything. So it’s time for me to keep moving and make it happen for Columbus next month.

I hope you all enjoyed today’s rambling post. Enjoy the week ahead and show it who’s boss.

Yours in writing and running,

Allison

4 comments

  1. This is good stuff! And more of us should practice what we preach. The comparison game is nasty, isn’t it? What’s worse is we are modeling that behavior for young people we may have no idea are even watching.

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    • That’s one of the ironies about running, especially if you post about it online and make it a part of your identity. It’s an individual sport, but at the same time, there’s always that nagging thought of “someone else is faster/getting up earlier/maintaining race weight year ’round.” While also encouraging everyone else not to get too hung up on paces and numbers. Thank you for reading and your thoughtful comment.

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  2. Always so tricky to get back to running after taking a break, and let’s not forget the number 2020-2021 did on a lot of our healthy habits! I’m on the same boat, trying to get back in the swing of things after a lot of changes. It definitely feels more like a marathon than a sprint so I’m taking my time!

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    • It is hard! I’ve had to remind myself a ton about how it’s a day at a time and that life really does move in seasons. A season of success and feeling on top of world, and a season of just getting by. Thank you for reading and sharing your comment.

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