How Authentic Comparison is Better Than Nostalgia

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My husband Bill and I are marathon training. It is not going well. Let me give you the backstory.

I began running marathons in 2005 at Steamtown. I traveled with friends, ran by myself and was standing in line for food after the race. Two women ahead of me in line were talking about their race experience, comparing it to other marathons that they had run, and (in the manner so common to runners everywhere) included me in the conversation. They asked me how many marathons I had done. I replied “Including this one? ONE!!!” and burst into tears. At that moment, I was hooked. I didn’t care that I couldn’t bend down to untie my shoes, I knew that I would run more marathons. I typically did two or three a year.

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In 2009, Bill asked me if I would run a marathon with him. I said “Of course!” He said “No, I mean the whole race.” I again said “Of course!”, and we began running marathons together. Our first one was Richmond. There is an emotional cushion enveloping you when you run a grueling race with the person who loves you most in the whole world. I loved running with Bill. Unfortunately, Bill was much more susceptible to injuries when he increased his mileage for marathon training. He stopped running marathons in 2011. Philly was his last one.

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Until last year. A close friend asked if we would like to go along to run the Berlin (Germany) Marathon with her. We had to enter a lottery for the chance to register. The timing was great (for me). I asked Bill if he wanted to get in the lottery with us. He hesitated, waffling back and forth until the last minute, then agreed. When I got the email from the Berlin Marathon telling us that we had won the right to enter the race, I was still teaching (I have since retired). The email was in German! I had to get a student taking German to translate for me before I started yelling and dancing around the classroom.We were in!

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Training for Berlin went great. For Bill. I developed an injury that I am still dealing with today – five months after the race. My times slowed and my hip hurt every time I ran. Through trial and error, I learned a posture and gait that minimized the effect of the injury. I ran the race with very little pain, and had a wonderful time. The spectators were so friendly and the flat, fast course went through the heart of town, past amazing scenery. My race time was a PW (personal worst), but I didn’t really care. The experience was overwhelmingly positive.

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While we were training for Berlin, I got a notification about registering for another marathon that I always wanted to do, but couldn’t due to my teaching schedule. It is in March. It is the exact opposite of Berlin. Small, only about 100 runners, run on a trail with few spectators, and very inexpensive, the Virginia Creeper Marathon has always appealed to me. I decided that surely my injury would be healed by March, Bill’s training would continue to go great, and it would be a fantastic idea to register for the new race. None of that turned out to be true. It is a month before the race. I have not done any long runs, and I just got over the flu. Hmmmm…..

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I am familiar with the Teddy Roosevelt quote “Comparison is the thief of joy”, and I believe that it is true, but I just can’t stop myself! I am not comparing myself to other people. I keep comparing myself to ME! The “me” that I am comparing to, however, is the “me” of ten years ago. Or five years ago. Or even two years ago. Two years ago, I decided to make a concentrated effort at speed. I did track workouts, increased my mileage, and really pushed myself. I wanted to test my speed in a 5k. I came within 10 seconds of my PR (personal record). At age 58!

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There is a now-famous study done with monkeys by Emory University scientist Frans de Waal. de Waal taught Capuchin monkeys to “buy” a cucumber slice by giving a stone to a researcher. The monkeys learned quickly and were happy with this arrangement. Then the researcher changed the rules. (Those devious scientists!) Instead of giving all the monkeys cucumber slices, he rewarded some of the monkeys with sweet, juicy grapes instead. The monkeys receiving the grapes were happy, but the ones still getting cucumber slices were pissed! Some of them threw the cucumber slices, that they had been happy with before they saw others getting grapes, back in the face of the researcher. Comparison took away their contentment.

So, why can’t we stop? Why can’t we be grateful for what we have? We humans constantly compare ourselves to others and to our past selves. That is the way we are wired for survival’s sake. Here is the funny part: we compare ourselves to an imagined “peak”time in the past. It’s not a realistic comparison.

Was I a faster runner in the past? Yes. Was I a happier/better/more complete person? No! Definitely no! The times in my life when I was running the fastest were some of the most unhappy, stressful times of my life. I was working 50, 60, 70 hours a week with barely any time for a social or family life. My mother had just died and I was working through my grief. Many of my personal relationships were not as good as they are today. When I look back to the “me” of ten years ago and pine for the days when I was faster, I am looking through an idealized lens that only sees the good part and leaves out all the bad parts. It’s an exercise in nostalgia that is dishonest and unhealthy.

It is much more beneficial to tell myself the story of what is better in my life now. I am more patient, more relaxed, more generous. I notice and appreciate details. I have time to do the things that interest me. I can explore new projects (like writing). My relationships with my family and friends are better.  I have grandchildren! Lots of things in my life are so much better now than when I could run faster.

Comparison is good if it pushes you to be a better person, even a better runner. Just make sure that the comparison is honest, complete and authentic. Don’t allow nostalgia to distort the vision of who you were, who you are, and who you will become!

 

 

 

 

 

7 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this Laurie. A lot of food for thought here. My 1st marathon 4 years was a lot like yours. I was so excited. Then going into the next year, I was more competitive and along with it comparing myself with others. Tried to qualify for Boston but just fell short. The “funness” was sucked out of running, and have never run a road marathon since.

    The joy is returning, and I am really trying hard not to make comparisons. Have pretty much switched over to trail running. One of the things with trail running that unless it is the identical course, it is hard to make comparisons, because each course is so different. I love Twitter, but sometimes seeing everyone’s runs posted using Strava or other apps can be annoying, because I’m really trying hard not to make comparisons and these posts are right in my face. I’ll just scroll past those posts and make a comment on posts where a runner might have taken a picture of a pretty scene. Even though I have a new Suunto, I decided not to post my times there on Twitter. Both for my own sake and other runners like myself who is trying to shake comparisons.

    Love the illustration about the monkeys! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I followed pretty much the same path as you, Carl. I started out as a road runner, began doing marathons, also felt like the “funness” was gone, then began doing trail runs. I liked the trail runs for exactly the same reason – it is difficult to compare. My husband and I are doing a 20 mile trail race next weekend. We will see how it goes! I am really looking forward to it and I don’t care if it is slow.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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