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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stuart Smalley Had It Right

"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!" 
- Stuart Smalley

A few evenings ago I found myself midway up the steepest hill of my favorite snow-covered trail, gasping for air, while my training buddy sped away from me. Between breaths a series of downwardly spiraling thoughts infiltrated my thinking. They took me from contentment, to frustration, and ultimately to thoughts of total surrender, nearly as rapidly as my heart pounded from one beat to the next. In the parking lot I had felt joyous anticipation for a beautiful evening run. Laughter and boisterous chitchat filled the crisp February air as we bounced up the initial section of trail. Then the first steep hill slapped me in the face and my friend pulled away from me like I was walking. The problem was not that he was dusting me; the problem was that I was comparing myself to someone else. For me, comparing is a dangerous game, one that is certain to end in one of two ways: a sense of grandiosity or self-deprecation. Max Ehrman said it most eloquently in his 1927 poem, The Desiderata,

"If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself." 

The dangers of comparing that Ehrmann warned of became all too evident as I grudgingly trudged up the snowy hill, fixated on the fact that my friend was faster than me. Before I knew it, I was telling myself that my fitness was so poor, that running the Zion Traverse in a couple of months was out of the question. That thought was immediately followed by the thought that I may as well quit running altogether. The whole mental digression took upwards of five seconds; all because I compared myself to someone else. I can say with certainty, that, had I been running alone my reaction as I tackled that hill would have been drastically different. Had I been running solo I surely would have been thinking what a total badass I was to be powering up such a stout hill with so much vigor, and that nary a soul could match my fortitude. However, just like my feelings of utter defeat, that thinking would have been misguided. Had been honest with myself I would have realized that my training partner was a great runner who was very fit, and that's why I was unable to keep pace. For me, comparing, with real or imagined competitors, is the unfortunate name of the game. This habit has some serious liabilities, both in running, and in life.

Take the first 30 miles of last year's Western States Endurance Run. Had I not spent the days and weeks leading up to the race, along with the first several hours of the race, comparing myself to others, I may not have been stumbling with blurry vision as I approached the Robinson Flat aid station at mile 30. Wanting so badly to crack the top ten, I had envisioned and re-envisioned the caste of characters I would need to hang with in the early going of the race, if I were to achieve this goal. Caring only about who I was running near, completely disregarding my own sensory data, I suddenly found myself in third place. Enter vanity! Although I was over my head, and running too fast, I was in third place in the country's most prestigious hundred. Clearly I was awesome and destined for glory. So I continued on foolishly, running an unsustainable pace.

As fortune had it, my rough patch came early enough in the race, that I was able to readjust my expectations. I ceased comparing my status to the other runners in the race and focused instead just on finishing. Miles later, feeling infinitely stronger, I found myself back in the top ten, running strong. By "running my race" I was able to salvage my effort and have a successful run. I nearly made the same mistake eight weeks later at Leadville, but again I backed off the lead pack early in the race, leaving enough fuel in the tank to have strong finish. When I don't get caught up in comparing myself I race much better.

As with many of the principles that guide my running, so the principle of avoiding comparisons transfers into real life. I make comparisons in my profession vacillating from thinking that I'm the world's greatest teacher to the belief that I'm the world's worst. Likewise, at times I compare myself to other parents, thinking of myself either as super-dad, or chump father, depending on how I compare myself. Yet the truth is, if I let go of the comparisons and shoot for humility, I am a more successful parent, teacher, runner and person. And, most importantly, I am happier. Good old Stuart Smily, the classic Saturday Night Live persona, had it right when he uttered his daily affirmation, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!"



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