If comparison is the thief of joy, why is it so thrilling to get a PR? If comparison is the thief of joy, why does finishing 3rd or 10th or 156th feel so good? You and I know that this classic phrase is true, but it’s more nuanced than it appears at first glance. Like stress, a certain level of comparison is healthy, but go a hair beyond that and it quickly turns toxic. Comparison used as a tool to assign value is the real culprit. In this context, comparison is not a mere pickpocket. No, it straight up kicks down the door, snatches your joy and then proceeds to flip your furniture, drown your electronics and smash the contents of your fridge on the floor just for fun, leaving a dangerous mess in its wake.
Now I’m what you might call a ‘heavy user’ of Instagram, which has been vilified for causing negative emotions as a result of people ‘comparing their behind-the-scenes to people’s highlight reel’. But to be honest, I love having my own digital highlight reel that I can look back on and remember great moments in my life. It’s also been an invaluable tool in a way that other platforms are not, for meeting new people, opening opportunities and expanding my trail family. For the most part I can control my feed compared to the infuriatingly nonsensical Facebook. I can follow the feeds that make me laugh, feel inspired or provide a sense of community. But it’s also limiting when I encounter people’s accounts that I would like to follow, but find to be too triggering. The unfortunate fact is that I’m missing out on some run friends for this reason.
Did you ever happen upon a post where someone voices their body image issues and you relate so hard, but then you notice how perfect they look and you instantly have a vision of yourself in comparison – the same outfit in the same pose, side by side – a completely unfunny parody of a Celeste Barber challenge you never wanted to accept? Did you picture yourself all bumpy and lumpy and soft that it’s almost more than you can take so you unfollow lest you plummet further down the deep, dark hole of shame and self-loathing that has you needing to refuel with electrolytes due to tear-related salt depletion? Yeah, me neither…
“You look great, though!”
Anyone who suffers this unfortunate self-concept knows that these words don’t move the needle. Why? Because this feeling is not based on external appearance, or is it? Last year when I broke free from a relationship that had me in a holding pattern, I began ramping up my mileage including 20ish mile long runs every week, I slo-o-o-o-o-o-o-wly dropped about 10 pounds without trying. I gained a lot of muscle and by my logic, hit some magical tipping point where my body used the excess fat for fuel. I had hoped I’d created a new normal, but in the back of my mind, I feared the moment when my body would turn back into the jiggly pumpkin, reminding me of my peasant status and that to remain a princess was not my destiny. If I’m being totally honest, I’m going to say what I probably shouldn’t. Being thinner made me happier. Sure it didn’t eliminate my insecurities all together, but it changed how I interacted with the world. I walked around feeling comfortable in my skin for once in my life. I felt confident, free to be myself and I felt like I finally had permission to live the way I liked unapologetically. For the first time, the pictures and mirror reflected the way I felt, and still feel, running, high-stepping and gliding along the trail. I felt that my efforts had finally manifested physically.
And then I ran Dirty 30 – my biggest accomplishment to date – and I was rewarded with an immediate 5 pound weight gain and a little less joy. I still fit into that one pair of jeans – you know the ones I’m talking about – they were snug, but reasonably so. And then I ran Mount Hood 50 miler and was immediately rewarded with another five – or that is my best estimate, because it’s too psychologically unsafe for me to actually step on the scale. I also have an entire section of my closet with triggering items that are unsafe to try on. My body composition remains more muscular, but now it’s hidden by extra fat and I wear the same three pairs of stretchy jeans because I can’t risk triggering that low over and over.
When I asked my ultrarunning friends if it’s normal to gain weight after an ultra, I would’ve encountered less confusion if I’d asked whether it’s normal to grow a penis instead. People kept dismissing it as water weight, but I knew better. I knew that midnight had arrived and I was once again, a pumpkin. I can’t logically explain why it happened so fast, but it’s not water and it wasn’t an extra 17,500 calories. I like beer, but I didn’t drink 103 of them that week. I think that running three hard races within three months was more stress than my body has experienced and because I didn’t rest and recover with the same dedication as I ran, I prolonged the stress, causing my body to hoard calories in case I decided it was a good idea to return right back to the same level of training the week after my first ultra, which I did.
But these rationalizations are a distraction from the real issue, which is the shame I feel and how unbelievably difficult it is to publicly admit this to the tens and tens of people who will read this blog. And now that I’m a pumpkin again, a muscular pumpkin, but a pumpkin just the same – I desperately want to get back to feeling like a princess. It’s a lot harder to work every moment of every day to develop a deep, unflappable sense of self love and worth than it is to run 40-50 mountain miles every week for ever and ever. Maybe I can start by being grateful?
I bet that the majority of women, at least, who read this will relate on some level. Why? Not because they don’t have the perfect body, but because we’re taught to blame ourselves for our imperfections and believe that our physical body is completely under our control and therefore a direct reflection of how weak or strong we are. We’re taught that it’s our fault if we don’t ‘look like a runner’. [Side note – have a look at the comments and count how many compliment her on her ‘nice legs’ versus how many compliment her on her 1:16 half.] It’s assumed that if we don’t have the ideal body, that we’re weak or lazy or gluttonous and it is just not true. Last week I spent 10 hours on the trail, running and power-hiking 40 miles with 9500′ of vert. Since January, I’ve spent 264 hours running 1136 miles with 232,329′ vert over 127 runs. That doesn’t even include all the time on the stair climber, PT exercises, gym time, yoga, or handful of hikes that I didn’t track. I can run uphill at 11,000 feet, I came in 10th female in my first 50 mile race. That’s amazing! That’s anything but lazy, that took hard work and consistent effort in the ice, snow and wind; in the blazing sun and in the darkness of night; in the stifling heat and the freezing cold. And yet those ten pounds remain my focus and I lament my pre-ultra body, letting comparison ransack my joy. Was it worth it?