Runners are number-obsessed. From how many miles we ran to how fast we ran them, we are always looking at the data and finding ways to make those numbers “better”.
That’s not always a bad thing. Most of us aim to be faster, fitter, stronger runners and seeing those numbers change helps validate our improvements.
But numbers don’t tell the whole story, especially when it comes to trail running.
I’m a self-proclaimed slow runner, whose times are even slower on the beautiful desert trails I love to run on. Trail running is something I fell head over heels in love with less than a year ago, after mostly running roads for the five years before that. I’ve never been fast, even on smooth paved surfaces but when I first started running trails, I was surprised how much slower my pace was.
It shouldn’t have been such a shock. Trail running works different muscles than road running, and I had to spend more energy focusing on the path in front of me so I wouldn’t wipe out on the rocks. As I learned how to navigate the new terrain, I was able to build my endurance but my pace remained quite slow.
Over time, though, I learned that this was my comfortable speed and to embrace it. When I pushed myself too hard to go faster, I didn’t enjoy my runs as much and I was more likely to get injured. I got more excited about hitting a new distance PR than I did about shaving a few seconds off my pace.
The birth of my trail running journey also coincided with my foray into the world of Strava. While it’s been a helpful training tool for me, it’s also caused me to make some nasty comparisons. I look at the stats of other trail runners I follow in my area and wonder how they can run X:XX pace on rocky terrain while my pace is several minutes slower. I question if my high mileage weeks are paying off when runners putting in much fewer miles are running faster times than me.
While earning Strava kudos or bling for hitting fast times can deliver a dopamine rush, it’s not long-lasting. Once that “high” dissipates, it’s on to chase the next one, but that isn’t why I run. I run to feel alive, to feel connected to something greater than myself. When I remember that I’m not running to impress anyone else, that’s when I truly enjoy my runs.
What has helped me reframe my comparison habit is realizing no one truly cares how fast I run. Even when runners on the trail blaze right past me, they probably aren’t laughing at me for being slow. Runners in general are a supportive bunch and aren’t judging other runners for their pace — they’re likely focused on their own training.
When looking back on my own running accomplishments, I don’t think of the times when I ran “fast” for me. I remember pushing up tough climbs and feeling incredible when I reach the summit, or when I fought through mental barriers on a long run and end up running further than planned. I think of how much my body has done for me over thousands of miles of pounding and how grateful I am to be able to move in this way I love so much and to explore new trails and see gorgeous landscapes.
Many runners set goals to PR in certain distances, and that’s great! If you’re like me and hitting specific paces just doesn’t motivate you, it’s more than okay to make different goals for yourself that have nothing to do with speed. Maybe you’d like to conquer your first ultramarathon, explore challenging trails or just run somewhere new. You can base your training around this goal and then feel accomplished when you complete it, just like you would if you snagged a PR or a podium spot. Remember that comparison is the thief of joy, so don’t let yourself fall into the rabbit hole of comparing your running to others. Own your goals and your achievements, no matter how small they may seem.
Whether you’re super speedy or bringing up the back of the pack, don’t focus on your mile times. Instead, remember why running brings you joy — and I bet it has nothing to do with numbers!