Accountability and Running: Being Better Than One’s Self

View From Lamar St Bridge During Run:11 June 13

“Running long and hard is an ideal antidepressant, since it’s hard to run and feel sorry for yourself at the same time. Also, there are those hours of clear-headedness that follow a long run.” (Monte Davis)

“Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” (William Faulkner, “The Art of Fiction, no 12,” The Paris Review, 1956)

I really have no idea who Monte Davis is. This quote appears on plenty of running sites, but no one sources it. I googled him but could find no information about him as an athlete. I wish I knew who he is, because I really take issue with these words that are attributed to him all over the web. Honestly, one is quite able to run and feel sorry for herself at the same time! When the weather is rainy, cold, and dark but she has to get in that last five miles to meet her goal for the week; when she has one hill rep left but the previous five, six, or seven reps have sapped all her strength; when her will to run battles her will be back at home eating ice cream and reading a book: oh, yes, feeling sorry for oneself while simultaneously running is indeed possible. But since misery honestly seems to love company, a runner is more likely to complete her running goals when she shares her goals with other runners, and also helps them to achieve their own goals.

For this reason, accountability to others is an essential element of a runner’s training (or at least this runner’s training!). I have too little time to train with others, so I joined the online competition website Strava last summer. This online competition website was developed by some avid athletes who (according to Strava’s About page) appreciate the camaraderie of working out, but had too little time to work out in groups. In response to their desire to improve their solo performances by training and competing with other athletes, this dedicated group of athletes developed a virtual training group. The existence of this, and similar virtual training group websites, reflects the common understanding among athletes that shared training experiences enhance our individual training and performances. One reason group training helps individual athletes is that with group training comes accountability. When a runner or cyclist knows that others keep track of his pace or his mileage, she’s more likely to achieve her performance goals. She’s more likely to run or bike when she’d rather eat pizza and watch a movie. She’s more likely to complete a set mile goal for a long run when she has other people running with her, or as with on online training community, has other people following her progress virtually. Sports such as cycling and running are essentially individual sports, but the individual runner and cyclist does benefit from the support of running and cycling peers.

I began using Strava last July, nearly a year ago. My son introduced me to it, and at first he and Phillip were my only followers. Yet even with just two followers, I saw an immediate change in my attitude toward my running. I don’t often need motivation to start a run; running boosts my spirit. I do, however, often need motivation to run with more speed, or to finish to mileage goal, during the summer and early fall months. Here in South Texas, we endure triple digit temperatures through October. In the mornings, we endure high humidity (ironically, since we seem to perennially stay in drought conditions) as well as heat. The humidity drops during the day, in correlation with the temperature rising, so that later in the day one has to contend with less humidity, but the more intense heat of the sun. No good time to run exists in San Antonio / Austin during the summer months. A runner knows she’s in trouble when she waits until 7 pm to run, at which time the temperature will go down to 98 degrees, and a little, forgiving evening breeze will (hopefully) be blowing. Under these difficult summer conditions last year, I discovered the “Strava Effect.” When I ran, the discomfort of running in the harsh summer conditions tempted me to slow my pace or to walk, or to shorten my run by two or three miles; however, since I knew Phillip and our son would see my pace and mileage on Strava, I learned to tough out my runs.

Slowly, over the ensuing months, I gathered more followers – people whom I’ve never met but with whom I share a bond of athletic understanding and sympathy – and I began following more people. Strava became an running tool instrumental to my training. I enjoy watching the progress of those runners I follow, and I enjoy getting feed back in the form of kudos and the occasional comment from runners who follow me. I like this accountability that accompanies the virtual training group. I like the subtle pressure to perform that accompanies the knowledge that people will see what pace I’ve run and whether I’ve done speed or hill work. Last month I became a premium member, so that I have the added benefit of getting feedback on my runs. Now I can set personal running / cycling goals and when I’ve accomplished them, my online training group can see that I’ve completed what I set out to do. I’m more likely to meet my goals this way, and if I meet my goals, I improve as a runner.

At the same time, I rather resent Strava. I get regular email notices (what I refer to as nasty-grams) that this runner or that cyclist has just stolen my PR on some segment. I get email messages that tell me that some runner I’m following has just achieved some PR, and although I’m always proud enough of those virtual training partners’ successes to give them kudos, I secretly envy them because every one of the people who follow me and whom I follow runs much faster than I! I sometimes resent Strava for the pressure I feel to run faster than is comfortable or than I want to at a given time just so that my online community won’t see how badly I sucked at my work-out. In fact, I confess that yesterday before I drove back to San Antonio from Austin, I went to Town Lake (aka Lady Bird Lake) to run four miles. Despite the heat and humidity, I had decent three mile run, including a 9:19 mile at mile two. When I got to the three mile point, I was at the Lamar St bridge. I could continue running to reach four miles, or I could stop at the bridge with a 9:28 pace and walk the .5 mile back to where I had parked on Riverside Dr. My vanity led me to stop at mile three! The heat was making my run only more difficult and I feared I would naturally slow down if I continued another mile. I didn’t want to post on Strava a three mile run with a ten minute pace, so I stopped my Garmin and walked to my car!

Yet strangely, my Strava training community still motivated me to do better than I would have, for I knew I was running at least two listed segments. I ran the same route with my daughter and grandsons yesterday morning. I love those runs with my family; I run them for enjoyment rather than for competition or training goals. I went out a second time because I missed leaving Austin before the high traffic time. I knew that once I returned to San Antonio, having endured frustrating slow, peak afternoon traffic times in both cities, I’d be unlikely to run again yesterday evening. I have a mileage goal set on Strava and my followers will know whether or not I’ve met that goal. Moreover, at least two Strava segments are along the portion of the river I planned to run. Last weekend, I ran a PR on one of those segments. I wanted to see if I could beat my own PR (and then have that PR reported by email to my Strava followers). The existence of my online running buddies encouraged me to run when I may not have, and at a pace faster than which I might not have otherwise. It also encouraged me to compete against myself, so that I could see for myself how much faster I might run those Strava segments on that three mile route.

When we find other athletes with whom we can share accountability, we improve our individual performances as we help others improve theirs. When we take part in helping others improve their own performances, we become inspired to improve our own performances, which, as William Faulkner points out, is that for which we should strive: to be better than ourselves (ok, he’s not an athlete, but he reigns supreme in his own field and his words are true for everyone, everywhere). Accountability to others ultimately helps us to become better runners, but also better selves.

June 11, 2013

3 miles at Town Lake with Elizabeth, and grandsons
3 miles at Town Lake (PR on Strava segments Town Lake Mile and Mopac to S Lamar Hike and Bike)

June 10, 2013

3 miles on greenway toward UTSA: Tabata intervals with warm up / cool down

June 9, 2013

6 miles at Town Lake in Austin (morning)
15.4 miles (cycling) on Greenway in San Antonio

June 8, 2013

6 miles at Town Lake (Strava segment PRs on 2.5 t0 3.5 mile marker Eastward; Austin – Congress to Pedestrian Bridge; and Reserve Hill Climb)

June 7, 2013

8 miles on greenway toward Bandera

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