On a good day, I am an unexceptional athlete. My times at most races are fair-to-middling, though I have, on rare occasions, broken through for PRs. Once, at a very tiny race in Wisconsin, I actually won my age group. (When I tell this story, I usually leave out the part where I was one of only three women in my age group.)
But most days, I suck.
I trip and fall a lot. I run out of breath on hills. I sometimes run out of breath on flats, too. I can’t run fast enough to stay with most training groups, so I get dropped. Once, I cried because it took me seven hours to finish a race. My husband, who finished that same race several hours ahead of me, held me in a comforting embrace and said I didn’t need to be sad about my performance; it was a hard course he was proud of me anyway. “Sad?” I sniffled. “These are tears of joy!” I was actually thrilled with my time.
For most of my life, I was afraid of running, because I knew I sucked. It took me years to decide to run anyway, despite knowing I’d suck at it. Over time, I’ve sucked less at it, but I’m pretty sure I’m always going to suck at running.
So why do I bother? Because sucking at something is necessary.
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You see, I’m a perfectionist. Whether I’m writing an article or cooking dinner, I obsess over the details until it’s just right. I tweak and revise, often to the point of obsession. I’m stubborn in my pursuit of precision. Even when I make poor decisions, I save face with a cocksure “I meant to do that” and push my way through until things are perfect again. I’ve been told on more than one occasion to “just let it go.” As if it were so easy!
I do this because I’m terrified of failure. Failure yields disappointment, and I hate disappointment. It’s gross and uncomfortable and makes me feel like I’m not good enough, and I really, really loathe that feeling. My fastidiousness is a protective measure—if I don’t fail, I don’t feel bad.
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But with running, I fail every day—every damn day. The harder I try to be a perfect runner, the more I fail. There’s almost always something—a strong headwind, a steep hill, not enough calories, too many calories, a chafe-tastic sports bra, an exposed tree root on the trail, a poor night’s sleep, sluggish legs—that derails me. Even on the days when all the stars align and I have a solid run, the training group still pulls away. My watch beeps every lonesome, slow mile as if to say, “Yoo hoo! You still suck!”
I fail every time I run, and yet the world does not end. Neither do I. Running has taught me that I don’t have to tweak and obsess and try to be perfect. I can just…be. This is an intense realization for a perfectionist like me. Even after a decade of running, it still knocks me over with its profundity.
Running gives me humility (so much humility). It also gives me freedom—the freedom to “just let it go.” I lace up, step outside, and tick off the miles. When I take away the self-imposed pressure to be perfect, I allow myself to be in the moment. For as long as I’m running, I’m happy. And yes, I know I suck, but I don’t really care. On the trails, I remember there is more to life than the pursuit of perfection.
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