Ugly Is the New Pretty

Let's get real about what running looks like

Do you remember your first race? I’m not talking about your first organized event, I mean your first race. When I was 6 years old I got in a fight with a kid named Brian at church and we raced on our chubby little legs from one end of the yard to the other. I wanted to beat him with every fiber of my tiny being, and I freakin’ did!

You can see that instinct in children, in the competitive drive and pride that they take in outsprinting one another. We are born with that instinct. We are born with that animal inside of us that wants to beat the other animals to the finish line.

Unfortunately, social media is killing that part of us.

Take your phone out and open Instagram or Facebook. Head to the page of any major running shoe company and look at their message of what fierce running is meant to look like. You will find lean models with legs for days soaring through the picture with an expression that would please the great Tyra Banks herself.

Well, I’ve done those photo shoots. They take forever, as in: All. Dang. Day. It takes a crew and lighting and makeup and about a thousand attempts at bounding over the same 30 feet of concrete to get the perfect shot. And when you take a look at the hundreds and hundreds of photos that are rejected? You guessed it, 90 percent of them are awkward positions, heavy stomping and less-than-flattering face shots. Those shots are what is normal, and even then, those photos are not taken after 25 miles of hard racing when every part of you wants to give up but you keep fighting forward.

Now, think about how we as a running community have aligned with this lie.

True or false? After the race itself, we enter a second competition to best portray our race result on social media.

We get the email that tells us our race photos are ready and the search begins. We cringe at the pictures where our legs appear to be buckling. We immediately discard the ones where our jaws are hanging open in exhaustion. We delete the ones that show we were pushing so hard that spit was flying from both corners of our mouth, threatening to lash out and attack the runner next to us.

True or False? We are embarrassed by what true effort looks like.

We keep our fingers crossed that hopefully the photographer in the neon green vest kneeling at the side of the road at mile 3 happened to capture the “both feet the air, streamlined form” shot with the focus in your eyes rivaling that of a lion stalking a wildebeest. We hope that shot will still be early enough in the race that all body parts are still traveling forward in the proper plane and not flailing about like a balloon man at a car dealership. Then, once we find that photo, we crop and slap on filters and soften the focus. Yeah, I know these tricks. I use them too.

The problem is that every time I over-brighten a shot to hide the fact that I am bright red with effort, every time I choose to not post a picture because I am caught mid-stride with my quad bulging like the hulk when I made contact with pavement, every time I post only the perfect ones, I am lying to you and telling you this is what you should look like when you race.

It is not.

There may be times while running that I look happy and peaceful and flawless, but that happens during an easy 5-mile run in the woods while I float along with music; it does not happen during the heat of battle in a race. Yet we strive—I strive—to present my racing as composed and elegant when the truth is, racing isn’t supposed to be pretty.

It may not be run around bases or from goal line to goal line and hoop to hoop, but success in this sport involves plenty of balls.

This is the challenge I put forth to you today: Post a picture that represents not the point in your best race in which you look nice, but the point where you pushed the hardest, where you realized your goal, where things “got ugly” because you sacrificed every part of your body in pursuit of something great.

Fine, I’ll go first.

Here are two different images from two of my best  races, and each one was captured near the end of the race when I was about to realize a great result.

 

This first shot is what I’d consider beautiful race picture, one I would be proud to share, a blissful half-smile on my face and my arms in the air as I break the finishing tape of the citizen’s race of the Bolder Boulder 10K in 2014.

And this next shot is the picture I would never have the guts to post. This is at mile 26.1 near the finish line of the Chicago Marathon in 2014, when I ran the best race of my life and placed seventh in 2:32:44.

This is the moment where I gritted my teeth (like, seriously gritted) and dug deeper than I thought was humanly possible, fighting to run faster, to hurt more, to drag myself farther into hell for the special moment and sheer relief that would come just one minute later.

That is the picture I should have posted the day that I set that PR because in two and a half hours of pain and glory, that is the moment I am proudest of. I love the fight that I see written all over that scrunched up face, and you know what? I’d be scared to race her. But that’s what running looks like a lot of the time, even though most people (including me) never reveal that on their social media feeds and you never see that kind of look in a running advertisement or race promo. Everyone wants to think running looks so attractive, so pristine, so playful and easy.

Not only does it not look that way, we shouldn’t want it to look that way.

Running can be hard, especially when we’re talking about racing for time goals. We need to embrace the look of anguish that is associated with running strong to achieve a goal, not replace it with a shiny, happy image that would get more “likes” on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

Now it’s your turn. I dare you.

Honor your strength by refusing to do a disservice to the animal in you that is a competitor.

Honor your willingness to suffer by showing the world what it truly looks like when you chase your goals.

Honor your hardcore moments and do not apologize for your fight.

That’s what I find beautiful.

That’s why running is beautiful.

Sarah Crouch
Sarah Crouch is a three-time U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier with a personal best of 2:32 in the marathon. She is sponsored by 361-USA and trains in Flagstaff, Arizona.