Why "Best of" Lists Aren't Everything

Susan Donnelly shares running mindset tip when you compare and despair

It’s that time of year.

Ultrarunning Magazine's “Ultrarunners of the Year” edition is out. It’s packed with lists of  top, best, and notable performances, some of which include friends of mine who definitely deserve the recognition.

But when I flip through list after list after list, I remember why I stopped paying attention to them years ago.

Rankings are a double-edged sword. They can inspire but they can also stoke the critic in your head.

By holding these lists up as the best of the year, the magazine signals this is what's valued in our sport.

It’s natural, therefore, to conclude, “I should be just like the people on the list.”

“But I’m not…I’m so much slower.”

And suddenly you feel deflated, like you don’t belong and don’t matter.

I know. I’ve spent plenty of time minimizing my accomplishments over the years because they didn’t meet standards like the ones in this issue. 

If rankings like this do the same for you, know three things:

1. You’re in good company

In 2017, I finished my 100th 100-miler, ran a 200- and 240-mile race, and won two 100-mile races outright (at 54 years old, I might add). And I’m not on those lists.

Neither are several others like Sandra Villines, the Badwater Champion who broke a 30-year old women's transcontinental run record. 

2. You have more in common with the people on the list than you imagine. For starters, you probably both:

  • Love running (a lot).

  • Have good runs and bad.

  • Have run some of the same distances, which sets you both apart from most of the world.

  • Find the same things in running, like joy, stress relief, daydreaming, adventure, and challenge.

3. These lists capture the tiniest fraction of the story - the parts that happen to be easiest to measure and rank. They’re not everything.

Race times, race size, the winner's age. Pretty basic stuff. 

As data gets easier to find and manipulate, rankings may get more creative but at the moment, Ultrarunning magazine may simply not have the info to list your well-deserved:

“Best ultra performance while working a postal route with one day off for long runs”

“Best ultra performance by a cancer survivor returning after a year of treatment,”

“Best ultra performance while working three jobs to support a family.”

While I long ago stopped paying much attention to rankings, I’ll admit I enjoy seeing friends there and I’d be the first to let you know if I made it on a reputable one but it’s certainly not everything. The trick is to remember you’re so much more than a few categories on a few lists in one magazine. You have strengths, circumstances, and successes no one else does. 

You’re special, list or no list.

I hope these three perspectives help because there will always be rankings. It’s human nature.

Your worth in this sport isn’t dependent on how you compare to other runners. A chart in the Ultrarunner of the Year issue even says so. You were a part of making this the first year North American ultrarunning finishes exceeded 100,000.

So bottom line, this sport and all those top, best, and notable rankings wouldn’t be what they are without you.

You help make the sport what it is, so keep running, list or no list.

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Until next week,

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