Mirror, Mirror

Human beings are hardwired to respond to each other using the same tone and emotion as the other person in the conversation. Think about it: You speak softly to a colleague, and she’ll lower her voice when replying to you, whether or not she even realizes it. Shout at a sales clerk and he’s going to want to take it up a notch, too. Enthusiastically exclaim that you finally achieved your lifelong goal of taking a 14-person selfie? Your listener will probably exude excitement right back at you (unless your listener happened to have his head cut off in said photo because even your impressively long arms weren’t sufficient to capture all 16 houseguests in the frame. I’m sorry, Ben & Tom. I really am.)

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Feel free to hire me as your wedding photographer.

Mirroring each other’s behavior is a subconscious trait of humankind that helps us build empathy, community and rapport. It’s fascinating stuff, but – you may be asking yourself – what, exactly, does this have to do with running?

I’ll tell you what. In the 13 days since I finished the New York City Marathon, I’ve spoken to a lot of people about how my race went. Some days, I responded negatively, lamenting that I bombed my goal by nearly half an hour and never wanted to do a marathon again. Other days, I was more neutral in my response, saying while it was tough, I finished, and that’s what really counts. And even once or twice, I replied with the excitement I wish I’d felt all along: “I ran it, the crowds were amazing and someday, I hope to do it all again.”

And what do you know? Even though every single friend or colleague I talked to heard essentially the same baseline story – I ran a 4:15 NYC marathon – depending whether they heard me tell it with an upbeat tone or a self-deprecating one strongly influenced what kind of response I got in return. Case in point:

  • Q: Hey Anne! How’d the marathon go?
  • A: Ugh. I ran a 4:15 and I never want to set foot on the streets of NYC again.
  • Q: Sorry to hear that. At least you finished. What do you think went wrong out there?

Vs.

  • Q: Hey Anne! How’d the marathon go?
  • A: I ran a 4:15 and I finished and then I ate the most delicious grilled cheese of my life.
  • Q: And you deserved it! Grilled cheese is amazing and so are you.

Both responses are totally valid – you ask for sympathy and you’re going to get it – but the more times I had this conversation, the more I realized I preferred hearing the second response better. I mean, what millennial doesn’t like to hear that they’ve done a good job? Especially because, despite my lingering disappointment, I know deep down inside that running a 26.2 mile feat is an impressive accomplishment in and of itself, clock-time be damned.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting everyone whitewash their negative race experiences and go all Mary-Sunshine every time someone asks about something that was a real let down. It can be cathartic to talk about difficult situations, and reflecting on and processing a tough day of running is an important way to improve your strategy next time around. But at the same time, I’ve learned these last two weeks that when it comes to excitement level, you really reap what you sow. If you want to hear back from others what a good job you did, you need to start pretending that you think so, too.

Who knows: you might even come to believe it. I finally did.

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Now that I’ve finished mourning my race, tell me: How did yours go?

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One Response to Mirror, Mirror

  1. Vaughan Waters says:

    You didn’t mention it, so I will — how many people even realize that you sacrificed half of your own face to get as many people as possible into that selfie? Quite a bit fewer, I suspect, than the vast numbers who understand that a 4:15 marathon is something all but a small sliver of the world’s population can only gaze at with envy and awe, so yes — what a good job you did!

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