As an Athlete, Should You Care What Others Think? (Hint: All One-Word Answers to This Question Are Wrong) – 80/20 Endurance
Tommy Rivers Puzey

As an Athlete, Should You Care What Others Think? (Hint: All One-Word Answers to This Question Are Wrong)

In March 2017, I gave a talk at Run Flagstaff, a running specialty store located in the city whose name it carries. During the talk, I mentioned an occasion when I got to hang out with 2:19 marathoner Yoko Shibui and her teammates on the Mitsui-Sumitomo women’s professional running team in boulder, Colorado.

“Are there any men in the room who have run a faster marathon?” I asked rhetorically, a laugh-line I delivered every time I told this story. “If so, raise your hand.”

Too late, I remembered where I was—a true Mecca for American runners, where a lot of very fast men and women live and train. And the room was packed. And, sure enough, among those in the room, although I hadn’t noticed him yet, was Tommy Rivers Puzey, who had recently completed the Phoenix-Mesa in 2:18:25.

He did not raise his hand.

Interesting choice, no? I think it’s safe to say that most runners, male or female, who had just set a marathon PR of 2:18:25 would have been inclined to express their pride in the accomplishment, especially when invited to. But Rivers elected not to draw attention to himself in this way. I can’t say I was surprised. Rivers just doesn’t crave Strava kudos and the like as much as other people do.

Last weekend I participated in a very small and informal marathon in San Jose, California, that was organized by a friend of mine who heads a local running club. I was something of a guest of honor for the occasion. I’d brought signed copies of some of my books for the others and, right before we started, my friend made an announced my goal of beating my personal-best time of 2:39:30. I enjoyed the attention.

Less than half a mile into the race, my left foot exploded in pain. I tried my best to run through the discomfort, motivated by the fact that I was running in honor of Rivers, who at that moment lay in an ICU bed in a coma battling a rare and aggressive form of lung cancer, and also by a desire to spare myself a walk of shame back to the start (it was an out-and-back course, so the bathos of my swift failure would be noted by all of my fellow runners, one by one). I kept telling myself to do what Rivers would do in my situation, which was to keep fighting. But then, suddenly, I remembered that moment at Run Flagstaff when Rivers did not raise his hand, and I realized that, in my situation, he himself would not fear the walk of shame that followed quitting. So I quit, knowing it was the smart move, and thinking, Who gives a shit if people lose a bit of respect for me, or even have a private laugh at my expense? I know who I am, and that’s all that matters.

Everyone cares what other people think of them. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar. Even Rivers cares. One time an online troll called Rivers “a washed-up subelite with a disdain for clothing.” I know this because Rivers told me about it, and he told me about it because he hadn’t forgotten it, and he hadn’t forgotten it because it stung.

Caring what other people think of you is an ineluctable part of being a member of a social animal species. What people actually mean when they offer the trite and shallow advice not to care what other people think is that there are good and bad ways of caring what other people think of you, and you should concern yourself only with the good ways. Rivers is on a mission to inspire other people through his example. You cannot possibly pursue such a mission without thinking a lot about how others are perceiving you. Yet this is an undeniably healthy and altruistic way of caring what others think.

We seldom reflect on this side of the equation, though. That’s only to be expected, as most of us routinely fall into the trap of caring what others think in bad ways. Is my PR impressive enough? Is my car better than yours? Am I skinny enough? Did my last Facebook post get enough likes? It’s only human to worry about such things to a certain extent, but if they represent the full extent of your concern for what others think of you, you’re in for a rather empty life.

I myself have always craved the praise of others to an inordinate degree. As I describe in my book Running the Dream, I believe this is because I grew up sharing my father’s passions for writing and running, and he took such evident delight in my successes in these endeavors that I began to seek similar reactions from everyone. I will never outgrow this psychological conditioning, nor do I even want to, but I do believe it is in the interest of my personal maturation process to become more balanced. Having friends like Tommy Rivers Puzey, who are farther along in their spiritual journey, is helpful in this regard. Had it happened ten years earlier, that walk of shame I did after aborting my recent marathon probably would have caused me to feel no small amount of shame, but in fact it didn’t.

And guess what: Afterward my friend who organized the event applauded me for setting a good example for his club members by making a prudent decision under pressure and not acting all prideful and embarrassed about my failure. Ironic, no? By finding the wherewithal to care less about what others think of me, I just might have gotten them to think of me in a way that actually benefits them while also making me feel good about myself in a way that impressing people doesn’t. Thank you, Rivers!