Unhappy Self-Assertion: Envy in the Distance Runner

Sabrina Little on the value of admiration and the danger of envy in distance running.

By on October 17, 2018 | Comments

Back in 2012, I was a young ultrarunner with a lot of enthusiasm but a lack of guidance for how to succeed in the sport. I did what anyone would do in my position. I imitated what my role models were doing.

I admired Sophie Speidel. She took rest days and targeted workouts, rather than running hard every day, so that was what I did. I admired Nikki Kimball, who was a gracious, humble champion and who thanked volunteers at aid stations. I aimed to do the same. And I admired Connie Gardner. I read an interview in which Connie said American women needed to break 150 miles in the 24-hour run in order to be competitive on the global stage. I made that my goal. Because Connie spoke so confidently about the eventuality of the feat, it didn’t even occur to me that it wasn’t a reasonable thing to do. I cloaked myself in Connie’s courage: If she could do it, I could, too. These women were my exemplars—walking embodiments of the excellences I desired for myself—and emulating them made me better.

“Comparison is the thief of joy” (1) is a popular refrain these days. I have said this. It has been said to me. But why? Why is comparison the thief of joy when we have so much to learn from one another? The sentiment behind the quotation is this: Your life should stand on its own because if you live with integrity and do your best, then… well, there is nothing else you can do. Life is not an Oreo-stacking competition, and it doesn’t matter how many achievements you stack up compared to another person. These things are true. But the problem is not with comparison in general. The problem is with a particular type of comparison: envy. Envy is the thief of joy.

Conceptual Backdrop

To admire is to construe another as excellent in some way (e.g. skilled, determined, kind, brave) (2). Admiration has a positive emotional valence and typically elicits emulation of the excellence observed (3). For example, I observe a professor act with extraordinary graciousness toward a rude remark, so in my own classroom, I am drawn to be likewise benevolent. In contrast, envy is pain over the good fortune of others (4). In the current psychology literature, envy is described as having two forms: Benign envy sees excellence in another person, is made uncomfortable by that, and is motivated to correct that specific virtue differential. Malicious envy solely wants the imbalance resolved, even if it means the other person no longer has that excellence (5). While benign envy can motivate someone to copy the excellent person, this motivation is not one of genuine delight in the other; it is discomfort at one’s inferiority in the given respect (6). Søren Kierkegaard explains it this way: “Admiration is happy self-surrender; envy is unhappy self-assertion (7).”

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about envy in competition—whether “unhappy self-assertion” is in the spirit of competition, or is a distortion of it. I think it is the latter.

Competing without Envy

In 2017, I stood on the start line at Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. I was shoulder to shoulder with women I greatly admire, and we hugged, stretched, and chatted nervously in the dark. When the gun went off, they were my competitors, but they didn’t cease to be my friends and the people I admire. The day was full of encouragements—both given and received. We ran hard, and we brought out the best in each other. Furthermore, I had front-row seats to be amazed by a lot of incredible athletes. For months after, their “imitably attractive” (8) qualities fueled my own training and cultivated my athletic imagination for personal possibilities.

To be clear, I think a person can sustain a successful running career fueled by envy—to self-assert and to have a personal sense of inferiority drive their performances. If I’m being honest, it is a temptation I have to remind myself not to fall into. In the early fall, when many of my friends headed to Mont Blanc to race UTMB and I headed to… my study cubicle… it was really hard for me to be excited for my friends. But envy is one-upmanship. It is not a great way to build community. It is no way to live. It is forgetful of our common humanity, and it is a terrible way to love and to learn from the people in our lives. In competition, the best gift we have is one another—to strengthen us with companionship, to embolden us with shared goals, and to press us further when we think we have given our all.

I won’t let comparison steal my joy. It doesn’t cost me anything to celebrate the excellences of other people because the only thing I can actually control is whether or not I bring my best performance. Furthermore, I physically cannot race every weekend, and I won’t always perform at my best. But if I make other people’s successes my own delight, I never run out of reasons to celebrate.

A Word to Exemplars

Early Sunday morning, I was running laps at the local track. I was almost done when I heard a light pitter-patter behind me. It was a little boy of maybe seven or eight years, and he was trying to keep up. I slowed down slightly, and we ran together for a few laps. He struggled, I encouraged, and he beamed. His father clapped for us from where he stood along the fence.

In 2012, my exemplars embraced and encouraged me. They were hospitable and patient, and they lived above reproach as competitors and human beings. My exemplars were culture-setters who taught me to define success as something greater than crossing the finish line in first place. They taught me this by modeling it themselves. If you are an exemplar for anyone (and you probably are, even if only for the local seven year old at the track), then this is a call to embrace your role as a culture-setter. When young whippersnappers imitate you, encourage them, and model how to race without self-assertion.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you think of a time where you admired someone else in our running community or the greater world of your life? What qualities about them did you admire? Did that feeling of admiration simply add joy to your life or did it provide something for you to aspire to or emulate?
  • And what about envy? Have you found yourself developing envy for a person in your life?
  • Do you think there’s a way to have healthy competition with your peers in running and life?


  1. Theodore Roosevelt
  2. Onu, D., Kessler, T., & Smith, J.R. “Admiration: A Conceptual Review.” Emotion Review. Vol. 8, No. 3 (July 2016) 218-230.
  3. Zagzebski, L.T. (2015). “Exemplarism and Admiration.” Character: New Directions from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology. p. 256.
  4. Aristotle. Rhetoric. II.X.
  5. Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M, & Pieters, R. (2001). “Why Envy Outperforms Admiration.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37(6) 784–795.
  6. Roberts, R.C. Emotions: An Aid in Moral Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. pp. 264-5.
  7. Kierkegaard, S.K. The Sickness unto Death. Edited and translated by E. Hong & H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. p. 86.
  8. Zagzebski, L.T. (2015). p. 256.

Sabrina Little at the 2017 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. Photo: Drymax Socks/Bob MacGillivray

Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little is a monthly columnist for iRunFar. Sabrina has been writing at the intersection of virtue, character, and sport for the past several years. She has her doctorate in Philosophy from Baylor University and works as an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. Sabrina is a trail and ultrarunner for HOKA and DryMax. She is a 5-time U.S. champion and World silver medalist. She’s previously held American records in the 24-hour and 200k disciplines.