This is a question that new runners often ask. They lament that they are too slow, or too awkward, or plod too loudly when they start out. They believe that you must run a certain way, look a certain way, or dress a certain way in order to be considered a runner. No matter what their pace, they all believe they are slow.
In a way, they are right. Running is natural, but it can also be awkward for those who have spent a great deal of time sitting rather than communing with their limbs and lungs. Beginners often do plod, quite loudly, because they are attempting to run faster or longer than they are used to; tired legs are rarely quiet legs – even less so when the body that those legs are attached to is (quite literally) running on fumes.
But what running teaches you, if you stick with it, is that there are no fixed definitions. We are all slow at the beginning because we all have room to improve. Some have more room to improve, some have more will and capacity to improve, but all runners improve if they stick with it. Runners who have been running for a longer period of time “look” more like runners because their bodies have had the time to adapt to this odd and wonderful pursuit and determine what works and what is more efficient for that particular body – they are no longer fighting it, but joining it.
What running teaches you, is that is it all in your head. Your fast is my slow, and my slow is her fast. My body feels zen-like on some runs and awkward on others, like it’s fighting me the whole way – yet the onlooker cannot identify any discernible difference.
The definition of a runner, much like a runner, is not static – it is dynamic and ever-evolving. In middle school I defined a runner as a person who was pretty much anyone other than me and my awkward friends who forged notes and feigned injury to get out of running the mile in gym class. In high school I defined it as those who played sports or ran for one of the school’s teams, even if they “just” jumped over a single, towering poll or chucked heavy things across a field. In college I defined it as anyone who got out the door and went for a run.
Two years ago I defined myself as a runner, but with an asterisk. Yes, I ran, but neither well nor fast. Nor consistently. Nor at length without stopping to walk.
Today I define myself as a runner, period. Why the change? Because in order to appreciate what a runner is, one must go through the process of becoming a runner. To truly understand what defines a runner, one must test out all theories before settling on one.
I entered 2014 as a runner*, but leave 2014 as a runner. One year ago I was coming back from my first real running injury (that must mean I’m a real runner, right??) but wasn’t yet allowed to run. I grew agitated that I wasn’t allowed to run. I desired to run like I used to desire ice cream and a sofa. I built myself up in the gym and on the roads, tackling milestone after milestone. 3 miles? No prob. 4 miles? Now we’re getting serious… 10k? Really need to train just to get through it.
Getting dressed the morning of the Army Ten Miler this October, putting on the same shirt, compression pants, and shoes I’d run in all summer, I looked in the mirror – I looked like a runner. I ran a 10 miler and a half marathon in the same week – I felt like a runner. A training partner asked me to pace her through her first half marathon, a request I happily obliged, and a distance which felt easy – someone else believed I was a runner.
Two and a half years ago when I began running again after b-school, I couldn’t even run .15 mi when I set out for my first training run. Ouch. Yet, I didn’t second guess my resolve to run 13.1 miles four months later. This morning I voluntarily left my cozy, warm bed at 5:30am, got dressed, wandered out into the 28 degree darkness, and went out with my training group for a six mile run. I barely batted an eye at the distance (except for the chilled breeze which was causing them to water). I didn’t try to keep up with others, outpace others, or run anyone else’s run – I knew my cruise pace, I knew how this role played into my goal, I ran my run. This distance barely seemed worthy of attention. It seemed boring. That made me realize – I am a runner.
Looking back, I now know I was always a runner. But I had no way of knowing that without going through the journey.