When I started running, I was pretty sure that crossing the 5K off of my bucket list would be enough for me.
I was never athletic, my childhood had been spent tormented because of my lack of athleticism, and my body had never conformed to what I thought an “athlete” needed to look like.
I had plenty of reasons to assume that I could never be a “runner,” and simply huffing and puffing my way through C25K wasn’t enough to break that mental barrier.
“Slow Runners” are Still “Runners”
Over the years, running became more and more a part of my life. I went from 5K to 10K to half then (finally) full marathon distances. I ran more and more events, both local and distant. I started planning “runcations” to get to far-away races.
I listened to running podcasts, subscribed to runners’ publications, kept up on running blogs (and eventually started my own!).
Can I Think of Myself as a Runner?
Still, I had lingering guilt calling myself (even inside my own mind) a “runner.” “Runners” were fast, I thought. They were gazelle-like and slender, they could easily whip out a sub-10 minute mile or aspire to a Boston Qualifying time.
I wasn’t any of these things, and I certainly didn’t have those feats in me (even in my aspirational projections)… how could I justify telling people I was a “runner” if I couldn’t prove myself in any of those ways?
The things I could do, reliably continue to shuffle along a set track for many miles, weren’t particularly extraordinary. Plenty of people who don’t consider themselves “runners” could probably out-sprint me, so calling myself a “runner” just because I went running on the regular seemed false somehow.
It was like there was some imaginary “runner test” I was afraid I’d fail if someone challenged me on my “runner-ness.”
It wasn’t until I was deep into marathon training for my first 26.2, regularly waking up at 4 and 5 AM to beat the heat for 16+ miles, that I came to the mind-bending though entirely logical conclusion that this was ridiculous.
My wall was bejeweled with race medals. I had been running regularly for two plus years. I had a special app to track the mileage on my running shoes (two different pairs in rotation at any given time). I planned my weekends around my long run. If I wasn’t a “runner,” then who was?
Can I Tell Others That I Am a Runner?
And yet, coming to this realization wasn’t the end of my running identity crisis. It still took a lot of courage to tell people “I’m a runner.” When I first started doing it, I noticed two things:
- That the assumption of runner = speed demon was shared by those around me
- That shared assumption worked its own alchemy
Those who weren’t runners themselves instantly assumed I was fast, and that since I live near to Boston I would soon be running the Boston Marathon.
Those who were runners either regaled me with tales of their sub-four hour marathon triumph last year or invited me out running with them and their speedy friends (“we’ll take it easy and just do 10-minute miles for the first few, then put in some speed later”).
Just because I had come to the conclusion in my own mind that I was a “runner” didn’t mean these conversations weren’t difficult. I continually re-examined my own logic, returning to my runner affirmations again and again. Lucky for me, it’s hard to argue with a wall full of finisher medals once you’ve seen them for what they are.
Back of the Packers
There was another group of people I encountered in my runner journey. Those who would dart their gaze side to side and say something like “Oh, I run too, but I could never be a runner.”
To these folks, I always asked “What do you mean?” They would, invariably, reply: “I’m just not fast enough.”
Somehow, it’s simpler to spot-check the logic of this argument when someone else says it. It’s much easier to tell that person the truth than it was to accept the truth myself:
If you run habitually, no matter how fast, no matter how often, no matter how many race medals you’ve earned, you’re a “runner” by definition.
Sometimes people argue with me, tell me that they are just so slow (“Well, how slow?” “Oh…. It’s tough for me to break a 12 minute mile, even when I’m going fast.” “That’s great! My first marathon I ran at a 13.5 minute/mile pace.” “Wait, you ran a marathon?” “Yea, slowly.”), or tell me that they take walk breaks now and again (“I mean, I finished the half marathon, but I walked for a minute every five minutes so I’m not really a runner”), or some other variation on the theme.
Us back-of-packers are so nervous that someone will kick us out of the “running club” that we often never pluck up the courage to wear our club shirts proudly.
The Bottom Line
I don’t think there’s a need to qualify “runner,” and that’s part of what makes the sport great.
The bottom line is this: statistically, most of us will never BQ. Most of us will never finish on a podium. Most of us will never make it to the Olympics. Since that’s the case, why are we so worried about where we fall in the non-elite spectrum?
When it comes to being a runner, there’s only one question that matters: do you run?