Thursday, November 17, 2016

So What is a Runner Anyway?

When I first paid attention to Running (with a capital R), it resonated with me because it felt like an attainable goal. You see, I was a scrawny, nerdy kid. Good student in school, but rarely picked in the first or even second wave of teammates during gym class. I *liked* sports, I was after all a rather avid watcher of the NBA and the NFL even before my age hit double digits, and the spectacle of the 1968 and 1972 Olympics impressed me deeply (I was six and ten years old respectively).
Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic Marathon (image source:
I also had a competitive streak - I'd accept most any challenge to a contest with other kids. Race you around the block? Let's see who can jump their bike the farthest off of that broken sidewalk? Race you across the pool! Dodgeball! But the truth is that I wasn't so great at most of the sports and games that everyone played. And no amount of passion nor practice time was going to transform me from a 95 pound Freshman weakling into a starting varsity linebacker.

In running, I happened upon an endeavor in which the amount of time and effort you put into it was nearly exactly matched by measurable improvements. With running - especially on the track - there is an actual, objective way to know if you've gotten better: elapsed time for a specific distance. Hmm.

I wasn't so good in the beginning. In my first race ever - I was a 7th grader - I finished dead last in an 880 yard race on a dry and dusty cinder track. I don't have any record of that event, but I think there were nearly 30 of us on that track that afternoon. I can still recall vividly several memories of that event - most involve seeing other boys just running away from me no matter how hard I pushed myself, and I can almost feel the dry-throated burn of breathing the dust they kicked up in front of me. I was pretty embarrassed, but somewhere down inside (and maybe this is just my innate character) I felt a kind of glowing ember of determination to get better. Each day that I strained a little harder, it paid off - slowly of course, these transitions don't take place overnight.

In fact, I think I can trace the actual transformation to Runner as happening during the spring of 1978, my sophomore year running track in High School. I had pushed myself long enough and hard enough to be able to be a factor in a race. I didn't win anything, mind you, but I was *in* the mix.

Over the next 10 years or so I would strive to reach higher and higher levels of running success. My race performances got faster, my race placing higher. I won my first race as a Senior in High School - what a feeling! I went on to run over 700 races, and spent better part of 3 decades as a self-identified Runner.

Regrettably, in my youthful arrogance I once proclaimed, "If I ever can't run a sub-6 minute mile, I'll quit the sport. I'll never be a JOGGER!"

Well, folks, I'm pretty certain that I'll never run a sub-6 minute mile again. In fact, I'll likely never run a sub-7 minute mile. These days, in my mid-50s with a variety of ailments and mechanical flaws, it's all I can do to get out a few times per week for a few miles each, usually around 8:15-8:30 per mile pace.

Am I still a runner?
Image Source:
I guess George Sheehan would have said no. I don't participate in races anymore. I rarely buy new running shoes. I rarely hang out with Runners.

But I still LOVE the feeling of trotting along on my own two feet, in every kind of weather. A friend recently posted something on social media, referring to people who responded to his running day-after-day with "What do you do when it rains?". His response, "I get wet". Perfect.

Being a runner, or being anything really, as defined ONLY by external sources is a risk to one's own sense of identity. Don't ever let others decide who you really are.

Here's my bottom line: I'm old, I'm slow, I don't race, I don't run every day, and sometimes even a little bit of jogging really hurts ... but I still FEEL like a Runner. We are allowed to decide for ourselves what category we inhabit. From a few decades of experience, and plenty of eating crow, I now confidently feel that I am a Runner, and I am also a Jogger and a Walker and a Cyclist and sometimes even a really clumsy Swimmer.