I was interviewed for an article the other day and I was asked, ‘When did you start calling yourself a runner?’ I know I’m most certainly a runner now, it’s a big part of my identity and I have no hesitation in using the runner label but at what point did that happen? I have conversations with people all the time about running and so many of them say things like, ‘Well, I’m not a real runner, I just like to run a bit’ or ‘I’m not really a runner, I’m very slow.’
I can completely identify with those phrases because I’ve been there. It was a VERY long time before I felt justified to call myself a runner. What was stopping me? Qualifications I had conjured up in my head. Here are four of them followed by my running epiphany,
1. Real runners look like runners
When I started running, thirteen years ago, I had an image in my head of what a runner looked like. Lean, speedy and wearing short shorts. Where had this picture come from? I’m not sure. I think partly from watching the London Marathon on TV in the 1980s (my first exposure to running) and more latterly from seeing the runners from the local clubs line up at the village annual 10k race. I was a million miles away from that, plodding along in my tracksuit trousers and baggy t-shirt feeling my cellulite wobble. I didn’t start out thinking I would ever be or look like ‘a runner’.
2. Real runners race
To be a runner I thought you had to race. My jaunts round the country lanes didn’t elevate me to runner status in my mind. I decided to enter some events. My first race was the village 10k. It’s a hard, hilly race. Having finished it, I was disappointed I didn’t feel like a runner. I was a woman who came second to last in a 10k once. I progressed from that 10k to a half and then full marathon. Surely after a marathon I would be able to call myself a runner? You’d have thought so. But it was only a charity place. It wasn’t a fast time. I think I might have walked a bit. I might never do another one. Anyone can do one if they really want to. Nope, that didn’t qualify me in my eyes.
3. Real runners love running
I liked running, occasionally I loved it but some of the time I hated it. Sometimes I just didn’t want to go. I couldn’t get myself out from under that warm duvet and into the freezing cold. I’d look out of the window and see the horizontal rain and decide against putting on my trainers and sprint to the kettle instead. How could I call myself a runner if I didn’t enjoy it and would turn down endless opportunities to run? Real runners wouldn’t do that, they’d spring into action with every chance they could grab to do the thing they loved surely?
4. Real runners speak running
Running brings a whole new language. How could I call myself a runner if I didn’t know what a tempo run, a negative split or DOMS was? It seemed clear to me that if you didn’t speak the language then you weren’t a real runner. If you weren’t figuring out how to replenish your glycogen stores after a run or discussing how to increase your VO2 max then obviously you couldn’t add running to your CV.
My running epiphany
Gradually running became my main hobby. Family and friends would buy me running-related gifts for Christmas and birthdays. Clearly other people saw me as a runner long before I did. ‘Oh that’s Juliet, she’s a runner’. Why did I have such a big problem in being able to adopt that identity myself?
A good few years after I started running I remember being in the shower after a run one day and realising that I was a runner. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I suddenly felt that, I just knew that I was. Running was changing me – physically and mentally. I had begun to really understand the positive effects that running had on me. I used running to help me feel good and to get the most out of life. A life without running wasn’t appealing. I wasn’t lean and speedy, my shorts weren’t that short. I only raced occasionally, sometimes I really hated running and I still didn’t understand VO2 max but I was a runner.
It was most definitely a mental switch. A belief in myself. A recognition that I could take a challenge, break it down and work through to success. It didn’t matter whether that challenge was in running or in life. Running had given me something that I didn’t have before. I had a secret weapon and an unspoken power that I could use, that made life better, easier. I would see someone else running in the opposite direction and give a nod, I knew what they were feeling, I belonged.
I realised that running was not about how I looked, how fast or often I ran or whether I raced. Runner wasn’t a title I had to earn in some way. I didn’t need to prove anything to myself or others. It was much deeper that that and more simple and accessible too. For me it’s a relationship. Sometimes a good one, sometimes troubled. I’d stuck at it long enough to develop a respect for it, an awareness of its power in my life and to not want to be without it. It wasn’t even the running itself, it was what running brought to my life. Fundamentally life was changed and I looked at the world and at myself through different eyes.
I was a runner.
I am a runner.
I would love to hear your opinion on this. Do you identify? Do you struggle to call yourself a runner? When did you accept that title?
You can read more about my running journey and what I’ve learnt along the way in my new book Run Well: Essential health questions and answers for runners. Published by Bloomsbury and available to buy now.