Defining what it means to be a “Runner”

Over the past few months, I’ve been pondering the question of what it means to call oneself a “runner”. When I started training for my first marathon in 2005, I was often asked for how long I’d been a runner, to which I often responded  with laughter.  Runner?!  Me?!   Without fail, I used to answer that I wasn’t actually a “real” runner – I just played one on television. In my mind, runners were a strange breed of animal and it was not one to which I felt I belonged. Runners had their own way of dressing (all spandex, all the time), their own language (IT bands, gluteus maximus, piriformis, VMOs!) and their own social norms (talking about bodily functions was acceptable under all circumstances, as was getting into weird pseudo-sexual stretching positions with complete strangers). No, I may have been temporarily moonlighting as a runner, but there was no way I was going to call myself one.  Runners were part of this bizarre cult of uber-fit human beings and I was quite happy to stay out of it.

I honestly can’t pinpoint when this changed and when I started to self-identify as a runner. Maybe it was when I was out on a run one day, lost in thought on the trails in British Columbia, warming my face from the sunbeams poking through the tree canopy above. Or maybe it was when I completed my first ultramarathon in Vietnam and crossed the finish line puffy-eyed, sobbing, and overwhelmed with the realization that I’d found my inner warrior.  Perhaps it was when I learned whether I over-pronated or under-pronated and how that affected the rest of my body mechanics.  I’m not too sure. All I know is that being a runner is now a permanent part of my identity and that is something that won’t change whether I’m 31 or 91 years old, weighing 120 pounds or 160 pounds, racing 10 times a year or not at all.

So what is it that defines a runner? I recently started pondering this question again after watching my Dad’s experience of venturing into the running world. Dad has always been very athletic (and much more coordinated than his daughter, unfortunately for me and my scarred knees), having been a skier, sailor, water skier, and gym-goer through various stages of his life… but thanks to some old knee injuries, running never made an appearance on his sports agenda. That is, until this year. After I came back home from Afghanistan, I was blown away when Dad asked me to go on a run.  Trying not to show too much enthusiasm (you scare people away from the cult when you’re too eager), I casually agreed to join him on a 30 minute jog at the cottage. Having survived the first one, we went out on another. And then another. Could this really be happening?? I thought. My Dad is becoming a runner!!!

After my visit home, Dad started asking me for advice on running shoes. Knowing that he was still wearing the same pairs of sneakers that he bought when he was about 18 years old, I knew this was a huge move. Yes! I thought. We’ve got a new recruit!  It was hard not to hide my excitement at seeing him start to get into the sport. No, he wasn’t running marathons, but it was obvious that he was getting enjoyment out of the occasional 30 minute jog at the cottage, and it was awesome to hear about. I couldn’t have been more proud of him.

When I returned home from Hong Kong last month, sad, broken and saturated in midnight gin and tonics, the only thing that got me off the floor and out of the house was the chance to go running with Dad on his 59th birthday.  Mom and Dad were supposed to be in Bermuda on his birthday, but decided to cancel their trip in order to take care of the puddle-formerly-known-as-their-daughter. Yup, I felt horribly guilty. While I knew I wouldn’t be able to make up for a lost Bermuda trip, I thought the least I could do was introduce Dad to one of my favourite trails.

We headed out on his birthday morning to Charleston Lake Provincial Park, which is less than 10 km from the cottage. My Dad had never really run on trails before, only road, but I knew he would love it – and he did. Despite having never broken the 30 minute mark, Dad blasted through 60 minutes of serious trail running without a single complaint. In fact, all I saw was a giant smile when I looked back to see him dancing over tree roots and shuffling through fallen maple leaves. It was awesome.

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Dad commented to me at some point how strange it was that the neighbours had started referring to him as a “runner”. He laughed and said no, he may run sometimes, but he certainly wouldn’t consider himself a runner.  I smiled inwardly, thinking of how much he sounded like me a few years ago…

So what does it mean to be a runner? The dictionary will  tell you, rather unhelpfully, that a runner is someone who runs. I think that is the worst definition possible. If I stop running because I’m injured, do I cease to be a runner? Certainly not. When I ran six days a week training for a marathon and hated every minute of it, was I a runner? No.

I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about this, and here’s what I’ve come up with…

Being a runner is not about:

  • The number of miles you run or the number of races you finish
  • Being the fastest, the strongest or the best
  • Knowing the anatomical names of every leg muscle and tendon
  • Training schedules, protein powders or sports gels
  • Wearing spandex, body lube or knee-high compression socks
  • Having 20 pairs of shoes in the closet (okay I do), buying the latest Salomon backpack, or the strongest headtorch on the market
  • Reducing body fat, losing weight, or following special diets
  • Becoming part of the ‘cult’ of weird runners
  • Loving every single run you go on

But being a runner is about:

  • Taking some time to reconnect with your body
  • Letting yourself struggle, fail, achieve, and overcome the limits you set for yourself
  • Getting through the hard runs, but not letting it quash your desire to keep searching for the good runs
  • Enjoying seeing where your feet take you, whether that is for 20 minutes or 20 hours
  • Trying and sometimes failing
  • Trying and sometimes surprising yourself
  • Appreciating the amazing power of the human body
  • Simply giving it a go, and enjoying it

When I asked my Dad if I could mention him in this post about “what it means to be a runner”, he agreed on the condition that I didn’t put him in the “runner” category… But I have to say, sorry Dad, I think you’re one of us. I saw the look on your face on your birthday, and it screamed runner in neon lights 🙂

I don’t always love running. I don’t always want to go running. There is this strange misconception that runners crave it 24/7… and it really isn’t true. Everyone has lazy days, down days, and hard days. But if you ever get that little fire inside of you that makes you want to get outside and allow your feet to propel you forward, I say that puts you into dangerous ‘runner’ territory.  The only thing that stopped me from calling myself a “runner” in the past was the thought that I would then be judged as a runner, which I clearly didn’t feel I lived up to… but I say, who cares. I can be a bad runner or a good runner, but the only thing that determines whether I define myself as one is whether I get something out of it… and my god, do I ever.

What does being a runner mean to you? Or if you aren’t a runner, what do you think being a runner means?

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My four weeks in France come to an end tomorrow. It is hard to believe. These french lessons have been incredible for my mind and soul, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have come here.  I’ve always wanted to get my french back, and while I can’t claim to be bilingual yet, I’m certainly on my way to keeping French Stephanie as a part of my permanent identity too!! Thank you for my wonderful visitors from England, Dubai and Switzerland, and to my fabulous new French-American friend for life. What an incredible month. Off to London to reconnect with friends and then Norway this weekend for my next course in protection work… Until then – a bientot!!

13 Comments »

  1. What a great read. I started jotting my own thoughts down many weeks ago, but never got round to finishing anything.

    Everybody is ‘a runner’ for different reasons, they run for motivations that are unique to their personalities, competitiveness, drive and ambition. Some run to win and be better than others, some run to stay fit and healthy, some love it, and some hate it.

    Running for me, when I break it down, is simply a feeling – a mindset and sense of connection with myself, with other people, and with the outdoor world that takes me away from the distractions of daily life.

    When I’m out on the trails, I don’t have to answer emails, listen to people talk ‘at’ me, hear any construction sounds or listen to traffic. It’s the one time during the day where I can really focus, even if it’s just on my breathing, the rhythm of my stride or the circle of light from my headlamp at night. I’ve even stopped listening to music when I run and instead have a new found appreciation for the sound of my feet tapping the trails while the birds sing and the wind blows. Being out there makes me feel more human than just about anything else in my life, and along the way it helps me stay balanced in a world that is increasingly lacking any.

    So, there’s that side, but there’s also the part of me that strives to learn what my limits are and what my body and mind are capable of.

    When the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi investigated people’s optimal experiences, he found that, “Contrary to what we usually believe … the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

    That sounds like running to me.

  2. What a great read. I started jotting my own thoughts down many weeks ago, but never got round to finishing anything.

    Everybody is ‘a runner’ for different reasons, they run for motivations that are unique to their personalities, competitiveness, drive and ambition. Some run to win and be better than others, some run to stay fit and healthy, some love it, and some hate it.

    Running for me, when I break it down, is simply a feeling – a mindset and sense of connection with myself, with other people, and with the outdoor world that takes me away from the distractions of daily life.

    When I’m out on the trails, I don’t have to answer emails, listen to people talk ‘at’ me, hear any construction sounds or listen to traffic. It’s the one time during the day where I can really focus, even if it’s just on my breathing, the rhythm of my stride or the circle of light from my headlamp at night. I’ve even stopped listening to music when I run and instead have a new found appreciation for the sound of my feet tapping the trails while the birds sing and the wind blows. Being out there makes me feel more human than just about anything else in my life, and along the way it helps me stay balanced in a world that is increasingly lacking any.

    So, there’s that side, but there’s also the part of me that strives to learn what my limits are and what my body and mind are capable of.

    When psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi investigated people’s optimal experiences, he found that, “Contrary to what we usually believe … the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

    That sounds like running to me.

  3. We spend so much time trying to define ourselves by what we do that we often forget to just be what we are. Human beings. Running is limbic. It is engrained in our genes. Once you learn this truth about running or any other aspect of being human, you don’t spend time trying to become a thing or define yourself as this or that, you simply stop getting in the way of the things that already are.

    • Hi Steve, thanks for the insight! My Dad has often repeated to me a quote that says at some point we become the sum of our actions….perhaps a good lesson to follow in running and in life 🙂

  4. Stephanie: Greetings from Montreal. . .. You truly live the life fantastic and lead your life your way!! i hope we get a chance to cross paths and share a trail together sometime. 🙂 All the best on your next adventure!

    Bruce

  5. Yes. When your dad decided he was going to replace his running shoes he used to wear when he was 18 …THAT was the defining moment of being a runner! Bully for him!

  6. “the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” – I COULDN’T HELP BUT AGREE.

    I think we all need challenges in our life once in a while to test our thinking. Our abilities to look beyond our comfort zone. Keep on writing. I look forward to more posts. Cheerio.

    • I think I need to do a new blog post around this quote. It is awesome! Not everything that is difficult is worthwhile and not everything worthwhile is difficult… but accomplishing something that is both is an unbeatable feeling.

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