Not a Real Runner

We’ve all heard of imposter syndrome — the feeling of being exposed as a fraud, of everyone finally realizing you don’t know what you’re doing.

In nine days, I’ll be running my first marathon. I’ve been training for this race since January. As of today, nineteen weeks of a 20-week training block are complete, and I’ve got a taper week ahead to rest up. On paper, I’m 1oo% prepared. But in my head, I’m not going to finish, because I’m not a real runner.

My favourite trail for fake running.

“I just run for fun,” I tell people. It’s true: it’s a hobby. I started running about 10 years ago and have done it pretty regularly ever since. Anywhere from three to five times a week, I lace up my sneakers, pop in my earbuds, and hit the pavement or the treadmill, depending on the weather.

Sometimes I rush to finish five kilometres before dinner, or before it gets dark. Sometimes I shuffle along for hours and come home covered in salt and sweat. Some runs are glorious and I feel like I could keep going all day. Sometimes I hate every single step.

I don’t feel like a real runner.

But what makes a real runner? That’s what I can’t figure out.

Is it the number of medals you’ve earned? The number of races you’ve completed? Are you a real runner when you’re able to hit eight-minute miles, or seven-minute miles, or four-minute miles? Does your weekly mileage make you a real runner, or owning expensive gear, or being sponsored by an apparel company?

In 10 years, I’ve completed 10 races. I’ve gotten faster, but I wouldn’t call myself fast. I’ve spent a lot of money on the sport. I had a stint in physiotherapy with a running-related overuse injury. Honestly, that was probably when I felt the most like a “real” runner. I was also miserable, because I couldn’t run.

This marathon training block has been five months long. Five months of four weekly runs: hills, speed work, tempo runs, intervals, and the big kahuna, the Sunday long run. Two Sundays ago, I ran 32 kilometres, the longest distance of my life. I came home, showered, and went online to register for the full marathon. Even as I submitted my payment info, I felt like I was throwing the $98 registration fee away. Only real runners run marathons.

When I show up at the marathon start line next Sunday, I will have 734 kilometres’ worth of training under my belt. I will have hours’ worth of research about nutrition, hydration, stride, and posture. I’ll be wearing $500 worth of running gear, and I’ll look like an idiot. I will have inspirational messages written on my arms for when I hit the wall and feel like dropping out, and a long playlist carefully curated to keep me moving.

And yet, I won’t feel like I belong at that start line. Even though I’ve done the work and followed my training plan to a T. Even though I’ve fueled up properly with a pasta dinner the night before and a sesame seed bagel with peanut butter and a banana that morning, consumed precisely three hours before go time, my tried-and-true race day ritual that’s never let me down. Even though I’m wearing the dorky compression socks and the even dorkier hydration belt. I’ll be surrounded by real runners, and they’re going to look at me and just know they’ve got an imposter in their midst.

Will I finally feel like a real runner when (if?) I make it across the finish line? I suspect not. Maybe that’s why I continue to do it.

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