Who is a runner? My answer to that used to be simple: It’s a person who runs. But not everyone agrees with that definition.
I frequently talk to people who run four or five days a week and say they are not a runner. When I interrogate this a little, it becomes clear they’re comparing themselves to people like me — people who’ve run multiple marathons, who love track work, who run hills because they know the pain is good for them. The implication is that they need to do these other things to really be a runner.
I recently had a date over Zoom with a woman who said exactly this. She runs five days a week, three to five miles at a time, but claims she’s not a runner because she doesn’t do any specific workouts. She just runs.
“That makes you a runner!” I responded.
The beauty of this sport is that she’s a runner and I’m a runner and so are countless other types of runners. Sure, there are elites and sub-elites and weekend warriors, but there are also casual runners and joggers. There are people who only run one day a week — they’re still runners. This sport is a big tent; all are welcome.
There are, of course, substantive differences between how somebody like me approaches the sport and somebody like that woman I met on a dating app. I entered this year with big plans. There was an ultra-relay I was going to run in March, then I was going to spend some time rehabbing a knee injury and working on a plan for the next four years of my running life. I spent last year taking coaching classes and getting my USATF certification and had a plan to start coaching in April — I was going to professionalize my work in the sport. I started writing about running on Medium. Once my knee was better, I was going to build a solid base and then be in incredible shape when I trained for Philadelphia in November and then for Los Angeles in March.
As it did for all of us, 2020 threw all of my plans into disarray. I’m trying to be adaptable, but that’s a struggle.
Instead of any of those things I planned to do this year, I’ve spent most of it struggling with that nagging knee injury, battling anxiety and depression and loneliness, questioning all of my life decisions, and wondering what the hell kind of life I’m living, anyway. My annual mileage is going to be the lowest it’s been since 2016, a year in which I had some injuries but moreover focused on training for a week-long mountain biking trip with my father.
As we get to the end of the year, my knee is getting worse. I don’t know when I’ll be able to run again — and I keep asking myself if I will even bother, once I can. And that brings me back to my initial question: When does a runner stop being a runner?
This sport is my greatest love, but also a recurring antagonist. My entire social life is wrapped up in running — which means that in this pandemic, I never see my friends. They see each other on very small, socially-distanced group runs, and I watch from my apartment on Instagram. Even now, not having run in two months — and having spent those two months struggling mentally and physically, and not taking care of myself as much as I should have— am I still a runner? If I stop running entirely, what happens to my social connections built through running? How will I take care of myself physically and mentally if I stop doing the one physical activity I love the most?
In other words, when your identity is wrapped up in a sport and you can’t participate anymore, who are you?
I suspect that I will indeed start running again once my knee is better. But this identity crisis has gotten me thinking about, well, the identity of a runner. For as long as I continue to wake up with howling pain in my knee, I will continue to ask these questions. But eventually — hopefully — it will be better. At that point, I’m certain the way I run will be different. Maybe I’ll return to joyful, early-morning trail runs and stop worrying so much about speed and racing. But the sport has a big tent, so I know I’ll be a runner.
That also means that even though I’m not running now, I’m still a runner.