This topic has been argued many times, even among my friends. I guess it’s my turn because the question has been swimming around in my head lately. Being on the injured list all summer has had me wondering more than once if I was still a runner. If you take 3 months off and someone asks what you like to do, it feels weird to say, “Oh, I’m a runner.” So I have been adding, “I’m injured right now though.” Seems silly that I feel compelled to tack that on.
A nice couple I met in the pool this summer were chatting me up at o’dark thirty one morning before starting laps. It went something like,
“Hi, I’m Dave and this is my wife Nancy.”
“Hi. I’m Laura. I see you guys here often. Do you swim every day?”
“Most days. Yeah. How about you? You like this pool?”
“No, I don’t swim everyday. I do like it here. I’ve tried a couple open water swims this summer too.”
“Oh, you like that better?
“No, I like long distance runner better. But I’m injured right now, hence the swimming.”
“Oh! Do you run marathons?”
“Yes. Or longer.”
“Wow, you’re a real runner then.”
“Yes, I am.”
I said yes not because I run marathons, but because that’s what my heart loves to do. Thankfully, we all swam off to do laps and I didn’t have to talk any further about how much I really missed it while the feel of the water on my face helped take away the need to cry. At that point in my recovery, I wasn’t sure how long I would be out of commission. I felt like a runner inside, but my body wasn’t behaving like one.
The question of “real runner” came up again recently in an RMR meeting. I sat with an athletic club director who does all kinds of sports, including running, my business partner, Michelle, who is new to running and a friend Tricia, who has been a runner long before I took it up. At one point Michelle said something about me being a “serious runner”, having run a 50K. The athletic club director’s eyebrows went up and he nodded in recognition of the accomplishment. The funny thing was, I felt like the phony because I hadn’t been running as long as Tricia had. She doesn’t run marathons, but she’s been in love with it for much longer than I have. I looked at Michelle and felt jealous of all the firsts she gets to have; first runners’ high, first 5K, first running group, first Gu (well, maybe I’m not jealous about that.). All of those feelings and vibes circled the room in less than a minute. It seems there are well-defined lines, but why? And defined by whom? Is it our own lack of confidence or never-ending need to compare ourselves to others? Or does it just come from our want to improve ourselves?
And as people look up to me, I look up to others. I get totally star struck with the famous and the fast. When I picked up my packet for the Siskiyou Outback race at the Rogue Valley Runners store in Ashland, I overheard folks talking about the course. I leaned in a bit to listen, then a tall guy asked me if I was running tomorrow. When I said yes, he proceeded to tell me about the course and excitedly pointed to highlights on the map. I was listening for about 10 seconds when I realized it was Hal Koerner. (You know, one of the top 10 ultra runners in North America, two-time winner of Western States 100.) From then on, I had no idea what he was saying. I think I nodded a few times. It was hard to say in that moment that I felt like a “real runner” standing next to him even though I was about to embark on my longest race to date.
After much thought, and, as corny as it sounds, I’m going to say that if you feel like a runner in your heart, then you are one, regardless of pace, distance, medals or mileage. I say this because my mind keeps going back to a conversation I had with an acquaintance who manages an indoor pool. I saw him at a coffee house a few years ago, but the short conversation stuck with me. I had just finished a long, early morning run. He was grabbing coffee on his way to work. He asked if I ran often and if I was in training. I asked him if he was a runner too. He said he had been a runner for years and years, but very bad knees turned him into a swimmer and a swim coach. He talked about distance running and races he’d done. The look in his eyes and sadness in his voice made me think an old friend had died. And, like hearing that kind of news, there’s nothing I could have said to make him feel better. In his heart he was a runner. There was no arguing that.