What does it really mean to be a "runner?"

Running season is here! Well, at least for me. There are those who run all year long—rain, shine, or snow—and then there are those of us who take a little thawing from the winter to tie up our laces and start training for the 5K. Or the half-marathon. Or the marathon. And with it comes the aches, the pains—and, if you’re anything like me, the body image anxiety.

Not long ago I was on a run in preparation for a half-marathon. Afterward, I popped open the back gate of my car and let myself collapse onto the edge. I was utterly exhausted; my knees and feet were screaming. I had just run twelve miles—my longest run yet in my training. In the days leading up to this run, I had actually been excited for the challenge.

What I felt now, however, was total devastation. At mile eight, I knew I wasn’t going to make my goal for my finishing time. That’s when it began. A loud and continuous stream of thoughts that all echoed the same idea: You are not an athlete. You are not a runner. You don’t look like it. And everyone knows it.

As a child I was the kid who was always picked last for every team, the kid who was the slowest in every sport, and the kid who could never finish the assigned laps before the PE period was over. In grade school I once asked my teacher how to get rid of a side stitch, and she told me it would go away when I got in shape (I now know this wasn’t just mean, but it was also not true). These memories and the feelings they provoke have stored themselves in the deepest fibers of my muscles. They lie dormant and wait for me to run again. When I do, they free themselves and remind me of the times I’ve failed before—of the “proof” that I am not enough. I am not an athlete.

At times these thoughts and memories are so loud and so powerful that I physically stop running. My body actually stops moving from the sheer frustration and disappointment that I have for myself. What I’ve begun to realize, though, is that if I give attention to these dark thoughts and memories, they gain strength and drain me of my power.

As I drove home from this training run, I started thinking of the whole thing as a failure. I began imagining the pace keeper cart picking me up halfway through the race. In my mind, I saw myself as an impostor—not a real athlete, not a real runner.

This certainly wasn’t the first time I had felt that prick of just not being a runner. I ate a plant-based diet 80 percent of the time, I ran fifteen miles or more per week, and at work I even had a standing desk. In spite of these healthy habits, I also had a BMI that categorized me as overweight for my height. Despite all my training, I felt convinced that my size 12 body disqualified me from being an athlete. When I saw other runners—especially another female runner—they all seemed to run with the grace and elegance of a gazelle. I began to think of them as running with a natural-born ease I could never achieve. I was tempted to feel bitter, as though when they passed me they were purposefully trying to make me feel lesser.

Back on my long run, I was so focused on missing my time goal that I couldn’t see the accomplishment of running twelve miles. No, I didn’t run it at a pace of eight minutes per mile—I didn’t even run it at a pace of twelve minutes per mile—but I did run it. My body had never run that far or that long before, and I had actually survived to tell about it. The reality was that I was training for a race, I was eating a runner’s diet, and most importantly, I was running. By just about every measure imaginable, I was, in fact, a runner.

I realized that the women I so envied had likely worked very hard to be able to run so swiftly and smoothly. Like me, they had achievements and failures—and ugly inner voices that told them they weren’t good enough or athletic enough, too. These unkind thoughts about ourselves can too quickly grow into unkind (and undeserved) thoughts about others. I don’t need this; she doesn’t need this; none of us do.

On the day of my race, I was surprised both by how focused and how terrified I was. I pictured myself at the starting line surrounded by athletes with thin bodies of pure muscle who were at least seven feet tall. Without even meaning to, I had imagined that this race would be filled with only gold-medal-winning Olympians (most half-marathons are, right?). I lined up with my pace group, and then it was time—the gun went off and I began to run. After about a mile I started to notice the people around me. Everyone looked different, and virtually no one looked like an Olympic athlete. There were runners who were taller, shorter, bigger, thinner, leggier, and older than me (I even saw a man in his late eighties, and, yes, he did pass me).

For all the time I had spent thinking about this race, I never once imagined that everyone would look so normal. Everyone was a runner. Everyone was an athlete. Everyone was unique. I finished the race with a bouquet of flowers from my husband, a swanky finisher’s medal, and a deep understanding of just how powerful—and athletic—my body truly is. I just ran a half-marathon on the ground, but I earned so much more than that accomplishment. In my journey of self-perception and body image, I ran an Olympic marathon.

Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan