February 3, 2014

Am I a Runner? (From my Kalamazoo Farewell.)

Am I a runner?

This wasn’t a thought that I had really developed before, but there was the question, all the same. The first time that I’d ever heard of someone making a differentiation between Running and Jogging was during a conversation with a man I’d briefly dated, a Runner by any definition of the term. It was during a discussion about marathon times (me trying desperately to mask mine, he freshly proud of his Boston qualifying time) that he brought up “The 5 Hour Marathoner”.  That’s not running, he’d said, it’s jogging; it’s not in the same category as what I do.  I uncomfortably brushed the comment off until I kept meeting people at the store, buying their first pairs of shoes, full of nervousness and questions, and I’d ask them, “How much do you run?” Invariably, these women — and it was almost always women — would flutter their hands at me and sigh, “Oh, no, I’m not a Runner. I Jog.” If I pried, I’d find out that they were just beginning 5k training with groups of women at work, lunch break office runners with t-shirts thrown on over pleated black pants, arms pumping as they hoof it around the park. They’d always downplay their training – “I can’t even say I jog. I’m more of a walker who accidentally and sporadically finds herself running and can’t figure out how to slow down gracefully.” I’d shake my head and laugh with them and offer my encouragement. We’ve all started out the same way, I'd say. But this past weekend was the first time I’d put any real thought into our need to make a distinction between the two.

Saturday morning was the Borgess Half Marathon and 5k, and I put on my rain gear, grabbed my bike and rode out to cheer on the community I’ve had the pleasure of serving for two years. As I stood in the parking lot of Mackenzie’s Bakery, screaming out names of runners in between longs draws of coffee and a cranberry bran muffin, the man standing next to me marveled at how many people I seemed to know. ”I thought I knew a lot of runners, but you’ve called out the name of almost every person who’s come by! Who are you?” Before I could swallow my muffin, a man went racing past and screamed, “You sold me my shoes! They’re awesome!” and was gone in an instant. The man next to me nodded his head and said merely, “Ah. 
You work at Gazelle,” and turned back to the race, smiling. The middle of the pack was coming up, and I jumped on my bike after a few more hoots of encouragement and tried to track down my runners. After several failed attempts to catch them at different points, I gave up and rode back to where the race doubled back on itself before heading down Riverview. There I found two overwhelmed volunteers trying desperately to supply GU to the throngs of runners streaming past. After failed passes they’d fling the GU after the runners in a futile attempt to fulfill their role, but at this point, most of the runners – fast, front of the pack, don’t-want-nor-need-to-slow-down-for-no-carbs runners – didn’t need anything. Then the crowds coming by picked up, and I grabbed handfuls of Gu and started hollering my encouragement. I was supposed to ride to the finish. If I stayed much longer, I’d miss my friends crossing the finish line. But as the 9-9:30 minute milers passed by and we got into the 10:00′s, I was too caught up in the race to leave. Here, in the thinning out rush of runners, were the people who needed that encouragement the most. Here were the pale determined faces, hunched shoulders and limping legs, form sloppy from exhaustion. Jog: A series of disconnected motions. Well, that seemed to fit in some instances here, but not in its second definition: to run at a leisurely, slow pace. Ask anyone moving past you, and if they had the energy, they would laugh in your face if you asked if this was leisurely. 

And that’s when I saw her.

She was someone I had helped with shoes within my first few months on the job. I’d watched her go from I’d-jog-but-it-makes-me-convulse-until-I-puke to her first 5k, her first 5k through winter training, winter training through Summer Safari, and suddenly this woman had dropped a width from her shoes, two sizes in clothing, and built such calf muscles they could have rivaled the colosseum in structural strength. She never became fast but she grew graceful and confident, and I had ridden with her on her 20 mile runs as she kept pace for hours. Now here she was, striding past me with a grin and a wave. I felt so much pride – for her strength, for what I’ve done to strengthen others, and for the people who have given up that quiet dismissal to claim the title of Runner. Being a runner isn’t about speed or skill for most. It’s about determination, overcoming frustration, the mental unraveling the first time they hit that distance they don’t think they can finish, and then running anyway. It’s running into obstacles, and running into oneself, literally and metaphorically, the emptying of ourselves into something greater.

I guess this is my good bye to the community I’ve served and taught and laughed with and learned from for two years. In one week, Seattle will be my home and I’ll have to learn all over again the faces and names and stories of the runners in my new community. What I know I can count on is their consistency of spirit.

Now that’s a runner. 


  1. I just discovered your blog from a friend who posted it on Facebook. Thank you! Thank you for writing this blog post in particular (as it is the first, and only one I've read so far, but plan to read more). 3 years ago I began training for a half marathon. I have never felt more amazing physically and mentally than when I was running everyday. Race day came and I unfortunately was not able to go even though I had been training for months. The hype of training for a race came and went with race day and I let every excuse put running off until "tomorrow" and eventually I was no longer a runner. About a month ago I got back into training again and up until reading this post I would have been one of those women who downplays running. My usual line is "I pretend to be a runner". I do not run fast and at the moment am not running terribly far therefore I cannot call myself a runner. What a silly thing to think. Thank you for saying "(it's) their consistency of spirit… now that's a runner." That resonates with me. I do not have to qualify for the Boston Marathon to be a runner. I simply have to run, even if it is at a slow pace or for a short distance. Looking forward to reading more of your blogs. - Tawny

    1. Right on, Tawny! I'm actually struggling to reclaim my runner spirit after a long and discouraging illness, and so it feels incredibly heartening to hear my words reflected back by you. You're right, we ARE runners. It's in our hearts, and I know that it's in my blood.

      Keep it up, and thank you for the kind words! Happy trails, Tawny!!


I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences!