What makes a “real” runner (and why I’m not one)

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Joe waits for the results for his favorite distance. Photo by Tina Holmes

I don’t consider myself a “real” runner. That might sound strange coming from someone whose identity for almost 35 years has been largely tied to running. I’ve met most of my friends through running, what little notoriety I have is because I’m a runner, and most of my personal triumphs, adventures, and misadventures are running-related. Not to mention the fact that I own over 500 race shirts! But am I a “real” runner? Not “really”.

First a little biographical background: I was always an active kid, and I did more than my share of running around, playing catch, and jumping off dunes. My first organized sport was soccer, beginning in 4th grade, and I have always been drawn more toward team sports, playing a lot of basketball too.

I spent a year in England in 7th grade while my dad was on sabbatical, and at the end of every P.E. class, we were expected to run a loop around campus as a cool down.  These weekly runs soon turned into a friendly duel between me and another guy, as we attempted to out sprint each other back to the locker room. We were so evenly matched that, in my memory at least, we alternated wins each week.

Those weekly “races” were my first taste of running as a competitive sport, and while they were fun, I still looked forward much more to our all-too-short sessions playing soccer, rugby, basketball, or “rounders” (the British version of baseball).

In high school back in the States, soccer remained my sport, until sophomore year, when I decided to transfer out of my small private school for the bigger pond of a public high school. The big school even had a baseball team! Hoping to extract a varsity letter before I left, I decided to parlay my soccer-honed stamina and went out for the track team in the spring.

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Joe’s early cross-training consisted of jumping off dunes on the Oregon coast. Photo by Jack Dudman

I figured I could probably last several laps each meet and possibly eke out enough points by the end of the season to obtain that coveted varsity certificate. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I soon found myself among the top three or four distance runners on the team, and by the time summer arrived I had my letter.

At my new larger school I continued to play soccer in the fall and run track in the spring, because I realized getting used to a new school AND trying out for a new sport (baseball) was not in the cards. But by then I was actually developing a sense of what I was doing on the cinder oval, and running as an organized sport was beginning to seep into my DNA.  When I actually won a race and broke my PR in the 3000 by over 30 seconds one hot spring day, I was hooked!

Soccer was still my number one sport, but by senior year, it was the small college running coaches who were trying to lure me to their campuses. I picked one, and off to college I went, planning to continue my soccer “career” while also running track.

While I have no regrets about my choice of school, the highly-respected soccer coach there had an unfortunate bias toward established players, and it was hard for a freshman to break in. We had only two JV games all season, and my love of soccer has never been matched with an ability to improve or maintain my skills without generous amounts of actual playing time. Going from co-captain of my high school team to invisible freshman was a difficult transition. Track season, on the other hand was a great success, as I followed a senior teammate stride-for-stride for 25 laps to PR in the 10,000 meters at home in the conference championships and earn my first collegiate letter.

Sophomore year began with more frustration in soccer practice and a simultaneous chorus of “Why aren’t you running cross-country?!” from my track teammates. One agonizing evening I lay awake in my dorm room and made the fateful decision to quit the soccer team, walk away from my favorite sport, and join the cross-country team, taking up a version of running I had never tried before. It turned out to be one of the best moves I’ve ever made!

My running friends had made me feel in demand, and I was warmly welcomed to the cross-country team as soon as I made the switch. There are friendly, supportive people in every sport, but that fall I realized there is no more supportive, encouraging community of athletes than runners. My four years of track and three of cross-country are full of great memories.

After college I continued to race, though my actual training was sporadic, especially during the “pick-up basketball years” of the early ’90s, when the siren call of a bouncing basketball would draw me to the schoolyard court across the street from my house. I had so much fun playing hoops, despite being skinny, short, and earthbound, that running became less of a priority. My jump shot improved while my race times languished.

Then in the fall of 1994 I had a health crisis that put me in the hospital for a week. When I came out of that I decided that my ultimate talent lay in running, and I should pursue it whole-heartedly again and see if I could reach my full potential. I started training seriously once more and ran as many races as I could get my hands … er, feet on.

By the mid-2000s I was setting new PRs and achieving results I wouldn’t have thought possible a decade earlier.  It was fun, and I enjoyed the success, but it was also a lot of work, accompanied by the pressure of expectations. Knee and foot injuries set me back a little at the end of the decade, but only now am I easing up a little by choice, as other priorities have risen to the top and I realize I don’t have much left to prove.

So, why am I not a “real” runner? Let me count the ways:

Real runners run for fitness, relaxation, or simply the love of running itself. I run because I found I was good at it, better in fact than activities I like more. So in a way, you could say I started running by default. I got into running to fulfill goals beyond the running itself. I enjoy running with friends, but I don’t really run simply to run. I find running to be hard work, whether I’m maxing myself out in a race, or simply doing an “easy” training run. (I can’t understand how people can carry on a full conversation while running. I’m too busy breathing hard to talk much!) I get nervous before every race; I get excited before every soccer game.

Real runners are obsessed with training plans and the latest physiological science. I like racing much more than training.  Reading people’s training logs makes my eyes glaze over, and while I know VO2 max is not the name of the latest chart-topping rapper, I only vaguely know what it means, and I’m not eager to find out.

Real runners are very concerned with dietary matters: Carbs, calories, GUs, and meticulously blended electrolyte concoctions. In contrast, I sometimes think I single-handedly keep Nabisco, Frito-Lay, and Ocean Spray in business.

Real runners run marathons. I’ve succumbed to peer pressure myself, and run eight 26.2-milers, but I prefer to run faster and shorter. Longer is not always better or more “real”.

Real runners get out there almost every day, rain or shine, and often run through injury, feeling that there’s a void in their lives if they miss a single training session.  I’m OK with skipping a run if it’s too cold, I’m too busy, I sleep trough my alarm, I’m injured, or I simply don’t feel like it that day.

Real runners are heavily preoccupied with “post run libations”, “adult beverages”, “restoring fluids”, etc. (i.e., beer), and races like Pints to Pasta, Bridge to Brews, and the Barrel to Keg Relay fill up quickly. I don’t drink. I’m not against it, I just never started.

Real runners know Bill Rodgers’ mile splits from the 1980 Boston Marathon, and what Kara Goucher had for breakfast on July 12th, 2010.  While I like watching major marathons and track meets on TV (or at Hayward Field), I’m not an avid track and field or elite road racing fan. I know most of the names, but I don’t follow professional runners’ careers and memorize their stats.

So, while running is something I’m good at, I’m not as “real” a runner as many of the runners out there. In fact, I think the real “real” runners are the ones who simply love running for its own sake, and I’m a little envious of all the runners who enjoy nothing more than heading out without a watch for an untimed jaunt through the neighborhood, along the waterfront, or among the trees of Forest Park.

Hats off to the color runners, the mud runners, the costumed runners, to all the real runners who run for no other reason than to run … and have fun!

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