Going the Distance

Am I a ‘runner’ yet?

How many kilometres do I have to log?

How many days per week do I have to run?

What combination of answers to these questions will make me a ‘runner’?

These are questions you may have asked yourself before. I have been grappling with these very questions since I started running two years ago. The struggle to adopt or accept a runner identity is something that runners at any level can experience. For people who grow up running track and field, the transition to adulthood can alter their identity as an athlete whether they continue to run or opt to retire. For people, like me, who find the joy of running later in life, adopting a new part of your identity (a ‘runner’) can be just as challenging.

We are all made up of different roles and our acceptance of these roles impacts how we see ourselves in relation to different situations. Our identity determines how we decide to act and behave in different settings (Erikson, 1968). These roles constantly change; when they do, they can become out of balance, contributing to stress, failure, and what is often referred to as an identity crisis. For runners, identity as a runner is defined by the extent to which we align the role of ‘running’ or being a ‘runner’ within our lives. The more seriously you engage with running, the more likely you are to identify with it. But what does this mean for casual runners?

I started running two years ago. I grew up as a dancer (a HUGE part of my identity). When I graduated high school and stopped dancing, I struggled to make sense of my identity outside of dance. Flash forward a few years – my body and brain were craving physical activity, but I didn’t know how to be active. I had never participated in sports growing up. I wasn’t an athlete and had never entered a gym. Cue the aforementioned identity crisis! My parents are both ‘runners’ and one day finally convinced me to join them. Over the next few months, I realized how positively my body and brain were responding to running. It became a part of my routine. A couple months later, I raced my first 10k.

Them: “Are you a runner?”

Me: “Oh no, I’m a retired dancer.”

This race motivated me to continue running, and so I began to increase my distance. A few months later I ran my first 15k, for fun, followed by a half-marathon.

Them: “Are you a runner?”

Me: “No, but I am going back into the studio to dance again!”

I started taking dance classes again while training for the Around the Bay 30k. My teachers welcomed me back with open arms.

Them: “Roxy is a distance runner, she’s always running!”

Me: “Oh, I’m not a runner, I’m a dancer.”

For the first little while, I never accepted being called a runner. But, why? Was it because I didn’t have a coach? Or maybe because I didn’t grow up as an ‘athlete’? Perhaps it was because I still didn’t think I was good enough. I’m truly not sure – and that’s okay. What I came to realize was that although the research says the more you engage with running the more likely you are to identify with it, that wasn’t the case for me. The more I ran, the more I became fixated on this non-existent concept of “when I reach this weekly volume, I’ll officially be a runner.” The more I stopped thinking about it and started accepting that I am a runner, the less stress I experienced.

Now, I feel freedom when I go outside and start my watch. At the end of the day, whether you run for fun, train competitively, or decide to turn your walk into a faster pace once in a while, you are a ‘runner’. At the end of the day, whether you run to race or regardless of pace, please know there is no shame in embracing running as part of your identity.