We Are Runners

Last month, I wrote an article here on iRunFar about recovering from Haglund’s deformity surgery. More specifically, I wrote about how running felt like a monumental task after a major surgery and so much recovery time—about how I didn’t feel like a runner. Over the past couple of weeks, as I’ve started to run more and as my stride smoothens, I am starting to identify myself as a runner again. It seems silly, right? How can you run, but not feel like a runner? I think many of us can relate.

I tend to feel inadequate with activities for which I have less proficiency. Take cycling, for example. I have been riding a lot over the past few months. I’ve ridden roads, trails, and gravel. I’ve chased avatars on Zwift. I’ve even done hard workouts with one of the local triathlon groups. Yet, when I go to the bike shop or talk to cyclists, I find myself explaining that I am more of a runner than a cyclist.

I notice that others do the same. I meet runners who qualify their running with, “Oh, I just run a little bit” or “I’m not very fast” or “I’m not a real runner.” Where does this urge to qualify ourselves come from and why are we so apt to sell ourselves short?

Ironically, I’m tempted to preface the rest of this essay by stating that I am not an expert on this topic and do not necessarily have all of the correct answers—to qualify my capacity to ponder my own thoughts. In lieu of the pot calling the kettle entirely black, I’ll keep sharing here.

Zach Miller running in a forest

All photos courtesy of Zach Miller.

One of the reasons that I qualify my actions is to create a space of grace. If I walk into a bike shop pretending to know what I am doing, I set myself up for embarrassment. My fragile facade could crumble when I can’t remember which is a Presta valve and which is a Schrader. But, if I go in acknowledging that this isn’t my cup of tea, I create a space in which it feels okay to ask what may feel like dumb questions. I can just be honest about my naivety and take hold of the freedom that comes with that. This freedom makes me more willing to try my hand at things outside of my wheelhouse.

Additionally, it also helps to make things feel more fun. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being good at something, but being proficient often comes with the feeling that you need to live up to your reputation. This pressure, which, while not necessarily bad, can cramp one’s style. Sometimes it’s just fun to do something without being obsessed over how good you are at it. This leaves room to practice something casually or even to go all out. Remove the need to succeed and all of a sudden you have created a beautiful opportunity to go buck wild and maybe screw up along the way. In this way, creating a safe and fun space in which to try things can be quite helpful.

Except sometimes it isn’t. I think this happens when the qualifying is done in a way that belittles and limits. When we pigeonhole ourselves as “just a casual runner” or “just a 50k runner” or “not a real ultrarunner,” we set a precedent that we are somehow less. We don’t necessarily have to abide by this precedent, but once nudged from a hilltop, a ball is likely to continue downhill. Sure, you can try to stop it, though you might be better off not to nudge it in the first place.

This is all similar to my return to running since injury. Pre-injury me was a runner through and through. Injured me was a frustrated runner with a broken wing. And finally, post-surgery me has felt like the runner who “just runs a little.” As I’ve returned to running, I’ve felt slow and out of sync. As I write this, I can sense my rhythm coming back. A few days ago I ran five miles in the Pennsylvania mountains and it felt relatively smooth and fun. I tell my physical therapist that I feel more like a runner.

But, no matter the stories my mind sometimes tells, I’m a runner and so are you. Being a runner, a cyclist, a skier, or a swimmer is not defined by the level to which you do it. All that is required to be any of these things is to simply partake in the activity. We are runners because we run, simple as that. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, yourself included.

Call for Comments

  • Do you ever feel inclined to qualify your running?
  • Does that qualification feel freeing or limiting to you?

Zach Miller running in a forest

Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 17 comments

  1. Ellie

    I think many runners also give the caveats of “oh I don’t run too much, haven’t been training” when they’re nervous before a race. I absolute abhor sandbagging, yet it’s so common for runners to do. They don’t want to show up to compete so they make excuses. One thing I admire about our mutual friend Matt is that he doesn’t do that. When he shows up for a race he gives it his all and finishes wherever his body takes him. He doesn’t say “I’m just having an adventure today!” Or “yea, haven’t been running so I’ll just jog.” It annoys the shit out of me when runners don’t just own their training.

    It bugs me even more when sandbaggers claim they haven’t been training and then finish in the top 10. How do you think that makes everyone who finished behind them feel? Our words have power, not just to ourselves, but to other people.

    Own your shit and be kind.

    End rant. Nice article Zach.

    1. Olga King

      So true! I know a friend or two who constantly claim it’s their “training race”, or “social run”. I mean, I sign up for races, no matter if I trained hard or half-ass, good day or bad, tapered or squeezed it in the middle, chatted with friends or put my head down, I pinned the number, and gave my best for this day. Period. Indeed, how does it make others feel? WTH?
      We are all runners. Slow, fast, in-between. In training, shuffling while injured, dreaming of big things.
      Last few (quite a few) years I kept identifying/introducing myself as a “used to be”. Holy no more. I love running and all that comes with it. Including OTS and injuries and insecurities. And when I toe the line at the race, I am going to work hard, whatever hard for today is.

  2. Alex

    As someone who has recently started running ultra distances, I find myself doing this, especially when speaking to more seasoned runners. I find myself doing this because I don’t think that I’m as accomplished as them or something. Like oh yeah, we both do the same thing, but you are amazing!

    Wrong mindset, you’re right. I can own it and still respect more seasoned runners.

    Hope the road to recovery is smooth!

  3. Andy M

    The spectrum of running, especially ultrarunning, challenges our self-concept. After my first first hundo followed by a couple of 100-mile DNFs I began to feel like a phony, a “one-hit wonder.” Now a couple more finishes later it can be still hard to feel secure no matter how well I’ve been running. Being kind to ourselves as runners – like the running itself – is a work in progress.

    And it seems to me if you’re feeling smooth and having fun in the mountains of Rocksylvania you are definitely a runner.

  4. Ric Moxley

    The power of social pressure is powerful indeed. Where I see this sort of thing (and do it myself) is in social settings, such as joining up with a group run or meeting new friends who are runners. I think the cavalcade of caveats is just human nature; we don’t want to feel guilty of holding the group back, so we lay the groundwork in advance, giving ourselves permission to not be able to keep up or do the distance, which also allows everyone else to be forgiving. In those circumstances, I don’t think this is bad, is it? It’s just the way it is. I understand what I suspect is your concern: that it can be self-limiting. That could be true. I’m just not sure how avoidable the parade of caveats is in a social run or race situation. No one wants to disappoint. This might just be a difference between middle-of-the-packers and those who typically finish in the top 10, with the latter constantly honing not just body but mind to compete and the former just happy to be participating in a physical activity, which is more than the average human is doing. :)

  5. Jeff Davis

    Thanks for the honesty and as always, fluidity in writing as well as running. You are an inspiration, perhaps even more so in your weakness and struggles! “When I run, I feel His pleasure”.

  6. DC-area middle of the packer

    I love this post and also Ellie’s comment about sandbagging.

    Sandbagging, to me at least, reflects an attitude that the sandbagger is only one racing who has any complaints. Everyone else is problem-free, running their A race for the season, and having a perfect day after perfect training. It would simply be unfair to compare them to the sandbagger’s, who must be the only one who had a planning setback, an injury, an upset stomach, or a hangnail, or who prioritizes a different race, or read something sad in the news that morning. I agree with Ellie. Own your training and your result. Result is what you did on that particular day, after doing whatever you did to prepare, and while dealing with whatever issues you had that day. The same is true of everyone else.

    I also agree with almost every word in the main post. If Zach Miller tells me I’m a runner, I can’t really disagree, but… I’ll say that some of us middle-of-the-packers are acutely aware of how much distance there is between us and the top of the sport. After I run the JFK50, my friends at the office are super-impressed that I can run 50 miles in a day. But in my head, I know that the winners were done many hours before me, that the winners are in much better physical shape and train much more seriously than me, that a few hundred people ran faster than me that day, and that I was hours behind a bunch of people the same age as my parents or older. I also know that not everyone’s impressed with 50 miles, and that 100-milers around the country have waiting lists. I think part of the qualifying I do when I talk about my races is out of respect for others who put in more thought and effort and who perform better than me.

    Maybe this is unique to ultras. When I say I “run marathons,” I don’t feel the need to qualify because I think a lot of people have run marathons, and no one thinks I’m claiming to be in the same category as Meb or Ryan Hall. When I say “I run ultras,” I’m not so sure about how it comes across, so feel the need to explain that I’m not Zach Miller or Kilian or whatever.

  7. Doug K

    see, this is why I’m a triathlete..
    “I’m not really a runner, I’m..”
    “I’m not really a swimmer..”
    “I’m not really a cyclist..”

    easy outs, in every sport ;-)

    Even so I still claimed to be a runner for many years after switching to running once a week, because I still felt like a runner. These days every run is a wobbly plod and I’m a fitness enthusiast..

  8. Tollie Bibb

    This is my first time to send in a comment. It will not as eloquent as some but maybe in the middle or rear of the pack. I am 77 years old and have been running since I was 19. Until 2 1/2 months ago I could waddle fairly well with those in my age group (in my area). Then it happened I was doing my last good training run 8 miles on a difficult trail for me. About 6 1/2 miles out I took a hard fall on a down hill in a good rain. Four days later I found out I had ruptured the tendon going to my big toe on my left foot. Surgery took place a week later and now I am down for three months before I can attempt to run/waddle again. Without a doubt this is a difficult (mental) time for me. I never desired for my running days to end like this so I am slowly beginning to think of my comeback or starting over. When race time starts I still find myself getting nervous, thinking have I done the right preparation and can I compete with the Trail Sweep.
    I really enjoyed the essay and drew more inspiration from your words.

  9. Nelleke

    Whenever I tell people (runners of not) I’m a runner and I ran marathons, they ask me if I ran it in a certain time. Never how I liked it. The questions about my time are ridiculous, they suggest times I will never achieve. I always realize I’m downgrading mysels to answer these questions; I’m not a fast runner, I started when I was aleady past 35 years, I train only 3 times a week, I just wanna have fun….endless excuses and never owning being a runner. Period!
    It’s probably a vulnerable topic as it gets to me. I probably struggle with the concept of speed to. Not all zen about it yet.
    Thanks for your article. I’m a runner!!! Yihaa!!

  10. SAmPell

    Ellie, sounds like Matt needs to learn how to race and perhaps should train more so he knows exactly what his body will give him on race day. Furthermore, one thing I abhor is a runner that talks about the insecurities of other runners. Just because runners are more talented than you doesn’t mean you should give them ill will or name them “sandbaggers” as they could simply be telling the truth. Open your mind a little. Thanks.

    1. Ellie

      I’ll try to open it more. I think talent might be confused with luck on the day or lack of depth of the field. It’s still shitty to say “I wasn’t trying” after a race to anyone who finished behind you. Have some compassion.

  11. Robert

    When I first started running in my late 20’s I really didn’t consider myself a real runner until I ran a Marathon. That was just me. Now in my 60’s I’m reduced to biking and hiking and that’s ok. Running is a very individual sport. Alot like golf. The competition is within yourself. Heal up Zack. You’ll be on top of your game soon

  12. Shane

    I don’t know why anyone would describe themselves as a runner/cyclist/swimmer or whatever. I crap more often than I do any of the above but don’t describe myself in this way. Maybe I should.

  13. Tyler

    Another well-written post. Hope you are back to doing what you enjoy sooner than later! Regarding the identify, I just do away with the, “I am a runner” and subscribe to the, “I am a person who runs” ethos. Speaking for myself, it has helped me keep perspective while (literally) chasing goals. Onward and forward.

  14. Tim

    Imposter Syndrome is a real thing…feeling less about ourselves in an arena where others see us succeeding. Maybe it’s a deep-seeded fear of not being able to live up to others’ expectations of us, our expectations of ourselves. I recognize that I sometimes struggle with this, but over time I have come to learn to trust the opinions of those in my inner circle and of those to whom I have great respect. I am 46 years old and training for my first 50k. In doing so, I ran 20 miles the other day. It is my longest run of my life. I always felt I had to run a marathon to be called a real runner. I don’t believe that anymore. Thanks for the article, Zach, and (as a fellow Pennsylvanian) thank you for always answering my questions on IG regarding PA trails.

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