We Are Runners

Zach Miller writes about defining one’s identity as a runner.

By on May 21, 2021 | Comments

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
Zach Miller lives in a school bus he outfitted himself. 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.