By Kelly Bouchard
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When do you get to call yourself a runner?
At a party about week ago, someone asked me this question and I was surprised to find myself without a ready answer. “I suppose it depends who you’re asking,” I eventually stammered. It wasn’t exactly a brilliant response but it struck me that at least it was true and my ambiguity served to move the conversation in a different direction. But since then, the question has continued to bother me because how you choose to answer that cuts to the heart of what running means to you.
Let’s put it a bit more pointedly: are you a runner? If someone asked you to describe yourself, would you tell them that you enjoy running, or that you’re a runner. If you said the latter, you might get this follow-up: “So you run professionally?” What would you say to that? Personally, I think I’d instinctively add a qualification. I’d explain that I don’t run professionally, that I’m a casual runner, not an actual one. If pushed, I guess I would resort to the same standard that I might use to determine, say, who gets to call themselves a writer. Only if you make money from it does the label truly apply. If not, it requires qualification. Before I started getting published, I remember telling people, that I was trying to be a writer. I didn’t say I was one until I started getting paid.
You might draw your distinctions another way. You might think that only people who run, say, five times a week count as real runners. Maybe if you’re a pro, you might only see those who are better than you as deserving of the title. But when I really think about it, taking a divisive approach like this strikes me as an overly reductive way of doing things, especially when defining something as inherently human as running. We now know that human beings are biologically designed for running, so in some sense each of us, even those of us who don’t run, could be seen as runners.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t find lines to distinguish between ourselves. To avoid absurdity, the way which we talk about running should make a clear differentiation between me and Usain Bolt, for example. I think that we gain something and lose nothing if we agree that the four seconds that separates Bolt and myself over 100m is grounds for labeling him a professional and me as an amateur– though, our respective times aren’t grounds for considering him a real runner and me not.
Though we orbit in different levels of the stratosphere, we hail from the same planet, as does the old man I pass some mornings during my daily 6K. Although he can’t match my pace, the old man is as much a runner as I am. He isn’t trying to be or faking it. He is.
Deciding who’s a runner determines what we get to talk about when we talk about running. Do we limit our discussion to professionals? Do we want to say that amateurs like me would understand nothing about the pressure of a professional race, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? Of course not. We want to open it up so that we can talk about what running means to you without having to qualify or explain why your experience counts. We want to be able to talk about what’s shared about the feeling the professional has as she strides effortlessly to the finish ahead of world’s elite. We want to find ways to understand one another through our common experiences.
Sometimes I think about it this way: I imagine the whole running life of the man I pass on my morning run. I imagine that as a child, he fell in love with the feeling of sprinting around the schoolyard track, the gravel beneath his feet, and the blood coursing through his young muscles. As he got older, he began to compete and by the time he was in his early twenties he was racing against the best in the world. In 1955, he recorded a 2:20:44, and for three years was considered among the world’s very elite. Then he slowly declined. But he kept up his practice. First, he was running five times a week. Then three. Now, here he is, smiling at me as I pass him, seemingly quite happy, still in some way connected to the joy. Eventually he’ll stop running altogether. At what point can we say he became a real runner? When he will cease to be one? Put this way it, seems ridiculous to draw hard distinctions. The answer is he always was one. Just like you, and me, and Usain “Lightning” Bolt.