Since about February 2009, I've called myself a runner. Well, maybe I didn't use that word at the time, but looking back, that's when I became a runner.
This is an odd term, mostly because "running" is an ambiguous term. Consider the first running boom in the late 70's into the early 80's. People didn't go for a run then. Instead, they went for a jog. The competitive runners, whether on their school track team or just a talented enthusiast, probably "ran," but for some reason the rest of the world didn't identify them. There was a separation between the competitively successful runners and everyone else.
In the current running boom, there have been lengthy discussions about these terms, and the general consensus is that we're all runners. Of course, now we have the "elite" classification to identify the uber competitive.
I used to have some trouble taking on this "runner" identity. I fell into the sport and enjoyed it, but there's one thing most runners talk about that can be the great divider: speed. I'm a good middle-to-back-of-the-pack runner, and at some distances I've even pushed toward the front of the pack, but I've never been faster than that.
That first year, I ran a couple 5k's and started training for my first half marathon, so I started to feel more a part of the "runner" identity. My second year of running, I finished 3 half marathons and got a PR (personal record for a particular distance or type of race) that held up for almost 2 whole years. Somewhere in there, it clicked. I don't know if it was the 10-12 mile training runs, the feeling of crossing a difficult finish line, or the set of finisher's medals that were collecting on my wall, but it happened. I finally embraced my identity as a runner.
After 2 years of running, I even felt comfortable enough to take some time off. The first 2 months was mandatory recovery from a surgery, then another 1-2 months were just for relaxation, but I still knew I was a runner. It wasn't long before I was back training for my 4th half marathon, then my first full marathon later that year, and I've been in and out of racing seasons ever since.
So far, every racing season has been a learning experience.
For one, I've learned I love racing in the Fall and Winter. The Summer weather makes it tough to get my training started, but with the weather getting cooler by the week, my runs become not only faster and more comfortable, but more fun also.
I've also gained a love for trail running. While road running can bring you some scenery, a smooth surface, and is good for pacing, trail running is just exciting. Even when I run on a familiar trail, I get anxious to see what's around the bend, or wonder whose footfalls I hear coming toward me. You never know exactly how many miles you have left before you get back to your car, and you always see something you've never noticed before.
But most of all, I've learned that running is hard. When I was new to the sport, I used to hope for the day when running became easier. I would think that if only I could train up to 10 miles, a 5 mile run would feel easy. If only I could work down to a 9 minute mile, a 10 minute mile would feel easy.
To be honest, I was only part wrong on that, but I can say now that running never gets truly easy. Sure, cutting back your distance keeps you from having to push back your wall, and slowing down drops your heart rate a few BPM's. But the hardest part of running is the endurance. It's not just a physical endurance, it's a mental endurance.
You have to be able to meet every step with a certain expectancy that gets you excited for what might come next. You have to be able to tell yourself "I know I can make it to that next telephone pole," then when you've made it, say it again about the telephone pole after that. You have to be able to lace up your shoes on days when you would rather just stay on the couch watching Duck Dynasty. True, there's a part of running that gets easier after time, but year after year, run after run, I find myself thinking "why not just turn around now?" This is the hardest part of running, and it doesn't get easier.
Sometimes I can make my runs more fun. I take the dog out, or try a new route around an unfamiliar neighborhood. Sometimes I just play games in my head, thinking about the cars that pass me, and how the drivers must think I'm crazy for wearing shorts in cold weather. Sometimes I have to find outside motivation by thinking of a struggling friend, or remembering to start my Charity Miles app.
But a lot of my runs are spent in serene reflection, even prayer. I think through everything that's going on in my life, whether it's family sickness, my wife's stress over grad school, or all of the good I've been able to experience in my life. I let myself be pulled into a mindset of quiet and calm by the metronome created by the tapping of my feet, and I finally feel like I've pulled away from the chaos of the world back into the reality of my own life. This is where I hear my prayers answered, where a new perspective brings the struggles of life into better focus. This is when I remember why I love being a runner.
Because it's not all about fitness for me, and it's sure not some quest for bragging rights. Running is my discipline. It's the physical manifestation of my ever-moving journey through life. It's the matching of all of my worldly flaws against the solitude of connection with my Creator. When I choose to run,
"... [I] throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And [I] run with perseverance the race marked out for [me]." (Hebrews 12:1)
If I made that choice every time I considered it, I would be a much better man. But for now, I can only remember that the last step is in the past, and I can only move forward by focusing on the next step.
Always moving forward,