Distance? Need? Ability? What makes a person a runner?

Guest post by Emerina

We know we have a lot of runners in the house, but what happens when you can’t run?

Me running a 10k.
Me running a 10k.

I started running reluctantly. I’m a doctor, and everyday I tell people to exercise. After giving people this advice for a month or two, and completely neglecting to engage in any physical activity myself, I started to feel guilty and hypocritical. I made the decision to start running.

It started with exercising in front of the Wii Fit three times each week. After several months, I moved my exercise outdoors and started running two miles.

I was surprised at how hard it was to breathe. My breath came in short, hard pants and I felt nauseous. While I knew intellectually that the air was entering my lungs, it didn’t seem to make a difference to how I felt. My body desperately needed oxygen. I couldn’t BREATHE. As the weeks passed, I felt this rhythm making sense and my lungs expanding and contracting with better oxygen penetration. I might still pant and gasp while running but at least I could feel the oxygen hitting my lungs.

I ran two miles three times a week for several years. Both before and after I started running, people would ask me if I’m a runner. I would smile uncertainly and ponder how to respond. Were they asking because of my body type? Was there something they recognized in my energy that identified me as a runner? Did my two mile runs make me a runner? To me, this barely counted for anything, although I knew that I felt better about myself and my life when I ran.

Speaking of life, it hadn’t been standing still while I’d been training. I had quit my job, started a new one, quit that one, and started a very part time job. I barely had time to run with my previous full time job and my 20 minute runs just barely fit into my schedule. Now, I could sleep in as late as I wanted and had the whole day to get around to my exercise routine. I liked staying home, but I knew in the long term I would need a job for a more secure future.

So with my extra time I started running a little bit more… Other people mention their 5ks and their 10ks casually, like this is something you just “do.” I don’t have anything to prove to anyone, I thought — I run for myself. Plus the idea of competing makes my stomach churn. I knew though, that I could run the distance required in a 5k, so when I stumbled across a 10k, I registered. I signed up without telling anyone and quietly started bumping up my mileage. My runs became 3.5 miles, then 4, then 4.5. Gradually, I was running up to 6 miles per day. The race came and I suffered from nerves, but sailed through at a great pace.

I kept running 6+ miles and looked for a half marathon, landing on the Canyonlands Half Marathon in Moab. I signed up, got my brother (an Ironman) to sign up as well, and kept training. My running went up to 21-23 miles per week. I felt exhausted after my runs. I felt strong. I ate ravenously. I looked at my muscles and felt proud.

Around this time I was hired to work full time at a clinic some distance away. So I timed my runs on the weekends, before work, after work, and pondered if I could fit in a lunchtime run.

Then I ran my half marathon and conquered it. I didn’t feel the same sense of pride as I had after my training runs, but by the time of the race, I already knew I could run 13+ miles in my goal time.

Two hours after finishing my half marathon, I drove out to Arches National Park. I walked an eighth of a mile when a sudden, stabbing pain in my right knee almost dropped me. Being me, and being that my Ironman brother expected me to keep going, I kept on for the next week, hiking and walking every day. I was pretty sure I just needed a day of rest for my knee to feel better.

I took the next week off all exercise and then, finally, I couldn’t wait any longer. I ran seven miles. I knew this might not be the best idea but I wanted so badly to be okay that I told myself that the run WOULD BE OKAY. I will power through many things but these seven miles hurt so badly, I needed to keep stopping for walk breaks.

I realize now how much I want to run. My swimming and biking relax me but don’t replace running. I realize how much of my identity is tied into running and how accomplished I felt after a long, hard slog. I look at running gear and want to cry. I realize now, that for the last few years, I had been “a runner.”

Now though, am I still a runner if I can’t run?

Comments on Distance? Need? Ability? What makes a person a runner?

  1. Have you read Born to Run?

    The author of this book is a good storyteller (if you like the story within a story within a story – Arabian Nights kind of thing) and the book is about his experience going through the exact same struggle you’re describing….and how he got through his pain, and kept on running…

    • I’ve read Born to Run and that’s what initially got me thinking of running. He makes running sound so amazing and it makes you want what he has. My whole family read the book and talked about it during the holidays one year, and finally, six or so months later, I started running.

  2. Runner’s World has a ton of “how to come back from an injury” content, including exercises for strengthening the muscles/tendons/etc. that support your joints, which many of us neglect until we’re hurt. (Guilty.) I read the print edition but their website is also awesome. Even exercises that make me feel silly, like clamshells and donkey kicks, have made a big difference in how I recover from overdoing it on a run. I hope you get to feel like a runner again soon!

  3. Oh man. So much to say about this after having been a moderate daily runner since age 13, then tearing my hip labrum at age 27, hip surgery at age 29, and still recovering a year later (I can’t walk more than a half mile a day now). You’d think I’d be depressed by that limitation, especially as a former type A person, but I’m not, because I’ve made a conscious, practiced, and daily choice to accept temporary limitations, focus on what’s good in my life, and be kind to myself.

    I think that being invested in your body’s abilities is good…but you’ve got to be flexible about those abilities and about your identity. I identified as a runner. Now I identify as someone who’s invested in her body for the long haul, and that doesn’t necessarily mean as an exerciser…but maybe as Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, or other ‘movement modality’ person(?)

    One thing I know is, focusing on my body as a source of accomplishment hasn’t necessarily the best thing for my health. I think that’s very popular viewpoint with the Millenial generation (further, farther, faster! = progress). I can’t entirely distance myself from that mindset, but now my ‘goals’ are to gain a subtler understanding of my body; to release tensions I previously couldn’t control; to regain freedom and joy in motion.

    Debatable side point–I also think 30 year olds in our generation are injuring themselves and experiencing problems our parents only experienced in their 40s or 50s, because we push our bodies harder during our exercise programs (not ’cause we eat worse or slouch more or something).

    OK, and now some actual advice for injured runners:
    -If you’re interested in miminalist/barefoot running, look into POSE running technique (don’t try to go minimalist footwear/barefoot without a physical instructor!!! that’s maybe how I tore my hip in the first place)
    -Airrosti (kinda like deep massage, but covered by insurance)–temporarily helpful to me, and at least got me diagnosed w/ my labral tear. Heard great things about them from other injured runners.
    -Muscle Activation Technique (MAT) = super amazing. Visibly raised the (fallen) arches in my feet, my ankle’s range of motion, and so much more.

  4. I’m just now coming back from injury and getting my miles up again.

    I attempted my first ultra in Feb and had such intense hip pain I had to bail out. So, of course, I decided to attempt the distance again 2 weeks later. I’ve been sidelined ever since…I took 3 months off and stuck with just yoga for SO MANY weeks….It killed me a little bit every day. But now I’ve registered for another ultra (50M) in the winter and I’m excited to get back into all healed up!

    All through my time off I felt guilty when I saw other runner post in our online groups and I obsessively read race reports on races I had to forget registering for because of the injury. It can be an emotionally draining experience. I would find an activity (like the swimming/biking) and do it with the intent to prepare for running again. It helped my mental game and, sometimes, that’s all you need. Also, remind yourself that many runners tend to take whole chunks of time off to recover after a season of racing.

    Best of luck!!

    • Thanks for the advice. I’ve added in hiking as well for a little bit more of that “long, hard slog” feel and it helps me not be so sad about the lack of running.

  5. I take pride in my running not because I’m good at it but because it’s HARD. I keep getting better, but it’s still hard. And the fact that I am able to have the determination to keep at it even though its hard is what I love – because it has taught me to believe that I am strong.

    So last fall a BAD case of shin splints brought me to tears – literally – when I thought that maybe I would have to give up running.

    I took a whole month off from running to let my body rest, and it was heart-breaking. In the midst of that was a lot of soul-searching reminding myself that running was something I did and, while awesome, was not the most important aspect of who I am. That there are plenty of things in the life that are temporary – employment, health, home, etc – and that if I clung too tightly to them I would be that much more heartbroken when I lost them. I’m still learning better how to balance being grateful and appreciative for what I have without being dependent it. Being content but not complacent. Still a work in progress.

    That said, I hope that you’re able to find some great rehab and exercises to help get you back in the saddle soon doing something that you love!

    • What I’ve learned from recently becoming “a runner” for the first time in my life is that I’ve gained a lot of mental strength from something I find hard. It’s been a really tangible goal to work towards, and the mental/emotional benefits have radiated to other areas of my life, as well.

  6. Being a runner isn’t just something I do, it is who I am. But that means for me that when I am injured (which after years of running, happens periodically), I am comforted by knowing that it is such a cornerstone of my life that a injury would not – could not – set me back permanently. It is more a state of mind than a hobby – for me, at least. I try to keep my “zen” as much as possible when injured or sick or just plain too busy to run… I will get back to it, and it will always be there for me. Like an old friend.

    As for some practical advice: I say this, of course, but when I am injured – it is still hard. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of self-kindness to get through. And a lot of ice, and physical therapy. Cross-training is helpful, because at least I don’t feel like a big potato sitting on the couch being lazy, but you’re right – it doesn’t replace running (as long as it is deemed a safe activity by your practitioner of choice and won’t exacerbate your injury). Making sure you are seeing some sort of practitioner – whether it is a physical therapist, acupuncturists, active release therapist, sports masseuse, etc., is crucial. It’s great to feel like you are taking some step to fix the problem – just make sure you follow their instructions carefully (i.e. if they say for you to ice it daily, then ice it daily). There are a number of community-type acupuncture and student-teacher offerings that can lower the price, too.

    Try too, to find a lesson in it, if you can. Sometimes injuries are totally random – you fell and banged your knee, or you stepped wrong off the curb… not much you can learn from those; they just happen to everybody. Sometimes injuries are symptom of a non-optimal training strategy. For example, when training for my first half marathon, I realized my race was 2 weeks sooner than I had expected. I bumped up my mileage too quickly, and ended up severe IT Band syndrome. It was agony and I never really thought I’d run again, but I healed over time… and learned that adding too many miles too quickly caused an injury. It was shitty and was emotionally agonizing, but 5 years later I can say that I did learn something from that experience. Don’t blame yourself (!!!!), but try to objectively learn from what happened in your training (if anything) to cause the problem.

    All this to say: you’re going to get through this!!! Try to be nice to yourself in the meantime, too 🙂

    • Thank you for your comments. While I know that my body can and will heal itself (based on past experiences), I appreciate the reminder that I am a runner regardless of whether I am running right now or not. While other people have mentioned not basing your identity on temporary things, some of these resonate so strongly it’s hard not to incorporate them into who I am. I also need the reminder to follow up with a practitioner. It’s too easy to doctor myself and I am not as patient with myself and my healing as I am with actual patients.

      Maybe the lesson learned is to be easier on myself, both in terms of taking the time to rest and heal and in not blaming myself. 🙂

  7. I just wanted to say how lovely this was – you really put how I feel about running into words. I started running for no good reason, and now I love every minute of it – and it hurts when I can’t run.

    You are a runner – and with time and patience, you will be back to being a runner who runs.

  8. Oh my gosh! I could not have read this at a better time! I started running a year ago to get in shape for my wedding- and I totally got hooked! So, I ran my first 5k last summer and braved it thro the winter so I could train for my first half this fall! I loved setting distance amd time goals and working hard to achieve them! What an awesome feeling!! So, about 3 weeks ago- I got married, and between our festivities and honeymoon- I went 2 weeks without running. Mind you- we went to disney- so every day we walked a bunch of miles! Prior to wedding I was up to 9 miles! So- after 2 weeks- first run was 4 miles. Slight aches- just chalked it up to being off for so long. Next day- was only goi g to go 5- but it was so nice out- I pushed for 7. And swiftly paid for it with a bout of IT band syndrome. 🙁 so- I’m off running- TEMPORARILY!!! I’m still doing some cardio and focusing on strength training- to stay in shape while I heal- and to strengthen my body and prevent injuries in the future!! But it breaks my heart when its a cool 50 degrees out with a slight breeze- perfect running weather!!! But- in order to stay a runner- you gotta do whatcha gotta do- and sometimes that’s rest! I’m sure it will just make me all the more determined when I am healed and get back to training for my first half!! Thanks for sharing your story!

  9. I started running when I moved back to my home state after a really hard breakup. I was staying with a friend of a friend and it ended up being a nightmare situation. I starting running outdoors in the cold New England winter air just to get away from the apartment where I felt so trapped. At first I could barely run a quarter mile. I kept pushing myself “just to that next telephone pole, now the next.” By the time spring came, I could run 4 miles, and signed up for my first 5k. Then my second, then many more. Then the Half at the Vermont City marathon. Eventually I signed up for the Montreal marathon. I could not imagine a life without running.

    Then, 6 weeks before my marathon I started to feel some knee pain. It was too late in my training to take a week off, so I kept going. 5 weeks before I realized that I had an injury, but it still didn’t hurt badly enough to keep me from running about 40 miles a week. I knew that if I went to the doctor I’d be told not to run, and I had worked so hard. I wasn’t going to miss my very first marathon. I kept running, and on race day the excitement and adrenaline kept my knee from hurting. I finished within all of my goals.

    Now, running is something I still desperately want to do, years later. Unfortunately, by running on an injury for a month and a half I did the sort of damage that doesn’t repair easily. I don’t know if I’l ever be able to call myself a runner again, and I’m a bit lost without that part of my identity.

  10. I have run for fun on and off since I was about 13. In high school I used it for stress relief, as a way to get out of the house, as cross-training for tennis, and because I had low body image for a little while. I stopped in college because I got very busy (and also got shin splints from the tennis team after a winter of not exercising), but picked it back up as I was about to graduate and kept it up through grad school and now. So far, I’ve done 4 half marathons and 1 full marathon, though I’ve tried training for more races than that that I’ve had to give up on due to injuries.

    In fact, I was supposed to run another half marathon yesterday, but 2 weeks ago I mis-stepped and twisted my ankle during a 10-miler. I had to call my boyfriend to come pick me up 4 miles from home, which I’ve never done before, but it was absolutely the right choice. And while this weekend I was back to running, I chose to do a 4-miler with a friend on Saturday and go swimming with my boyfriend on Sunday instead of forcing myself through 13 miserable miles and potentially re-aggravating my ankle.

    My most recent injury before that was an incredibly tight and painful IT band. I went through physical therapy for a couple months, got much stronger, finally corrected some muscle imbalances left over from my shin splints over 6 years prior, and now roll out my hips and knees after every run. It still wasn’t in time for the full marathon I was planning to do in December, but it was a much better choice to skip it and take care of myself than to force myself through that too.

    Other injuries I’ve had include several more sprained/strained/rolled ankles, runner’s knee (patellar tendonitis), and foot tendonitis. I’ve also been forced to lay off of all exercise for a month at a time following unrelated eye surgeries, 5 times. The thing is, I’m still a runner. But part of being a wise runner is knowing when to rest, when an injury can be dealt with on your own, and when it’s time to bring in a professional.

    I’m a little bit burnt out training for all those races and getting so many injuries, so my plan going forward is to focus on some cross-training like lifting weights, yoga, and swimming. I’ll still run, but it will probably be once or twice a week instead of three or four times, and it will be for the fun of it and not for the sake of the next race. One day I hope to do another marathon, and some halfs, but right now I need something else. Hopefully that will also keep me healthy and running for many more years to come.

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