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You Don’t Have to Race to Be a Runner

Where and how you run doesn’t matter as much as the reason you put in the effort.

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I am a runner.

What is it about a person that makes the above statement true? Is it their training log, their racing schedule, their years of community membership? At Women’s Running, we tout the simple mantra, “If you run, you’re a runner.” But not everyone agrees that this definition holds water, and even I have been asked to defend my runner’s credentials to others who work within this industry—especially when I tell people I don’t want to race.

I’m a runner, just like I’m a sister and a journalist and a rock ‘n’ roll junkie. Running has been deeply ingrained in my identity since I joined my high school track team 13 years ago, a fact I use when describing myself or thinking about which of my personal habits I’m honestly proud of. But when sports reporters begin exchanging race dates and marathon PRs at pre-race happy hours, I feel like I belong there about as much as I do at a death metal concert.

I’ve even used my old running injury as an excuse for why I’m not participating in X race on X day. I’m not proud of this, but it’s an important admission to make because it highlights something far more disturbing, a lack of acceptance in a community that’s thought to be all-inclusive.

Let’s rewind a bit, because the running community is the most generous, accepting athletic group I’ve known. Joining my high school track team was a salve to the depression I struggled with during those years and introduced me to some of my closest friends. Running has taught me the value of being part of a team that will root for you even when you fall behind—well, especially when you fall behind. I owe my favorite running memories to the running family of my teenage years, including a 1600-meter race in which I finished dead last but PRed by nearly a minute. I’d never heard my teammates cheer louder.

I’ve witnessed similar celebrations at the major marathons I’ve had the pleasure of covering for Women’s Running: spectators cheering as marathoners sprint the final 100 meters to the finish, runners panting words of encouragement to each other as they tick off the miles, pro athletes sticking around long after their race has ended to celebrate other runners’ accomplishments. This is a humbling community, one that deserves every bit of the credit it gets as a sport welcoming to those who may initially feel intimidated to join. But even the strongest foundations are susceptible to developing cracks.

I started to notice chinks in the running community’s armor while attending a race last summer. Out of my comfort zone in terms of elevation gain and terrain, I had no intention of giving my battered knee a run for its money on the switchback-heavy course. Looking back, that might have been preferable to mounting a defense for why I wasn’t wearing a race bib. I was stuck on a conversation loop with the other runners and reporters in attendance, confused about why the same “You’re not racing?” question was repeatedly asked of me in the same disbelieving tone.

No, I’m not racing. But does that make me any less of a runner?

In this case, it certainly exiled me from the running community—perhaps for good reason. When race participants returned from the course, they had stories to share about unexpectedly tight turns, threatening branches that hung over pathways right at decapitation level and the drop—“Did you see that drop?”—that could have easily catapulted runners over the edge of a cliff. There were also gorgeous mountain views, brilliant blue skies and just the right temperature shift to turn a chilly, overcast morning into a runner’s dream weather scenario. How could I possibly report on the race and understand what the athletes who tackled it went through when I didn’t experience it myself?

But I have run trails at high elevation and over switchbacks before. That’s precisely why I chose not to race: because I know it’s not my strong suit as a runner. I know my body’s limits. I know that, when I report on a race that my body wouldn’t handle well, I’d rather put my energy into learning from the athletes whose bodies are better prepared. I also know that I don’t run my best in the morning (nor do I enjoy morning runs), that I don’t like being surrounded by crowds and that my strongest miles are tackled after I’ve ingested a day’s dose of caffeine and filled my body with the fuel necessary to get my muscles primed for speed. I started running for the physical and mental benefits it gives me; I still do. I love the idea of someday running the Boston Marathon, Western States, the Marathon des Sables. But I don’t know if I actually want to race them.

For me, running is a personal pursuit with strong ties to the community in which I first discovered my passion for it. I loved racing for my team in high school because I was running alongside my closest allies, the same people with whom I’d logged hundreds of training miles on our way to becoming responsible athletes, students and adults. These days, my allegiance is to the running moments I enjoy best, whether they come late at night as I charge toward a time goal or beachside with a friend visiting from out of town. I don’t need to put a race on my calendar to boost my mileage or challenge myself to better my pace—it’s a dependable strategy for many, but it doesn’t work for me.

Heading into 2019, I set a mileage goal for the first day of January, determined to log more miles this year than ever before. When I exceeded it and shared the achievement with my mother—a fellow distance runner who pushed me to start running years ago—she suggested I register for a race. “Why not? You’re all trained up!”

“But that’s not why I run,” I reminded her. Months beyond the race shaming I experienced by runners far more skilled than I am, I still believe I made the right decision for myself. Race participation is one important part of the running culture, but it should not be a requirement for acceptance. My lack of interest in huddling beside others in a race coral before sunrise doesn’t discount the fact that I can bust out a 10-miler with ease—and often do. I respect the runners who love racing, who train in anticipation of a goal race for weeks and pour their energy into race day. Those athletes love running just as much as I do, but in different ways.

I am a runner—no matter how or where I log my miles.