August 18 2017
One runner shares her long history with ultrarunning and explains how the sport helped her heal from a major surgical mistake.
Growing up, I had no problem attaching myself to labels. Girl Scout, dancer, yearbook editor, honor society president, sister, daughter, best friend, worst friend, semi-professional balance beam faller—they all worked and I wore them with pride. Except maybe the balance beam one. Gymnastics was terrifying for me.
Maybe it’s because I didn’t start running until later in life that I had such an impossible time proudly and confidently calling myself a runner.
The first time I went running, I made it four blocks. I never gave up and months later, four blocks became four miles at a road race in Central Park.
After crossing that start line (the start was more exciting to me than the finish—go figure!), I was hooked. A few months after my debut race, I signed up for my first half marathon, followed by my second and my third. I ran almost daily (using the exact same route along NYC’s West Side Highway) and I did it for the love of running.
I never knew my pace. I never had time goals. I certainly didn’t have a GPS watch and my gear was 100% cotton. Body Glide? Never heard of it.
Even though I went through all of the motions (I LOVED running, covered many miles and had race medals to show for my accomplishments) I couldn’t bring myself to identify as a runner.
The women I admired as runners seemed to know exactly what to do. They had coaches, training plans and race schedules. They had these fancy devices (called Garmins) and they knew the difference between the Reservoir and the Bridle Path in Central Park. They were fast and they ran far—26.2 miles far, to be exact.
All of my newfound runner friends were marathon veterans and planned to run many more. So, to me, they were the real runners shuffling by my side (OK, sprinting past me) in the park every Saturday morning for hours at a time.
It wasn’t until I decided to train for my first marathon that I finally latched onto that elusive runner title. I enlisted the help of a coach. I had the Garmin, the fancy running clothes and an often-used account at my local running store. I even started a running blog to chronicle my efforts.
One day during my marathon training, I was out for an easy 5 AM-er in Central Park and as I exited the park, three of my fast “real runner” friends saw me. “Come run with us, Ali!” they encouraged. I didn’t, because I was done with my run and I was terrified to run a single mile more than my coach instructed. But that day, still months before my first marathon attempt, I felt like a runner. The cool girls wanted me to join them. They looked at me as one of them. It wasn’t their Bridle Path, it was our shared dirt road, blanketed in all of our footprints and sweat. In that moment I realized I was a runner and had been from the first day I attempted a run.
Looking back on my storied little running history, it’s clear I became a runner long before I conquered the mighty 26.2. The mere fact that I laced up my shoes and put one foot in front of the other qualified me as a runner from day one – I just needed to believe in myself.
No one else has the power to tell you when you’re really a runner. If you run, you’re a runner. When you lace up to hit the roads, trails or treadmill, you have something in common with the Deena Kastors, Shalane Flanagans and Buzunesh Debas of the world. You are part of the sole sisterhood.
Sure, their half marathon times are equivalent to my 10K times and they would lap me on any course. But we are all out there doing it, loving it (OK, sometimes struggling through it) and making it a part of our lives.
Whether you’re a recreational runner or you’re striving for a PR, embrace the title. I think you’ll find it’s kind of empowering.
Alison Feller is a runner and writer chasing her dreams in New York City. Follow her running story (and laugh at her witty sense of humor!) on her blog, Ali on the Run.