The Reluctant Athlete’s Brief Memoir – A Runner’s Story

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I have been a reluctant athlete. Or maybe I have just been reluctant to call myself an athlete.

In small South Dakota towns, like the one where I grew up, athletes are the cool kids on the basketball, volleyball, football and track teams. Athletes win state championships so that their hometowns can put the year the high school captured the State B Basketball Tournament on a sign outside the “city” limits.  Athletes play on teams … and win.

A woman who emerges from her front door at 5:30 a.m. on what will be a scorching Arkansas day to run (and sometimes trudge) through a short 3-miler may not always think of herself in this category.

Around the 10-year anniversary of my first run, I will run my second full marathon. I think it would be difficult for my high-school nonathlete self to believe what she would do, and I know it would be difficult for my nonrunning 33-year-old self to believe it as well.

But in 2003, my doctor had spoken to me with candor: “You’re not overweight, which is great, but that doesn’t mean you’re healthy. GET SOME EXERCISE.” I started riding an exercise bike we had in the basement while reading Anna Karenina, but when I got bored with that, my marathon-running friend Sarah encouraged me to hit the road and run. I assured her I could never do that because the last time I tried, it had been a lung-wringing debacle. “You’ve been riding your bike every day,” she said. “You’ll see. You can do it.”

She told me to drive a half-mile from my home and mark the point. “Just run and walk to and from that place until you can run the whole way,” she said, and I was able to run nearly the whole mile the first day. That early success experience engaged me enough in the aspirational aspects of running (doing more, going farther, moving faster) that I have not stopped since.

Now, I’m always signed up for another race; I’m always training for something; I’m always thinking of my next run. But it has taken me a long time to call myself a runner. I probably wasn’t really comfortable with the term until I had several half-marathons behind me.

So, no, I don’t win races; I don’t even win my age-group… or place in my age group, even in small races. (Okay, once I got a 14th-place trophy in a small, one-mile fundraising race.) I’m in the back of the middle of the pack, and in the New York Marathon, which I ran in 2011, I was probably in the middle of the back of the pack, or in the back of the back of the pack, though, thankfully, I wasn’t last.

Which is why I have not been comfortable before thinking of myself as an athlete, and yet I see with my running, the cycling I added later and my energetic, regular and frequent Jazzercise workouts, I am athletic.

It can be difficult to change the way we think of ourselves; even when we change our behavior, our values and our attitudes about something, it’s hard to shift the adjectives and nouns that we apply to our own identities.

But I tell myself, a dress doesn’t have to be worn to the coronation of the Queen of England to be called a dress. It is a dress. A runner runs. An athlete is athletic. I am a runner. I am an athlete.

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