Friday, February 6, 2015

Why running is a part of who I am

Today in a Facebook running group, someone asked the following question of the group: "Is being a runner just something you do/a hobby or is it part of you/your identity and is there a downside to the latter?"

There was a healthy discussion, with seemingly little correlation between how much someone ran, how fast they were, and how much running was a part of their identity. Here's my response:
Hmmm... I run about 10 hours a week, cross-train 5 hours a week, spend about 15 hours a week on my race-timing business, maybe 5 hours a week administering running clubs, another god-knows-how-many hours online on FB/running forums, not to mention a few hours blogging / logging all this. If this isn't my true identity I'm in a VERY good witness protection program!
I spend at least 40 hours a week on running-related activities! That's a full-time job! Good thing I don't have a full-time job, or I'd really be in trouble.

This is not to say I'm only a runner. Although running is a huge part of my identity, it's not the most important thing in my life. If I spend 40 hours a week on running, that leaves 128 hours for everything else. Even allowing 8 hours a night for sleeping, that still leaves more than 72 hours for non-running activities. If I was really efficient, I could have a full-time job on top of all that running! I love my family and friends, love travel, cooking and food, love backpacking and the outdoors, love literature and writing. Other than definitely ranking below family, friends, and food, I'm not sure where running falls in that hierarchy. Maybe it's next after those three.

Fortunately I don't have to choose or specify a ranking, and even more fortunately, my running doesn't interfere much with the others. My family appreciates that I'm staying healthy (though sometimes they might think I'm a little unhealthily healthy), many of my best friends are my running partners, and running enables me to eat more food while staying healthy.

But clearly my passion for running has led me to make some dramatic changes in my life. After spending most of my life as an occasional runner, I ran my first half-marathon in 2006, having lost about 30 pounds to get to 208, the lightest I had been in years. But the workouts had been so draining that I felt they were compromising my career as a science writer. So I backed off the training, running another, slower half in 2007 and then going back to my occasional-running ways and gaining back 20 pounds.

It wasn't until I joined the then-tiny Davidson Area Running Team (DART) in 2010 that I really got serious about running. My new running buddies convinced me to sign up for my first marathon, in 2011, and I shifted gears in my career, going from daily science blogging to writing a weekly column, which made it easier to run more. I lost all the weight I had regained and then some, getting down to 195. By the end of 2011 I had not only run three marathons, I had qualified for Boston!

Since then, it's been a gradual transition as running has taken a larger and larger place in my life. I now weigh about 185. Now other than the occasional Science-Based Running post, I don't do much science writing at all. But I do have a growing race timing business that satisfies the need to be productive and make some money (my wife's career has always been the primary source of income for our family, so I don't have to work full time).

But why does running consume so much of me? It's not like I'm an especially gifted runner. Although I can usually win an age-group award in local races, when the competition gets tougher I've never cracked the top 3 in an age group.

For me, it comes down to a few key things:
  1. Camaraderie/friendship: My running friends are among my closest friends. Current best-practices in running argue that 70% or more of running should be at an easy pace. That means you can carry on conversations while you work out. You can continue those conversations in the coffee shop after the run. After a while, you start doing other things besides running with your running buddies, and you realize you can't live without them.
  2. Constant, measurable improvement: Even though running can involve setbacks, the pattern from week to week, month to month, and year to year, always involves improvement or progression toward a goal. Even if you get injured and have to take time off and rebuild, you can see yourself getting better again; this sort of improvement is endlessly satisfying (at least to me!).
  3. The opportunity to help others: Now that I've been a serious runner for 5 years, I've accumulated a lot of knowledge. New runners in my various running groups come to me for advice. There's little more fulfilling than seeing a friend reach a goal or a milestone, whether it's completing her first marathon, winning his first age group award, or setting a new PR.
  4. Fun: I genuinely like running. I like it so much I do it in the rain, in the cold, in the wind, in the heat, in the humidity, when I'm traveling, when I'm sad, when I'm hung over, when I'm not even sure I can complete the workout I have planned. I like feeling the cool wind in my beard, I like the dark mornings, I like seeing the sunrise, I like the focus it takes to keep my legs churning away at the optimal rate. Don't get me wrong, I like winning awards and setting PRs too, but I wouldn't be trying to do those things if I didn't like the hours and hours and thousands of miles of training it takes to get those awards and PRs.
So running is now a critical part of my identity. Yes, I'm a husband, a father, a brother, an outdoorsman, a traveler, a writer, a friend, and a cook, and probably some other things too.

But I'm unquestionably a runner, and I wouldn't have it any other way.


  1. I love everything about this post! Well said, my friend. Well said!

  2. To be or not to be... A runner! Looks like you are, indeed! Quite a writer too though!

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  4. This was a great read! Even though I haven't been running for nearly as much as you have, I also feel like running is part of my identity. It's actually been really awesome realizing that I have found something I feel that way about.