What Makes Someone A Runner?

I've been working my way through the book 26 Marathons: What I Learned About Faith, Identity, Running, and Life from My Marathon Career by Eritrean-American running legend Meb Keflezighi. It is a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it.

In one of the early chapters, Keflezighi recounts the story of how, as the American record-holder in the 10,000 meters and an Olympic silver medalist in the marathon, with a personal best marathon time of 2:10, he mentions to someone he meets that he is a marathon runner. The other person asks him if he's ever run the Boston Marathon, and if so, what was his time? At that point, however, Keflezighi had never run the Boston Marathon, and had to answer accordingly.

He says that this experience taught him that people measure a runner's ability by how well they ran the Boston Marathon, and not much else. This section of the book should resonate with most runners, and certainly resonated with me. Nobody cares much about how fast a runner runs, or what races they've won. They don't even care what records they hold.

All the general public knows about distance running is the Boston Marathon. For that reason, some people (not Meb Keflezighi, of course) treat the Boston Marathon less like a race and more like a declaration of identity. Anybody can run, but only special people run the Boston Marathon. If you run the Boston Marathon, you can be special, too. The Boston Marathon is a "thing."

It's a foreign concept to me, because I grew up at a time when running was still very much a competitive sport. "What is your best marathon time?" was always a more relevant question to me than "Have you done the Boston Marathon?" All my friends were running the Salt Lake City Marathon and the Top of Utah Marathon, both of which take place at elevations exceeding 4,000 feet. If you can post a sub-three-hour marathon time in a marathon like that, does it really matter what happens in Boston?

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At age 23, I entered a very difficult race. Held in the middle of summer, the course ran across the unique topography of the Canadian prairies. There, "coulees" are essentially what those of us raised near mountains would call "foothills," except where foothills go up, coulees go down. Other than that, it's quite similar: single-track trails over rolling hills, surrounded by bushes and short trees, inhabited by rabbits and coyotes.

Having run 20 to 30 miles quite frequently for several years, the 20-mile distance of this race didn't bother me at all. I was looking forward to a strong finish. When I started the race, however, I discovered a few unfortunate things. First of all, the hot weather was insufferable. I had no idea that Canadian summers could be so hot. Second, I had a breakfast misstep when I ate a vegetable omelet featuring a large portion of peas. Peas and distance running are a poor combination. Owing mainly to these two factors, I ran poorly that day.

I also discovered a third thing, however: "Adventure races" suck.

I didn't quite realize that I had made this discovery at the time, however. It took me another couple of years, when I participated in the relay category of an event called The Canadian Death Race. In the Canadian Death Race, individual competitors must run 125 kilometers through the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I joined up with a relay team featuring relative running novices. As the expert runner of the group, I took on the second-longest, but most physically strenuous leg of the race. I don't quite remember how long my leg was, but it started at the valley floor and went straight up the side of a 10,000 foot mountain to the summit, then back down the other side.

To my great surprise, my leg of the race did not follow along the usual hiking trail up the mountain. Normal hiking trails use "switchbacks." Basically you hike diagonally upward for a while, and then "switch back," meaning you walk back the other direction, but still upward. Like this:
This helps relieve the physical exertion required to travel straight uphill for miles at a time. It's also more eco-friendly, helping to avoid soil erosion and to prevent avalanches. In the Canadian Death Race, however, the course bypassed the switchbacks and instead cut a course straight up the side.

I get it. It's more difficult to run up a mountain that way. But it's also damaging to the eco-system, and it's also not very fun. Running up switchbacks is one of the most exciting things a trail runner can do. It's exhilarating to zig-zag up a large mountain, every twist and turn revealing more of the summit as you get closer. The athlete gets a beautiful view of the valley below on one side of the trail, and the summit on the other side. There are fun trees, rocks, and streams to jump over. It's the kind of trail that people get into trail running for in the first place.

What surprised me even more than the race course, however, was learning that none of the other race participants ran the uphill sections of the course. Only me! Everyone else walked the uphills and ran on the flat or downhill sections of the course.

That was when I realized that ultramarathon "running" was not really about running at all. You don't brag about your finish time when you run the Canadian Death Race. You brag about making it to the finish line along with everyone else. Even though "finishing" means walking up every hill and stopping to eat pizza at the rest stations (yes, I literally saw people eating pizza as they competed in the Death Race), no one is keeping track of whether you ran fast or stayed healthy all day. You're there to just finish, and everyone who crosses the finish line is exactly the same, no matter how fast or slow they did it.

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In hindsight, this period in time was really the dawn of the adventure racing world. There were no "Spartan Races," and there was no such thing as "Obstacle Course Racing." Hell, crossfit hadn't even been invented yet. With the internet's help, people gained exposure to adventure races and ultramarathons, and it soon became a "thing," just like the Boston Marathon is a "thing." Before I knew it, people were asking me whether I'd ever done a Spartan Race. No, I'd said, What's that? Then they'd send me links of people rolling around in the mud and climbing ropes and carrying around bags of sand. None of the websites listed winners and finishing times. Silly Ryan, that wasn't the point.

In social situations, people would learn I was a runner. "Really!? Me, too!" I'd prepare myself for the kind of conversation I was used to having with my fellow runners: a conversation about nutrition, or effective training, or weekly mileage, or maybe personal records. Over time, these conversations disappeared from the running community and were replaced by eager questions about whether I'd done any Spartan Races.

I didn't feel left out, I felt frustrated. How do you tell somebody that you like to run 30-mile mountain summit trails carrying only a water bottle and a sandwich baggie full of peanuts, and that you do this weekly, when they want to talk to you about burpees? I do burpees, too, of course, but not as part of a race.

The problem is that the whole concept of running excellence transformed. It went from being about fast times, long distances, freedom, and solitude, to being about a cultish community of people who walked all the uphills and only ran in order to transport themselves from Challenge A, a giant mud puddle, to Challenge B, the monkey bars.

I used to run through rivers on my long runs all the time. It wasn't a thing. Monkey bars definitely weren't a thing. But now they are.

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The benefit of a thing, however, is that it is testament to your identity. If you run a Spartan Race, you get to take your photo on that podium thing, with the Spartan Race logo behind you. Same with the Boston Marathon. Same, for that matter, with climbing Mount Everest.

At about the same time these mud-and-monkey-bar races were getting started, Kilian Jornet was winning every European trail race that mattered, and setting records along the way. by his early twenties, he had achieved everything he ever wanted to achieve with running. He experienced a brief depression as a result of having lived his dreams so young and still having so much life ahead of him. Then, he turned to mountaineering.

He tells this story in the movie Kilian Jornet: Path to Everest. Jornet began his running career as a competitive athlete, and eventually transitioned to trail racing. Once he was the undisputed champion, though, he needed something more than mere competition to drive him. So, he thought about it and decided on a list of mountains he wanted to summit.

He didn't just want to summit them, however. He wanted to summit them using his style, running up the mountain with minimal equipment, and then quite often skiing back down. Like an alpinist. There was no one else out there doing this at the time, so there was not much competition involved. Sure, he set some records in terms of how fast a person can reach a summit and come back down, but over the course of Jornet's movie and his "Summits of My Life" project, he learns that competition and speed isn't really the point.

Admirably, Jornet moved to Norway, to a relatively rural part of the country, where he could spend his days climbing mountains, skiing, and enjoying the outdoors. He mentions in the movie that in Norway the mountains don't have names, so he doesn't know which peak he's climbing, except that he's climbing it, and he's enjoying himself.

Other than the occasional social media post and Strava upload, no one is really keeping track of which peaks he climbs and how fast he's doing it. Again, it's not a competitive thing. He's doing it for himself, for fun, and to enrich his soul.

While Kilian Jornet shares a lot in common with the average runner at the Canadian Death Race, the difference is unmistakable. The Death-Racers are driven by a desire to say they are Death-Racers. It's about identity. It's about the photos, and the medal at the finish line. People who finish the Boston Marathon want mostly to be able to say that they ran and finished the Boston Marathon, and are thus "marathoners." Kilian Jornet just wants to spend some time in the mountains. If not for his sponsorships, he might not even care that anyone knew what he was doing. It's not a thing for him.

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There is an important distinction to be made here. I'm sure if you asked Kilian Jornet why he does what he does, he'd give you an answer similar to the one you'd get from Meb Keflezighi, which is an answer similar to the one I give people when they ask me why I run so much. Why do it? Why get up at 4 A.M. and run around the neighborhood? What am I training for? Have I run the Boston Marathon? Have I ever done a Spartan Race? Why did I bike 37 miles on a single-speed bicycle in the dark, before breakfast, even though I was tired? 

Jornet, Keflezighi, and people like them will likely tell you that they do what they do because it's just what they do. It's a part of them. It's who they are. Running is certainly a major part of who I am. I am compelled to run; there isn't much choice in the matter. I do what I do because I'm me, and this is what the person who is me does. If I didn't do it, I wouldn't be me any longer.

So, if my identity is so wrapped up in running, how is this any different than a person who runs the Boston Marathon for reasons of identity? 

It comes down to the direction of causality. Running is an element of being who I am. I am who I am, and therefore I run. It's no different than the fact that, when my daughter comes home from school, I know she will flash me a mischievous grin and say or do something silly to make me laugh. This is inevitable, there is little doubt that it will happen, because it's an indelible part of who she is, like right- or left-handedness. Running does not cause me to be me. Being me causes me to run. 

Compare that to the runner who does not even know how to talk to other runners, except about the Boston Marathon. If these folks don't run the Boston Marathon, or at least try to, then they scarcely consider themselves to be runners at all. If the Boston Marathon were cancelled indefinitely, these folks would have no other reason to run, at least until some other running event took Boston's place as The Thing That Runners Do. And all that matters is doing it, not doing it fast or doing it twice or anything else. The causality here goes the other way: Running causes them to be who they are.

In the same way, a running the Canadian Death Race causes someone to be a Death-Racer, and running a Spartan Race causes someone to be an Obstacle Course Racer. There is no identity without the event; the event causes the identity. Running up a mountain doesn't make a person an "ultramarathoner," even if they do it many times and up many mountains. You have to bypass the switchbacks and run through the mud pit. There must be photos and a finisher's medal. Only then are you who you say you are.

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So much of what we do today is geared toward external recognition. The marketing teams behind the things we value have every incentive to make us think that way, too. Certainly more people will pay to run a Spartan Race if it is understood to be the only way to claim that they're true Spartans. The Boston Marathon is more financially lucrative than the Top of Utah Marathon precisely because it serves as the external validation of a runner's ability to run. 

Aside from the marketing teams, however, it's not clear to me who benefits from this mentality. Maybe there are people out there who truly aren't satisfied by their running ability until they qualify and run the Boston Marathon. But how much happier would they be if they didn't feel obligated to cross an experience off of a list in order to enjoy running? 

A person ought not have to fight in order to be who they are. Nobody who loves chocolate has to fight for the title of "chocolate lover." All you have to do to be a chocolate lover is love the chocolate that you eat. Wouldn't it be interesting if that's how we defined runner's, too? You're a runner if you run. You run? Great, you're a runner.

I've actually had that conversation many times. I discover that someone I know likes to run, I strike up a conversation with them about it, and they quickly try to temper my expectations. "I don't run like you, Ryan. I'm not fast. I only run at 10:00 per mile pace. I've never done a marathon. I just like to go out for a run after work every other day."

When I hear this kind of thing, I say to people, "You run three to four times per week? That sounds like you're a runner to me!" In reality, such people deserve the title of "runner" far more than someone who plasters their social media accounts with race photos. They do it because they want to. That makes them runners.

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