What Makes a Runner

“I often hear someone say I’m not a real runner. We are all runners, some just run faster than others. I have never met a fake runner.”

Bart Yasso
Standing in a corral at a race start

When you picture a runner in your mind, what does that person look like?  I had an experience recently that made me wonder what people might envision. I was at an event, chatting with a woman I just met (I’ll call her Suzie).  We were outside – me standing, bundled up in a heavy coat against the cold, while Suzie sat in her chair, smoking a cigarette and drinking a soda.  We were doing that verbal dance where we were getting to know each other, talking about our interests among other things.  I mentioned I was a runner and was in training for my next marathon.  Suzie looked me over, took a drag off her cigarette, and commented I didn’t look like a marathon runner.  I wasn’t sure what she meant,  I assumed Suzie meant I was too short to run long distances.  I responded I am the same height as one of my running heroes, Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the first Women’s Marathon in the Olympics.  Suzie considered this for a few moments then asked me what my marathon time was.  I shared my PR time from the Berlin Marathon where I was able to achieve a sub-5 hour marathon.  I could tell by Suzie’s facial expression she was not impressed.

A few days I later I started thinking more about this conversation with Suzie  It bothered me.  What was it about my appearance that made Suzie think I was not capable of being a marathon runner?  Is there some defined standard for the figure of a marathon runner that I don’t fit?  If someone completes a marathon in over 4 hours, are they no longer considered a marathon runner?

Perhaps in Suzie’s mind a marathon runner is the one who breaks the tape at a race with a sub-3 hour time.  But then is everyone else who crosses the finish after them discredited as runners?  In terms of build, are runners only tall, thin people?  Are only people who were born in Kenya or Ethiopia runners?  Both countries are home to many of today’s highly competitive elite marathon runners (Kenyan runners hold the male and female world records in the marathon).  Maybe Suzie believes anyone else is just a poser.

I started thinking about the types of people I have seen in the corrals at marathon start lines.  Granted I usually start in the middle or at the back so you don’t find any of the elites standing around with me.  In my corral there are people of all sizes, shapes, and ages.  They are tall; short; thin; not so thin; young; and old.  There are runners with prosethic legs, even blind runners with guides.

There are different categories for runners: elite (professional), open (non-professional), age group categories including Masters (40+ years old), Grand Masters (50+ years old) and Senior Grand Masters (60+ years old).  If I had told Suzie about the categories for Clydesdales (male runners with weight between 200 lbs and 220 lbs) and Athenas (female runners with weight between 145 lbs and 160 lbs) offered at some races, her cigarette smoke would have come out of her ears.  

Some runners might not even run the entire time.  Instead they could use the method promoted by Jeff Galloway where the runner will run followed by a short walk break and repeat. Jeff Galloway was himself a competitive distance runner in his younger days before he developed the run-walk-run method.  The Galloway method has helped hundreds of thousands of people take up running and avoid injuries as well as helping older runners continue with a sport they enjoy.  Whether they use the Galloway method or not, it is not unusual to see people taking walk breaks during a marathon.  If Suzie knew I use the Galloway method, I think her head would have exploded.

The bottom line is this.  No matter what you look like or how fast you are, if you run, you are a runner.  While I might not be the fastest runner out there, I am doing my best to run in my mid-60s with a neurological disorder that has forced others into wheelchairs (and I only started running at age 49 too).  I consider myself fortunate to be able to still do this.  I don’t have polite words for anyone who sits smoking a cigarette and tells me I don’t look like a marathon runner.  I have medals from 18 marathons telling me that I am.

“When the gun goes off, we all follow the same course to the finish line. But each of us has taken a different path to the starting line.”

Bart Yasso