Becoming a Real Athlete

I am dealing with my not-so-lovely tendinitis of the butt and I have not run in over four weeks. It’s not getting better the way we would like it to. This week, the Maestro, my physical therapist, recommended a week of no activity at all. I’m struggling, big time.

Claiming titles matters. It’s a question of identity. That’s why this injury is so upsetting to me. It feels like my identity is at stake here. Maybe it isn’t really, but that is what it feels like. I didn’t used to be an athlete or a runner or anything except someone who sometimes went to aerobics class to avoid becoming fat. I lived a mental life, not a physical one, and that was actually ok with me. When I was growing up, most of the people I respected were intellectuals. We generally regarded athletes – meaning high school and college athletes – as probably inadequately smart to handle doing something “real”. Obviously that was bullshit, but I didn’t have anyone telling me different.

I did some recreational biking and rowing in college and I loved both of those sports, but neither of them stuck long enough to get integrated into my life. Dipping my toes in was tremendous, but not life changing.

Running was different. At first it was just a convenient way to avoid putting on weight and to keep a tendency toward high blood pressure under control. I finished the Couch to 5K program and did my first 5K, alone, in August 2009. I didn’t race again until the Manchester Road Race in November 2010. In between those races, though, I kept running and my identity started to shift, just a little bit. Over the course of the next year, it changed a lot more.

My entire friendship group changed. What I did with my free time changed. I got a subscription to Runner’s World and Running Times and read them cover-to-cover every month. I got a fancy running watch. My wardrobe started to change, too. I had to buy clothes to run in, and then winter clothes and a jacket and a hat and gloves. And then pretty shirts and race shirts, and fancy socks. The regular clothes in the dresser lost more and more space to the running gear.

People have a hard time claiming the title runner. I bet if you asked my online running group, the Sub-30 Club on FaceBook, how many of them felt like they could say comfortably “I am a runner” with no qualms at all, a bunch of folks would feel like they couldn’t do it. Wrong body type, not fast enough, not enough miles, never race, they would say. To me, a runner is someone who runs. Period. I remember my mom once saying that she bought something for me at the running store and the clerk asked how many miles a week I ran. My mom knew it was about 25 and the clerk said, “oh, she’s a real runner then.” I was kind of pissed because no salesclerk gets to decide whether I am a runner or whether anyone is a runner. A runner is someone who runs. But, to be totally honest, I am not sure I knew I was a runner until that salesclerk thought he had the right to decide.

By November 2011, I was a runner. A baby runner and still a little uncomfortable with the term, but a runner nonetheless. From 2011 to 2013, I had two glorious years of transformation. I tried everything I could. Ragnar, half marathons, lots of new running friends, running four times a week, long runs on the weekend.

It took one marathon to become a marathoner. Hartford. October 2013. But also, of course, the summer of training leading up to the race. Because if a runner is someone who runs, a marathoner is someone who runs marathons. So, I became a marathoner. I found marathoner an easier title to accept than runner, because it’s so much more measurable. And marathoner, well, that involves long runs and ice baths and “fueling” instead of eating and lots more planning and tons of running, and I loved it all.

But an athlete? I’m still not comfortable with that title. How can I be an athlete? I’m a professor. I would be interested to hear Ted Spiker’s thoughts on that actually. That is partly why I am Professor Badass. To remember both parts.

I can hardly even write about the idea of being an athlete. After Hartford, I got a lot more serious about running. I started going to the gym. Everything I had been doing got amped up. Gym time. Speed work. Better training plan. Chin up challenge. Working with a personal trainer. Working out every day instead of four days a week. Daily check-ins with Chris and Nicole, my virtual training partners. Heavier race schedule. But an athlete? Me? Athlete is an identity in pretty serious conflict with the ones I am used to: Professor. Bookworm. Nerd, even.

But now athlete means something different to me than it used to and it turns out, I would like to be one. It’s a physical project. It’s about competition, even if that competition is with yourself. This sounds tacky as hell, but it’s about glory. It’s about rising above the everydayness of life to do something amazing. And actually it doesn’t really matter if that something amazing is at the Olympics or two kids duking it out to not be last in a middle school cross-country meet.

How long have I been a runner? Since May 31, 2009. First run of Couch to 5K program.

How long have I been a marathoner? Since October 12, 2013. First marathon completed.

How long have I been an athlete? I’m not sure. Am I one now? Maybe since November 2013?

Thank God for my gym, Innovative Fitness and Wellness. Because there are “real athletes” there for sure, but there are also a whole lot of other people there too. People on some kind of slope between not-(yet)-athlete and athlete. People proving that “athlete” isn’t a title you have to be born with. You can earn it. Which was news to me. But if a runner is someone who runs and a marathoner is someone who runs marathons, what is an athlete? What do you have to do in order to claim that title? I don’t know.

As a professor, I know a lot about college athletes. College athletes are on the college team. They always wear sweats to class, also the girls. They wear their baseball hats backwards, regardless of sport. They are actually sometimes excellent and sometimes horrible students. They often hang out together and I will run into them at the Wesleyan gym if I go there, so I usually don’t.

What are post-college athletes? I don’t know. People who have been on teams before? Someone like Snarky Girl, who can just sort of do any physical task she wants to? Someone like Teacher Runner, who will simply settle into an assigned workout without asking a bunch of questions? Someone like Tough Guy Trainer, who has amazing muscles and can jump up on a huge box or even a moving tire? Me?

Maybe me, when I am at the gym three times a week, even if my friends can’t come. Maybe me, when I organize a running crew to replace my favorite but pregnant training partner, Fast Friend. Almost certainly me, when I grumble, but switch to swimming or biking in order to stay active when I can’t run.

Me, when I’m on the couch for a week doing nothing? I don’t know. Just a week isn’t really a problem. Two weeks, three weeks, when does sloth return?

I have made a really big change in my life. But I didn’t make it all that long ago. I don’t know if it is permanent yet or not. I hope it is. Maybe getting past this injury will show me one way or another. I have a lot more at stake now and I think that is why I am finding this so hard.

What do you think? What does it mean to be an athlete?



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1 Response to Becoming a Real Athlete

  1. I have more trouble accepting marathoner than runner because if eone completed one…I run constantly, so I feel like I can be a runner. I wish I could accept marathoner as easily!

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