These days it seems as if my social media feeds are often saturated with photos from random 5k races, especially during the spring months. Each year it seems as if more and more of my friends and acquaintances have caught the running bug and decided to take the plunge. For many, these victorious race reports also seem to serve as the perfect opportunity for each person to share that defining moment at which he or she had in fact become “a runner”. To be honest though, what I’ve realized over time is that becoming a runner isn’t a matter of flipping a switch or crossing a threshold, becoming a runner is a journey. Here’s what I mean.
Phase I: Not a Runner
Step 1: Insisting that you’ll never be a runner
We’ve all been this person. You ran around playing tag and other games when you were a kid, and it made you tired. You ran in gym class because you were forced to, and it sucked. You might have even spent years making fun of all your friends who like to run, letting them know just how crazy you think they are.
Step 2: Deciding to start running
You come to a point in your live when you decide it’s time to make a change. Maybe you’ve put on a few pounds, gone through a tough breakup, or become disillusioned with your job. Maybe your friends are all running and you’ve decided you want to do it too. Maybe a coach or a friend or a family member encouraged you to do it. Eventually, you work up the willpower to go for that first run. You go, and you run as fast as you can. Running isn’t supposed to be slow, right? It’s hard to breathe, one block feels like it goes on forever, and that burrito you ate for lunch is giving you heartburn. You were totally right your entire life. Running is hard. It sucks. Why the hell are you doing it?
Step 3: Deciding you’ll never be a real runner
Now that you’ve decided to start running, you’ve inevitably also decided your lifestyle needs to change too. The thought of early morning gym sessions and tupperware containers filled with steamed vegetables and chicken breasts give you that glimmer of hope that maybe this time it’ll click and you’ll transform yourself into the person you’ve always wanted to be. After shuffling through that first couple of workouts, you realize that you hate getting up early, following a diet and fitness routine kind of sucks, and bland chicken is nowhere near as exciting as a late night Taco Bell run. Screw it. But then, something clicks inside of you, and you decide you’ll just give it one more shot.
Step 4: Actually trying to be a runner
This is the point where you finally decide to take running seriously. If you’re going to make this happen, you’ve got to start somewhere, stay consistent, and hold yourself accountable. Perhaps you decide to train with a more experienced running buddy, start tracking your workouts, or finally print out that couch to 5k program. This time, you’re going to finally actually do it. Who knows, maybe you’ll be one of those success story people. Maybe running will change your life.
Step 5: Hitting your first milestone
Finally, you’ve accomplished the very thing you never thought you were able to do! You feel pretty awesome about yourself at this point, since all of that hard work has finally paid off. Time to celebrate!
Phase II: The Noob
Step 6: The invincibility period
After reaching that first milestone, the idea that you’re actually a runner now starts to feel pretty good. You suddenly feel the desire to sign up for every 5k you can possibly run, chasing after that faster time. You can feel yourself improving, and you have the PRs to prove it. With every longer distance and every faster mile time, you feel more and more like running is making you whole again. You’re on top of the world at this point, so why bother listen to running advice from other people? After all, you’re improving so quickly and they aren’t, clearly you know more about your own body than they do.
Step 7: Deciding that you actually are a runner
Now that you’ve gone out there and nabbed a few PRs, you feel enough like a “real runner” to actually call yourself one. After all, you’re an experienced runner now, right? RIGHT? Time to post about it on Facebook! Since you’re officially a runner, this is also a great time to take your training up to a whole new level. It’s time to add distance! And speedwork! And more speedwork! In fact, why bother taking it easy on your long runs or adding in faster paces or extra repeats gradually? You’re getting faster now, and faster means better! It seems to be working, so why ruin a good thing?
Step 8: Dealing with setbacks
What goes up must come down, as the saying goes. Maybe it starts as a twinge in your lower back, pain in your foot, or an ache in your shin. You try to tough it out at first, because after all, quitting isn’t what got you where you are. Unfortunately, continuing to push through the pain only makes the pain worse and worse. Your runs become more painful and less fun. Suddenly the initial glow of your running journey is over. The PRs stop coming. You have fewer and fewer truly awesome runs and continuously begin to question why the hell you even decided to sign up for that next race at all. This is where the true test begins.
Step 9: Learning your limits
This is the point at which the runner comes to terms with the fact that he is not, in fact, immortal. Whether it’s an IT band issue, plantar fasciitis, a stress fracture, or some other problem, adversity finally hits. Maybe you didn’t actually know best after all.
Phase III: The Wise Runner
Step 10: Learning to train based on your limits
Despite the frustration, you decide to keep going, only this time you’ll be smarter. You’re no longer above following a training plan, taking the time to stretch and strengthen, or accepting advice from more experienced runners. You’ve done it once before, but this time you’re going to do it the right way. As you start taking the time to structure your workouts in a smarter way, you start to become more in-tune with your body and its needs.
Step 11: Accepting your limits
As you begin following a more structured training schedule and taking the time to care for your body, you realize that you actually do feel the best when you run smarter, not harder. Unfortunately, now you must choose between pushing yourself to the max, just like you did when you were getting all those PRs, and training in a way that doesn’t put so much stress on your body. Finding that happy balance between challenging yourself and not overdoing it isn’t exactly easy, especially when you’re haunted by the memory of past achievements and goals. Fortunately, this is the point where you become adept at learning how and when to set reasonable goals for yourself.
Step 12: Accepting that your goals and limits are not the same as everybody else’s goals and limits
Eventually, running becomes more about what makes you happy and makes your body feel good rather than checking off a list of achievements. Sure, you might try out a new distance or see improvements in your fitness every now and then, but the sport becomes increasingly more about having the ability to spend more time doing what you love and less about where you think you should be. You understand that sometimes you need to challenge yourself a little, while other times you need to need to chill out and simply focus on what you love about running, and that’s okay. Essentially, you’re finally in a place where you can run your own run.
Which stage of the runner’s journey are you in?