Does Your Label Still Fit?

You can run without being a “runner.”  I did it for five years.

Even once I had run a handful of marathons and was close to qualifying for Boston, when I lined up at the start of a race among all these passionate runners, I still felt like an imposter.

I was just a tourist, doing what runners do, but without feeling like I really belonged.

Sometime during the training for my Boston-qualifying race, where I finally succeeded in breaking 3:10:59, something shifted in me.

Shortly after qualifying, when I was in that happy, weirdly cloudlike space you find yourself in after accomplishing something you’ve worked at for so long, I read Born to Run. And damn if I didn’t feel like a runner after that.

For the first time, I could say that I really loved running, not just as a means of staying in shape or for accomplishing goals, but for its own sake.

And so I became a “runner.”  Quotes and all.

Tourist vs. runner

When I was just a tourist, I sometimes took six months off after a marathon before I got motivated to start running again.

But once  became a runner, I always had at least two races on my schedule.  So even when I finished one, there was another there to get me back out on the roads.

When I was just a tourist, I always ran with a purpose.  Speedwork, hill work, tempo run, long run, easy run. I had a goal, and I did whatever I thought was the best way to get there.

But once I became a runner, I would just run.  Run the trail. Run the loop through my neighborhood. Run through town. And usually all at the same easy pace.

When I was just a tourist, I put everything I had into the race I was training for.  Eat right, warm up, foam roll, ramp up your mileage, taper properly.

But once I became a runner, I became too comfortable. “I know I can finish this marathon whether I train hard and eat right or not. I’ll make it through my 12-miler tomorrow; gimme another beer!”

Time to be a tourist

Looking at it that way, it sort of seems like I was a better runner before I was a “runner.” In fact, I’ll bet a few runners just took offense to my abuse of the title.

Having worn that label for a couple years now, I think I’m ready to put my tourist hat back on.

I want to feel free to experiment.  If, say, I want to just swim for three months (and finally learn to go more than eight laps and not look like a wounded duck), I’d like to be able to do that without feeling guilty about not running. Who knows, maybe that’s what it’ll take for me to finally want to do an Ironman.

Or if I want to lift heavy weights and pack on a few pounds, it’ll be a real relief not to worry about how that extra weight might slow me down. And that extra strength might end up making me a stronger trail runner.

So that’s what I’m doing.  Today I’m joining the gym again, and I think I’ll go lift some weights. Maybe tomorrow I’ll swim. Or be the only guy in the cardio-kickboxing class. (Although, if after that I come back and say I’m going to become an MMA fighter, please kick my ass before someone else does for real.)

I’ll still run when I want to. But for a little while at least, I won’t call myself a “runner.” And I am freaking pumped about that.

Does your label still fit?

If you’re a runner or a swimmer or a triathlete, an omnivore or a vegan or a Paleo, or an anything-else-with-a-label, give yourself a little checkup.  Take a step back and make sure that label still fits the person you want to be.

If it does, then think about what it really means, and make sure you’re living it — not just going through the motions.

And if you decide you’d be better without that label, even if just for a little while, then ditch it. It’ll still be there when you’re ready to come back.  And when you’re ready, I bet you’ll come back with more passion than ever.

And you never know — you might just find another label that’s a much better fit.



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  1. I totally am in favor (at least for myself) to ditch all labels! I don’t want anyone using that label to try to predict my behavior, heehee!

  2. I’ve found that stepping into other activities on a more frequent basis – essentially upping my XTing has made me appreciate the time I spend running even more. I’m not beating myself up about missed mileage so much as I’m noticing how lifting weights has made my hill running more efficient.

    FWIW – I just started boxing again – and my boxing club is about as even a split in gender ratio as I’ve ever seen in a class. I doubt you’ll be the only guy – and even if you are, give it a shot. I actually think it works me MUCH harder than running does, but then I run slow.

  3. I have too many fitness loves to actually label myself. I guess “athlete” in general would be a good label, and I’m ok with that. I’m fine with just being ok at everything and not excelling at one thing in particular right now too. I wouldn’t give up one thing in exchange for being great at another. Variety is the spice of the life 🙂

  4. LOVE THIS I am a runner and a triathlete. Who has done very little of either this year. I still claim those labels because they are true. I do all three sports, just not as much because I’m currently on “vacation” Not from the sports, but from TRAINING. I just got tired of it after crazy training for several years. My “vacation” means I’m not racing. I run a few days a week. I ride every now and again and I swim if a shark is chasing me. Now I’m doing some yoga and hitting the gym. It’s awesome.

    But I am a runner and I am a triathlete.

    And I’m still a vegan. BIG TIME.

  5. Nice … love it!
    I think to be fully alive, we need to constantly be in renewal … so checking our labels is good for our body, mind and spirit.

  6. Yeah buddy, lightweight! (look up videos of Ronnie Coleman if you don’t get that reference)

  7. Great post! I wrote a recent one on my blog about calling myself a “runner” when training is a drag and my heart isn’t in it:

    Now that I’ve let go of the label and don’t hold myself to unrealistic pace times, I’ve been enjoying running more and actually get out to run almost every day because I want to do it.
    Enjoy being a tourist!

  8. When I first became a vegetarian, it was such a huge part of my identity that I was ringing the vegetarian bell left and right! I was vegetarian and proud! As the years wore on, I didn’t think about it so much. It went on the back burner. I still sometimes feel that way. (When people are suprised that I’m a vegetarian, that surprises me. It’s just no big deal.) But reading all these vegetarian blogs has renewed my love. I’ve been exposed to new recipes and diets. I guess I feel like a tourist again.*

  9. I get asked a LOT if I am a Vegan. I always answer …
    “The only thing I am 100% of the time is … Judy.”

    A specific meal might be classified as Vegan … another RAW and yet another as Vegetarian or Pescatarian. I no longer eat animal flesh, I do still eat fish and cheese occasionally. However, as I find suitable healthier substitutes I am able to eliminate foods that are not as nourishing to my body.

    That said … I am still known to sit down with a small bag of Miss Vicky’s Sea Salt & Vinegar Chips.

    I like being a “Tourist” as far as physical activities goes. I like to mix it up. I do love running the trails. There is just something magical about running through a forest or high in the mountains.

    After I completed Leg 2 of Sinister 7 (an Ultra-Marathon held in Blairmore Alberta) A friend was talking and included me in with all the “Athletes”. That did not feel right … I still do not think of myself as an ‘Athlete’ … I am not sure that I really ever will think of myself that way.

    It has always puzzled me as to why we as a society put so much emphasis on labels that force people into pigeon holes. I don’t know about you, but I have never fit into a pigeon hole and I am pretty sure most pigeons wouldn’t be too happy about being confined in one either.

    Keeping it RAW
    -Judy N Green

    • I agree wholeheartedly that more people should think more about how nourishing a meal is, and not necessarily whether it fits into a box labeled “Vegan”, “Carnivorous”, etc. I am vegan, and most of my family wont TOUCH anything I cook, simply because it has the vegan label and therefore (according to them) must be disgusting.

      I would like to correct you on one small thing however. You said “I no longer eat animal flesh, I do still eat fish and cheese occasionally.”

      Fish is an animal. Eating fish is still eating the flesh of an animal. I know the biggest question veg*ns get is “Do you still eat fish?”, since the Catholic church has confused people with rules for lent, stating that meat is bad, but “fish” is fine.

  10. Perfect timing. I’m in the same place and happy to have come to a similar conclusion. After my marathon in October I am definitely a tourist again. Can’t wait.

  11. Even elite professional runners do other things. There is nothing wrong with taking time off, and there are probably a slew of benefits to weight training and swimming. The human body is capable of a great many things; don’t impose limits dictated by artificial labels.

  12. This is funny, I was just thinking about my ‘runner’ label yesterday. See, a few months ago I bought my first ‘adult’ bicycle, and oh man have I had a good time with it! I might be (and I’ve never said this out loud) having more fun biking than I am running! Ahh, does that mean I’m no longer a runner? Nah, I think I’m just a dude who loves the solidarity and rhythm of running the long trails, and is finding his love for the speed and thrill of the bike.

    Matt, enjoy finding your new label, or ditching all labels all together. Just have fun being active!

  13. running farmer says:

    About once a week I just run. No planned route or distance. No watch or expectations. Shoes and a bottle and just go. In my last race I left my Garmin at home, on purpose. I simply wanted to toe the line and run. Worked out quite well, allowed me to just move without the distraction of monitoring pace, how far until this or that. Brought back some of fun.

  14. Athlete or just plain “healthy” is a good label. It’s too easy to narrow our focus down; doing just what’s good for “running” and to the exclusion of overall health.

    I like the idea of working out with bodyweight exercises that you can do anytime and almost everywhere [see books like “You are your own gym” by Mark Lauren and Joshua Clark.].

  15. I don’t like labels, in general, but you can call me a bikramyogini-runner. My 2 passions are hot yoga and running. I think it’s important to mix it up a little bit. It’s also ok to take a break from either activity every now and then. It doesn’t mean you are no longer a runner.

  16. ive been struggling with labels too lately. im really confused being a rookie “triathlete” and all. some say once you finish your first triathlon, you are a “triathlete”, some say thats silly. ive especially struggled with it in the past few months, ive lost my mojo to train, dont have any races on my schedule, and dont even feel like a “runner” anymore, much less a “triathlete”.

    same thing with calling myself a “vegetarian”, ive only been sans meat since april. what happens if i backslide and eat meat, can i no longer call myself a “vegetarian”, do i have to wait a certain period of time before i earn that title again? LOL. titles are so ridiculous sometimes 🙂

  17. Love this! Even though I have a few races on my calendar, I can’t wait until I can get back into the gym and hit the weights a bit harder and maybe even take up boxing!

  18. Wendy Fry says:

    This is fantastic and perfect timing! I definitely feel like an imposter at every little 5k race I run, and I’m sure I’ll feel that way at my first marathon coming up in the fall… so this morning I put my “No Meat Athlete” sticker on my car so that I’d HAVE to stick with my label. It’s stuck on me as long as I keep my car! It was a little mind-trick I played on myself so I can’t be a slacker… it’s on the sticker and the sticker doesn’t lie!! 🙂

  19. I believe the stigma of a label can work for and against. We can use it as we see fit to power through our lives. I think you laid out a template for this beautifully, from your own experience.

    I’ve used labels disposably to get through difficult challenges. It seems arrogant, but identifying myself as Paleo (and giving anyone who would listen, a progressively declining population, the news that I was eating Paleo) provided me a social accountability that exceeded any intrinsic will I had to nix sugar. Blazing that label on my chest was the difference between success and failure. But it also pissed off some friends (although at least two tried it…)

    I really wanted to row in college, although I was outclassed in many respects. The label, the icon, the jacket all provided a scaffold on which to rest when I temporarily lost desire. The label provided that structure, however flimsy. And in that case, I was better for having pulled through.

    Labels can rob us of creativity. Sometimes we find that which we love, when done “professionally,” turns to dread.

  20. If you label yourself anything, label yourself an activist! Keep your body active and while you’re at it, try to leave the world a better place by also being an activist in the other sense of the word.

    Also, there is some value in reclaiming the word ‘amateur’, which has taken on some baggage of inexperience or performing without pay, but which really stems from the same root as love – so…one who does something out of love.

  21. yes yes, I loved this post. I considered myself a runner a few months back as I trained for my first marathon. I completed it and ever since have pretty much ditched the idea that I’m a “runner”. I feel so much more free now, allowing myself to do whatever workout my body feels for the day. Sometimes its sprinting, sometimes it lifting, and other days its swimming in the lake. I love working out just to feel good and be flexible with it. No label for me at this point in my life!

  22. Perhaps the moment we wear a label is the moment we become closed to options and new experiences. I use to be defined by my activities. “She’s that competitive weighlifter.” And, the only activities I did were the ones that specifically contributed to preparing the competition cycle. And then I got burned out. And I quit. And I moped around for awhile trying to figure out who I was if I wasn’t “the weighlifter.”

    As I hike, climb, do yoga, weightlift, and put one foot in front of the other in quick succession (I won’t call it running), I will embrace the label of “doing-what-feels-right-at-the-moment-to-stay-healthy-and-happy.”

  23. Just to clarify a bit, I’m not anti-label. I think they can be useful. For example, if I stopped calling myself a vegan, I know I’d start slipping. I’d start by only eating cheese where I knew the source, but then it’d turn into eating it at restaurants where the source was iffy, and who knows where it would go from there.

    I’d love to be able to have very rare exceptions in my diet, but I know that I don’t have the willpower to do that. So the vegan label helps me by providing a line in the sand.

    • Great post! I’m just coming off of a long break where I tried to put my focus on everything but running. I still ran short distances a few times a week but did a lot of other activities like lifting, swimming, yoga, biking, and stand up paddling. I had a lot of fun and enjoyed it, but then one day, all of a sudden, I knew it was time to start running again. Now I’m back with a vengeance. I’m enjoying every step, be it road, trail, barefoot or shod. Breaks are a fantastic way to make yourself a well rounded athlete but, more importantly, just an interesting person!

    • I totally agree with that, Matt. Using the Vegan label reminds me of my decisions about what to put into my body. I don’t particularly like dietary rules, but being a “Vegan” gives me something to be proud of and a standard to stick to. I don’t think I would have the willpower to only cheat occasionally, so I choose to never cheat. However, I honestly can’t recall a time in the past 14 months of being vegan that I was even tempted to cheat. After how much my quality of life has improved, why would I ever want to go back? Thanks again to NMA Matt for being a very large part of the inspiration to become vegan:)

  24. Chris G. says:

    Being able to run for the sake of running, without goals, timers, GPS, labels, etc makes it fun, the way to should be, and allows one to slip into that euphoric, meditative state you so eloquently describe in a recent post. Enjoy!

  25. Having a label is something I’ve been struggling with a lot lately. I am a runner, through and through. I do it because I love it. I don’t need to train for anything, but I do because I love it. 2011 has been my year as a Pregnant Runner. I always knew I wanted to be a pregnant runner even before I got pregnant. And luckily enough for me, I didn’t have to stop. I ran 7 miles the morning I found out I was pregnant, and was still running 5 days/week regularly, though my mileage (and pace) dropped significantly. However, now that I am 7.5 months into my pregnancy, it is getting more and more difficult to continue running. I’m not ready to give up my label as a pregnant runner, but I know that until I do, I will hate every second I don’t get to run. It’s time to throw out the label until October when I become just a runner again – or a runner w/ a stroller!

  26. When I started reading this post, I was prepared to disagree with it. I don’t think that the “runner” label is a privilege, and I think that if you think you are a runner, you are, whether you run 15 or 50 miles a week. However, after reading, it made me think about how simple that label is. While I run almost every day, am training for my first marathon, and love it, it’s not all I do. I also lift weights, swim, bike, do yoga and pilates, and whatever else sounds fun and interesting. I also know that my love of running isn’t going to last forever–I might take a break from it, or get injured, and I don’t want to stop being active because of that. I guess, while I embrace the runner’s label, the more accurate label would be “healthy” or “active,” both of which embrace a more balanced, long-term approach towards fitness.

  27. I constantly change “labels” 🙂
    For a long time I really considered myself a runner. Then I was a crossfitter when I couldn’t run anymore. Now I like to consider myself a yogi. I go back and forth between all three of these labels, but I like that the great thing about labels is that you can change them!

  28. This is a very nice post. Enjoy your freedom. I have a feeling you will be a runner again soon.

  29. This post really made me think. Right now, I’m on running hiatus because an injury to my achilles has forced me to take some extended time off.

    During the past year, I’ve been forced to look for alternate activities, like swimming, aqua running, and biking, to fill several voids… there’s the ‘fitness’ void, but then there’s also the ‘running’ void.

    The swimming and aqua running have done an adequate job to fill the fitness void. Last Saturday, I spent over 90 minutes in a pool at our local college. I swam 40 laps, which took me about 30 minutes. (Last year at this time, I couldn’t even swim 4 laps without tiring out). Then, I spent the last hour in the deep end doing three-minute aqua-jog sprints, with 30 seconds of rest between each one. After I was finished, my heart felt like it was about to pop out of my chest. I knew I got a great cardio workout… but it bored me to tears.

    And the biking is practical, as I now bike to and from work several days a week. Aside from the cardio benefits, I’m saving gas.

    I also started practicing yoga four years ago, and I feel I’ve made great strides.

    However, after 8 months of mostly not running, I’ve realized that I’m a runner at heart. I honestly don’t think it’s a label or limitation I’m putting on myself. It’s just who I am. Biking and swimming may help me maintain fitness in the short-term, but they don’t fill that ‘running’ void. Running is how I gain enjoyment.

    I love being outside, feeling like I’m going somewhere. I know that biking can accomplish that for many, but to me, it always seems like work.

    Problem, too, with the achilles injury is that it takes a looooooong time to heal, and it’s not like I can just ‘run less’. I can’t run at all.

    And I’m trying to maintain a positive attitude, telling myself that the Achilles eventually will heal, and that all of this cross-training will make me stronger in the long run.

    I’m always open to trying new things, but I’ll always be a runner at heart.

  30. It’s interesting that you’ve posted this given my current thoughts on the label of “vegan”. I call myself a vegan, but I don’t eat that way for primarily ethical reasons, rather for health. I still own and wear things that have leather or suede. I’m always annoyed when people ask if i’m “allowed” to eat something. I’m allowed to eat whatever I please. And limiting myself to the vegan dogma doesn’t really encompass my eating styles anymore. Bee products aren’t vegan, but I eat them. And I also try to avoid wheat and cane sugar, which is fine by vegan standards. The label is easy for explaining to others my eating style, but when my eating style goes beyond the label, it starts to loose value.
    In a nutshell, thanks for posting this. It’s helping me to redefine myself and my actions not as part of some other group, but as myself and how I feel.

  31. What timing for this article, I was just looking at a yoga schedule and find myself inwardly fighting whether I can replace some running days with other activities. I am so use to running somehow when I do another activity it dosen’t seem to count as a work-out for the day. I can tell my body is calling for balance, however so I am going to take a leap and give it a try.

  32. Awesome post, I’ve recently moved away from running after my first marathon. I was sad at first that I may not be as into running as I once was, but I think we have to not fight the ebb and flows of life. Now I’m perfectly content doing all sorts of other exercise and not following any kind of plan! If that means I’m no longer a “runner” then so be it.

  33. I feel like I just gave myself the label “runner”. However, my “runner” sounds more like your “tourist”. When I was a tourist I thought I was doing things right by just running and not really taking care of myself and watching/changing what I eat. Then I read your book. I took your advice and could not be a happier “runner”! So here’s to your “tourist” hat and my “runner” hat! Happy running!

  34. I’m finishing up “Born to Run” and I LOVE it. It definitely reminded me of this site (as far as diet goes). I’m thinking I’m going to try being a vegetarian full on for a while..I don’t think I can do vegan..I love yogurt and cheese way too much!

  35. this is a great post and timely for me. I am a runner .. for now but I am thinking of checking that title myself after the pikes peak ascent (which really makes me more of a walker anyway)… I want to feel free to cross train and stop freaking about weekly miles. it will be a relief!

  36. I’m not anti label at all but by your definitions I’m a total “tourist” crap- I’ve been calling myself a runner. As much as I like calling myself a runner or eating “clean, unprocessed food” I also love to experiment. I like to mix it up with distances I train for, types of food or ingredients I cook and how I cross train (ski in winter, play tennis in summer etc). I like to have a plan and don’t enjoy winging it so by your definitions I will never be a runner, so sad (and kidding).

  37. Stephanie says:

    As I just finished up a glorious run, I was thinking about how much I love running — for the sake of running. I had to take off running for about 8 months last year because of a back injury, and a part of me was truly missing. Now that I have it back, its really the only physical activity I want to do. Whereas I have loved tris and swimming and spinning and even kickboxing, running is the one thing that I always come back to. Even when it hurts, it feels good. I think that makes me a runner — even if I’m not training for anything. I think you’re a runner when you love to run.

  38. I’ve been running for about 12 years and instead of saying I’m a runner, I say I run. At first I was uncomfortable saying I was vegan, but now I do it easily even though sometimes I question what I’m doing since it means I can eat in about 3 restaurants in my city and I can hear people moan when I say I’m vegan. I still feel really hopeful about veganism going mainstream though, even in the Capitol of the Confederacy!

  39. Meredith says:

    Love this! I’m definitely in “tourist” mode right now. Ran a marathon back in May and have since been concentrating on cross-training (if you will) before I start training again in November. It’s been wonderful! I have definitely gotten stronger than I ever would from just running. It’s also come at a great time seeing that I live in Alabama and it’s a thousand degrees outside no matter what time of day it is 🙂

  40. I love this! I hate labeling or defining myself by the activities or diets I choose. I am not just a “runner”….I like to dabble in everything! This is great… I’ve also been thinking a lot about being a full-time vegan as I’ve been a weekday vegan for some time now…more to come!

  41. I think I have a label most of us will actually want: HEALTHY. 😀 Healthy as defined by ourselves, not the rest of the world. To my hunny, meat is healthy. To me, working out and not being in agony because my joints are puffy is healthy. To each hir own.

    Meanwhile, I have a tourist hat on my head. I’m going to sign up for my first 5k. 😀

  42. Such a great post…something truly worth evaluating. Thanks for the food for thought and the challenge to really live up to what I want to become.

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