Plenty of people who run, marathoners even, will tell you they’re not really runners.
There’s no shortage of posts from running bloggers claiming they don’t deserve the title, despite logging 30 or 50 or more miles every week. (Here’s mine, from over three years ago.)
For me, it took six marathons and a Boston qualification before I began to think of myself as a runner. But now that I’m comfortable with the name, I understand that being a runner has absolutely nothing to do with achievement.
Rather, it’s a mindset, a sense of connection with other runners … something that you just feel.
You feel it when you pass the same runner, day in and day out on your little neighborhood loop, and exchange that almost imperceptible nod that says, I understand.
You feel it when you’re in the car and you drive by a runner laboring to get her day’s miles in, and you wish that your little tap on the horn and thumbs-up could somehow express to her, I know exactly what you’re feeling, I’ve been there; come on, you can get through it.
And you felt it yesterday — Patriots’ Day, Marathon Monday, our sport’s proudest day — when you heard that something had gone horribly wrong at the Boston Marathon.
I think you become a runner when you recognize, in your own running, the essential kernel that motivates you and every other runner to get out there and log in the miles at the expense of so much else. Some runners do it for the medals and the t-shirts. Some run just to stay in shape. And others do it because, as they say, running is cheaper than therapy. But I think that at the most basic level, every one of us who runs does so because, deep down, we crave that little daily battle — against busyness, distraction, adversity, self-doubt — that every time we lace up our shoes, push ourselves out the door, and run, we win.
And when you reach the point when you look at another runner and sense that he understands the ins and outs of the very same struggle you do — and that, whatever his method, he manages to win it, over and over, just like you — you feel the connection.
To me, that’s what it means to be a runner.
When I got the text message yesterday saying there had been explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line, it was just about time for my scheduled five-miler. But as I watched the news with my wife (also a runner) and it steadily became apparent that this tragedy was no accident, I lost any motivation I had to run.
Something about running felt selfish … or maybe I just understood that, no matter how well I ran, there would be no win today.
For most of the afternoon, I just wanted to forget. To forget that no big city marathon, especially not our beloved Boston Marathon, would ever be the same. To forget that the very phrase “Boston Marathon,” with all the majesty and history and charm that are inextricably wrapped up within it, would be for many years supplanted by “Boston Marathon bombing,” words that would recall the images of the bloody sidewalk and the videos of flashing light, smoke, and panic.
And for a few minutes, I wanted to forget that I was a runner at all. As if distancing myself from it all would help to numb the pain.
But as the evening wore on and tragic details continued to trickle in, I felt something I’ve never felt before in my years as a runner: I sensed that I had to run … not for myself, but for someone — or something — else.
To say that I ran to honor the victims would feel a bit phony — when I headed out to run, there wasn’t any information about who they were or how old they were. All we could really guess was that each of yesterday’s victims was either a runner, or someone who loved a runner. And while it didn’t feel like it was my place to say that I was running for people I didn’t know, as I ran during the last hour of daylight last night, I got the distinct sense that I was running for something I did know — deeply, and personally.
I was running, really, for running.
I longed to see just one other runner, someone with whom to share that familiar, subtle nod that would say I understand, but mean so much more this time.
In the whole hour, I didn’t see a single other runner. But I knew they were out there, and that any who were would be thinking and feeling the same things I was.
And that, of course, is again what it means to be a runner.
I get the sense that, with time, we’ll come to view yesterday’s bombing as an attack on our country. But in the moment, it felt like it was an attack on the much smaller community surrounding our sport. After I got home and my wife and I hugged our son extra tightly before putting him down to bed, I signed onto Twitter, to connect with the community of runners I am lucky to have there.
I was unprepared for what awaited. There were hundreds of uplifting messages — quotes like Katherine Switzer’s, “If you are losing faith in humanity, go out and watch a marathon.” Posts from runners who said that earlier in the day they had questioned their goal to one day run a marathon, but now felt more strongly than ever that they had to make it happen. News that everyone would be wearing a running shirt today, Boston gear if they had it, in a show of unity. And of course, the outpouring of support for the victims and their loved ones, the city of Boston, and the runners, many of whom were still in their running clothes and without a place to stay, their flights cancelled and their bags lost in the commotion. Without a place to stay, that is, until others stepped up and offered to help.
And when I went to bed, after a day that lasted far too long, I felt something I didn’t expect to feel.
Comfort. I was proud — and above all, grateful — to call myself a runner.
To the victims of the Boston Marathon tragedy and the people who love them, we at No Meat Athlete extend our sincere condolences. The running community is our family, and a tragedy like this one makes our hearts hurt.
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