It's a common question, asked by both runners and non-runners alike, that makes you stop and think about your running history and how long you have been "real."
During the same week, driving back from a road race, I watched two young boys running wildly down the street, arms flailing, hearts pumping, gasping for air, with a brown-and-white dog running alongside them. The kids slowed to a walk when they were tired.
I'm sure their conversation consisted of something like this: "Man, we were booking wicked fast!" with a reply of "Yeah, we were cruising!" Although they weren't running for the same reasons adults do, this may have been the start of the boys' running lives.
I have been running since I was the same age as those boys. Hot New England days are the setting for my earliest running memories. My parents have a newspaper clipping of my best friend and I at an elementary school race, cheering on our friends. I am thoughtfully splitting the stem of a dandelion down the middle with my thumbnail with a "second place" ribbon hanging proudly on my shirt, the results of my efforts in the 100-yard dash. Despite the fact that I have only won a couple of ribbons since then, I still consider myself a "real" runner.
When I was 11 years old, I was running so fast in my front yard that the landscape blurred into rows of fast green streaks. In my euphoria (was it runners high?), I ran smack into a tree and ended up with a concussion. That was well before I started buying wicking shirts and shorts with little pockets and liners inside of them or participated in any type of organized racing or group running. It was prior to my body's aches and pains or wearing orthotics to compensate for my flat arches.
When I was 11, I never thought I would have a physical therapist, let alone that he would be my advice guru on my choice of running shoes.
Although I am a real runner, I'm not, 20 years later, what I refer to as "hard core." Hard-core runners do sub-six-minute miles six days a week on lean, sinewy legs. Shapes and sizes of real runners vary; some runners just enjoy being outdoors, working exercise into their daily routines or experiencing the simple solitude of a run. Both groups are "real" runners.
Phil Vondras, 31, of Franklin, Mass., runs on several trails that he has found himself and enjoys not competing with crowds.
"My average run is usually three to four miles and tops off at seven," says Vondras, who started running 12 years ago. "It took me four weeks to get a good pace that I could respect for my own self-esteem."
We place much emphasis on running fast, and though I'm a bit envious of the runners who get out there and just book, I'm not afraid to admit that I'm not the fastest runner. My pace is slower than some runners that I know and faster than others.
My joke is that I'm training now for the Senior Olympics, but I love to run and always will. No matter if I'm at home, on vacation or performing my weekend drills for the Air National Guard, I manage to fit in a run. I get out on the road three or four times a week, sometimes more and sometimes less. Sometimes I take it easy; sometimes I run "wicked" fast, like those two boys.
I've heard people say that a true runner can say "fartlek" without cracking a smile. To me, the true definition of a runner is not necessarily only that person with the thin legs and the short shorts running the sub-six-minute miles but a person who honestly feels a pull of sneakers to the road or trail.
It can be that big, burly guy with the red beard, a slightly overweight woman, a child running with his mom or that hard-core runner who races every weekend. It's a person who gets out on the road to enjoy some aspect of a run on a regular basis. It's someone whose legs start to feel funny from not running after a couple of days or someone who tries to find trails that no one else has yet discovered.
My answer when asked how long I've been running usually starts off with, "Well, um, let's see," then I usually vaguely say "a long time," because I'm not sure when I became a "real" runner. Although you may not be able to pinpoint the exact moment you started running, you know deep inside that you are a "real" runner, just like I know I am and always will be a runner.
Anne Kymalainen is a freelance writer specializing in outdoor recreation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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