Look Like It

"What exactly DOES it mean to look like a runner?" My sister asked as we ran along in the early morning stillness of Memorial Day. That is a good question. One we were mutually pondering after reading a blog posting by someone I know who characterized a recent female winner of a marathon as inspiring because she was "older" and "heavier" than a typical runner, that she didn't "look like a runner". Instead of feeling inspired by this individuals post, I was incensed. I don't think the woman who won the race would have liked that characterization either. She was neither old(er) nor heavy(er) than the average ultrarunner I know (the woman was a 40 year old mother of 1), nor even of the average runner in general. It is inspiring that she won her first marathon post-baby, that is for sure and that she hadn't even thought about the possibility of winning or breaking 3 hrs, which she did. Her accomplishment is awesome. Her characterization by someone else, not so much.

I mean really, what does it mean to "look like a runner?". Every 6 months to a year, someone will say something to me or someone I know that makes me ponder this question. How does one "look like anything"? Isn't that just stereotyping? If you can "look like a runner", then you can "look like a car thief", "look like a math genius", etc etc. And I have never felt complimented when someone has said that too me.
My first Marathon, Edinburgh Marathon 2005. 30lbs heavier than today.

When I started running marathons, I was about 30 lbs heavier than I am now. I still ran fast, I was strong, my body was adapting to a new sport. For the first three years of my running, people told me all the time that I didn't "look like a runner" and what I heard was "you are too heavy to be a runner". To say that is to say, "you don't look like someone who is working hard enough to actually qualify as actually "being" a runner", in essence: "you would look like xyz if you actually were". Sound like an over complication of semantics? Maybe, but the point is runners (all people in everything they do) come in all shapes and sizes, heights, weights, skin colors, etc and can find success. "Looking like a runner" is a myth. It is one founded on the backs of a wave of anorexia that swept through the beginnings years of long distance running for women. It became the standard that way. And it is one we all buy into. It is one of the reasons that long distance running is such a hot bed for eating disorders. It is the reason that more than half of the people I know who run have disordered eating, restricted eating or full blown eating disorders. Instead of just being runners and letting our bodies shape and follow, we are trying to force ourselves to look a certain way. Instead of being healthy, working our asses off, eating to support our training and doing the work, the numbers on a scale or the number of bones that protrude become the focus. While I thankfully have never suffered from an eating disorder, I am not made of steel and I have also always been taller and bigger than most other women, so I always feel like a giant and therefore when the "looking like a runner" characterization is made, it just hits a nerve. And it misses the point too.
On my way to winning Breakers Marathon 2008, 30lbs lighter.

Even now, at 6'0, 137-140 lbs, I still thought (for example) going into Boston that I was going to feel like a fat cow standing next to all those underweight elite runners in the EWS. I thought I was hugely bigger than them and that they would all be emaciated twigs I was dying to give a hamburger too. I think I look healthy and therefore don't look like the stereotype we all have in our heads. And then I stood there in a pack of 60 elite women, all of whom were shorter than me, but most who were about the same build as me. It was a good wake up call to stop buying into that mentality. After losing wt over 2 years healthfully, through harder training and healthier eating but not by focusing on weight loss, my body rebelled a bit last year and I was diagnosed with hypo-thyroid and low leptin, it caused minor weight gain and even though I was running very well (I had 4 ultra victories and a few marathon victories), I felt bad about myself because I looked "less like a runner", I had bought into that idea. And it is ridiculous. The point is that we as runners, no matter what we look like, are out there on a daily basis doing something amazing with our bodies. I work my butt off, running a tough schedule from my coach, doing 2-a-days 5 times a week, long runs of 5+ hrs, cross & strength training, stretching, etc, etc. I keep it healthy, balanced but difficult. I love what I do, I love how I feel I do it. I basic in the simple joy of what my body can do whether it is running up to a mountain top or speeding along for 400 meter intervals. It is my peace, my bliss, my joy and it has the additional benefit of being incredibly healthy for me physically, mentally and emotionally. Stereotyping or being into that stereotype serves no purpose other than to diminish, hurt or completely miss the point. I don't ever, ever want to start pursuing the "look" instead of the actual "being" part. We should celebrate others and our own accomplishments in that same sense.

Be your bliss. Remember why you do what you do. And occasionally, when someone makes a stupid comment to you about "looking like a runner", just close your eyes, take a deep breathe and remember all the sweat, tears and miles you have experienced that make you a runner. I AM a runner, I AM a runner, I AM a runner- so I guess that is what a runner looks like, me, you, each and everyone of us who laces up our trainers and just gets out there and runs.