Running isn’t just about speed or training for a marathon. It’s time to redefine what it means to be a runner

By Karla Bruning
January 29, 2015
Corbis Images

More than 65 million Americans went for a run last year. More than 19 million ran a race. But many of those people are hesitant to call themselves "runners." I would know-I used to be one of them.

I started running at 26, after avoiding the sport for more than a decade. I hated running. Hated it. Running was difficult and painful, thanks to a slow-growing bone tumor below my right knee. But after a life-changing surgery, my doctor suggested hitting the pavement as a way to rebuild the muscle and bone density in my leg.

So the girl who hated running went out for a jog. My first day in the wilds of sidewalk city, I lasted approximately three blocks before collapsing into heaving breaths. But I went back for more the next day, and again the day after, until three blocks stretched into 30 and beyond. Yet, I didn't call myself a runner for years.

Sound familiar? I hear "Oh, I'm not a real runner" constantly-at races, parties, in social media, and everywhere else I encounter people who regularly put one foot in front of the other. So what exactly makes you a runner? The short answer is simple: If you run, you're a runner. But the long answer is much more complicated-and it has nothing to do with how fast you are. (But don't miss the Ultimate Strength Workout for Runners.)

Ten years-and seven marathons and 20 half-marathons-after my first run, I have no problem wearing a capital "R" across my chest, superhero style. But the mentality is hard to shake. I've completed six triathlons, yet still hesitate when calling myself a "triathlete." "I've only done sprint distances," I say. "I'm a terrible cyclist," I admit. "I was a competitive swimmer as a kid, so it's no big deal," I confess. But if someone else told me they'd done six triathlons, I'd hang a "triathlete" sign around their neck and call it a day. One three-hour marathoner I know who has qualified for the prestigious Boston Marathon-a feat only 10 percent of marathoners achieve-says he still has a hard time calling himself a runner. It's an epidemic that extends far and wide, from the fastest to the slowest among us. Why?

The answer is steeped in preconceived notions of who a runner is-notions ingrained in our collective psyche from before the 1970s running boom, images that include Roger Bannister's sub-four-minute mile, British lads racing on the beach in Chariots of Fire, and even Forrest Gump running across America in a T-shirt emblazoned with Nike's familiar swoosh. The reality is, the population of America's runners looked very different even in 1994, when Forrest Gump was released.

Twenty-five years ago, just 25 percent of America's runners were women. Now, we're at 57 percent. Our numbers have increased more than 800 percent, while the population of male runners has merely doubled. All told, more people are running than ever. In 1990, just 3.8 million people finished a race; now five times that number do annually. Who are all these lopers? Some are starting from scratch as adults, knocking out 14-minute miles like I did when I first laced up a pair of sneakers. Some are sprinkling walk intervals throughout their workouts, an unthinkable concept four decades ago, but one that has become increasingly popular in recent years. Some are former high school and college athletes looking for a way to stay active. And some have been runners since childhood. How they perform has changed dramatically too. The median marathon time has slowed more than 22 minutes for men and 26 minutes for women since 1995. At the same time, the number of marathon finishers has risen by 250,000 runners, many of them in the back of the pack. People aren't getting slower; simply, slower runners are toeing the line in races they didn't attempt before.

That's not to say that finishing a marathon or any race is the measure of a runner. You can be a runner without racing at all. According to Running USA, the typical "core" female hasn't run a marathon-just 49 percent have. Who is this typical runner? She's 39 years old, 5'5" inches tall, and 140 pounds. She runs four days a week, heading out alone in the morning with her cell phone, watch, and earbuds. She started running for exercise and keeps at it to stay in shape. But she also eats McDonald's and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. (Make these 10 Running Goals for 2015.)

But that's a profile of a woman who calls herself as a runner, answering a survey to that effect. The reality is much more nuanced. She's older. She's younger. She weighs more. She weighs less. She runs more. She runs less. And she still probably eats McDonald's and Ben & Jerry's. Apart from a love of ice cream, runners have just one thing in common: they run.

I'm not sure when I started calling myself a runner. But I know when I should have-the moment it became part of my routine, despite the fact that I wore cotton socks and 10-year-old sneakers unearthed from the depths of my closet. I'm no more a runner now than I was then. If anything, I'm more impressed with the runner who collapsed in heaving pants after just three blocks, defeated and demoralized, but went back for more the next day, anyway; the runner who finally signed up for her first race after two years of pounding the pavement, despite being terrified she'd finish last with everyone pointing and laughing. That runner was braver and more impressive than the runner I am today. Now, running is easier for me. I'm faster, more confident, and have all the "right" gear-no more cotton socks. Being a runner is part of my identity, and it feels good. I just wish I had embraced it back then. I wish I had known that the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other made me part of a welcoming community and booming movement.

To every new, timid, or self-deprecating jogger I see, I want to slap a sticker on your forehead that says, "I'm a runner!" I want you to embrace who you are and what you do, no matter how fast, how far, and how frequently you run. If running is a regular and important part of your fitness routine, you're a runner. Simple as that. Fast and slow, thick and thin, male and female, racer and jogger, ultra-runner and trackster, we're all hoofing it out there.

So what makes a runner? You do. One step at a time.