It depends on who you ask.
I recently wrote an article about inclusion in the Richmond running community that was published in Miles and Minutes, the quarterly magazine for my local run club, which I also help edit.
In my research for this article, I touched on many aspects of inclusion: ableism, fat shaming, ageism, slow runners, runners recovering from addiction, and runners of color. Each of these groups faces a bit of discrimination in this sport, whether it’s overt or more of something in the air at a group run or race. My friends and fellow leaders in this community all had stories about times when they felt the sport was elitist.
I’ve felt some of this discrimination myself. I’m a back-of-the-pack runner. I have my reasons. I’m not a natural runner. I have to work at this. I’m older. I also have asthma. On paper, I should never have been able to run 10 marathons, 15 half marathons, or a 50k. But I have.
And now I also find myself in multiple leadership roles in my local running community. I serve on the board and as an officer in my local run club, which boasts over 2,000 members. I am an assistant coach with Sports Backers and have coached with both the 10k training teams and for the last 4 years, one of the marathon training teams. I was also asked to speak at the Richmond VegFest this year to talk about how my vegan diet has helped my running.
A question we frequently ask as leaders in this community is how we can help inspire more runners to join our amazing sport. Well, it begins with breaking down the idea that only elite runners get to participate.
I love writing about this, as my article entitled “What Does It Mean to be an Athlete?” discusses. This also appeared in MIles and Minutes. In it, I quoted Webster’s definition of an athlete. Oxford’s is slightly different. It seems some readers disagreed with my opinion of what this definition implies, especially about the notion of “proficiency.”
Athlete: a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.Oxford Languages
Proficiency, however, is relative. And it’s also developed with respect to one’s own limitations and successes. I can become a faster, stronger, more efficient runner, but may never be able to compete on the elite level. Does this mean I don’t take my sport seriously or do not deserve to call myself an athlete just because I will never stand on a podium at big race? Absolutely not.
But even elite runners face judgment and body shaming. Some of you may recall a recent post on social media by Richmond elite runner Keira D’Amato. A man dared to tell Keira, a woman who recently set the American record for the marathon, that she was too “big” to be a runner. Talk about elitist! Having met Keira in person, this isn’t true at all, plus she is super nice. I doubt her critic had any idea who he was talking to.
In all aspects of society, we seem to create constructs of what an athlete, a runner, or a successful person should look like. I’m not here to reinforce these fabrications of society. I’m here to tell you that there is space for all kinds of runners in the endurance running world. If you want to run a marathon, and you put in the work (and trust me. It takes A LOT of work), then you deserve to call yourself an athlete. It’s a mantra shift.
When I first started running, I had finished a weight loss journey. I wanted a new challenge, as moving a number on a scale was no longer inspiring or necessary. But finishing a 5k? Now that was inspiring.
But when I first took to the pavement, running without music, the sound of my feet hitting the road seemed to mock me. The pattern perseverated on the phrase “nanny-nanny boo-boo” in my mind. It was less than inspiring. I felt major imposter syndrome and was way too hard on myself. My negative self-talk almost made me quit.
But slowly, as I began to take on longer distances, becoming more proficient and successfully finishing my first 5k, then 10k, then half marathon, and eventually training for my first full marathon, my mantra finally shifted.
As silly as it sounds, my new mantra was delivered to me in the form of a mariachi band singing “You can do it!” I was running the 15th mile of a 16-mile training run. I can’t explain the madness of a hot, humid long run, but if you know, you know. I experienced the best runner’s high that day. (Yes, these are real!)
And then somewhere in this journey, I joined my husband in his fitness addiction: CrossFit. And I loved one aspect of their culture: the notion that everyone in the box is considered an athlete.
When I was asked to be a coach for the marathon, I stressed this idea to our runners. Why? Because it’s a new mantra. I am an athlete. Just saying the words out loud brings a special rush of oxytocin, right? Try it.
Changing your mantra and changing the purpose of your training also changes your perception of your body. You treat your body better, with kindness and respect. You fuel it with more nutritious food. You take your scheduled runs more seriously. And you take pride in your effort.
This mind shift is so very important when coaching new marathoners. And marathoners are exceptional, make no mistake about this. Only 1% of the world’s population has run one. And even fewer have run multiple marathons or ultramarathons.
One of my good friends and colleagues, Maria Elena Calle, ran the marathon in the Rio Olympics. She is an elite runner, but she is by no means elitist. She is perhaps the most humble person I have ever met, and she makes me feel like a successful runner every time she asks me about my latest race. She’s a big part of why our Richmond running community is so amazing.
My goal as a coach to novice and intermediate runners and as a physical therapist is to encourage everyone to live a more active and healthy lifestyle. This also happens to be in the mission statements of both the Richmond Road Runners Club and Sports Backers. Doing this takes a mantra shift. And much like my hypercritical inner voice changed from heckling me to the sound of a mariachi band cheering me on, leaders in the fitness world can encourage rather than break people down.
Those of you who want to continue to propel the elitist version of the endurance running community can have it. That’s your world. It’s also lonely.
Do you know what’s not lonely? Building an inclusive community for all runners, helping guide new runners in pursuit of lofty goals, and then watching them succeed.
My favorite day of the year is Richmond Marathon Day. I get to be on the course as a coach, providing support and watching my athletes succeed.
I’m very happy in my inclusive Richmond running community. In fact, we were just awarded the designation of a Runner Friendly Community by the Road Runners Club of America. And there’s a reason why the Richmond Marathon is America’s Friendliest.
So, fellow runners, if you’re ready to ditch the elitist notion, too, then repeat after me, and shout it from the rooftops:
“I AM AN ATHLETE!!!”
To the new runners: your people are out there. Go to a big group run. You will find someone who runs your pace! And, pretty soon, running will become a part of who you are. You will begin to feel like an athlete. Embrace it!
As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.
Photos above: lead: stock photo from WordPress. Second: with fellow coaches at the finish line of the Richmond Marathon in 2021 (courtesy of Lisa Z.) Third: with Keira D’Amato at the Richmond Road Runners Club banquet in 2022. Fourth: with Maria Elena Calle at the RRRC Cul-de-Sac 5k in 2022.