When I ask you to think of a runner, who comes to mind?

Do you imagine pro athletes, who can keep their feet moving for hours on end and run at speeds many of us can’t generate, not even to cross the street to save our lives from an approaching car? Are they dressed in the latest high-tech athletic apparel and wearing the newest super shoes? While the people you’re picturing are indeed runners, they represent just the smallest fraction of them all.

Do you picture a runner who “checks all the boxes?” Lace up and get a few miles in every day—check. Hit a specific (and definitely high) weekly mileage—check. Periodically rotate through all the various types of runs—check. Race a marathon—check. These may represent goals and milestones for some, but they don’t define a runner.

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I want to tell you about when I became a runner and what that word means to me.

Back in school, my gym teacher used to force us to run for time. This dreadful activity ranked even below physics, my otherwise least favorite subject. The teacher had a table of standardized times corresponding to our age that we had to hit in order to get a good grade. Even as an active kid who played basketball and took all types of dance classes, I loathed that table. And I loathed running.

In 2013, I had my first panic attack. Someone I confined in explained to me that exercise helps ease anxiety symptoms. By coincidence, that same year I was gifted a YMCA membership, so I took the advice to heart and got myself a pair of gym shoes. On my first visit, looking at all the intimidating gym equipment (and not knowing what to do with most of it), I figured the easiest device to conquer would be the treadmill. Well, to be fully transparent, I was using it more as a holder for my Kindle, which I read while alternating between running and walking. But to my own surprise, the more I ran, the more I enjoyed it.

Around that time, my friends were participating in local races, and since I had hundreds of treadmill miles in my legs at that point, I decided to join. The race brought me straight back to gym class. Oh, how much I hated it. Trying to keep up with runners way above my pace, I burned out. Disappointed in myself, I stashed my running shoes in the back of my closet. I figured running wasn’t for me after all and switched to yoga.

Fast-forward a few years. The pandemic started and my anxiety got worse; everything closed down, including my yoga studio, and options for self-care practices became limited. I knew running would help me regulate my symptoms, so I dusted off the running shoes, downloaded an excessive number of audiobooks, and headed out to the street.

I started off really slow. I didn’t check my watch, but rather, ran by feel. I let other runners pass me. I walked when I felt out of breath. I ran just to run, watching sunset after sunset on Kelly Drive in Philadelphia (if you know, you know). I ran to feel better. I kept coming back for more. I fell in love with it.

joggers running along path
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One thing led to another and last year, I joined Runner’s World and became a certified running coach. I now test shoes and clothes, and (try to) follow up-to-date advice and tips from my very experienced, accomplished, and inspirational colleagues.

These days, I do long runs when I feel like it. I skip a few days completely when my body tells me to. I still don’t race. I’ve never run a marathon and don’t have one lined up anytime soon. As a matter of fact, I don’t have any running goals besides staying healthy and avoiding injury if I can help it. Maybe there’s a major race or a big goal waiting somewhere down the line—who knows? The one thing I do know: Regardless, I am a runner.

When exactly did I become a runner? It wasn’t when I received my certification or when my name first appeared in RW. It wasn’t the day I was able to run 10 miles without stopping for the first time, and it definitely wasn’t when I first got properly fitting running shoes. It was all the way back when I first stepped on the treadmill belt, of my own volition, in the cheapest shoes I could find—shoes that were not even specifically for running—with the intention to see what my body could do (and what I could do for my body).

There are no clothes, gear items, distances, paces, races, or a laundry list of accomplishments that turn you into a runner. Wherever you are in your running journey—walking while getting ready to jog your first mile, working on your first 5K, saving for shoes you’ve been dreaming of running in, or currently taking a break—for the love of running, you already are a runner.

So, let’s try it again: When I ask you to think of a runner, who comes to mind?

I want you to think of YOU. You are a runner.

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