Professional Runner: Dream Job?

If you’re following the World Track and Field Championships, you may notice a few high profile Olympians missing. Around any Olympic year, many high-profile athletes tend to announce their retirement. Lauren FleshmanNick Symmonds, and Meb Keflezghi all announced their retirements shortly before or after the 2016 games. My initial reaction is always disappointment; they’re retiring at the primes of their careers when they could still achieve so much more. And they’re professional athletes! Life doesn’t get any better than that! Why give it up? How can they walk away from a dream job?

But as all pro-running retirees end up saying in one way or another, they no longer have the energy and drive to train and compete at that top level. They want to live normal lives not consumed by their sport. In no way am I comparing myself to these great athletes, but I can relate from my own much slower, smaller-scale experience as a full-time runner.

In what now seems like another life, I was once a full-time runner for the Army. It was a dream job. The Army was essentially my sponsor, and I was able to train full-time and still get paid my Army salary and benefits. They provided me with a coach, travel funding, and resources to help with training. It was an amazing experience and one I know I’m incredibly fortunate to have had. But as far as my passion for running at that time, well essentially, even though it was a dream job, it eventually felt like a job.

You see, when something becomes your job, it can take the joy out of it. First there was the explicit pressure to meet the requirements to remain in the program. It is certainly understandable they have tough standards to maintain the integrity of the program, but performing with your job on the line adds a lot more pressure than I expected.

I learned I don’t perform as well under that kind of pressure. Having strict time goals for every race messed with my head. Then there was the added pressure every time I traveled to a competition, thinking about how much money they spent to send me there. I felt I’d better perform well to not let anyone down. At least I had the reassurance of knowing that if I did have to leave the program, I’d maintain my current salary and job security with another Army assignment. Professional athletes with corporate sponsorships do not have that luxury; many have the pressure to meet certain performance place or time standards — or else.

Competing in cross-country during my WCAP days.

And although running was my dream job, it became an all-consuming job. Looking back there are ways I could have maximized my opportunity better. Leading up to 2008, I was still concurrently training for the modern pentathlon, which certainly sapped my time and energy.

Also, heading into the 2012 Trials I was training alone in muggy central North Carolina. But of course it is always easy to look back and say what you should have done better. The fact is, at the time, I felt like I was giving it my all.

In addition to simply running, giving my all required attention to everything that could affect my running: core, strength training, recovery, nutrition, sleep. I focused on performance almost every single day without exception — it was literally my job! I had to plan my life around running and the extras, and eventually that made it feel like a requirement, not something I always wanted or enjoyed doing.

There was also the day-to-day mental struggle of self-worth from job satisfaction. Many of us inherently link part of our identity to our job. With running, aside from meeting race goals or nailing a hard workout, there isn’t a huge sense of accomplishment on a daily basis. Chugging along on a recovery run doesn’t fulfill the same sense of accomplishment as meeting a sales quota, delivering a killer presentation, or successfully treating a patient.

Of course now that I’m a stay-at-home mom of three young kids, it’s hard to find time to get in a run at all, and I miss the luxury of having unlimited time to train. But it’s different when you’re in the thick of it — kind of like parenting young children — and it blurs the lines between your job and your life.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. If I were younger and faster and had the opportunity to run full-time again, of course I would. It was a dream. But, it was also a job, which changed things. Running was different for me during that time, and I actually set PRs at several distances afterwards when it wasn’t my job, probably because I performed better without the pressure.

Based on my experience, I think it’s safe to say, professional runners have many more demands and obligations than I did, both because of their higher-level of performance and the added pressure of the public eye. I hope when Lauren and Nick and Meb and others look back on their pro days, they feel like they gave it their all, and, of course, find new dreams to chase.

Has running ever felt like a job to you?

Army veteran, now Army wife with 3 daughters (aka: single married mom). I have fun trying to sprint, enjoy long runs in the mountains, and everything in between. 3 x marathon OTQ, will eventually start training again to try to make it 4. I write about trying to stay competitive while raising young kids.

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3 comments

  1. I’ve always kind of thought that I’d struggle if running was my job- I don’t do well if it’s EVERYTHING. Many people have asked why i don’t work part time at a running store or look for a job in the running field but honestly I don’t think I could. I think I would struggle and lose the joy in it. That is something it’s taken me years to learn- finding a balance that works!

  2. I love running and racing, but I also think being a professional athlete sounds awful, exactly for the reasons you pointed out! It’s so much better as a hobby. I also feel bad for a lot of pro athletes, because in most sports you’re basically retiring right when other people your age are still building into their professional primes. I always wonder how pro athletes set themselves up to figure out what comes after! Lauren Fleshman has obviously built a whole brand and is involved in a bunch of entrepreneurial things… you can see Shalane Flanagan kind of doing a similar thing with her book. I know there are speaking engagements and other ways to make money after retiring, but obviously that’s easier for the famous athletes. What about everybody else? I often wonder how the pros set themselves up for life after retirement from the sport. Obviously a lot of the women retire when they are ready to have children, so that adds a different component too.

    “There was also the day-to-day mental struggle of self-worth from job satisfaction. Many of us inherently link part of our identity to our job. With running, aside from meeting race goals or nailing a hard workout, there isn’t a huge sense of accomplishment on a daily basis. Chugging along on a recovery run doesn’t fulfill the same sense of accomplishment as meeting a sales quota, delivering a killer presentation, or successfully treating a patient.”

    Yes, this is very true and also a reason why I wouldn’t want to be a pro runner. On the other hand, as a scientist, not every day is delivering killer presentations and discovering amazing things. We go a long time without having a big sense of accomplishment too… probably only a few big ‘key races’ or accomplishments per year, and the rest of it is a grind, staying consistent and dedicated and disciplined, and trusting the process. I suspect this feeling is probably true of most jobs.

    1. “because in most sports you’re basically retiring right when other people your age are still building into their professional primes.”

      That’s a really good point. I actually asked my teammates about that when I was training at the Olympic Training Center. Some went to college, but others went straight to the OTC from (or while still in) high school. It didn’t seem to bother any of them. They all felt that there is such a short window to be a pro athlete, they wanted that opportunity. You have your whole adult life to find a job and work!