Lately, I have been struggling with accepting and publicizing that I am really only running because I don’t want to have to purchase a new wardrobe.
I have been mostly silent about it here, but since starting my career in academia, running has quickly become a different part of my identity. Ultrarunning, at least for now, has become a less salient part of who I am, in identity development terms. “Cilantro the ultrarunner” is now more “Cilantro the professor” or “Cilantro the feminist researcher.” While the shift is natural and appropriate to the new challenges of my role and the very tough first year as a professor, it does not mean that I don’t feel a bit lost.
For so long, I was the ultrarunning Ph.D. student, and that identity guided my decisions, my introductions, and framed how I saw myself fitting into the world. I am struggling now to recognize and accept this new version of myself and striving to keep perspective on my constantly shifting identity as a runner.
Reflecting on this shift, I realized that my running world was interacting with the subject matter I now teach, student identity development. As students progress through different stages of their academic careers, an intentional part of the process is the development of an individual identity. This often involves exploration of the different facets of the self, which can be uncertain and scary and exciting for students going through the process. As parts of themselves they once held dear are cast away because they are no longer relevant or important, there is an inevitable feeling of loss and uncertainty. Similarly, even after college our identities are not static; they evolve and shift along with our interests and needs. It seems that my identity is going through a critical shift regarding running, and I find myself asking again, “Who am I?”
How do we deal with shifts in our running identity?
In the world of student identity development, identity is conceptualized as a dynamic interaction of different parts of who we are. Our identity is represented by an atom-like MMDI model, where different aspects of who we are (e.g., ethnic identity, gender identity, nationality, profession) are close or far away from our identity core to signify what is the most salient to our identity at a specific time and place. For me, for example, gender, profession, and nationality are very close to my core because, at this point in my life, these are the things that are important to me. I am so proud to be an American because of my interaction with soldiers and veterans. I am a new academic, so being a professor and a feminist researcher are equally close to my core. Being a runner has become less important, in part because I don’t have as much time to dedicate to training but also because its importance to me has diminished as my academic duties have risen to take their place.
A Shift in Priorities is Natural
At a certain point in our development, our identities are relatively fixed in terms of our enduring beliefs and overarching life goals, but certain priorities can shift according to what is happening in our lives at that time and place. Dealing with a shift, however, can still lead to uncertainty. In mindfully accepting and embracing this uncertainty, it is important to recognize a few key points. First, a shift in identity is natural, normal and necessary. I need to make this change in order to be the professor that I have always wanted to be. Recognizing the necessity of an identity shift is the first key step in my acceptance of where I am right now.
Identity is Not Static
Second, but almost equally important, is recognizing that changing my running identity today doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever. I’ve been paralyzed with the fear that admitting my reluctance to train will mean it is a permanent change; I am afraid that admitting that I don’t want to run a big race now means that I never will. However, if I look back at my running career, it wasn’t too long ago that I was a new runner. I remember the first time I attempted to run 13 miles: I took a lot of pit stops and only made it to 12 before collapsing on my couch, then went for a walk later that day to get my last mile in. Back then, it never would have occurred to me that I could run 100 miles. At one point, I considered myself a marathoner. More recently I decided that marathons weren’t for me and dedicated myself to ultras. And last week, I removed all of my mileage stickers from my car. This all in about a seven year period. I likely will run again, and run a lot. Today, I won’t. It’s okay.
Trying New Stuff is Okay!
Third, it is time to take advantage of my lack of running mojo to explore new things. One of the things I encourage to young undergraduates is that they explore anything and everything they think they might be interested in (and even those they think they aren’t). Pumpkin, my acting life coach, suggested that I start a bucket list of what I want to do that I couldn’t do before because I was so focused on ultra training and weekend back-to-back long runs. So far, I’ve stayed out past midnight on a Friday (never acceptable in my strict lifestyle before), started an Olympic-themed workout schedule where I do the workout of the Olympic event of the day, and joined a rock climbing gym. It’s fun! And I’m exploring and trying out new social sides of my identity and other ways of staying strong and fit that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.
I’m still a runner, I think. But I’m also a professor, friend, world-traveler, aspiring bourbon connoisseur, and social justice advocate. Ultrarunner Cilantro will still be here when and if I’m ready to become her again. But until then I am accepting who I am and how running fits into my life without pressure, judgment, or fear.
How does running fit into your identity? How has that changed and shifted throughout your life?