An American Runner in Paris

buda-runningAm I still Bergamot if I don’t run a race this year? Am I still … a runner?

Dun, dun, dun!!!! Cue the horror music.

I asked myself these questions, sitting on the couch in sweatpants at 3:00 p.m. Oh, the life of a freelancer, or rather, my current life. Over the summer, Cilantro covered the impact of changing identities and how she dealt with her evolving identities as an academic and a runner. This year, I’ve experienced some major shifts too, and my current location and occupation in Spain has helped me remove cultural expectations of myself, especially regarding running.

Around this time last year, I had run various 5ks, two half marathons, one major long-distance relay, and had just completed my goal and favorite race, the Columbus Half Marathon. The previous year I had run my first full marathon, a half marathon, a 10-miler, and other various 5ks. Do you see a trend here? Now, back on my couch, there is no goal race in sight.

Many factors have lead to this lack-of-goal-race, but to be honest, they don’t really matter. My time spent immersed in Spanish culture has helped me to realize the danger of the expectation of the personal achievement, specifically, the American societal expectation of the personal achievement. Don’t get me wrong, I love goals. I love lists, tasks, journals, and every other thing that could possibly help me achieve that objective. I am a goal-oriented person. I knew this in kindergarten when I went home, crying to my mother because I didn’t learn to read on my first day.

The problem is that I never grew out of that mindset. I need to accomplish everything now, preferably with an impressive title. Class president, National Honor Society member and treasurer, College Graduate, Full-time worker, Top Fundraiser, Marathon Runner. These are some titles I’ve had over the last decade. Notice that these are personal achievements, not descriptive adjectives that tell a story of who a person is.

While I am proud of my achievements, they don’t define me as a person. The work ethic that it takes partially defines me, but that’s a very elitist point of view. Finding worth in personal achievements often leads to dissatisfaction, the old external versus internal motivation problem. We’re not all the same: we don’t all have the same talents, interests, income, free time, resources, or privileges. We can’t all win everything, afterall.

The unrealistically high value of the personal achievement also causes us to view others who choose a different way to be lesser-than or not-relatable to us. Yes, a hard work ethic, which spans age, class, gender, and ability, can and often will push you further in many aspects of life. Maybe your work ethic will get you a promotion at work, a raise, or into a better university.

But again, those are personal achievements, and just because someone’s position is high-powered, their paycheck is bigger, or they go to a good university: 1. Does not make that person better than anyone else; and 2. Does not define that person.

Not everyone wants to be a leader, college student, full-time whatever, or runner. Not everyone graduates or even wants to go to college. Not everyone wants to run a marathon! Culturally, we relate to each other by comparing our resumes of personal achievements. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people with similar goals, but a dangerous and terrible area to place one’s personal value, for the reasons I mentioned above.

cbus-15There was a time, admittedly not too long ago, when I really thought I was the shit for having run a marathon and getting all the swag, photographs, and attention to go with it. Since taking a break from American culture, I realized I’ve spent my life placing my personal value only in the achievement and not the process. I’ve noticed that none of my European friends have any photos of their college commencement. According to them, it’s actually quite rare for a school to hold a commencement ceremony. To many people it’s literally just pomp and circumstance. Similarly, Euros don’t flaunt their wedding rings or wedding photos. Back to the running front, I don’t know any 20-something Europeans who have run a marathon. Actually- I don’t know any Europeans at all who have run a marathon. Or even a 5k!

Europeans don’t really give a rat’s ass about your medals or your wedding ring, or any other type of trophies or adornments. They’re just trying to enjoy life and the company of their fellow humans, regardless of hobbies, resumes, and achievements. If races, rings, medals, and trophies make you happy, you bet they’ll support you, even if they don’t get it. They’ll think it’s really cool if you lift weights, do core workouts, and run 10 milers for fun, but they won’t worship you for it. They’ll also think it’s really cool if you participate in ice-cream eating marathons and hotdog eating contests because they just really don’t care. Europeans, it seems, generally just want to be happy. Americans also (again generally) just want to be happy … and crush all the numbers, achieve all the goals, and have all the things.

10-milerAmerican society places value in numbers: weight, size, income, PRs. So there I was, stuck in the clutches of societal expectations from my own country, in gorgeous Mediterranean surroundings, questioning my whole experience as a runner because I haven’t gotten a shiny finisher’s medal this year. Am I still a runner if I don’t run a race this year? Rather than leisurely looking for a race simply because I love running, I was scrambling to find a race because I felt pressured to run a race this year, for confidence and identity’s sake. I realized that rather than reflect on medals, photos, and PRs, I needed to look within for confidence, purpose, and happiness.

After a difficult transitional year, running has been with me through it all. I’ve run in various countries, states, and climates. I’ve had many “cry runs” and many runs in which I doubted my fitness. The number of races I run, or even my PRs, do not dictate my worth or my identity as Bergie. Racing is not what makes us runners. Medals and diets don’t make us runners either.

Possessing the motivation to wake up at 5 a.m. to run before an exhausting day at work, or running at 9 p.m. after it’s over, does. The joy, the dread, the grit, and sticking with a plan when we don’t want to, that’s what makes us runners. The friendships we’ve made and the ability to finish when times are tough. The desire to pace our friends and encourage them until the finish, the longing for the pavement when we are injured on the couch. The gratitude. The hope. The passion. That’s what makes us runners. That’s what makes us us.

Do you struggle with caring too much about numbers? Have you learned to love the process more than the results? If so, how?

I'm a student of law and life. A Jill of all trades, master of none. But I'm hoping to master something, sometime. ;) Preferably a sub-23 5k and a sub-4 marathon!

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  1. Great article. I can totally relate to the mindset of wanting to achieve more, more, more. I’m like that in pretty much every aspect of my life, and it can be exhausting! In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s partially what led the burnout I’m still trying to recover from. Maybe I should move to Europe for a while! Thanks for sharing your experience.