On Runners’ Bodies, Real Runners, and What It Means to Be Dedicated

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My legs might not meet any magazine’s definition of runner’s legs, but as legs that run, I’d beg to differ.

This post has been floating around in my brain for quite some time, probably since I started running 5 years ago.  I’ve never put it out there though.  Talking about weight and body type is something that I feel is really important, but to actually do it feels so raw.

At 37 years old, I have plenty of history to share when it comes to my relationship with my body.  I could tell you about the college years when I struggled with eating disorders or what three pregnancies in four years did to me. Instead I want to talk about my relationship to my body as a runner.

I have an average-sized body for a female human, but this body is anything but average when compared to other runners.

5 years ago, I gave birth to my youngest daughter and finally decided to reclaim my body.  I could probably count on one hand the number of times I ran (on purpose) during my adult life, but because I don’t like to do anything halfway, I jumped right in and trained for a half marathon.

That first year of running was all about seeing what my body was capable of.  I felt so proud of every mile I pounded out.  I felt so proud of the gains I was making along the way.  I remember one run when I ran a 12 minute mile and felt SO FAST.  I slimmed down a bit and lost some of that baby weight, and I felt like a runner.

Something shifted sometime after that first year, though.  The weight loss stalled.  My pace plateaued.  That newness and excitement of being a brand new runner faded. The biggest change, though, was that I stopped comparing myself to myself and started looking around at what other runners were doing, how other runners looked, and feeling like I didn’t measure up to my fellow running peers.

And there was a let down, especially when my body reached my current weight several years ago, and hasn’t really moved much since then.  I guess, in my mind, I had always assumed that if I kept on running, my body would end up looking like a “runner’s body,” like Shalane Flanagan or something you’d see on the cover of a running magazine.

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I’m 5’3, 155 lbs, and somewhere between a size 8 and 10.  In the real world, I am incredibly average.  I am muscular.  I have curves.  I have calves the size of tree trunks.  In my day to day life, I have reached a pretty solid acceptance of my body.  I have come a very long way from the self-loathing of my younger years, and can generally say, with a straight face even, that I am pretty happy with my body.

But here’s the rub. When I shift from regular self to my running self, I suddenly don’t feel so self-accepting. Around runners I feel like I am much larger than average.  I look around and see people with the runner’s physique, light, lean, and effortlessly fast, and in comparison I feel like every step of mine is labored and heavy. I start to think how much faster I would be if I just dropped 15 lbs?

When I read running specific articles, I often feel like they are written by elite runners FOR elite runners. Just look at the photos! Could they be talking to me? Logically, I know this is untrue, but on my self-critical days, I read something like Jasmine’s sub-3 hour marathon post on Tuesday and feel like even trying to improve my current PRs is futile.  I compare my pace, my weekly mileage, and my “non-runner’s body” to what I see and instantly go from feeling pride at my running accomplishments to a shame spiral of never being capable of doing what they do.

Some days I feel like a real runner and some days I feel like, because I don’t seem to look the part, that I’m just an imposter in the cool kids club.  I stand in awe of the people Jasmine talks about who regularly bust out 80-90 miles a week, whereas my highest week of running ever was just over 40. When I broke the 40 mile threshold for the first time, I felt like the master of the universe. When I finally broke the 30 minute threshold for a 5k race, I felt like Shalane Flanagan.

And this is how it should be. I should celebrate every time I squeeze myself into an ultra-supportive sports bra and grasp for my running shoes in the early morning darkness and chase after my running dreams. I should pat myself on the back for even the slowest run, because it’s more than I ever thought myself capable of not that long ago.  During my college years, I wasn’t properly fueled to even be able to run a mile. During my pregnancy years, my ankles swelled to balloons just from walking across a room. I’ve accomplished a lot as a runner.

The past 5 years of running have been the most humbling and rewarding years of my life. I’ve learned to challenge my thoughts about my body. I’ve learned to accept my body on its own terms and I fight constantly to not compare myself to those amazingly talented, dedicated, elite runners or anyone else.

So here’s to us, ourselves. We’re all just doing our thing and aiming for our own goals within our own lives. Just because we can only run 4 miles on the average weekday doesn’t mean we’re not as dedicated as someone who can run 10.  We can rejoice just as much about running a race at 10:00 pace as someone else running it in 6:00 pace. My level of dedication and achievement has no relation to anyone else’s and either does yours.

My body has curves.  My feet sort of make a clompity noise with each step of my run.  I loathe any running shirt that’s “fitted” and I like to eat pizza and tacos and hot dogs.  And even though runners who look like me won’t likely grace the cover of a running magazine any time soon, there are a lot of us out there, pounding the pavement, dripping with sweat, and striving from where we are just as hard as Shalane Flanagan is striving from where she is.

A body that runs is a runner’s body and a person who runs is a runner. Period.

Do you have a “runner’s body?” Do you have a different level of body acceptance as a regular person than you do as a runner?

I'm a college mental health counselor, runner, cyclist, wife, and mom to two strong-willed children. I started running in 2011 after the birth of my last child after years of love-hate relationships with fitness. My favorite distance is the half marathon, but I love the challenge of tackling the marathon. My biggest challenge is the mental aspect of racing, but my greatest strength is I'm stubborn and never give up! I'm a free spirit, an open book, and try to be authentic both in real life as well as in my internet life. Running has given me a place to face my fears, chase goals, and stay humble. Side note: I love cats and coffee and tacos.

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20 comments

  1. Hi Pumpkin, I’m really glad you wrote this post – this viewpoint needs to be voiced. The side of running that forces you to constantly compare yourself to others who might be slimmer, faster, more talented, etc. is one we all need to learn to deal with because it’s so easy to get caught up in it. I love that you are doing your own thing and aiming for your own goals within your own life. THAT is running at its best, and good for you that you’ve been able to gain this perspective.

  2. Great post Pumpkin! I can especially relate to the part about not feeling quite good enough when I read about “everyday” runners who break 3 hours in the marathon, or run those high mileage numbers. When I started focusing on what I can do, and stopped worrying that others might not think it’s good enough, my running took on a new meaning.

  3. I want to make an important point: both Jasmine’s viewpoint and Pumpkin’s are worthy of our attention and are both inspiring in different ways. Being thin or fast or average-sized or middle-paced or slow or fat it’s all just who we are. Jasmine shouldn’t have to not talk about what inspired her to get where she is and what inspires others who aspire to her race times. I think the point is and pumpkin says this – our running journeys are our own no matter who we are. Comparing and feeling less than or superior too others is not helpful to ourselves or anyone else. Dedication to the sport, to the pursuit of our own excellence is what it’s all about no matter what we look like or what pace we run. So just as no one should say Pumpkin is less of a runner than a faster thinner runner like Jasmine, Jasmine isn’t less than pumpkin because fewer people can relate to her experience in the front of the pack.

    1. Yes! Exactly! I WANT to hear about the Jasmines of the world! I want to read about her successes and her training and her dedication. Just because I know for myself that I’ll never be able to run the way she does, I can still be inspired and pushed to keep working to grow as a runner!

    2. Thanks for the clarification, Salty. I was going to say that people see me and think I have the typical “runner’s body” that is described here but I’m what I would consider a mediocre runner. Not all stereotypical “runner’s bodies” are fast and not all fast runners have the stereotypical bodies. I think experienced runners understand this and don’t give a rats butt about body type. It’s the novice runners that need to figure it out and the non runners that just need to shut their faces.

  4. Hi pumpkin,

    Thanks for this wonderful read!
    I feel extra large around the “runner body”. I am overweight but I run (well maybe jog). I just had my youngest 3 months ago and this is my third child in four years. When I started running 2 years ago I didn’t realize the feelings I would have to overcome, the stares, the comments of being an overweight runner. I was training for my first half when I became pregnant with my third and remember feeling like a failure because I could not run. It’s amazing how we let society and our minds tell us what a runner should look like. However, if we just look in the mirror and say “hey you are a runner, you do run because you love it”, this is what makes a running, the joy, not how you look!

  5. As Rebecca commented, this is such an important article and concept. Women have such damaging body images, whether as runners or not. I have struggled my entire life (which is longer than many of you) with how I look, how others see me, what I can and cannot do. I’ve written about it on my posts about “Why I Run” and the empowerment that running gives me to accept (sometimes) who I am and what I look like. It is too easy to get derailed especially with the elites in the news all the time and the disregard of slower or back of the pack or not-the-average body type. Truthfully, everyone is different and until each of us accepts ourselves, issues will abound (e.g., the high school cross-country girls with anorexia who see a thin body as the desired body). Thank you.

  6. I loved this post Pumpkin, and appreciate the honesty in it. Too often I feel like as women we feel like we can’t be open about things like weight, body image or insecurities regarding whatever it may be. You ARE inspiring. You ARE a runner.

    It’s really easy to get caught up in the comparison trap. Hell, I can even read Jasmine’s posts and feel like- wow am I not doing enough? I ran a sub-3 marathon this fall but did nowhere near the mileage she does. But then I also take a long hard moment to think about the fact that we are all different and we all require (or want) to take different methods to reach the same goals. I get told I don’t “look like a runner” all the time (by non-runners) who don’t mean any harm by it but it’s frustrating. I’m short, I have legs that on most days rub together, and my body has a little more substance (read: beer and nachos) than most runners who are around my paces. When I’m not in running stuff, I’m more self conscious. My work pants fit a little tighter (squats doing their job), and people see the amount of food I eat and look at me like I’m crazy (I could out eat an NFL line). I guess I’m rambling, but really I just enjoyed this post and find that in some way shape or form we can all relate to it. At the end of the day, if you run you are a runner. If you set a PR regardless of the pace/time compared to someone else, you better be celebrating that success. If 40 mpw makes you feel like superwoman or 100 miles a week does- who cares. Whatever makes you feel like superwoman, do it- because you work hard and deserve to feel good and be proud of it.

  7. Pumpkin! I love you. I mean this! I feel ya sister… we are built similarly, and I totally get the shift in mindset b/t your everyday body and your runner body. I totally totally get that! Keep writing! And eating pizza! And celebrating the AMAZING things your body has brought your through!!! <3

  8. Thank you for this! I’m am pretty much your exact size, and my body type is a little different (proving, yet again, that we are all dealing with different things). I don’t look like a “runner”, and like you said, I am most self-conscious when I am with other female runners or working out with other women. When I’m in regular clothes, I think I look just fine, and feel like I have a pretty good handle on my body acceptance in most situations. But then I go to a run club, or to a barre class, and my level of self-acceptance plummets. Why can’t I lose 5-10 pounds? Why do I have so much flab in x, y, and z places? But then I finish my workout, shower and get dressed for work…and it’s not so much of an issue anymore. It’s so interesting to think about that shift and read that other women have the same thoughts!

    We are all doing the best we can with what we have. Thank you.

  9. As someone on the other side of the gender spectrum who has struggled with weight and body image for as many of my 49 years as I can recall, all I can say is YES!

    The link to Jasmine’s post was critical to me … because as many others commented more politely, I read the post and thought F-U because of what came across as pretty severe judgment – something no one needs.

    You ARE a runner … and you have a runner’s body! As I realized myself after finally running my first race at 46 … it isn’t about everyone else. Look around at your next race and see what bodies are there – it is amazing when you can get outside of your own head and actually look around … you will see ‘traditional’ runner’s bodies, but you will also see every type of person out there!

    You will realize that running is a very inclusive sport, and once you do that you will realize that you are awesome.

  10. This is a great post. There are things to keep in mind when you have a hard time not comparing yourself to other runners. For example – I may have more of a stereotypical “runner’s body” (whatever that means…LOL) than some, but I have never been blessed to bear children from my own body (see Clove’s Stroller Jealousy post from May 2012, the struggle is real!). My point is that you may never know it, but some of the runners you compare yourself too may be willing to trade places with you in a heartbeat, and they may just be outrunning their own demons.

    I admire the courage it took to put this post out there, and it’s a good reminder to all of us to turn our focus inwards instead of constantly comparing ourselves. Keep doing what you’re doing!

  11. Oh my goodness!!!! You have no idea how bad I needed this to snap out of the funk I’ve been in for the last week! I ran a half marathon here in New Orleans where I live and I was fine when I left the house- felt like I looked good, felt confident in my training- 5ft 4in and 157. I have always felt like a “heavy, jiggly” runner but I’m trying to love my body and appreciate how far these legs take me and my endurance is pretty incredible. Fast forward to race morning and I’m in my tights and for some reason in my minds eye I look lean to bed and like a runner- that was until race day when all the “real” runners (in my thwarted view) started passing by with no jiggle and bodies that LOOK like they run and train. I mean, I put in all the work too and after 3yrs, I still don’t look like that. This post was raw, honest and exactly what i needed to read today to get off theology party train!

    1. Typo- in my minds eye I look like a lean runner. Typo- pity party train. Also, anybody battle with those race photos! They had me in tears! I mean, how I actually think I look when I’m running and what the camera captures is crazy!!!

  12. I love this article. I am always trying to remind myself that comparison is the thief of joy in running (and all things, I guess). I love running and triathlon blogs but reading them sometimes diminishes my pride in my own accomplishments (and obviously, that is on me, not on the bloggers). Thank you for reminding me that I should continue to be proud of myself!

  13. I’m enjoying reading everyone’s responses. But I’m not seeing Jasmine’s, that others are referring to. Was it removed?