When Your Running Identity Changes

Who am I today?

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?

MMDI Model
A Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity for a runner who identifies most with gender, then with career, then with running, then with religion

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?

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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  1. I love this so much! Once you can push past the fear of your identity shift, it can be a really fun evolution. You have a lot of amazing qualities and it’s clear that this is the time to let some of those things take center stage. Running is always there for you when you want it, but it doesn’t have to have a lead role in your life at all times. <3

    1. Thank you! And thank you for your help and support getting there.

      And, because I should have asked already, will you be my life coach? I promise to pay in Starbucks mugs and terrible jokes.

  2. This was really eye opening for me, for the opposite reason! Running has caused me to re-evaluate my priorities and shift my focus away from my career, necessitating some big changes. It’s left me feeling really at a loss as to how to be myself! Reading this really helped me to see that I can include all the parts of who I am and still be me, even when the importance of those things changes.

    1. Exactly – and it is so cool how our priorities change but our core remains the same. You are you and this is such an exciting time to find out what that means in a new (and big) context.

  3. This is an excellent post! I can so relate right now, but much of my runner atomic ring is diminished under protest. I mean, I can’t really do anything about it, and I think fighting it as I did for too long really, just makes it all worse. But yeah, things change, we change, we as runners change, and learning to go with the flow of that … and life really, seems to be the key to self-satisfaction.

    1. Yes! You make such a good point too – sometimes our identity shifts because of factors outside of our control (and will) – and that can be even harder to acknowledge and transition with. You are doing an amazing job – and I agree, going with the flow is key!

  4. Love reading this – especially as I have been fortunate enough to have ‘seen’ some of your identity shifts these last few years!

    I believe everything you say is true – life ebbs and flows and that is all normal and natural.

    And same for me – and part of the reason I love TimeHop! I am reminded of the ever-changing nature of life. Even over the last 4-5 years as my running identity has taken on a new role despite having ‘been a jogger’ for 23 years prior. But since Lisa has changed jobs a couple of times in the last 5 years, and since our boys have gone through high school and within a month will both be in college … whew stuff is changing!

    When I first became ‘serious’ about running long distance, my family flexed and made time and space … now as the kids are transitioning and have the demands of their new lives, I flex myself and we all work to make it work for them. Soon that will all change again … and in a few years we will no longer have any ties to this region and will be ready to ask ‘what is our NEXT identity’?!?

    1. Yes, for sure – and you and Lisa are in a huge transition right now too! Exciting but disconcerting sometimes too. If I know you both, you will handle it with grace and continue to develop as some of the best people (and most enduring couples) I know!

  5. Such a great post. Can’t wait to hear about your new stuff adventures!

    Running has always been part of my identity, though at times it’s been further from the center. It’s not a coincidence that at those times I did the most creative writing and other such work (music, mostly). Partly it’s a practical matter of how much free time one has to do all that stuff, but I like the mmdi model…it shows that, for instance, the creative aspect of me is still there, just further out in orbit right now.

  6. That is so interesting – true for me too. Sometimes when I need to do the most creation (right now, research and lesson planning) I have less mental energy for the long runs. I’m physically capable but only have so much mental capacity. I think once things calm down and there is less “new,” I’ll come back to running ultras.

  7. “I need to make this change in order to be the professor that I have always wanted to be.” How badass. I’m so proud of you! This was also so helpful for me to read and put many things in perspective. For many years of my life, I was a tip-top musician, and I certainly shifted when I went to college. I had no time for playing in architecture school, despite my efforts to be in bands then. I didn’t understand this concept at the time, and honestly I’ve never thought of these shifts until now. Obviously my identity shifted again majorly when I moved to Spain. Thanks for writing this post. It’s been one of the most validating things I’ve read in awhile. Love you!

    1. Thank you so much – and thank you for being such a great support for me as I go through this shift! I think it’s so important to recognize what is happening as our lives change – to see and understand that we are not losing ourselves, our identity is just shifting so that things that were once a core part of us are still there and valuable, just less salient for now.

  8. Inverse situation: the big one, the elephant in the room for me, is parenthood. In American culture, motherhood in particular is sometimes regarded as kind of an all-consuming identity – once a woman is a mother, it is inconceivable (to others) that she be anything else (a business owner, an athlete, a sexual being) which gives rise to a whole slew of surprised news articles on the lines of ‘women with children do stuff’. (Women with children compete at the Olympics! Women with children run companies! Women with children run for President!…) And of course that bleeds into and dominates my own self-concept of my identity – how can I spare five or ten hours a week to run when I should be with my child? (It doesn’t help, either, that biological motherhood often involves an extended period of being physically unable to run.)

    But obviously women with children have been doing stuff since the dawn of time, and human civilisation is still around – so I can run a few hours a week.

    1. YES! Such a great point – society tells us what our identities should be too, and it can be so tough to overcome what we are being told we should do and be to be true to ourselves and what is best for ourself (and our families)! Even if it is the most salient part of our identity right now does not mean that it should (and can) be the only thing we base our decisions and priorities on.

      And yes, you can and should run if that is what is best for you. I believe we can’t be our best selves for others if we aren’t our best selves for us first.

  9. Great post! My running identity has definitely changed over the years, sometimes to something completely new, sometimes bouncing back to what it used to be. But even with the varying levels of how important it is in my life at the time, I always identify as a runner, no matter how little or un-involved I am with running at that point.

    1. Yes – I love that and I realized, in a meeting today when I had to tell everyone “something they didn’t know about myself,” that I still identify as a runner and not racing the last two races doesn’t take that away from me or my identity.

  10. I love this because I found exactly the same thing when I went back to college last year. I retrained to teach preschool after 5 years as a SAHM. During those wonderful 5 years, running became hugely important for identifying who I was when I wasn’t being a mother. It gave me a feeling of pride, achievement, badassery, independence and I am so grateful to running for that. When I went back to college, I found that intellectual stimulation gave me those same feelings and I didn’t rely on running so much for them. It made me adjust my approach to running – more for fun, less for identity. It put running back into perspective. I’m sure you know what I mean.

    I hope you’re soon able to settle into that new relationship with running.

      1. A wonderful way to put it! I love it and the idea that running is also a tool to help us find ourselves! It can be our identity and a way to process our identity as it changes.

    1. I understand exactly what you mean – in fact, when I was writing my dissertation I knew that my brain would need a break from heavy training in order to get my dissertation done. Once I did, I think I was a little bored and lost and turned to running again. But then being a professor started taking that time again, so I don’t need running for that (and maybe need is the wrong word, I don’t have the brain space for training like I did). However, as I start to settle in, I’m already looking at races close to my family in Montana and Washington. I expect that while I might not train for a 100 for a while, 50 miles is absolutely within my window! It just takes time.