What is the role of a professional runner?
Becoming a professional runner requires talent, hard training, and good coaching. Running is a simple and democratic sport compared to other sports; you need no special equipment and you can run almost anywhere. Most children are “born to run” and there aren’t a lot of complicated movements and skills to learn.
All this means that only a tiny percentage of all runners make money. A few track stars and great marathoners are wealthy. A second tier of athletes, still only a small percentage of dedicated runners, make a living out of their running for a few years or possibly a decade or more.
I was one of those second-tier runners for the few years in the 1980s when I wasn’t nursing some injury or the other. Although I loved the team aspect of cross-country running (and the camaraderie and success of my high school team is what got me hooked on running in the first place), it was from road racing that I made my money.
Winning the Cascade Run-Off 15K in 1987, my best year of road racing. Portland, Oregon. 49:05.
I was good at running on the roads. My legs were not strong so I wasn’t at my best on muddy or rough cross-country courses. As for the track—track stadiums create an electric excitement and intimacy between athletes and spectators, but I didn’t like racing the 10,000m event, the one my body was best suited for. Running 25 laps on the track was psychologically gruelling, whereas the kilometres ticked by relatively easily when I ran the same distance on the road.
I raced mainly in the biggest American road races, but only at distances shorter than the half marathon. These races had excellent sponsorship and organization. They usually paid travel expenses for ten or twenty male and female elite athletes, and offered prize money to the top ten finishers. I was lucky—in the 1980s, there were few African women competing. I could almost always finish in the top three at these big races. I was beaten by many of the great runners of that period: Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Lynn Jennings, Liz McColgan, Wendy Sly, Anne Audain, and others—but they were never all at the same race.
This was the 1983 IAAF 10K Road Championship for Women held in San Diego, CA. In the front you can see (l. to r.) Midde Hamrin (?) of Sweden, me, Wendy Sly and two other British women I don’t recognize, and American Betty Springs, who finished second in the race. I placed 4th. This photo in my scrapbook came from a 1984 Ontario Athletics magazine. Photo: Diane Johnson.
My racing history has given me gratitude and appreciation not only for the financial rewards I got from running, but for the other ways running enriched my life. It’s also made me think about the responsibilities of professional runners.
What are they giving in return for their prize money, their appearance money, and their sponsors’ support?
Why are sponsors willing to support huge road races, glamorous track meets, and individual elite athletes?
Why are people willing to pay to attend European track meets or Olympic Games?
Elite sports (including running) provide people with two things they value highly: entertainment and inspiration.
Sport is entertainment
People pay for a spectacle. Athletic bodies, to many people, are the most aesthetically pleasing. and often the most sexy. The best runners, moving with speed, power, and gracefulness, exemplify the human animal at its physical peak.
Competitive clothing is usually minimal and form-fitting. Such clothing shows off perfect bodies but it is also functional for speed and heat dissipation. Some athletes enjoy enhancing their appearance for competitions. They often give special attention to makeup and jewellery, unusual fingernails, or elaborate hairstyles.
A big part of entertainment in running comes from suspense. There is the thrill of watching an unpredictable competition. It’s not always the best- or fastest-looking runner who wins. Mental toughness plays a large role, and sometimes tactics do too.
Sport provides inspiration
Runners explore the physiological limits of the human body plus the role that the mind plays in extending performance beyond what should be physically possible. The greatest runners evoke amazement, awe, and excitement.
The responsibilities of the professional runner
A professional runner, just like a professional in any field, should earn what they are paid. How does an elite runner do this? Is running fast their only responsibility? No. Fulfilling the role of an entertainer, and, more importantly, being an inspirational role model, entails more than running fast.
My “ideal” professional runner would meet all of the criteria I’ve described below. And such athletes do exist in real life!
This is my “ideal” professional runner:
- They give their best effort every time they race.
- They show good sportsmanship at all times—winning or losing or somewhere in-between—in their interactions with other athletes, with the media, and with fans.
- They follow the rules of their sport (including bans against the use of performance-enhancing drugs).
- They are gracious, modest, and helpful in conversations with their fans, who are often other runners.
- They show their appreciation for event organizers, volunteers, and sponsors. They make themselves available for all requested media and social events connected with the competition. They try to be as outgoing and friendly as they can at these events (even though runners are often introverts!).
- They share their passion for running, the reasons they love their sport, and personal stories. Others will want to know about how they got started in their sport, about coaches and other people who helped them, and about obstacles and injuries they overcame.
- They think about how they can give back to their sport, both currently and in the future. The vast network of the sport of athletics, from its grassroots training up to elite level competition, would not exist without volunteers. Coaches, meet directors, marshals, and track officials are usually volunteers. (And what about the parents and spouses who encourage us, cook for us, drive us places, cheer for us at races, comfort us when we have a bad race or are sick, injured, or exhausted? The people who love us for more than our running speed?)
There is one other essential quality that my ideal elite athlete possesses, and that is the ability to put their running in perspective. Sport is just a game, a preparation for the larger game of Life. Being a great runner is not equivalent to being a great person. To become a great runner, it’s necessary to focus with dedication, courage, and hard work on your training, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of neglecting your closest relationships.
Questions elite athletes might ask themselves are:
Who am I outside of running?
Have I kept my sense of humour despite my serious focus on running?
What will I be when I’m no longer a professional runner? Have I acquired a good education that will help me prepare for my next career?
My personal experiences as a professional runner
As I became a more experienced competitor, I had the privilege of meeting great athletes whom I considered to be fantastic role models. Ingrid Kristiansen was the female runner of my generation that I admired the most. In the 1980s she set multiple world records. In most races she simply ran from the front and pushed herself relentlessly, because no one else was close. She displayed ferocious focus and toughness when racing.
Yet when she wasn’t racing, she was relaxed and friendly. I had the privilege of speaking with Kristiansen a few times before and after races. A couple of times I sat near her on buses going to race sites. I could always see her sense of humour and mischief bubbling up. She seemed supremely confident, yet modest at the same time. I felt that she respected me as a competitor though she was far superior to me.
I had my role models, but I also came to realize that part of my responsibility as an elite athlete was to be a role model for others. I made an impact on people because I didn’t look like someone who could be a good athlete. I was tiny, with skinny, fragile-looking legs. I’m sure many women and girls thought, “If she can do it, maybe I can too!”
I think a big part of a professional runner’s responsibility is to encourage others to run, to have a healthy lifestyle, and to believe that improvement is possible, step by step.
Racing is tough and you must be tough
Part of the responsibility of being a professional is giving your best effort no matter what the circumstances (see point #1 above). When a race director has paid for your flight and hotel room, or you’ve been selected to a national team, you feel the obligation to do well even under the most trying conditions.
Putting it simply, racing is not fun or easy if you’re sick, injured, or sleep-deprived. I’m not saying elite athletes have to race no matter how sick or badly injured they are. Sometimes it is a tough call, whether to race or not. But once committed, you have to give your best even when it’s painful or difficult to focus.
My personal demon was chronic insomnia. High pressure competitive situations and unfamiliar locations exacerbated my insomnia. I’ve raced many times after a night of little or no sleep. I’ve learned that it’s possible to perform well even when I’m sleep-deprived. It takes mental toughness and confidence that the physical training will make a good performance possible.
One of my worst experiences of pre-race insomnia happened in 1983 when I went to Knarvik, Norway, to compete in a special international 10,000m track race. This race was being held because the women’s 10,000m was not yet part of the Athletics World Championships program. (The World Championships were held in Helsinki, Finland in 1983.)
I was in Knarvik for about four days before the race, and slept only a couple of hours each night. By race day, I felt completely exhausted, both mentally and physically. I was frustrated with the insomnia and extremely nervous. Yet I managed to finish fourth in the race, in a time of 32:23 (at the time a Canadian record). It was only my second 10,000m track race ever. I was able to pull this off because of my excellent preparation (including lots of speedwork on the track) and my road-racing experience at that distance.
There were several times when positive thinking and almost miraculous recoveries allowed me to race well when it seemed it would be impossible. In 1987 I sprained an ankle only eight days before I was due to race in the Bolder Boulder 10K in Colorado. My physiotherapist told me it would take the ankle weeks to heal. I phoned the meet director, Benji Durden, and told him I wouldn’t be able to race. He encouraged me to come anyway, since I already had my plane ticket—he said I could help with announcing from the press truck.
I didn’t run at all that week, and when I arrived in Boulder two days before the race I bought a simple ankle brace at a drugstore. On race day, I found that I could jog with minimal pain, so I completed my warmup at an easy pace. Once the race began, adrenaline took over and I was able to run at race pace in spite of my injured ankle. I ended up winning that race! It was an unexpected victory, because Rosa Mota, whose PBs were much faster than mine, suffered from stomach cramps and I passed her about halfway through the race.
Nowadays, with the dominance of online communication and social media, athletes’ obligations to their sponsors have changed somewhat. The controversy about cheating with performance-enhancing drugs is probably even greater than it was in the 1980s. Yet I believe the professional athlete’s basic responsibilities—to give their best, to show good sportsmanship, and to express appreciation for all those who support them—have remained the same.