Throughout childhood and adolescence we try to figure out “Who am I?” and we answer that question partly by attaching labels to ourselves. Before I became a runner, I identified myself as a bookworm, a writer, an actress, a violinist, and a girlfriend—but never as an athlete.
Becoming a runner
I began running regularly in the fall of 1975, at age 16. By the fall of 1977 I was a top runner nationally, winning the OFSAA senior girls’ cross-country championship and earning myself a berth on the Canadian team to compete at the World Cross-Country Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.
Since then there have been times I’ve rebelled, inwardly, against being known as a runner above all else.
In university, I majored in biology, and worked in a lab part-time for a couple of years after graduation. I liked having a work life that was completely separate from running, and when I developed a severe injury in 1984, right before the Olympic trials (where I had hoped to run to a place on the team in the marathon), my lab job filled my daytime hours and saved my sanity.
Many years later, in 2009, I tore my right ACL in a freak accident at the gym. Before I could get the ACL repaired, my unstable leg buckled while I was running downhill. I fell to the ground awkwardly, feeling sharp pain as my knee cartilage twisted and tore. Two knee operations later, in January of 2011, my surgeon told me I could never run again.
At that time I was almost finished a two-year writing and editing program at Douglas College. I was eager to start a new career that was a good fit with my early definition of myself as a writer.
However, the thought of giving up running filled me with bitterness and panic. I couldn’t accept it. Yet I had to accept it. And it wasn’t just the physical act of running I would miss. I realized how integral running was to my life and—yes—to my very sense of myself. Most of my social life revolved around running. For years, my Saturday workouts in Mundy Park with the Phoenix club had been the highlight of my training week. And I still wanted the thrill of racing: the nervousness beforehand, the tactics and all-out effort, the relief of crossing the finish line, the exhilaration and camaraderie afterwards.
Now I had to pretend that none of that was important. It was a psychological adjustment I had to make, because I wouldn’t allow myself to be permanently miserable. Life is rich; I could develop parts of myself that had nothing to do with running.
Keith’s support and humour helped a lot. “It sucks to be you!” he’d say, whenever I was feeling sorry for myself. I had to laugh; this was a comment from someone who had two bad knees. Keith used to love trail running, but now he had to be satisfied with mountain biking and hiking.
It turns out, though, that my running story hasn’t ended yet. Six years later I’ve proved my doctor wrong; I can still run 5–7K twice a week. But I have to be careful and disciplined about it; I have to back off sometimes when my knee flares up.
Always a runner
It’s become clearer to me than ever that I’ll never lose my identity as a runner. It will always be my destiny to be defined this way.
A week or so ago I was listening to a webinar to get some ideas on marketing myself for freelance editing work. One subject the presenter talked about was optimizing one’s online presence, especially on Google, because Google search is the most frequent way most people are found.
The presenter gave many good tips for using keywords, updating professional websites, and linking to other content to optimize Google results. However, I realized that no matter how and where I mention my editing work, the links and photos about my running will always predominate. In fact, the popularity of my running blog means that it will always come out at the top. I’ll never be most famous for my editing work!
I’ve finally realized that a good part of my life story is already written and can’t be unwritten. And I’m coming to accept that, whatever regrets I have about roads not taken, I don’t have to feel trapped or guilty about being viewed foremost as a runner. That’s just the way it is. The best I can do is use my running background in a positive way.
Running has not only shaped my identity and the way others view me. It has also permanently changed my attitude towards my body and the way I inhabit it. It has made me appreciative of all the ways physical activity can benefit people, not only for health reasons but as a means of expressing energy and the simple joy of being alive.
I could never have guessed all the ways that achieving certain running goals (especially going to the 1988 Olympics) would affect my future. Doors were opened to me that otherwise would not have been. Some of the writing and editing work I’ve done has been directly or indirectly tied to my running achievements. I often think that being a past Olympian is the characteristic that distinguishes me from other editors; logically, it is not a qualification relevant to editing, yet it can’t help but attract attention. I know, also, that people assume an Olympian must have certain positive traits—such as the ability to work hard, to be disciplined, and to persevere in spite of hardships and obstacles.
Back on the track
Ironically, on the same day I realized that online I would always show up as a runner first and an editor second, I did my first track workout in almost a year. My Running Room friend Zahida introduced me to the unusual 560m track at Empire Field near the PNE.
It was a holiday Monday; a gorgeous sunny day that gave us spectacular views of the North Shore mountains as we did our workout.
It was a hard workout, but it reminded me of all the sensations and emotions that running gives me. My body still has power and speed. The speed itself is certainly greatly diminished, but the sensations of running fast are still the same. And afterwards, I felt so high, happy, and relaxed.
There is a psychological duality for me now when I think about running. At the same time as I recognize how much running means to me, I have to deny its importance because I know it can’t be so important any longer; I could be forced to stop at any time; I need to focus on other pursuits.
The best I can do is enjoy each running moment as it happens.
Who am I?—and beyond
Asking “Who am I?” and “What is my place in the world?” and experimenting with answers starts in childhood and adolescence, but it doesn’t have to end at age 21 or even age 30. This can be a lifetime quest.
This post has mostly been about the way people view me as a runner, and my acceptance that I am a runner. Even when I no longer run, “runner” will always be a component of my identity.
But like everyone else, I’ve played many roles during my life, and I know that my identity is much more multi-faceted than being “a runner.” I’ve identified myself as a bookworm, a writer, a musician, an actress, a girlfriend, a biologist, a wife, a mother, a teacher, an editor, a salesperson—and more—but who am I, really?
There can be a danger in playing many roles. The danger of feeling like a fake . . . or a fragmented person, without integrity.
The key is being certain of the answers to the following questions:
Who am I, when I’m alone? When I’m not being anything for anyone else?
Do I know myself? Can I feel my spirit? Am I at peace?
And I know that some of my roles are integral to the “real” me.
- I’ll always love books because they transport me into other people’s minds—and I need that closeness. They transport me to other places and times—giving me the discovery, escape, and fantasy that I crave.
- I’ll always be a writer because that is the best way to express my thoughts and imagination. I want to shape stories.
- I’ll always be a runner because that is a big part of how I express my animal nature. I’ve learned the physical joy of running’s power and rhythm.
Those are the main ways I identify myself. There is a place for all the other roles I listed above, too. But I must know that it’s entirely up to me how much I take on a certain role.
Moreover, when I am alone, in the silence, I feel that there is an “I” that is not “what” I do or “who” I am in relation to anyone else. That is what I mean by my spirit.
Then, if I touch another person’s spirit and share mine, we have intimacy. This can happen in close friendship, romantic love, long-term love. In this state there is complete acceptance of the other and the security of knowing my spirit is accepted.
This sense of complete mutual acceptance can happen through physical intimacy. The ironic part is that bodies, and the pleasure they give us, can sometimes lead to a transcendent state where the physical beauty of a body melts away to an indescribable “vision” of the spirit within that body, the body which is only a fragile and impermanent shell.
An afterword from Bruce Lee
We can perfect a role that we are expected to play; but in the words of Bruce Lee, there is a distinction between “self-image actualization” and “self-actualization.”
And why does creating make someone happy? This quote from Bruce Lee explains:
By martial art I mean, like any art, an unrestricted expression of our individual soul.