More than 65 million Americans went for a run last year. More than 19 million ran a race. But many of those people are hesitant to call themselves “runners.” I would know—I used to be one of them.
I started running when I was 22, going to college in California. A friend had signed up for LA Marathon and asked if I wanted to do it with her. Sure, why not? I hated running. Hated it! But I wanted to accomplish this goal of running a marathon.
Only 0.5% of the U.S. population has run a marathon. I wanted to be part of that percentage and knew that I could do it. After running my first race—half marathons became my go to. Month after month I signed up for races and began to love it. Yet, I still didn’t call myself a runner.
I hear “Oh, I’m not a real runner” constantly—at races, parties, in social media, and everywhere else I encounter people who regularly put one foot in front of the other. So what exactly makes you a runner? The short answer is simple: If you run, you’re a runner. But the long answer is much more complicated—and it has nothing to do with how fast you are.
Twenty-five years ago, just 25 percent of America’s runners were women. Now, they’re at 57 percent. Our numbers have increased more than 800 percent, while the population of male runners has merely doubled. More people are running than ever.
In 1990, just 3.8 million people finished a race; now five times that number do annually. Who are all these runners? Some are starting from scratch as adults, knocking out 14-minute miles like I did when I first laced up a pair of sneakers. Others are sprinkling walk intervals throughout their workouts, an unthinkable concept four decades ago, but one that has become increasingly popular in recent years. And of course, former high school and college athletes looking for a way to stay active. Some have been runners since childhood. How they perform has changed dramatically too.
The median marathon time has slowed more than 22 minutes for men and 26 minutes for women since 1995. At the same time, the number of marathon finishers has risen by 250,000 runners, many of them in the back of the pack. People aren’t getting slower; simply, slower runners are toeing the line in races they didn’t attempt before.
It’s funny because you go to a race, look around, and everyone is completely different. To me, the true definition of a runner is not necessarily only that person with the thin legs and the short shorts running the sub-six-minute miles but a person who honestly feels the pull of sneakers to the road or trail.
It can be that big, burly guy with the red beard, a slightly overweight woman, a child running with his mom or that hard-core runner who races every weekend. It’s a person who gets out on the road to enjoy some aspect of a run on a regular basis. It’s someone whose legs start to feel funny from not running after a couple of days or someone who tries to find trails that no one else has yet discovered.
So when someone asks me if I am a runner, the answer is yes. I run on a regular basis, therefore I am a runner. Although you may not be able to pinpoint the exact moment you started running, you know deep inside that you are a “real” runner, just like I know I am and always will be a runner.