When Did I Become a Runner?

In a comment to my last post on Courage to Run, Daniel asked me to share about when I started running and why. I plan to do that in this post. But I also took his question to mean more than simply the physical aspects of the answer: it happened on this day, at this time, etc. In my posts, I’ve been talking about the spiritual aspect of running, how it fulfills our potentiality, how it helps us realize our essential being, our ontological essence. So it seems to me that the question is fundamentally not about when I physically started running and why, but about when there was a change in my ‘self,’ in how I understood my nature, in how my world became reoriented. In other words, when did I become a runner? When was the shift made? When did I move from simply running—from being someone who runs—to being a runner? 

I’ve written about this before. Part of this post is a reworking of some of that earlier writing. That earlier writing captures the act in process, as it was happening. I’ve added a little biographical information to sort of set the stage. I have also added some after-thoughts about what I was thinking at the time to help flesh things out, but essentially the ideas are the same. When did I become a runner?

I have been active for most of my life. In High School I was a rock climber. I spent many hours in the Colorado Mountains climbing to the top of rocks, and when I wasn’t climbing I was thinking about climbing. After that I got into racing bicycles. This is perhaps the start of my emphasis on obtaining maximum fitness. I ended up racing for many years, both road bikes and Mountain bikes, and I still love to ride. At that time I also dipped, a bit, into the world of running just for fun. I did some 10k around Colorado Springs, a 10 miler in the Garden of The God’s, and even the Pikes Peak Marathon (just the ascent). But all during that time I still considered myself a bike racer. Running was just something I did to help my fitness and for fun. I really wasn’t a runner. 

I also wasn’t a Christian. The funny (and sad) thing is that when my wife and I got saved back in 1989 that was the beginning of the end of my physical fitness. Slowly I was inculcated by the Evangelical crowd about the superfluousness of physical exercise—after all, we were ‘spiritual beings’ who will soon be leaving this (corrupt) body behind. Why mess with this mere ‘tent’ when what really counts is our ‘soul.’ It is all very dualistic, and as I came to understand much later, it is not very healthy—physically or spiritually. (I’d like to talk about this sometime. Karl Rahner talks about how we are spirit, but that we are spirit in this world. Part of what constitutes our spiritualness is our physicalness.)

During this time, I answered God’s call into ministry. I went to Nazarene Bible College, I pastored my first church in North Dakota for 8 ½ years, moved to my second church in western Washington, and all the while my waist kept growing, my blood pressure kept raising, and the tonnage kept adding up until I finally tipped the scale at nearly 250 lbs. At that point I had had enough. In part, I have the TV show, The Biggest Looser to thank. That was the spark of inspiration I needed to get going. I began anew the journey to regain my fitness. That was back in 2005. It has not always been smooth sailing, many relapses and stumbles along the way, but I continue to make progress. Well, that’s the background, the physical, biographical ‘why’ and ‘when.’ But all that stuff doesn’t really get to the heart of the question, when did I become a runner?

I thought about that question one day as I ran through the woods in Shelton, Washington on the Huff-n-Puff trail... a light mist washing over my face... the soft earth yielding softly under each stride... the smell of clean air and rich soil filling my senses. When did I become a runner? And for that matter, what is it that makes a person a runner?

It's funny. When I started running I never intended on becoming a runner. I just needed to lose weight. I had been going to the gym three times a week for about a month and decided to add a little running into the mix. Actually, it started off as walking. I couldn't run—too fat and out of shape. But soon I worked up to running a little—a minute or two—then a little more, and then a little more. Soon I was up to about 18 miles a week, and slowly building for the Capital City half-marathon the following April. Somewhere along the way things changed. I had made the switch. Unknowingly, I crossed some invisible line and became a runner. So when was it? When did I make the switch? When did I become a runner?

Was it when I did my first race? Is that when I became a runner? Or was it when my per-mile pace finally dropped into the 8 minute range? I've heard people say that you're really not a runner until you are running in the 8 minute per mile range. Up until then you're just a jogger (or maybe just someone who goes out for a jog).

But you know, that doesn't work for me. I think there's something more. Being a runner is more than about performance and times. It's about more than pace. Being a runner is about more than races and training strategies. And the more I think about it, the more I think it has something to do with identity. The more I think about it, the more I think it has something to do with that word "being."

Identity is powerful. We tend to become what we identify with. That's when I think I became a runner—when I began calling myself as a runner...when I started to think of myself as a runner...when I identified myself as a runner, that's when I became a runner. It was a subtle, but sublime shift. It was a sort of homecoming, a realization that was more felt in my inner spirit than one reached in my mental cognition. It was a return to someplace I had wandered away from, but it was a return in a much fuller sense. Now it wasn’t just a matter of fitness alone. Now the physical was becoming actualized by the spiritual. There was a sense of wholeness in what I was experiencing.

It wasn't an overnight thing. It didn't happen all of a sudden. It was a process. As I ran more and more, that running started to change me. I did lose weight—a lot of weight. But it also started to change me in ways I hadn't counted on. Moods, outlook, emotions, these all were changed as I ran. I found I could deal with things better. My mind was clearer, more focused. I had more energy. All these things (and more) changed as I ran. And soon I discovered that I was a runner.

Paul says in one of his letters to one of the early churches, "I identified myself completely with him [Christ]. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not 'mine,' but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going back on that" (Galatians 2.20-21, The Message).

And that brings us to today. Despite the bumps along the way, I’m still working toward that sense of wholeness. In that sense, running is perhaps more spiritual than physical. But that does not take away from the physical benefits of striving for optimum fitness. Currently Deanna and I are training for the LA Marathon in March. I have decided to try and chronicle our/my training and progress toward that goal on my Blog if you want to follow along (a little self-promotion). I am also really looking hard at ways to bring together the essential nature of running and developing a sense of Personhood into a coherent dissertation topic. The more I read, the more I think there is an inherent link between the two. After all, becoming a runner is in a sense the same sort of thing as becoming a Person.

Thanks for listening.