Runners, meet Athena.
Recently, after taking Baby J on a hike with some friends, we were getting back to our cars in the parking lot. We were all detangling ourselves and our babies from the carriers, when my friends spotted a woman across the parking lot getting her kids out of her double running stroller. “Hey!” they joked to me. “Do you have a business card or something for the HeyRunnerMama blog?” I took a look, and sure enough, this mama definitely looked like a runner. She was fit and tan, wearing a small amount of stretchy clothing that would have shown every lump, bump, and imperfection – if she’d had any.*
I thought to myself “Wow, now that’s a runner. She looks the part!” I thought about the extra lusciousness I’m still wearing since my pregnancy, and thought “I do NOT look like a runner.”
*Granted, the actual real woman we saw is probably a kind, approachable, flawed, relatable person, but in my head she runs a sub-4-minute mile. She runs 100-mile trail ultras before dawn, wins first place in an Iron Man triathlon during her kids’ naptime, fixes them a healthy snack involving organic celery, then heads off to her CEO job at a Fortune 500 company.
But that begs the question: What, exactly, does a runner’s body look like? Does it look like the fitness models we see in Runner’s World magazine? The elite runners Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan, with their ripped abs? The muscle-bound sprinters you see in the Olympics? Does it look like the high schooler in a tutu, cruising through a 5K with her friends?
Sure. We have no problem calling all of these people runners.
But how about the heavy woman at the end of the race, who is working harder than anybody there, just to stay ahead of the sag wagon? Does she have a runner’s body?
The answer, of course, is: yes.
If you run, you are a runner.
More to the point, you are a human being, and you deserve compassion. And sometimes the most powerful person to receive compassion from is yourself.
During my daughter’s travels in this life, I hope she is able to understand that her body is just one small part of who she is. It’s a wonderful, divinely sophisticated vehicle that I hope she’ll do her best to care for, but in the end it’s her mind and heart that matter.
It’s what she says and what she does that will leave a lasting impression on those who know and love her.
In the same way, your measurements do not make you a runner. It’s your heart. It’s your effort. (And let me tell you, it takes a whole lot more heart and effort to run a mile in front of a crowd when you feel like a dump truck squeezed into some spandex, than it does when your body is tuned like a sports car.)
Luckily, lots of races have discovered that larger runners are a valuable demographic. Not only are there plenty of heavy runners, but the sport is actually harder when you’re carrying some extra weight. That’s why more events have started offering Athena and Clydesdale categories.
True story: My only gold medal ever was in a smaller race, where I placed first in my category – not because I was fast! It was only because I was the sole competitor who registered as an Athena.
Now, most of the time I don’t push myself too hard for pace. For me, it’s more about finishing the distance and feeling good. However, there’s one race I ran a couple of years ago that haunts me, because I have never been able to run that fast, that far, since. A lot of factors came into play that day, but part of it was who I ended up following: There was a pair of older women there, in grandma-style elastic-waist shorts and tank tops. They had the tans and age spots from too much sun on their shoulders. They had the flappy upper arms from not giving a damn about upper body strength. They had the fanny packs. (And I mean actual fanny packs, not these fuel-and-hydration belts we wear that protest “I am a runner! Not a grandma with a fanny pack from the ’80’s!”) One of them was actually wearing a visor. A VISOR. And do you know what? I tried to keep up with them, and in the end they left me in the dust.
So maybe what we need to do is leave our preconceived ideas about who looks like a runner (or who looks like a fast runner) in that same dust.
You might be thin, you might be muscled, you might be heavy. You might be young, you might be old, you might be somewhere in between. You might be differently abled. You might wear religious garb that sets you apart. What we all share is a runner’s heart: The perseverance to push through those expectations, to ignore the world’s perceptions of us and keep on moving forward.
What makes you different from the crowd? Let us know in the comments!