Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Look Like It

"What exactly DOES it mean to look like a runner?" My sister asked as we ran along in the early morning stillness of Memorial Day. That is a good question. One we were mutually pondering after reading a blog posting by someone I know who characterized a recent female winner of a marathon as inspiring because she was "older" and "heavier" than a typical runner, that she didn't "look like a runner". Instead of feeling inspired by this individuals post, I was incensed. I don't think the woman who won the race would have liked that characterization either. She was neither old(er) nor heavy(er) than the average ultrarunner I know (the woman was a 40 year old mother of 1), nor even of the average runner in general. It is inspiring that she won her first marathon post-baby, that is for sure and that she hadn't even thought about the possibility of winning or breaking 3 hrs, which she did. Her accomplishment is awesome. Her characterization by someone else, not so much.

I mean really, what does it mean to "look like a runner?". Every 6 months to a year, someone will say something to me or someone I know that makes me ponder this question. How does one "look like anything"? Isn't that just stereotyping? If you can "look like a runner", then you can "look like a car thief", "look like a math genius", etc etc. And I have never felt complimented when someone has said that too me.
My first Marathon, Edinburgh Marathon 2005. 30lbs heavier than today.

When I started running marathons, I was about 30 lbs heavier than I am now. I still ran fast, I was strong, my body was adapting to a new sport. For the first three years of my running, people told me all the time that I didn't "look like a runner" and what I heard was "you are too heavy to be a runner". To say that is to say, "you don't look like someone who is working hard enough to actually qualify as actually "being" a runner", in essence: "you would look like xyz if you actually were". Sound like an over complication of semantics? Maybe, but the point is runners (all people in everything they do) come in all shapes and sizes, heights, weights, skin colors, etc and can find success. "Looking like a runner" is a myth. It is one founded on the backs of a wave of anorexia that swept through the beginnings years of long distance running for women. It became the standard that way. And it is one we all buy into. It is one of the reasons that long distance running is such a hot bed for eating disorders. It is the reason that more than half of the people I know who run have disordered eating, restricted eating or full blown eating disorders. Instead of just being runners and letting our bodies shape and follow, we are trying to force ourselves to look a certain way. Instead of being healthy, working our asses off, eating to support our training and doing the work, the numbers on a scale or the number of bones that protrude become the focus. While I thankfully have never suffered from an eating disorder, I am not made of steel and I have also always been taller and bigger than most other women, so I always feel like a giant and therefore when the "looking like a runner" characterization is made, it just hits a nerve. And it misses the point too.
On my way to winning Breakers Marathon 2008, 30lbs lighter.

Even now, at 6'0, 137-140 lbs, I still thought (for example) going into Boston that I was going to feel like a fat cow standing next to all those underweight elite runners in the EWS. I thought I was hugely bigger than them and that they would all be emaciated twigs I was dying to give a hamburger too. I think I look healthy and therefore don't look like the stereotype we all have in our heads. And then I stood there in a pack of 60 elite women, all of whom were shorter than me, but most who were about the same build as me. It was a good wake up call to stop buying into that mentality. After losing wt over 2 years healthfully, through harder training and healthier eating but not by focusing on weight loss, my body rebelled a bit last year and I was diagnosed with hypo-thyroid and low leptin, it caused minor weight gain and even though I was running very well (I had 4 ultra victories and a few marathon victories), I felt bad about myself because I looked "less like a runner", I had bought into that idea. And it is ridiculous. The point is that we as runners, no matter what we look like, are out there on a daily basis doing something amazing with our bodies. I work my butt off, running a tough schedule from my coach, doing 2-a-days 5 times a week, long runs of 5+ hrs, cross & strength training, stretching, etc, etc. I keep it healthy, balanced but difficult. I love what I do, I love how I feel I do it. I basic in the simple joy of what my body can do whether it is running up to a mountain top or speeding along for 400 meter intervals. It is my peace, my bliss, my joy and it has the additional benefit of being incredibly healthy for me physically, mentally and emotionally. Stereotyping or being into that stereotype serves no purpose other than to diminish, hurt or completely miss the point. I don't ever, ever want to start pursuing the "look" instead of the actual "being" part. We should celebrate others and our own accomplishments in that same sense.

Be your bliss. Remember why you do what you do. And occasionally, when someone makes a stupid comment to you about "looking like a runner", just close your eyes, take a deep breathe and remember all the sweat, tears and miles you have experienced that make you a runner. I AM a runner, I AM a runner, I AM a runner- so I guess that is what a runner looks like, me, you, each and everyone of us who laces up our trainers and just gets out there and runs.

21 comments:

  1. i think that being bombarded with body image by running rags doesn't help either gender as well.

    i am a multi-sport athlete and some of the best people i have raced with would not fit the typical "runner" motif.

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  2. great post, Devon. i have running friends who, a number of years ago, referred to me as Doughboy, etc. having run together some at MMT last weekend you can appreciate how amusing this is... i was 40 pounds heavier but running sub-3s in the marathon. Doughboy let his legs do most of the talking back then :)

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  3. I like this post a lot although I'm pretty comfortable with the fact that despite the miles I log I neither look like a runner nor run like a runner. :p

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  4. Love your blog, Devon!

    With more & more people running these days, esp. ultras, I think the good news is that runners look more like "regular" people. It's nice to see all kinds of body types out there. :)

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  5. Mike-I find that intensely amusing.

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

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  6. Great post Devon! What you've said is so true. Why on earth some people feel the need to be judgmental and label others with these goofy body image stereotypes is beyond me. We all have different shaped bodies. It makes us each unique and different. I think that's a good thing.

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  7. great post, devon. i know exactly how you feel about "looking like a runner". even just a few weeks ago i visited a new doctor (ok, not a real doctor but a chiropractor) and after weighing me goes "you're a little heavy to be running ultras, huh?". i wanted to smack the fool, but then i remember i had a 4:10 50k PR after only running for a year, and just like you i'm 30lbs down from when i ran my first marathon. i am perfectly happy in my skin, and it's good to see that you're advocating it too. keep up the good work!

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  8. I always tell a story about my 2005, my best year in ultrarunning. My weight hit all time high of my "running years" at 145lbs. I ran 22 ultras that year, paced at 2x100M and dropped at Leadville 60M. I placed top 10 at WS and won SD100 in then CR. And placed in many smaller local shorter ultras, PR's still stand...and when I had to get up and stand next to all those skinny elite girls at WS100 post-race, I was the only one wearing long pants. I was embarrassed at how fat I am. And one friend of mine said great words I will never forget - "You give us, normal people, hope". Yup, I am pretty large, yet with proper training and determination I can do well...
    I am still big, and now have higher body fat then even that year, even if a few pounds lighter. But now I don't care what I look like and post pictures of my rather "non-runner's-like" behind freely. Hey, I still love to run!

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  9. Olga you've never looked fat in a single picture I've seen or when I met you. And, you're a machine and awesome to boot.

    More seriously than my previous comment, the fastest I've ever been was at the same weight I am now -- and I actually have more muscle now but am slower. It's all about the training. I run slower now because I train slower now. If I trained faster I'd run faster. Duh! :-)

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  10. Great post Devon and it actually gets a bit funny and sometimes interesting to hear how folks catagorize people. Olga I stood up in that same line with you that year and I got the "Your more of a stocky build". I still get that comment. I got it so much I started to believe it and use it to describe myself....so stupid and non-important to training and enjoying the trails. You don't need to be a small build to kick butt...ask Nikki Kimball! In fact, these days there are so many amazing strong woman runners and the come in so many shapes and sizes I suspect the "look like a runner" stuff will evolve just as the sport is.

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  11. I'm still working on dropping 20 lbs in the hope that some of the slowing down I've attributed to aging is in fact due to weight gain. VO2max is normalized to kg body weight after all, and I estimate I'm running at least 1 min/mile slower than I did in my 20's (8 min miler), which in principle corresponds to the decrease in VO2max #s from the extra weight (estimated, not measured). My weight hasn't really changed over the past year of upping mileage and running ultras, but it seems my body composition is changing (more muscle, less fat). Not sure that such changes are apparent to anyone else though. I expect someone who "looks like a runner" to show muscle definition in their lower legs at least and to have little or no obvious "visceral fat" (bulging tummy from fatty liver, etc), even if they still have subcutaneous fat. Not sure I meet my own criteria completely though as yet! Being at a light weight theoretically makes you faster, but clearly there are limits. You (Devon) do look like a runner to me (srong and healthy), not like an emaciated waif (anorexia victim).

    And Olga, I would never have guessed you and I were at the same weight- you carry it much better than I and are way faster too! Not fair!

    Cynthia

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  12. What an awesome post and great blog! I've been told many times that I don't look like a runner. Olga and I have had many conversations about this subject. She lovingly calls me her "chunky boy". I know I don't have the "typical" runner build and I'm ok with that. In fact, it makes it more fun to beat people in races who have the stereotypical runners' body portrayed in magazines.

    And, Olga, you are not "big". I should know since I run behind you on the trails quite often. :)

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  13. Great post Devon! One of my favorite things about trail/ultra running is the absolute variety of people out there. My running partner is a "bigger" girl (whatever) and she has a hard time getting doctors to take her seriously as an athlete. When she was injured, she couldn't get them to understand that she runs 60+ miles a week and is a "REAL" athlete! She went through a few different ones before finding one whose brother was an ultrarunner and understood.
    Another friend came to a trail race and was amazed at how (in her words) "Everyone didn't look like a runner!" It gave her the courage to start running.
    As long as my body is strong and does what I ask it to do, I don't care how it looks to the outside world... my strong body makes me happy no matter what form it happens to be in.

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  14. Everyone: Thank you so much for your comments. Each and everyone of you is beautiful, strong, awesome. I find it so funny how easy it is to get lost in the "form" over "function". Truly amazing that we can run 100 miles and feel fat afterwards- even though it is not true. I think ultimately remembering why we do what we do is key: for the love, the joy, the health.

    It is so easy to five (more) pounds yourself to death, literally.

    You guys rock!

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  15. Good post, da'ling. I've gotten more than enough of those comments, including a big guy in a metro bus once while reading Ultrarunning. But of course I remember his comment much more than any positive one...

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  16. Another two cents-- Maybe the thing to remember is that people who have preconceptions about what runners look like must not be runners themselves, otherwise they would know better! Rooster stocky?! I saw you at Miwok (climbing back toward Bolinas I think) and would never have used the word stocky to describe! That's hilarious! With all the obesity and disease in this country, you'd think people would be more appreciative of someone who is healthy enough to be a runner and not try to make them feel bad for not conforming to a certain body type. Maybe they are just jealous!

    Cynthia

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  17. Such a great post! You look like a runner in both pictures.... maybe a little faster in one!

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  18. Devon, I kept thinking of this great, very insightful blog post while running at the north face this weekend. I responded to it on the blog I just started, www.thewaterandwoods.blogspot.com. Check it out!

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  19. great great post!!! i have often told people that older folks, bigger people, etc beat me all the time when they comment that not everyone can run a marathon... what you look like really doesn't determine who you are in so many ways

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