By Mike Smith
Anyone can run. If COVID tells us anything, it’s just that. Running apparel sales during the COVID spring skyrocketed, and a visit to the local track, running trail or snow free parking lot was a barometer for how many people needed the escape that running provided during this time of high stress. And I guess that makes them runners.
But that’s where everyone starts. Whether it be to lose weight, get in shape, relieve stress or prepare to embark on a running career, we all start at the same place, a newbie. I suppose some of us are here indefinitely, starting and stopping, never making the transition to being a full time runner.
But many do make that transition, the “slow evolve”, from thinking the last twenty minutes of punishing oneself at 11 minute pace is all they got, to a 90 minute easy run that allows us to log 10 – 12 miles in our training log. Often we don’t recognize it, or at least not to its full extent. Yes, we do notice we’re getting faster, running further, feeling better, but we’re in the moment. We often overlook the full extent of our evolution.
Some of us start our running careers not knowing anything else. Maybe running is the first sport we’ve tried and it stuck. Maybe we had an older sibling or a parent that introduced us to running before we knew other options existed, or maybe it was simply a natural gravitation towards it due the nature of its simplicity. But for most of us, there was this transition period where we started running, and later we became runners.
As a high school coach, I see this transformation more than most. Even with a solid middle school program providing many of the runners on the high school team, it’s rare in those early days of running the athlete has chosen running as their priority sport, or even realize how far the sport can take them. Their sport heroes don’t include national and world class runners. Likely they don’t even know there are professional runners.
But most of the time, during their high school careers, and regardless of ability, they evolve into runners. For some it comes sooner in their high school careers, recognizing early that this sport is for them. For others, resisting the pull, hold onto the dream that their “value” is greater in another sport, then come to the realization they’re runners later on. But they almost all reach their full evolution within the scope of their time on the team. And while there is no one thing that makes the transition complete, once it happens the way they approach running changes, and in turn, how you coach them changes as well.
This completion of the transition is most visibly noticeable in the boys. Not because they are biologically stronger or faster, and it’s not based on performance, but rather in the length and style of their shorts.
Boys usually come to the team for the first time wearing some version of basketball shorts, knee length, with the waistband string either hanging out the front or dangling out one of the legs. More often than not those shorts have full fledged pockets. Self conscious and eager to fit in, they revert to the choice of their childhood for athletic wear, ignoring the fact that there are running shorts for a reason. The first time they put on the uniform shorts, they’re usually squirrely, looking for more length than the material allows for. This usually means they either acquire spandex to wear under them, or have their boxer shorts protruding beyond the 3 inch inseam racing shorts usually have.
But as they log more miles, slowly creeping towards becoming the runner they hadn’t realized they would become. They tend to become less conscious of what others might think of them as a runner and become more comfortable about the person they are becoming.
Often after a full summer of running, I see the athlete show up for the first practice of the season and the transformation is complete. Adorned with actual running shorts, (even if they are 7inch inseams), the athlete has made the choice to accept and even embrace their new status as a runner. Having given up the need to conform but rather to recognize the freedom owning running shorts provide, they are now free to accept the athlete they are. From this point as a coach, I no longer have to worry whether a 50 – 60 minute easy run turns into a 30 – 40 minute screw around fest. If anything, the 50 – 60 minute easy run becomes a 2 hour screw around fest with more than an hours worth of running!
This evolution usually means that the athlete finally begins to look past the conventions of society and their tendency to deity-ize those considered sport greats. That doesn’t mean they don’t recognize those other sports, they do, but they are able to make the jump to recognizing how good the top pro runners are as well. And while society will be lucky to conjure up the name of an Olympic runner or World Champion, the athlete understands the effort and sacrifice those individuals make every day to get to the top of their sport. The end justifies the means.
Once the athlete makes that change, often unnoticed to them but apparent to me and many others around them, I no longer hold the reigns to their training. We share them. And as a coach this is extremely satisfying. Rather than dictate, we guide. Rather than push, we hold back. Rather than shout instructions, we shout affirmation. Once they decide to let their upper thighs see the light of day, both figuratively and literally, they are no longer the same animal. They’ve finally come into their own, knowing that it’s the sport that makes them great and as long as they commit and adhere to principles that guide all accomplished runners, there will be meaning in what they do.
They’ve become a runner.