For the fall season, we’re introducing Fitness Focus, a series of blog posts written by Omada Health Coaches on various topics pertaining to exercise and physical activity. We hope this series can complement the knowledge you are building about fitness and inspire you to keep pushing down the path of healthy living.
Part 4 of Fitness Focus is a Health Coach Stories post by Ashley S., who shares her story of finding an identity through fitness and discovering the true joys of being active.
I grew up as an active kid, playing outside every day. But when it came to organized sports, I never really had one that I was particularly good at; I just went with the flow. When my friends joined softball, I joined softball. When they joined swimming, I joined swimming. When they joined tennis, I joined tennis.
In my freshman year of high school, I joined the track team (naturally) because my friends did. Two weeks in, we had our first long run and the very next day, I turned in my uniform and quit. It was too difficult for me and I didn’t believe I could overcome the challenges and stick with it. And so I decided that this meant I was not a runner. From that point on, I’d tell myself, “I am not a runner,” and I even said it with a bit of pride, as if I really knew myself. I defined my identity as not being a runner and in retrospect, it shocks me a bit to realize how long I held onto this idea. It wasn’t until I changed this stable, known “fact” about myself without even intending to that I began to discover just who I was.
In my college years, I studied abroad for a period of time and while we had to walk everywhere, I still gained weight because of all the delicious food. To remedy the situation, my college boyfriend at the time and I decided to join a gym. On our first trip there, he decided to run on the treadmill. Up until that point, I’d never seen him exercise once in our relationship, so I decided that if he could do it there was no reason why I couldn’t. I think subconsciously, I wanted to know that I could accomplish the same level of exercise that he did. That I was just as capable as him. It was this blooming sense of competitiveness around my personal capabilities that spurred me on and helped change me for the better.
Shortly after I returned to my home campus back in the U.S., I continued to challenge myself to new running goals. My first big feat—running 3 miles straight without stopping—took over 9 months and plenty of support from my classmates to complete. But once I hit that goal, I was addicted to the empowering sense of accomplishment I got from achieving something I didn’t believe I could do. I had to see what else I was capable of. With continued accountability from classmates, my next goal was to complete my first race. It was a 10-mile race in December, which is not a forgiving time of year to run outside in Wisconsin. On top of winter weather, it was my very first race and at a distance I’d never completed before. Still, I went for it and after crossing the finish line, that was when I realized I was capable of so much more than I’d ever given myself credit for. The realization hit so strongly that I had a few tears sting my eyes in the cold wind.
Still, I didn’t consider myself a runner.
I watched my stack of race bibs from 5Ks to marathons grow into a collection of achievements for races I had completed. But even with all this proof of my efforts, I knew I wasn’t a runner. I had seen running magazines and had some friends and acquaintances who were fairly dedicated runners and I wasn’t like any of them. They were lean with a muscular appearance, they followed race training plans without fail, and they actually placed in races. I was merely concerned with crossing the finish line at a race. So whenever a new acquaintance learned that I ran regularly and completed several races a year, I would clarify to them that I was not really a runner. I wasn’t like any of the “real” runners that I looked up to.
It took 8 years of running before I could consciously accept that I WAS a runner. And that it was okay I did not look like famous athletes in the media. I remember quite clearly the day that I came to this realization. I had been thinking a lot about why I didn’t look like the running models I saw, even though I had been running for years and completed 50+ races and marathons. I realized that I was being unrealistically hard on myself and all of a sudden, something clicked for me.
For 8 years, I had run in every kind of weather, every month of the year. I had proof to show for all the races I dedicated myself to and even ran marathons. I was a runner! It was a part of who I was, what I enjoyed, and what I knew I would continue to do. It was not something I could detach from my identity anymore. It was part of who I had become and I had a lot to be proud of. I was never going to look like I belonged on the cover of Runner’s World and that was okay. I felt good, content, and clear about who I was. It was a big lesson to learn, but it wouldn’t be the biggest one I’d learn about myself as a runner to date.
Eighteen months ago, I was in a car accident and fractured a vertebrae. I was very lucky in that I was going to heal with no lasting injuries. Had the fractured vertebrae been one lower in my back, I would have spent the rest of my life paralyzed in a wheelchair. I was stunned, scared about what might have been, but overwhelmingly grateful for my outcome. I had previously taken my healthy and able body for granted and it was in that moment that I saw how being able to do things like go for a run was not a given in life.
I’d earned the ability to run through my dedication and training of my body to let it become strong and capable. The day I was cleared to run again after my accident, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for having a healthy, able body. I ran and ran that afternoon, so exhilarated at being able to run that I was afraid to let it end. Sore was an understatement for how I felt the next couple days following that, but I was happy. I was sore because I could go out and run, and I vowed that I would never take my body for granted again. I vowed to always honor myself with exercise and stay strong and flexible for the rest of my life.
I run for exercise. I run to have an excuse to get outdoors. I run to take in nature and to explore my city. I run to have time alone to think. I run to burn off stress. I run to jam out to some of my favorite music. I run to feel good, to feel powerful. And I run to live. Sure, I have days and weeks where I am not as active as I’d like to be. But I don’t give up. I pick myself back up and remind myself how I want to live my life decades from now—healthy, strong, independent, able. I get back out there and go for a run again. Because I AM a runner.