What Makes a Runner "Legit"?

         I recently attended a course for aspiring running coaches held by the Road Runners Club of America. The RRCA as a whole is a terrific organization, and for the most part, the course was great; I got to meet awesome people, and I learned a lot. However, one aspect of the course that stood out to me, and not in a good way, was its focus on speed. Specifically, on getting faster. For example, an instructor described a female runner as “okay” when she broke two hours at the half-marathon, but “legit” when she went under an hour and a half.

As a coach, I see nothing wrong with the goal of getting faster. I agree that most runners do want to get faster. But I do take issue with the contention that speed is the ultimate measure of how “good” or “bad” an individual runner is. Frankly, I hate runners who emphasize comparing race times and using those to classify someone’s ability. A runner’s speed is a combination of natural ability, the conditions of a particular day, and effort in training. My friend, Laura, is a gifted athlete who could easily beat me at any race, even if she’s not doing as much work in the gym or running as many miles as I am. That’s due to a difference in our bodies’ natural ability to run.

And that’s totally fine.

But what’s not fine is saying that I’m only an “okay” runner, and that she’s a “legit”, or “good”, runner, based on that difference.

Yet that’s what I hear so often: in podcasts, in conversation at group runs, and even at the RRCA coaching training. I suspect faster people—especially those who are naturally gifted at running—aren’t aware of how damaging that message can be. Although the particular runner our instructor referred to did work harder to get a better time, in my opinion she’s not better as a runner or as a person because of that time. Personally, I would love to break two hours in the half. That would be huge for me. Finishing in 1:59 or faster would be at least nine minutes off my current PR and a half hour better than where I started out at that distance. And for someone else, that goal might be ninety minutes, or two-and-a-half hours. To me, the effort, and intention behind that effort, is what matters, not the time.

I’ve heard over and over again how faster runners aren’t trying to ignore slower runners.  Yet in most of the groups I’ve run with, I’ve literally been left behind and forgotten about by people who are faster. I know I’m not the only ten- or eleven-minute miler who has gotten lost because everyone else is out of sight on a track warm-up, or ended up running alone on what’s advertised as a social group run. When you are literally left behind like I have been, you take that as an insult, even if it’s not intended that way.

More important, focusing solely on speed usually comes at a steep cost; injury, overtraining, burnout, or hating running. That’s why, in my opinion, valuing runners solely based on speed is detrimental, even dangerous.  Our instructor went on to mention that the runner he was talking about—despite her successful attempt to decrease her time—ended up suffering a TIA, or a mini-stroke, after a run. To me, a fast time isn’t worth the risk of experiencing an injury like that. My goal is, and has always been, to run for the rest of my life.

There’s no particular speed attached to that.