On being a runner who doesn’t look ‘like a runner’

This past weekend, I ran my first 5K of the season.  I had spent a lot of time doing speed work and strength-training my legs and running in the heat.  I’ve also spent quite a bit of time over the past month teaching my body to run fast on tired legs, a skill I will really need to hone if I am ever going to have a strong run leg in my triathlons.  So when I lined up for the start of the 5K, I was feeling really good and confident.  The humidity and the heat didn’t faze me, nor did the hills on the course.  I knew I could handle it.

My confidence was well-placed as I ended up running my second-fastest 5K, a time that was fast enough to get me first in my age-group and third female overall.  It’s the second time I’ve placed in the top three overall at a race.  I have to admit – it’s kind of exciting!   Plus it motivates me to work hard on building my speed and my endurance in hopes of one day actually being able to come in first.  I believe this can happen, by the way.  I just have to work harder.

Anyway, as much as I’d like to have a post that is all about bragging, that’s not what I really want to write about.  What I want to write about are the race photos.  Brian found the finish line photos and showed me the women who came in front of me and the women who came behind me.  He pointed at them and said, “Look at them.  They are all serious runners, and you are right there with them.”

I looked at all of the ladies and realized that they all looked like what you expect runners to look like.  They were all compact and muscular, with flat stomachs, visible abs, sinewy thighs.  Probably they all had body-fat percentages in the teens.

And then there was me.

I don’t look like a runner.  I look like a basketball player, or maybe a swimmer.  I look solid and sturdy and thick.  I’m tall – taller than most women and even most men. My stomach isn’t flat.  It hasn’t been since…actually, I don’t think it ever has been flat.  My thighs are muscular but not lean.  And “compact” is a word that describes my car, not my body.  When I sign up for races, I qualify for the Bonnydale or Athena weight divisions – the female athletes who weigh over 150 pounds.

I don’t look like a runner.

And yet there I was, the third woman across the finish line.  My body was slick with sweat, my face red with exertion, my feet barely touching the ground because I was running so fucking hard.   I may not look like a runner, but I am one – a good one, too.  And I’m only going to get better.

Afterward, when we dropped off our cards with the timekeeper, I saw that there was only one or two cards in the containers set aside for the female runners.  Brian and I grabbed our post-race refreshments and went to a nearby tennis court to stretch out.  When I thought about the results of the race, I had to laugh because it all seemed so ridiculous.  “I’m like walking proof that you don’t have to have visible abs to be fast,” I said.

The more I thought about this, the more pleased I was.  I hoped other women saw me and thought that they didn’t have to look like ripped fitness models to run fast.  I hoped they understood that having a flat stomach or fat-free thighs were not a prerequisite for speed.

We need to talk about how the world is filled with runners who do not “look like runners.”  There are triathletes who do not “look like triathletes.”  There are dancers who do not “look like dancers.”  And yet we’re all out here, running and competing and dancing and doing all kinds of things with our bodies, things our bodies look like they should not be capable of doing, and yet there we are, doing them.

I don’t look like I should be a fast runner, and yet I am.

It’s not about what we look like.  It’s what we do that counts.

29 responses to “On being a runner who doesn’t look ‘like a runner’

  1. ‘There are dancers who do not “look like dancers.”’

    This made me think of my new favorite tumblr: http://fatcandance.tumblr.com/

    I stumbled across it and it made me ridiculously happy. I’m a size 14 dancer myself (not “fat” but I’m always bigger than the other girls in my classes) and it makes me happy to see that body type doesn’t mean that you can’t be a fantastic dancer.

  2. Awesome race! I’m definitely a slow-ish runner, but I take racing and training (and spectating!) very seriously. I also don’t look like a runner. I’m curvy, am trying to lose a few more pounds, and my thighs are very thick. They’re also WAY more muscular now that I’ve been running and have completed a marathon. One of my power words when I’m running (since I’m not that fast!) is STRONG. I am STRONG, and I run strong. I feel strong when I power up hills. To focus on strong rather than fast or thin or whatever else has been hugely empowering for me.

  3. Thank you for this. I’ve been told by multiple people that I don’t look like a distance runner, even though I’ve done multiple marathons and am working my way up to 50 mile races (39 miles in one day: accomplished!). I’m tall, strong, and do a lot of cross-training like weights and swimming, and I’ll admit I have more body fat than a lot of runners do. It always stings a bit when people say that, but I try to point out that if they don’t think I look like a distance runner, maybe they don’t really know what all distance runners look like.

  4. “It’s not about what we look like. It’s what we do that counts.”

    I’ve finally started to internalize this sentiment after suffering from eating disorders for years. And now I try to do everything I can to pass it along to my little daughter too.

    Congratulations on your race too! 🙂

  5. WOW!! Great job. I started running about a year and a half ago. I have done 4 or 5 five Ks, and am gearing up for my first triathlon on September first. I never thought of myself as a runner. Why? Because I am 5ft2, 200lbs and have extremely large breasts. I love hearing and reading stories like this, it confirms that yes, anyone can be a runner. I saw this confirmed last weekend at IronMan Mount Tremblant when I saw women of all ages, shapes and sizes not only participating but finishing it with smiles on their faces and doing their PBs and outlapping the runners who well… look like *runners*.
    Anyhow, I think this is extremely inspirational and at the same time it has allowed me to give myself permission to think of myself as not only a runner but as an athlete.


  6. I feel like I’m in the same boat sometimes. I weightlift and exercise regularly and I’m really strong and I feel like I’m in good shape, but I don’t think my body really fits the image of what people would consider “good shape”.
    When people I don’t know learn that I’m really into excercising they look kinda shocked in a way I try not to find offensive.

  7. I don’t have a runner or cyclists body either at all, but I do well and I don’t think people expect it 🙂 never judge a book by its cover right!? Way to go btw!!

  8. I love it when women don’t fit the mold. I actually do have the classic “runner’s body,” but it only makes me wish I had started running when I was much, much younger and maybe run competitively. Genes aren’t everything, though, and you certainly proved that. And that’s another thing I loved about the Olympics. It was great seeing all the different bodies, from the hammer throwers to high jumpers, sprinters to distance runners.

  9. Awesome result – congratulations! And yes, I understand what you mean and I do think it’s really positive that you don’t “look” like a runner, even if I can’t really come up with a strict definition in my head of what a runner should look like. You are a runner, regardless, and a damn good one. That’s all that matters.

  10. Congratulations!!!!

    I know the feeling, though. I don’t feel like I look like an athlete at all, even though I have been one most of my life. I’ve never had a low body fat and having big boobs/butt doesn’t help matters either. I used to get annoyed as a teen because all descriptions of an “athlete’s body” were so far off from my own. In some respects, I wonder if it isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy? Ladies who don’t look like athletes are less apt to participate in sports because they feel like they won’t fit in, or don’t have the right body type. It doesn’t help that it can be hard to find sports bras in the larger cup/band sizes (with a few exceptions) and ditto for workout clothes.

  11. You are completely right! I have felt (and still feel) that way ever since I first began running, especially when I go line up at the start line… I feel like I don’t look nothing like the rest of the people around me, yet I love running. I wouldn’t give it up for the world. Even if I’m still growing as a runner, I feel I am not girly enough to fit into the girly type of clothes (my problem when it comes to shopping), but not fit enough to call my self a runner (my problem when it comes to racing). But I am what I am. Thank you for this amazing post

  12. Thanks for the beautiful post– way too much emphasis is placed on how things look– I grew up “big Sara” (when compared to my smaller sisters because I was about 5’9″ and 150#) and never felt athletic at all. I’ve always had a soft stomach (except when very thin) which multiple now ex-boyfriends shamed me as a flaw. As an adult, I’m the one who’s completed a marathon, triathlon, duathlon, almost century bike rides and multiple other races as well as dabbled in long hikes, all sorts of skiing, scuba diving and learning most sports. I still default to thinking of myself as unathletic, but then I remember all the things I have done, and remind myself I can do most things I try.

    Today I’m taking my first kite boarding lesson. I’m 36, and still reminding myself I can do it.

  13. Amen times a thousand! I’ve said it before: this blog kicks so much ass. So my burning question to the fitness world is: the above being the case, as most of the commenters and how many thousands of other women can confirm, why is fitness clothing made for the ideal female athlete’s body only? I honestly canNOT find a pair of running shorts that fits my rather large, but nevertheless athletic ass and thighs? I basically have to wear biker shorts or capris if I want to wear something that doesn’t ride up, causing chafing and discomfort. Anyone else have this problem? What do you do? Love this post.

  14. I absolutely love this post.

    I have struggled for years with coaches, trainers, etc telling me “You don’t have the body type for that,” every time I want to embark on something new.

    I skated competitively for years then took up power lifting (which, apparently, is appropriate for my “body type”) but in the last year decided to start bodybuilding. I was told that I wouldn’t be successful at leaning out because my body just doesn’t work that way. Well, how do I make it to that? I asked. The reply was “do lots of cardio”.

    I then decided that cardio was what I would do and started running for the first time in YEARS. Yet still, after I had finished my first 5K (slow-ass-slow, mind you) and I was feeling awesome about it, I was told “You probably won’t get faster – you’re just not made to be a runner.”

    I get that people are good at some sports and not others but I would rather be a slow runner, only competing against myself, than not be one at all!

    Congrats on rocking your race and good luck in future ones!

  15. I look like a runner & really keep my core in shape. I work hard to stay strong and fit. I eat clean and healthy, AND I can’t stand it when I pass women, usually running with their girlfriend(s), who say things like, ‘She’s so skinny’ or ‘Look at this one, I’d be running like that if I were her age, too’ – I’m usually older than they are, but more importantly, Noone ever considers that your thin ’cause you have a disease. Running with crohn’s is a challenge, it takes a daily conscious effort to listen to your body, train & eat right. Being judged by how you look, is best satisfied by performance efforts. Glad to see, through your performance, you were able to appreciate & enjoy your whole self!

  16. Amen. Seriously. This is so me. Except I’m only 5’4″. I don’t know what I’m “designed” to do, but I know what my body does, and does well with proper training.

  17. Great post! I love cheering people at marathons and and seeing all the ages/sizes/body-types come by at mile 20 that don’t fit the mold of what a marathon runner “should” look like. What matters isn’t if you can see six-pack abs: it’s strength, discipline, and perseverance that get you there in your best time. Way to go!

  18. I love this so hard! I’m always disappointed to see that my non-fitness friends get only one visual image of an in shape or fit woman who often is also heavily restrictive with food (gym instructors, etc.) and get discouraged by what they think is unattainable. There are so many ways to be and look fit.

    But I bet none of the other runners were looking at you and thinking “She doesn’t look like a runner”…they were thinking, damn, she’s fast! Third place overall female is no joke. Congratulations!

  19. Preach it sistah! I’m a 49 yo, chunky mom of 7. Those fit young things all but offer me a wheelchair. But I’m better than I was and they can’t beat my persistence. Fitness comes, like most things in life, with great variety.

  20. Wow this just made my cry. Thank you! I am a triathlete who doesnt look like a triathlete. I love all parts of it, but especially being like “Yeah, I just finished that.” I’m not fast, but I train hard, don’t stop running, and I rock. Next goal: my first Olympic tri in October and then taking at least a minute off my running time.

  21. On another note while I read Runner’s World every week, if you go by their cover photos runners are almost all white, completely gender normative, and have 8 packs. The one “normal” people cover a year always focuses on how much weight the “normal people” lost.

  22. Runner’s World is awful with HAES/weight loss obsession stuff. I think they are trying to capitalize on where the money is, but running is such a more complex and interesting sport! Grr.

  23. Pingback: Perceived Healthiness And The Body Myth | Opinion | Lip Magazine·

  24. Hello. I have just discovered your site. I just wanted to say I love you, you rock and you have voiced every complaint I’ve had with the whole damn fitness world since I taught myself how to get up off my bum and move my body for the sheer love of it.

    I shall be following.

  25. I don’t know what a runner “looks like”…apart from the archetypes or Mirinda Carfrae. Someone may or may not have the phenotype of a runner….it’s having the HEART of a runner that makes them a Runner.

  26. Athletes come in different sizes. You can’t assume anything based on what a person looks like. I tell my kids this all the time.

  27. I run at the collegiate level and think a lot about not “looking like a runner”. But you’re so right in pointing out that being out there and kicking ass inspires others to challenge that stereotype. I might have 40 pounds on some of my teammates, but I’m also running way faster than a lot of them, in then end its a waste of energy to think about looking like a runner when you already are one! Thanks for the inspiration!

  28. As another tall girl who qualifies for the 150+ women’s category at races, this makes me so happy! I rowed for 4 years in college and I’m definitely more of the rower/swimmer build than the long distance runner, but I love running anyways.

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