Years ago—at least ten of them—my entire identity was wrapped up in being a collegiate runner.
I had never envisioned myself representing my university in cross country and track and field. I figured my high school spikes had had their day. That they would sit in the back of my parents’ closet for the rest of my adult life. So when I was recruited after one of the coaches saw me running the streets of downtown Tampa, I wondered if maybe they’d made a mistake, and then another when they offered me a small scholarship. But the day I walked into that student-athlete meeting to confirm my position and sign the NCAA papers, I became a different person.
After the first day of practice that cold and rainy and pitch-black morning, I knew this experience—if I could make it out alive—would change my life. My body slowly adapted to the brutal workouts and long weekend runs, and I started finishing in the top three in each meet, bringing home points for my team.
I was succeeding in something I didn’t even know I wanted. I wore my gifted running shoes and University of Tampa sports gear around campus, to every class and every recovery session, with absolute pride. I was a Tampa Spartan and I wanted everyone to know it. Running very quickly morphed into who I was, not just a sport I did for fun.
After four of the best years of my life, when all my seasons and collegiate years came to an end and I walked across the graduation stage, I struggled to separate myself from that part of my life and establish an identity that didn’t rely on crossing finish lines and setting PRs. I was no longer attached to a team or a schedule, but I kept running. I kept running even through a heartbreaking Dystonia diagnosis that ended my competitive running days. I kept running when some days I couldn’t take more than a few steps without stopping. I kept running and walking, by myself, in the dark mornings and late evenings when running was the only thing in my life that felt like home.
When I got my first and then second job out of college, “runner” was the way I introduced myself, with pride. When my Dystonia progressed and I picked up cycling to fill in the miles, I was the “biker.” And when I started racing cyclocross, I felt like it scratched the running itch I couldn’t get at for years. I had a community of friends in the cycling world and I felt like I had a purpose in sport again.
What is all of this? What does it mean?
Well, I started unearthing all these memories and emotions today when a former University of Oregon runner I follow on Instagram posted about her desire to find out who she is outside of running. “Good luck, girl,” I thought, “I’ve been trying to figure it out for years.”
What am I good at?
What do I love?
What brings me joy just thinking about it?
What makes me different?
I am broken but fighting, I think sometimes, not feeling fully healed from my last relationship. I am a writer, both professionally and on the weekends, sharing this stuff, the real stuff.
I am curious, reading as many non-fiction books and biographies as I can get my hands on. I am an experimenter and a scientist, testing new workouts and diets, taking in and processing information about what makes me feel and operate at my best.
Yet. I am still a runner. I am still a cyclist. And I can still be those things, just not only those things. I can learn to let my bike and my running shoes co-exist with my imagination and my stacks of books. I can share my rocky, imperfect journey with the world, but not dwell on the past or the pain.
When I look back, I wish I had let sport live amongst everything else that makes me me, but I also know my life wouldn’t have been the same as it is now. I wouldn’t have learned valuable lessons. I wouldn’t have been able to share them so fearlessly.
I suppose I’m simply talking through my feelings here and treating this space like therapy, but it feels like a valuable exercise for any of us who feel anxious about letting go of one identity or letting another share the spotlight.
I loved this Rich Roll episode with Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg. It doesn’t go into this topic specifically, but it touches on it and offers truly incredible insight into our passions.