Maybe I'm naive, but I don't generally prepare for a head on collision with existential crisis in the middle of a holiday party, but that's just what I should have done a few weeks ago.
It was a little before Christmas, and my wife and I were at a gathering at a friend's house. We began chatting with a woman who we'd never met before, a new transplant to the area who also happens to be a trail runner. After talking a bit about the races she'd done and where she had lived before moving, she asked me what I'm sure seemed an innocent enough question: "Are you a runner?"
Now, having been a devoted runner most of my teenage and adult life (now in my forties), having in the not too distant past completed many races in the 50 - 100 mile range, and having logged a number of miles in 2010 that would make the Surgeon General ecstatic - I was surprised to find myself silenced by the question, not really knowing what the true - what the exact - answer was.
As I've chronicled ad nauseam on these pages, I've been plagued by a knee injury for over a year now that has kept my running haphazard at best, and that simple question posed amidst cups of spiced wine and canape's brought to a pinpoint all my machination of thought on the subject over the last 13 months. It was existential crisis on 34th street.
After a very long pause, my wife gently answered "yes" for me, either as an easy way out of the tiresome "knee" conversation or as a generally truthful answer to a simple question. Not surprisingly, the woman soon found an excuse to find more engaging, less doltish company. And that was that.
Yet, I've been turning this exchange around in my head for the past few weeks, and I still don't know exactly how to answer it. In gross terms, I am a runner, of course. Barring the occasional and now regular flare up of my knee injury, I run regularly week in and week out. And my miles would usually put me in the high end of the recreational category.
In many ways, though, I am no longer a runner - at least not in the sense that I've come to define it. No longer possible are the 5 hour training runs, the 100 mile weeks, and the epic-distance races - the weekly dance on the edge of the possible that at the same time leaves you feeling exhausted, exhilarated, and triumphant. For now, I am so removed from these things that it doesn't seem quite right to apply the label "runner" to myself. That my injury may be getting more pronounced over time rather than better (and with no ready fix for it) makes it ever harder for me to do so.
"Are you a runner?" It really laid bare what's made the last year rough for me, and I don't believe it's the immediate answer that made me pause for so long, but the answer that might come after looking a couple years in to the future, and the possibility that I might have to answer: "I used to be."
Like so many of us, I cherish running's purity of effort, its strangely direct line to the human archetype, and its natural camaraderie. It'd be a difficult thing to lose completely. Likely, it won't come to that. It'll be a continual and slow adjustment to a new normal - for mileage and for races and most importantly for me, for expectations.
I do know, however, that wherever things wind up - high mileage, low mileage, no mileage - running will always be a major part of who I am, whether I get to label myself a runner or not.