This is a question that I was asked at a house warming party last weekend.
What qualifies someone as being a “runner”?
My answer was something like – a person who runs more than three times per week for more than a month, and typically doesn’t miss more than 2 weeks. My questioners thought that was a very generous answer, and then asked what qualifies as a run – to which I replied at least about 30 minutes.
I realize this leaves out a lot of people who are runners to the core, and it may include some who don’t really truly qualify, but in general, I think that definition is fair.
Now, if you’d then ask me who is more of a runner – me or my husband? I’d tell you Cole is more of a runner. He’s my source of all the hottest news from LetsRun. He knows the names and PRs of pretty much every top elite distance runner in the world. He studies training theory and knows all the coaches of all the top programs.
At the same time, Cole is extremely humble. Because he also knows just as much about the game of soccer and makes his living as a soccer coach, it is often difficult for his soccer friends to comprehend that one person can be so passionate and intimately familiar with the upper upper echelon not just one sport, but two. But that’s my husband. That’s Cole Atkins.
A little background… Cole and I both came to running in the spring of our senior years. Except mine was in high school and his was in college! He had devoted his entire young life to playing soccer at the highest level possible and took great pride in winning every fitness test he ever attempted.
He never envisioned being anything other than a professional athlete when he grew up. So naturally, when soccer didn’t deal him the hand he wanted, after 4 years of playing for High Point University he decided to attack what he felt would be the greatest fitness test of all – a triathlon.
Being someone who wants to do everything right, he contacted the track coach at High Point and asked if he could come watch practice to find out how to train better for distance running. Coach Esposito told him he could certainly come to practice and said why not go ahead and run with the guys?
Espo saw the raw talent in Cole and that was the beginning of his next career. He swiftly changed gears and poured himself as much into his running as he always had into soccer. He was a student of the sport in every way and in a matter of months he knew more about his competition and the greater world of running than the vast majority of his teammates at High Point and any of his competitors on the track.
He enrolled in the MBA program, worked nearly full time, ran 80 miles per week, and just over 2 years after that first conversation with Coach Espo, Cole ran 14:17 for the 5k indoors and 29:20 for the 10k outdoors in his final season of eligibility in 2010.
Several weeks later, he moved into ZAP Fitness where he started his first of six years as a resident professional athlete. Less than a week after he moved there, I came to visit ZAP as a prospective athlete. Cole acted like he’d been there for years and made the perfect host. I also remember being very impressed that he had already secured a job as a soccer coach at the local youth club and was planning to teach a business class at Lees-McRae College in the Fall.
Our first Fall at ZAP was pretty good for both Cole and me. We started out very similarly – finishing around the same place at pretty much all the races we traveled to together as a rookie team. The first year of any program usually has its bumps along the way, and we were no exceptions to that rule. We both had low iron by March and rallied to come back from that by the summer.
Cole got super fit the next fall of 2011, and he was so ready to go run a big 10,000m PR at an October 30th track 10,000m in Indianapolis. He was 8k into the race before his nagging plantar fasciitis gave up and tore. He hobbled less than 2 more laps before he fell off the track and was rolled home in a wheel chair.
Ever since then there have been awesome seasons where Cole showed promise that he was in shape to take on the best in the country at any distance from 5k to the marathon, but more often than not, by the end of the season, either fatigue or injury prevented him from reaping those rewards to the level at which we had all hoped. He still ran new PRs at nearly every distance including 8:00 for the indoor 3,000m, 13:51 for a road 5k, 22:50 for road 8k, 47:44 for 10 miles, and 3 sub-65 minute half marathons.
The past 18 months have really been the hardest for Cole. It began with an incredible build-up for Twin Cities 2014, only to end in a calf strain during the race resulting in a DNF while his then girlfriend (me) and teammate (Tyler Pennel) went on to win our respective races. He recovered and got back into shape to train for LA before other nagging injuries delayed his marathon debut to Boston 2015 where he sustained a hamstring strain and willed himself to finish in 2:23:21.
Partially due to his disappointment and need to prove that he could do better, he rushed his recovery and tried to train again for Twin Cities before the reality of his hamstring injury prevented him from seeing that through. However, even the attempt had led to enough compensation that he discovered a stress fracture in his heel in October, which eventually led to him not being able to compete in the Olympic Marathon Trials, despite having run 3 qualifying times in the half marathon within the window.
This is what is so hard about explaining to non-runners what it means to be a “runner.” Cole has worked every step as hard as I have, if not much harder. And there are lots of others out there like him.
In the nearly 6 years that I have known Cole, he has said to me over and over how hard the sport of running is. Yes, he means the act of working out and racing, but also the solitude of defeat that only an individual sport enables.
How can you explain to someone what it means to passionately love the thing that wears you out and crushes your dreams, but simultaneously provides purpose to each day and so many years worth of joy in accomplishment?
So I guess I might have to amend my initial definition of a runner. A runner is a person who knows the joy of exhaustion like an old friend. A runner is a person who sees the seasons pass in laundry loads of running clothes and the smell of the air at specific points on familiar routes. A runner knows that feeling of opting for the left turn that adds on 3 extra miles to the run just because the day is too beautiful not to.
Being a runner isn’t defined by your habits or accomplishments. It’s defined by your commitment to the practice, whatever your motivation may be, and I’m glad to have a husband who shares that with me.