on Global Running Day, Some Thoughts on What it Means to be a Runner

“Running does not define who we are. It refines who we are.” ~Chris Heuisler

I read this in a meme somewhere a few days ago and the thought has stuck with me. I understand what he is saying: running changes you. It changes you in ways you cannot begin to imagine when you start running. Ways that have nothing to do with physical fitness and weight loss.

Running does refine you.

But…it also defines me.

I might not look like a “real” runner. I don’t have those thin-but-muscled spindly legs or defined abs. I don’t run in tiny running shorts (tiny runny shorts are, in fact, one of my worst nightmares). I don’t look lean and sculpted.

In fact, I look a little bit soft.

Global running day amy sorensen

And then there’s the issue of speed. If you only qualify as a runner based on speed, then I might not be a runner. Right now, while I’m recuperating from a lung illness, I’m doing a combination of running and walking, so my mile pace is in the 11 minute range. Can I call myself a runner when part of the time I spend running is actually walking? When I’m healthy and not injured, I’m thrilled with a 9.5-minute mile on a flat surface. I’ll probably never be fast enough to qualify for Boston.  Does the fact that my miles are slow mean I’m not actually a runner but a jogger?

Sometimes I am training for a race. Every once in a while that race will be a marathon, but usually it’s a half marathon. I have fantasies about training for an ultra but I’ve never actually done it.

Does the distance you run make you a runner?


It’s taken me a long time. But after running for almost twenty years, I can finally claim the definition: I am a runner.

Not because running is something I do, but because it is something I am.

I’m a runner because I run.

Not every day, like some runners. But more than half the days.

Since I’m a runner, if I go on vacation I’m still going to go running. In fact, running on vacation is one of my favorite parts of running.

Since I’m a runner, I buy a lot of running clothes. I read magazine articles about other runners, and about running shoes and running techniques and running routes.

Since I’m  a runner I have a Costo-sized tub of protein powder in my pantry, and lots of nuts, and Kind bars and protein bars and Luna bars. There’s a box of Cliff Blocks in my nightstand drawer and five or six packages of Gu.

Since I’m a runner at least one of my toenails is funky and I almost always have blisters on my bunions.

There are lots of things that define who I am: I am a parent, a wife, a friend. I’m a teacher. I’m a librarian. I am a reader and a writer, a quilter and a scrapbooker. I am a hiker.

But yes: “runner.” I’m also a runner. It defines me.

And it does, in fact, also refine me.

Because I am a runner, I have a better understanding of how to process my emotions.

I’m a better writer because I am a runner.

Because I’m a runner, I understand my own body. I know the names of muscles; I know when I need rest and when I am just being lazy. I know the deep-down ache in my pelvis of running long and the catch in the lungs from running fast. 

I’m stronger mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually because I’m a runner. A better wife, mother, friend, employee.

Because I’m a runner I understand that I can do hard things. That sometimes endurance looks like patience, and that I have more strength in me than I sometimes know. That knowledge doesn’t just help me when I’m still five miles from home and I’m tired but I’ve got to keep running. It helps me when I am grappling with personal struggles. It’s helped me in long, terrifying nights spent in hospitals not knowing if my husband would live. It’s helped me when I got bad news about Kaleb’s heart. It helps me when I am lonely or sad because I know I am strong. If I can run half marathons I can cope with life's challenges.

I love my body more, despite my back fat and my thigh rub, my beginning-to-wrinkle skin, my soft belly, because I am a runner. I know it will almost always take me where I need to go, whether it’s up a mountain or twenty miles down the road. It is my apparatus for being in the world and I am willing to extend grace to the flaws because no one is perfect, no body is perfect, but some runs are perfect and I couldn’t experience them without my body.

I’m a runner because running is what I do. It’s a part of me as deeply essential to my Amyness as my other qualities. I am blessed to be able to run and I am grateful for that blessing.

It defines me, running. It refines me. It teaches me I am a badass one day and it humbles me the next. I would be far less of a person without running. And I hope I can continue running for the rest of my life.

The Last Run of My Yellow Running Shoes

They mostly aren’t yellow: they’re white, with blue accents and yellow soles.
But since I bought them on clearance at Dick’s two years ago, I’ve thought of them as my yellow running shoes. That was also their designation in my Map My Run account: yellow Brooks GTS 15.

I’m pretty careful about rotating my running shoes, so at any given time I have at least two, and sometimes four, pairs I run in. I think this helps your shoes to last longer, and plus, it’s sort of fun to have more than one color to choose from. I got the yellow ones for a great price, the same day I bought my GTS 16s (my aqua shoes) which I think were marked $20 off accidentally, but whatever. Because they automatically felt older, as they were the previous year’s model, I also wore the yellow running shoes for other things.

I wore them when Kaleb and I went to Cedar Point amusement park to celebrate his eleventh birthday.

Kaleb and amy at cedar point

(It was just the two of us so all I have is selfies…you’ll have to take my word that my yellow shoes are on my feet!)

Niagara falls

And, on that same trip, I wore them to run four beautiful miles at Niagara Falls.
(I hadn’t yet perfected—or even attempted very often—the running selfie so, alas: no running photos of my Niagara Falls run.)

I wore them on three trips to Lagoon (another amusement park) with my family.

I wore them on walks with Kendell in the canyon, during which we’d talk about a million different subjects. Sometimes we figured things out, sometimes we didn’t, but it was always good to spend time together, walking.

I took them to Hawaii with me, so all of my runs on the island were in them. (Is it weird that I want to go back to Hawaii partly because I want to run there more?)

Amy running in hawaii

And the hiking we did in Volcanoes National Park.

I took them to California with me last summer, where I ran on a beautiful trail right on the beach.

I wore them for 567 miles of running. Snowy runs, rainy runs, many, many hot Utah runs.

My yellow shoes have been great companions for many adventures. But the tell-tale sign has started popping up: I can’t run in them anymore, because when I do they give me bunion blisters. Yesterday, after my first long run in my training for the San Francisco marathon, I pulled them off when I got home and discovered two enormous bloody blisters, and I had to admit defeat:

It was the last run of my yellow shoes.

I think it was a good run to end on. A little bit more than six miles on the Provo River Trail. For the first five miles, I had the trail completely to myself. Just me and the cold wind in the still-naked trees, the quick splashing of the river next to me, the bright sun. When I was almost at two miles, I came around a curve in the trail to a shady spot; a rabbit was racing across the trail into the bushes next to it, followed by some kind of hawk. The hawk dove into the bushes but came up empty, its breakfast escaped. Then, as if it were mad at me for interrupting its hunt, it swooped down close to my head. So close I could hear its wings and see the mottled markings on its tail feathers when it flew away. I didn’t even panic, but just felt like a part of nature for a moment.

Yellow running shoes

(I know this is kind of goofy...but I love this sort of running selfie. Me running right out of the frame. It captures the action!)

I run on the river trail quite often, but it’s so well-loved by our community that there aren’t many chances for wildlife encounters. So to experience that little bit of nature, red in tooth and claw, felt like a blessing. A benediction on my well-loved yellow running shoes, which will now be constricted to finish out their days of usefulness as gardening shoes.

My next pair of new running shoes, which I bought on a Black Friday blowout in November, are pink. PINK! Sad as I am to retire my yellow shoes, I’m excited to start running in pink shoes. What unknown-as-yet adventures will they take me on?

Thoughts on Running a Marathon, Or Why the Cheetah is My Spirit Animal

Kendell and I were joking yesterday about how, when we’re out hiking, I only have to run faster than him if we come across a hungry bear. This is a longstanding joke of ours, built upon our mutual knowledge of each other’s weaknesses, fears, and skills. Kendell pointed out that if we were in rocky terrain he’d still be able to outrun me on a sprint, given my history of spraining my ankle on flat ground. (All of this is done with laughter…maybe you have to be married for a long, long time to understand this joke?)

When we stopped laughing, I started thinking about how the cheetah is my spirit animal. This isn’t because our running styles are anything alike. Cheetahs are super-fast over short distances; I am fairly slow but I can go forever. More, it is the cheetah’s need for solitude and freedom that clicks with me. I had A Moment with a cheetah once at a zoo. The cat enclosures were being remodeled, so they were in temporary spots. On this day, the cheetah was in a fenced-in space enclosed with chain link fence, shaped like  a long, narrow rectangle, and she was pacing all along the fence, back and forth. I stopped and held perfectly still (there weren’t many people around at that moment or I’m certain this wouldn’t have happened), and eventually she stopped her pacing and looked me right in the eye. Her body language, those tear marking on her face, and just the look in her eye: I recognized that feeling. She wanted to run, without any fences or restrictions; she wanted to move her body in the strong, fast way it was made to move. (When you stop for even a second to think about it, zoos are really terrible places, aren’t they?)

Cheetah at the san diego wap

(Not the cheetah in the little cage at the zoo...I didn't take a picture of her, because that moment—really, that cheetah—wasn't about photography. This is a photo of a cheetah at the San Diego Wild Animal Park that I took years before my Cheetah Moment.)

I understood what her body was saying. She must’ve looked right at me for at least 15 seconds, until a large crowd came up the walkway and she resumed her pacing. But in that moment, I didn’t just understand the cheetah; I felt like she (or maybe The Universe, or whatever) understood me, too.

I’ve never been caught in a cage. At least, not literally. But a lot of times in life, I feel caught. By expectations, by other people’s needs, by my responsibilities. By relationships that require work; by the difference between what I thought my life would be and the life I actually made. And when I feel that feeling, I need to move. Not like a cheetah, because that’s not how my body was made, but long and slow, outside, with the mountains I love behind or before me. That need to move freely: that is why the cheetah is my spirit animal. And it’s also one of the things that keeps me running, that makes me want to run until the day I die.

But I also need goals to keep me going.

IMG_0432 amy layton marathon 4x6

(Just before I finished my marathon in 2011.)

The past few years, I haven’t run as many races as usual. Partly this is because the team I ran Ragnar with dissolved, so the goal that kept me training in the spring is gone. Partly it’s because of injuries: several ankle sprains and my double popliteus tear last summer. But I love running races, because it keeps my motivation for running high.

I’ve been talking about running a marathon this year since last fall. It feels appropriate to run 26.2 miles during the year that Kendell and I are celebrating our 26th wedding anniversary. And I’ve been wanting to run the San Francisco marathon for a couple of years, ever since some random Googling brought it to my attention. You get to run over the Golden Gate Bridge AND through the park AND around the city. I’ve never run a large city race like this one—the half marathon I did last fall in New York was in its inaugural year and had something like 600 runners—but I’ve wanted to. And a race in the summer in California means a trip to California in the summer. And all of those hills! (I love running hills.)

So yesterday, after having a serious talk with Kendell about what we need to accomplish this summer, what the kids’ schedules are, and if he even wanted to visit San Francisco, I decided yes on the marathon, and I signed up.

And now I’m a little bit freaked out.

What if I get injured again?

What if my lingering capsulitis flares up and becomes unmanageable?

What if something else comes up with Kendell’s heart?

What if I haven’t given myself enough time to train?

What if I’m too old for marathons?

What if I’m just not strong enough?

This morning I am plotting out my training plan. Not just so I have a training plan, but so I can calm my nerves. And I’m thinking about the cheetah—about not being caged. About how cool it will be to run across the bridge, to run through the park, to go up and down those hills. I am trying to ask myself positive questions, too:

What if I lose a little bit of weight?

What if my body gets stronger?

What if I grow in confidence?

What if I do it, and finish—wouldn’t that feel amazing?

Deep breath. It’s time to start training!