Real Runners vs Frauds: How We Judge Each Other

Not long ago I wrote about my surprise at how some of the nonrunning public view runners and marathons. Sometimes I think the running community may actually be even worse towards each other. This could be similar to the pregnant hamster I unknowingly purchased for my prekindergarten class one year who ate her babies shortly after the miracle of birth while we all watched in horror. Yeah, something like that.

I just finished reading a book that had nothing to do with running, except that the main character loves to run. I don’t know if the author of the book is a runner, but this is the way the main character describes how she could tell her son’s coach was a real runner:

He was wearing an Orlando Magic T-shirt and baggy running shorts. You can tell a lot by someone’s running clothes. If the colors are bright, the fit fine, the logos designer, it almost always means fraud, someone who likes the idea of running better than the act itself. Mike Riordan’s shorts and shirt looked ancient, one step removed from the rummage sale. The real deal.

Huh? I think she has it backwards. I consider myself and my friends to be “the real deal” as far as running goes, and not one of us would be caught dead running in a t-shirt, especially down here in Texas (and for the record, the story takes place in Florida, and the heat and humidity are mentioned often). Nothing identifies a new runner more than running in a t-shirt. I don’t think any of us feel like “frauds” for wearing Nike and Asics either, if that’s what she considers “designer logos” running apparel. Maybe Christian Dior makes running clothes that I don’t know about?

I am guilty as charged, though, for sometimes liking “the idea of running better than the act itself,” especially at mile 25 of a marathon. I’m dumb enough to keep coming back for more, however.

These are my designer running clothes. Obviously I'm a huge fraud.

This little paragraph makes me think the author probably does run a few miles here and there, and lives in a cold climate where she doesn’t have to worry about sweaty wet cotton weighing her down, but it makes me wonder why she chose to make runners who wear ancient t-shirts better than the 99% of us who don’t. Is she part of the 1% of running? This got me to thinking about how runners judge each other.

We all do it, all the time. When I ran my first Turkey Trot years ago, shortly after I started running, I ran the 5K portion with some friends. For someone who wanted to race, it was a nightmare. There were walkers, shufflers, strollers, dogs, small children, grandparents, and entire families stretched shoulder to shoulder across the width of the street.

Running was like a game of Frogger. I was not happy. I judged.

The next year I ran the eight mile race, which was slightly better, but of course I was missing the point. With 26,500 registered runners, we have the largest Thanksgiving Day race in the country. Everyone has a right to be there, no matter how slow or how many people, animals, or contraptions they decide to run with. To expect to be able to race, and for everyone to get out of my way, was insane. I was acting like a true Dallasite, and I wasn’t even behind the wheel of my car.

The larger point overall: as runners, everyone has a right to be there.

Through my years of running, I’ve heard–and made–a lot of comments about other runners. It’s always amused me to hear the ways we slam each other. I remember being a new runner listening to some faster, more experienced runners complain about Team in Training and how they clogged up the running path at the lake on Saturday mornings. They said some pretty mean things about TNT, the most ridiculous being they weren’t real runners, and from then on I decided to go out of my way to be nice to them. To me there is nothing more real than getting off the couch and running your first marathon for someone who can’t.

The most egregious example of Runner Judgment happened last month in the middle of a half marathon. Two female friends were running together, chatting about a marathon they had run in the past, and they were chastised by an older female runner. She chided them about their “slow” finish times,” and made a comment about how they should be ashamed of themselves, how she was was running 3:20’s when she was their age. As I said, this was right in the middle of running a half marathon race. My two friends were much classier than this lady and showed great restraint in not tackling her into the ditch.

Sometimes I think we don’t know how we really come across to other runners. Some people seem to need to put others down to make themselves look better. Others are just plain rude. Sometimes we’re trying to be funny but it doesn’t always come across that way. And sometimes it’s our own insecurities that make us say dumb things about other runners.

Most of us have been guilty of calling those who run less fast than us the “slow” runners. I used to run in a somewhat fast group, then I switched groups and found myself suddenly in the back of the pack. I was now one of the “slow” runners, a blackbird and no longer a bluebird among runners. The label didn’t bother me, but my own competitive drive sometimes frustrated me because I wasn’t used to being in the back. And I do always hate being the last one to breakfast.

From trail runners snubbing street runners, to those of us saying “only” a half marathon, to those of us thinking you haven’t really run a marathon if you walk any portion of it, to runners thinking you shouldn’t hold conversations during a race, to those who run with music as opposed to those who think you shouldn’t, to ultramarathoners reminding us how far they run for fun, there will always be an us versus them. We see it in sports, politics, religions, races, sexes, schools, jobs, and families. Running is no different.

So the question begs to be asked: What is a real runner? Is it someone who runs in old t-shirts, or someone who wears purple with the picture of someone battling cancer? Is it someone who qualifies for Boston every time they run a marathon, or someone who trains sporadically and barely crosses the finish line under five hours? In my opinion, it’s merely semantics and keeps us separated from the rest of the pack.

If you run, no matter how fast, how slow, how often, how seriously, or what surface you choose to run on, it’s real, all of it. When you run, you are a real runner. There are no frauds.

(The running quote is from the book Black and Blue, by Anna Quindlen)


  1. Genevieve

    I’m a total fraud! I had no idea that my compression shorts and wicking wear made me an elitist instead of a purist. I lived in Florida for many years. When I ran there no way would I have been able to wear cotton even for an easy 2 or 3 miles. I didn’t know much about running but I knew enough to avoid chafing in the 99% humidity!

    • Run Nature

      Exactly! The paragraph from the book really bugged me because it’s the opposite of what’s true, but it did make me stop and think about how we all get our digs in, and why.

  2. Laura

    Totally off topic, but I read Black and Blue several years ago, and it took me weeks to get over the depression! Good Lord, Anna Quindlen.

    I live in New Braunfels, and I am slow, run in running gear mostly from Target (bright colors! synthetic fibers!), spend too much money on my shoes, and finish just shy of 6 hours in a typical marathon. I have never heard anybody slam or judge me, and hopefully I will just keep on not hearing them. Our various little running groups down here are very supportive of each other, because just getting out in the heat and completing a long run is such a huge accomplishment, as I know you know!

    I would like to just stay blissfully ignorant of what the “real” runners are saying about me. I have a friend who is suuuuper slow, and her motto is “everyone gets the same medal.” She’s not defensive – she’s proud of herself. I consider her a real runner, and I would defend her to anybody I heard making a negative remark. Again, I hope I just never hear them.

    • Run Nature

      Laura, so glad I’m not the only one who found Black and Blue depressing. The slowest runners out there are the ones who are the most inspiring to me. They almost always have the best attitudes, and they seem so much happier and laid back than the faster runners. Maybe it’s a personality thing, like Type A vs Type C? I love your friend’s motto. It’s absolutely true! I’m making an effort not to ask anyone what their finishing time was after a race. It’s personal, and I always say: Everyone runs their own race.

      I’ll have to come run with your group if I’m ever down in New Braunfels. I just got back from Houston and can’t imagine how anyone runs through the summers in the humidity down there. Texas running is tough, but I think it really does help our training. Thanks for reading!

  3. Martina

    Great piece! Love your observations! My real shocker came at the end where you reveal it was a quote out of a Anna Quindlen book!! I love her! Man, she got that backwards or let’s say the character who makes that comment has it backwards. But saying that, I guess, is judgmental too :). Yes, we all do it. Even when we complain about ‘others’ who judge and label, we turn around and do it ourselves. Without realizing it even. And then of course we get all upset if the media writes about joggers when really they mean runners. Oh well. I’m a runner, I know that :).

    • Run Nature

      Thanks, Martina! Yes, we’re all judgmental, especially me. I found myself making a comment to someone last week about how skeletal Angelina Jolie’s arms looked at the Oscars, and then I realized I had just written about this very thing. Talk about being a hypocrite! The jogger thing doesn’t really bother me for some reason, but yes, I do prefer to be called a runner. I read another Anna Quindlen book, “Every Last One,” that I really liked, so I really have nothing against her. That paragraph just really did bug me, though.

  4. Suzanne

    Thank you for a great article. I have been running since my high school days, so I don’t consider myself a novice and have been in the fast and slow packs at various times in my life. That has made me appreciate SO MUCH your comment at the end about how anyone who runs, no matter the surface, distance, time, or clothing, is a real runner. I think these women who have the courage to get out and run (while even having to walk at times) to lose weight or to get inspired to get in shape should be so very proud of themselves. I wear whatever I can find because I don’t often have enough money to buy the really great gear (like Quindlen puts down in the quote) but would love to have it, even if wearing it more often made me a “fraud”. I envy all the women I see at races who look put together in their nice-fitting gear and plan to improve my running wardrobe someday. Shoes, of course, I spend the money for, but the other stuff I often find at second-hand stores. And since I’m in Utah, I can get away with pretty much any type of clothing since this is a Rocky Mountain dessert and we do not often deal with humidity. At almost 6,000 feet above sea level, the weather is often very conducive to running, with over 265 days of sunshine and dry air no matter the season (although our 105 degree summers aren’t that fun to run in). Thanks again for reminding us all what it means to be an athlete.

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