What Makes an Athlete?

I just completed the NYC Marathon in a not-too-respectable 6 hours and 9 minutes. Throughout the six months of training leading up to the event I've been having the same argument with my coach, Joshua Gold. Josh is a triathlete and I have no problem assigning him that title. But does training for and finishing a marathon make me an athlete?

It's funny, people automatically assume you're a good runner if they hear you've entered a marathon, but the beauty of the NYC marathon is that anyone can enter and there is no unacceptable time. In fact, the very last person to cross the finish line did it in 35 hours and 27 minutes. Of course, that woman suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and, if not an athlete, she is definitely a hero and to be admired. The best marathoners in the world finish the race within a two and a half hour window. They, I am sure, are athletes. But what about me?

Josh says I'm an athlete if I say I'm one, but that's ridiculous. I looked up the definition of the word and there's room for arguments for and against. Webster's says an athlete is a "person trained or skilled in exercise, sports or games requiring physical strength, agility or stamina". There may be room for me in that definition. I've trained in an exercise that requires strength and stamina. But dictionary.com adds "gifted in exercise" to the definition. Is there a level of quality of performance implied in that?

Of course, we expect professional athletes to be really good at whatever their particular sport, game or contest is, but what about the rest of us? As the race began I watched people running by me and I felt that they were athletes and I was not. They looked as if running was effortless and they were faster than me. As I tired and my legs began to ache I noticed that the people passing me also seemed to be more tired and in pain, but they could still run faster. They had an ability to keep up the quality of their performance even with the pain, while the quality of my performance suffered.

It occurs to me that being an athlete is a state of mind. It's setting a goal and measuring your performance against it. It means making the outcome and how you got there matter. It's about pushing the edges of the envelope. Looking at it this way, I took the first steps to becoming an athlete this weekend. I set the bar very low. When people asked me my goal, I answered, "To finish." I ran a very respectable half marathon. Josh actually called it awesome. Before training for the marathon I was unable to run longer than three and a half miles. I recognized the only way I was ever going to increase my mileage was to set a goal and train to reach it.

I achieved the goal I set for myself: I finished the marathon. I'm able to run much farther and faster than when I started training, and by completing 26.2 miles I pushed the edges of the envelope. What is most amazing to me is that I want to keep running. I want to get stronger and faster and I want to test the results of continued training by running another marathon. I can't believe I just said that. Must be the athlete in me.

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