Off-Roading: Or, how I got comfortable outside of my comfort zone

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In 2009, Christopher McDougall introduced the running world at large to the anthropological endurance running hypothesis through his bestselling book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. The endurance running hypothesis (and the better part of McDougall’s book, before it devolves into a dubious endorsement of barefoot running) suggests that the evolution of various human characteristics came about as adaptations to long-distance running.

The human proclivity for distance running is an adaptation that aids in scavenging and persistence hunting. Lacking the explosive speed, sharp teeth, or claws of other meat-eating predators, early humans adapted to literally run down our food in packs.

Human beings are pack animals by nature; we crave social connection and a sense of belonging. And, if McDougall’s hypothesis is to be believed, we’re also imbued with a deep-seated, evolutionary desire to run. Which if you think about it, neatly explains the underlying motivation behind the question every runner gets, now and again, from a non-running friend:

“Can you teach me how to run?”

On the face of it, this question has always confused me. Teach you how to run? There’s no secret to distance running. If you want to be a runner, you just go out there, and you run.

But the thing is, even for a sport as simple as distance running, starting from scratch can be daunting. Most beginners are dogged by a sense that they are somehow doing it wrong, and feel intimidated by community running groups or crews. What if I slow everyone down? What if I come dead last? Am I breathing the right way? Can everyone tell I’m a newbie? Can everyone tell I’m a fraud?

The thing I love most about road racing is the culture of inclusivity. Road races are designed to make newbies feel at home, to allow them to identify as runners, and to celebrate the modest but hard-won accomplishments of first-timers.

Over the last three years, I’ve fallen in love with the road racing scene in Toronto. And while I’ve gradually started feeling at home competing on the roads, thus far I’ve shunned the more competitive, less accessible forums of track and cross-country. So when my coach suggested I take a stab at a cross-country season after my fall marathon, I was nervous.

On the face of it, I had nothing to be all that anxious about. After all, with my 2015 race goals accomplished, there was no pressure, nor any expectation of a noteworthy performance.

But going into the Athletics Ontario Cross-Country Championships (AOs) this Sunday, it felt like my first road race all over again. In a small, talented field of dedicated athletes, all my old fears began to resurface. Suddenly, I was the intimidated, first-time rec runner all over again. I didn’t feel like a long-time distance runner. I felt like a newbie. I felt like an outsider. I felt like a fraud.

But here’s the thing about humans: we like running together. It’s hard-wired into our DNA. It doesn’t matter if you log your miles solo or chit-chat through training runs with a crew – somewhere deep inside all of us is the desire to find and run with our pack. Competitive and elite runners are no exception.

From the moment I stepped onto the course this Sunday, I felt embraced by the women running with me. Whether it was spotting the few familiar faces from track practice back in my high school days, or slogging through my last loop with the likes of Rachel Hannah and Sasha Gollish shouting encouraging words to the rest of us mere mortals, I felt that I belonged.

Running may be an individual sport, but us runners, we’re pack animals. At AOs, I went in feeling like an outsider, and left having proved to myself that I belonged in the race. Not by virtue of my place, or my time, or my fierceness (hah!) as a competitor, but because of the inclusive and encouraging spirit of my fellow athletes.

Ultimately, every runner is simply trying to be better than her own best self. The things that differentiate one runner from the next are far less important than the things we hold in common with each other. If you run with us, you’re one of us.

If you have a body, you are an athlete.

Chase big dreams.

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