Back to Fitness: Finding Identity and Self-Worth


By John Andersen

After finishing a recent trail race, I was sitting with some good friends at the finish line soaking up a beautiful spring day, sharing stories, and enjoying the accomplishment. Sitting with us was a living legend in the global running community, Dr. David Horton.

Dr. Horton’s list of incredible athletic accomplishments is huge and impressive. He has run over 160 ultramarathons, from 31 to 100+ miles, winning many of them. He once held the speed record for the fastest running of the entire Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles in 52 days). Then he went and set the Pacific Crest Trail record (2,700 miles in 66 days). He has also run across the entire country in the Trans-America road race, placing third overall. Needless to say, Dr. Horton is quite the accomplished runner and I feel quite privileged to call him a friend.

I had a good race that day, but was sharing some of my pre-race anxieties with Dr. Horton. I have been racing well over the past year, and with success comes some expectations—both internal and external. These can be tough to handle at times.

“You’ve got an identity crisis,” said the wise Dr. Horton. “You think your identity is based on your performance, but it’s not. Your identity as a runner comes from your training. You’ve got to put in the work.”

I’ve been thinking about that statement ever since and how it not only applies to racing, but to so many other avenues of life.

How often do we measure our worth by what we produce? Is our worth based on our ability to run a certain distance or time? Is it based on our weight? Is it based on our production at work, or on our parenting skills? The answer, emphatically, is NO!

Finding self-worth can be tough for some people. But the answer for that is so simple. We have worth, simply because we are. You were born, you have affected people’s lives, and you will continue to affect people’s lives, so you matter immensely. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that.

Finding one’s identity is perhaps another thing all together.

At the tender age of 60, Dr. Horton was still running long distances, but one day felt a sharp pain in his knee. Long story short, he suffered multiple meniscal tears, which quickly led to arthritis and abruptly ended his running career.

Dr. Horton confided in me that he really struggled with his identity when he could no longer run. He had a lifetime of accomplishments that were now officially in the past. Did he lose his identity when he lost the ability to run? What was he to do now?

Dr. Horton realized that his identity was simply changing. He has taught exercise physiology and a running class at Liberty University for decades and has helped foster a fit and healthy lifestyle in hundreds of students over those years. He directs three ultramarathon races each year and is always present at several others, encouraging people to give their all, to be amazing, and to overcome obstacles. I’m not sure there is another human being in this state who has affected more runners in a more positive, life-changing way than Dr. Horton. Does he still have identity and self-worth now that he can’t run?

The point of this column is NOT to say “hey, don’t worry about exercising, you’re fine without it!” It’s more to point out that sometimes we need to stop, take a step back, and think about why we do what we do regarding our fitness.

It is very easy to get discouraged by comparing ourselves to others or by comparing ourselves to our past selves. Or by putting so much emphasis on our race times, the number of push-ups we can do, or our physique and/or weight. It is okay to challenge ourselves with these things, but they do not identify us or change our worth as people.

When we get back to fitness, we are setting an example of a healthy lifestyle for our children, our spouses, our friends and our families. We are tossing out physical barriers to life’s incredible experiences like hiking to a mountain summit, or completing a previously impossible challenge. We are improving our mental and physical health, so that we can give more of ourselves to those that we love. These things enable us to improve our identity, both internally and externally.

Just like Dr. Horton said, “Your identity as a runner comes from your training.” Your identity in life comes from…real life—the day in and day out. The better we are equipped to handle that, the better our identity and the better our feeling of self-worth. By making fitness a priority again in your life, you will be a better you and the measures of that—work performance, parenting skills, etc.—will improve as a result.

Everyone could use a little more motivation when it comes to returning to fitness, but it is also important to avoid discouragement, which can seem to lurk around every corner if we are paying attention to the wrong things.

Dr. Horton is someone I admire deeply. His accomplishments are very impressive and amazing, but currently, none of those things impact our friendship. It is our relationship and personal interaction that matters today. Yet I know he is a better person for all he has done, for in his commitment to fitness and his overcoming of obstacles he has grown his identity, and through his relationships with others, he has created great worth.


  1. Thanks for this, John. It’s such an important reminder. Nothing that comes and goes in life can ultimately be a satisfying place to hang our identity. So rather than identifying with the ever changing conditions of our life, we can shift our identity to the part of us that simply knows those conditions, the part of us that shows up. Wins and loses, accomplishments and failures, pleasure and pain, health and sickness – they all come and go. The part of us that shows up to meet “real life—the day in and day out,” is our true home.


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