Interestingly, many people struggle to self-identify as an athlete despite training for and participating in athletic events. And then there are those who struggle with motivation to stay active when they give up the identify of being an athlete because they are no longer training (hard) for an event.
Comparing yourself to someone who places high in their age-group, is well-known as a "fast" athlete or dedicates a lot of time, energy and money to training and racing doesn't mean that you are any less of an athlete. Regardless of how long it takes you to complete an event, you belong in the same group of "athletes" as those who will finish minutes (or hours) ahead of you.
If you register for a race and dedicate yourself to the training, you deserve to call yourself an athlete. If you are able to get to the start line and eventually the finish line, you understand the dedication, discipline, motivation, time, energy and sacrifices it takes to train for and complete an event. From the newbie to the elite, fitness level does not distinguish who is more worthy of the athlete status for everyone on the race course deals with the same conditions and must use physical and mental strength to get to the finish line.
If you are struggling to own your athlete title, I encourage you to take pride in calling yourself an athlete. If you can set a goal and follow through with the work that is needed to reach that goal, it doesn't matter what level of fitness you have or what you look like....you are an athlete. Yes, exercise is a way to maintain a healthy body composition, reduce risk for disease and destress from a busy work day but training for an event gives you a sense of purpose so that you aren't just exercising to burn calories. From the early morning wake-up alarms, the intense and exhausting training sessions and being creative to fit everything in - this is the lifestyle of an athlete.
There is no "look" of an athlete. It's a spirit, an energy, a passion and a focus that helps you prepare for an event. You don't have to be a certain size or weight to commit to training, to dig deep, to use sport nutrition to fuel and hydrate properly and to make your goals a reality. Personal bests and awesome workouts occur at every size and at every fitness level.
If you are hesitant to put yourself into an uncomfortable camp, group training or racing situation due to nerves, fear, anxiety or self-doubt for not being "good enough", I encourage you to own your athlete status. Just because someone else can go faster, further or stronger than you, it doesn't diminish what you have done or what you are capable of achieving.