Running Up That Hill: Half-Marathon Training and Body-Shaming
By Alex Moore
I love running in the dark. The cold dark, ideally. A cold temperature and darkness are both ideal for runners, since there’s no excess heat from the sunshine, and a chilly night helps wick away sweat. But I prefer running in the dark for a different reason.
I am a fat runner.
I have trouble calling myself a runner, even though I run four days a week. Runners are all long legs and lean torsos. I look like Homer Simpson from the side. And after thirty-plus years of indifferently maintaining my body, then bearing healthy, full-term twins, the cascade of excess skin that sloshes and pockets above my pubic bone is expected — normal, even.
And as a vocal, card-carrying, proud feminist, I’ve worked hard to love my body. I’m far from perfect, and I’ve struggled with my body image since middle school. I’ve gotten better at feeling confident, dressing in clothes that please me, and understanding that a healthy body is a perfect body.
Running has shown me the extend of my hatred of my own body, and revealed how deeply I rely on fat-shaming culture to judge others and make myself feel better about my own weight.
I started running because I wanted an exercise goal, and I wanted a new challenge. I kept running because I loved the solitude, the almost meditative state I could sink into, and the chance to listen to loud, inappropriate music again.
Once I decided that I liked running, I bought new clothes. I’d discovered that running in loose, ill-fitting t-shirts and improperly-wicking pants was a recipe for disaster. It’s infinitely more comfortable, both movement- and temperature-wise, to wear form-fitting running clothes.
But you can’t hide in form-fitting running clothes. They are almost as unforgiving as a bathing suit, outlining every crevice and every blob of fat. Everyone can see everything, and I became crushingly self-conscious, thinking that every walker, driver, and fellow runner was judging me, sneering at me — the fat woman lumbering down the street, red-faced and jiggling. How pathetic, they’d think. How disgusting.
Then, I started to run at night. It was a mild fall in New England, and the days were short, so it was only logical. And it was a lovely thing, to be alone in the dark, to inhale the gently earthy smells of autumn, to breathe the crisp air. But it was so gloriously freeing to run in the dark. I was a blip on the sidewalk, a bobbing light in the distance. Even up close, I would be a brief blur to a driver passing me. I didn’t have to look skinny — I wasn’t even there. I’d disappeared.
I stopped wanting to run in the daytime at all. Although I truly did (and do) prefer the cold night air, and I honestly detest the feeling of the sun beating down on me as I run, I loved not being seen.
I kept up with running, sometimes religiously, sometimes not, and after awhile I decided that to train better, I needed a new goal. I decided I would run a half-marathon.
I didn’t have any expectations, I told myself. I would train for five months. I would take an intermediate approach, implementing a run-walk pattern. I didn’t care if I had horrible time, I just wanted to finish. And for awhile, things were fine. I did my interval training, running on the treadmill in the basement, or in the dark of the late winter. But once spring came, the days started getting lighter, my runs got longer, and I dreaded the knowledge that I needed to look into running gear.
I felt like a fraud buying energy gels (I imagined people would say, “Why would you need energy gels? Shouldn’t your body get its extra energy from the fat you’ve stored?”); anti-chafing balm (“Too bad all your fat rubs against each other”); and Gatorade (“Do you really need more sugar?”). The worst purchase by far was my backpack hydration system, which was incredibly convenient and totally necessary, especially when I was training by myself, without the benefit of regular water stations. But now, running in the light, for two hours at a time, I imagined a whole slew of other comments and judgements people would make: not only a fat woman, huffing and puffing, but a fat woman who thought she was a runner! Look how seriously she takes herself, with her precious little backpack. She must think all you need to do to be a runner is buy things. She’s so fat, she can’t be running more than one or two miles — didn’t anyone tell her she doesn’t need a bottle of Gatorade for that? Who does she think she is?
Training for the half marathon became a battle that I fought not only with my body, for every mile I conquered, but with my mind. And I am saddened to admit that the sore hip flexors, the sunburns, and the blistered feet are easier to take than the mental hell I put myself through.
On the morning of the half-marathon, I reminded myself of all the things I’d said when I started this journey. It didn’t matter if I was last. It didn’t matter if I walked half of it. It would matter that I worked hard and that I finished. That was all that mattered. So I strapped on my backpack, filled it with Gatorade, and headed out into the morning sun, ready to line up.
I was so nervous that I started sweating profusely, almost forty-five minutes before the race began. I had noone to talk to, so I started looking around. I tried to find people who looked like me.
There weren’t a lot of chubby people. And men didn’t count. They had to be chubby women. There were only a few of them. But I studied them, from behind my sunglasses, becoming the cruel spectator I’d imagined so vividly. The woman with the purple shirt was shorter than me, had a bigger butt than me. Another woman was older than me, and more portly all the way around. Her friend was fat, too. I looked at them greedily as I stretched. They were bigger than me. That meant I was better than them. Therefore I would beat them. I would not be last.
But I was last. Completely, totally, police-escort-pacing-me-with-flashing-lights as-I-walked-the-final-three-miles-down-a-main-road-while-everyone-stared, last.
The staff at the race were supportive, offering high fives and cheers every time I passed a water station that was being dismantled. The police officer who paced me on the main road, forcing cars to go into the other lane and peer curiously over to see what the fuss was about, gave me an encouraging smile and even a thumbs up every once in awhile. And when I finally finished, the entire race staff clapped, gave me high fives, and cheered as I walked across the finish line.
I was humiliated. Even though I had met my goals, and I had prepared myself for the worst, I was embarrassed and horrified when it actually happened. And the biggest thing I was embarrassed by was my weight — that the event staff, the spectators, the straggling runners still hanging around three hours after the race started would look at me and laugh — a sweaty, incompetent, fat woman, who couldn’t finish the race and made everyone stay late.
I’m sure that if I were skinny and I had finished last, that I would have felt a clear sense of disappointment and embarrassment. Nobody likes to be last. But my truest sense of embarrassment was from looking the way I do. It is incredible to me that I understand on an academic, logical level that I am healthy, that I trained, and that I achieved my goal — but that the lived experience of public exercise awakened an almost primal sense of self-loathing.
I’ve thought about the people who passed me in the back of the pack — the woman in purple, who gave me a big smile and said, “If someone like me can do it, you can do it!” and a woman in a baseball hat who passed me at mile nine, who held up her hand for a high five and said, “We’re getting it done! I’m not worried about time, I just want to finish!” I find myself in awe of their positivity, and their willingness to reach out to another struggling runner. I am ashamed that I’d tried to psych myself up by evaluating and judging them.
I wish I could say that I’ve realized the error of my ways and I understand I’m beautiful and lovely the way I am, that my body is healthy and therefore perfect. The best I can do is make a commitment to working on my body image, and truly be aware of how and when I evaluate other women, ranking them and their potential worth by their weight.
I’m going to train for a 10k race next. If I learned anything from my experience with the half marathon, it’s that I need to spend more time pacing myself, setting reasonable goals, and conditioning. I’ll be conditioning my mind as well, training myself to be proud of my accomplishments, proud of my healthy body, and proud to be an active and evolving feminist runner.