One of my favorite things about running — or, the way I do it, run-walk-shuffling — is the sensation of blissful isolation even in the middle of a city sidewalk or a busy park.
I’m only competing with myself, to the sound of whatever playlist or podcast is in my ear. Just me and my breath and the trees.
Then I hear: “Way to go!”
It is not uncommon for runners to do the universal “Whassup, fellow athletic person” nod as we pass each other. I like that. It’s like a secret handshake with your chin.
But the overenthusiastic and peppy “way to go” response, almost always from someone younger and thinner than me, is altogether different. It’s like they’re surprised to see me and my larger body purposefully making my way through the same space they are. And often, they act like I’m the relatively geriatric star of an Afterschool Special bravely out here trying to show the world what people like me can do (cue ‘80s movie slow clap.).
While it would be nice to imagine that seeing someone like me, who is more Flo-Slow than Flo-Jo, might encourage people to strap on shoes and get out there, that’s not why I run. I just like running. I’m not trying to be an example, or a beacon of light. I’m just trying to take an hour or so of precious alone time, to do the thing I love, sometimes as part of training for a race, or sometimes just because I get to concentrate on an activity of my choosing where no one is asking me for anything. And maybe so I can feel better about eating bread that evening.
But when I get singled out on a morning run, or at a 5K, or even at the gym, it reminds me that I am not seen as a person who would normally be in those spaces. I look, to those people, like a novice who needs special encouragement and welcome, when, in fact, I’ve been running for nearly 30 years. Of course, because I am not thin, it seems counterintuitive, because running is supposed to make you fit and maybe I’m doing something wrong?
I’m sure that to some of you, it sounds like I’m complaining about a pleasant response that’s meant to make me feel good about myself, or that it’s all in my head and I’m imagining it. First of all, what I’m describing isn’t unique (check out this 2019 Self magazine story by trainer Louise Green). Also, that “you’re just imagining it” bit is gaslighting and weird and, you know, don’t do that.
While I am fitter and stronger when I am running regularly, that doesn’t translate to thin. I have a muscular frame to begin with, and now I’m in my early 50s, with all the inherent menopause and aches, as well as an internal system that seems to immediately convert everything I eat into back fat. It’s a talent!
I’m used to being othered. As a Black runner, I have always existed in a space where I wasn’t expected, even when I was smaller and younger and somewhat faster. And honestly, I was never all that fast. And that’s OK.
A Runner’s World story cites the statistic that only about 3% percent of U.S. runners are Black, which may be why, even at my thinnest and fastest, I was approached more than once by men slowing down their cars to roll down their windows and lean over with weird sketchy smiles before seeing the iPod and running shoes, because it was perhaps easier to believe I was a hooker. There are more of us now, with the advent of groups like Black Girls Run, and hopefully there are fewer mistaken hooker moments.
I was once a serious runner for years, running 5Ks on a whim and logging in at least three miles a day. But that can get harder as you age, and when I became a mom, I slowed down a little. After my husband died, I gained weight and came, for a while, to a complete stop.
Returning to running, and training again for races, was at first about not dying, but then returned, slowly, to forming a special connection with my body and the earth. It was a hard, humbling, revolutionary act, because my body first responded as if it had been lied to — like, “Wait, I thought we weren’t doing that anymore? Wouldn’t you rather do a donut run than an actual run?”
It felt, at first, like I was starting all over, and in a way I was, with a different body at a different age. But the feeling was the same — getting out there early and watching a dark sky turn first a promising pink before giving way to a bountiful blue, and planning your day in your head to the rhythm of your feet. What was not the same was the response from other runners, who couldn’t help but try to give me advice I never asked for.
“First half-marathon?” a woman asked me once, too cheerfully, as we were lining up to start.
“Sixth. Or seventh. I’ve done so many I lose track,” I answered. Her: A startled, embarrassed “Oh!” I’m sure she meant well, but it was condescending, presumptuous and factually wrong. And, again, it made me feel othered, like I was on a day pass to Healthyville.
Other times, people don’t mean well at all, like the man who sneered, “Pick up your feet if you’re gonna run,” when I stumbled at the crowded start of a 10K trail race. After I finished, another runner told me that same jerk had tripped and wiped out at the finish line. I didn’t feel super bad about that.
I know that neither of those things would have happened if I were thin. Because I’m not the only person to stumble on a trail but was, at that moment, the only one who was presumed not to know what I was doing. And that woman at the half-marathon had no reason to assume I was a beginner other than my not having what she thought of as a runner’s body.
I like being cheered on when I’m running a race, particularly toward the end when I’m gassed. It’s a nice energy injection. But the cheerers are cheering for everyone, and usually I’m not the only big girl out there. I am not a visitor. I belong.
If you see me out there, just nod at me, or wave, like you would any other runner. I might get there way after you do. But I’ll get there eventually. And if you’re still around when I finally cross the finish line, we can clap for each other.
But not in a weird way.