Across the street from my little neighborhood, there is a park with hilly trails, single track, streams and a small pond filled with ducks, geese and seagulls. I like to take my dog there a few times a week and do some running. Sometimes I unclasp Oscar’s leash so I can watch him let loose on the large open field at the far end of the trail, which is one of my favorite things in the world.
It was cloudy this morning, but once my work day was over at 3 o’clock the sun peaked out and burned off all the clouds in short order. The cool February air felt nice. Oscar and I jogged down our usual path that runs past a swath of eucalyptus trees and headed toward the field. Sometimes there are horses grazing on the other side of the fence that delineates the public park area, and Oscar always looks for them. There were no horses today, but that was okay.
I’ve been feeling kind of lazy for the past two days, but on a whim I decided to add some sprints to my workout, maybe wake myself up a little. I found a straight section of the path around the outside edge of the field, walked to the farthest opposite end with Oscar, and then turned around and booked it, full-speed. Oscar followed behind and quickly overtook me, wagging his tail and running with enough joy to light up half the planet.
Like my dog, I adore sprinting. I love feeling all the normally awkward and separate parts of my body come together at once, feeling the fluid rhythm of my legs and arms as they push me forward. I love that even though all systems are on full-force, it feels like my muscles are only expelling as much energy as needed to do the job. When I sprint I feel efficient and beautiful. When I run like this, for a few brief moments I transform into a wild animal: I am a bird in flight, I am a lion in chase.
I did three sprints like this. Just as I was about to turn back for a fourth, I heard the couple across the field. They’d been hanging out by the little stream the whole time Oscar and I were there. They were two college-age kids, probably no older than twenty. She posed on the wooden bridge in her size 2 skinny jeans, knitted hat and fluffy shearling boots, while he took photos of her. As they walked back toward the parking lot now, I heard the boy remark in a low voice, “you’re still slow, fatty.” They both laughed.
There were so many reactions that I could have had to hearing this. I could have called them out on their rudeness or insulted them back, and I would have had every right to do so. I could have stated all sorts of facts and studies proving that fat athletes are twice as healthy as skinny couch potatoes. Or I could have let it hurt my pride, stopped running for the day and gone home. But instead I pretended I didn’t hear them, and turned back around for my fourth sprint as they disappeared down the path. And this time I ran harder.
Truth is, I am a fatty. I have been more fat and less fat than I am now, over the years, but I’ve pretty much always been at least ten or fifteen pounds overweight. I prefer being lighter, but hey it is what it is. When I was in elementary school the other kids called me “Mount Killamanjaro” and laughed at me any time I tripped and fell or ate junk food in public. They made fun of me for taking gymnastics classes and shook their heads when I tried out for the cheerleading squad. I was never very obese. It was just that I was the only overweight girl in the class, so it was fat enough.
I’m used to the stigma that’s placed on overweight people when they’re exercising. I’ve always been fat, but I’ve always been active, too. Only during my
drunken college years did I not do some kind of physical activity on at least a semi-regular basis. So I’ve heard it over and over again. “You don’t have a dancer’s body.” “You’re too fat to be a gymnast.” “You don’t look like you could run twelve miles.” Even my father has said these kinds of things to me, and my Godmother said them to other people behind my back.
But despite my extra weight, I’ve always done well at the physical activities I chose to take part in. I was always placed front and center of formations during dance recital numbers, I was the first gymnast in my 7th grade group to perform a back handspring without assistance, and I was selected to be Captain of my cheerleading squad after only one year of participation. And let’s not forget that I’ve run an ultramarathon, despite what I look like I can do. In other words, fat has never stopped me.
So even though I made the choice not to respond to my antagonizers this afternoon, I spent a few minutes thinking about their perception of me. Their prejudice toward fat people has lent them the belief that they know what I’m running for. They think that I run so I can look more like them. But the truth is I really don’t. I don’t run to be skinny, even though weight loss is a fortunate side-effect. I don’t really run to be fast, either. And I certainly don’t run so that I can impress them. Or anyone, for that matter.
And even though I never spoke to that couple at the park, and probably won’t ever see them again, I want to respond to them here. I want to tell them, and all the others who have doubted my athleticism, why I run:
I run because I like to be outside.
I run to spend time with my dog.
I run to be social.
I run to be alone.
I run to listen to music I haven’t had time to experience yet.
I run to hear silence.
I run to put space between myself and my inner demons.
I run to escape my negative body image, the one that people like you have given me.
I run to sweat.
I run to breathe hard.
I run to hear my feet land almost silently upon the earth.
I run to feel the sun’s heat on my face, and the cooling wind at my back.
I run to burn off steam.
I run to burn off excess calories.
I run to recover.
I run to discover new trails and to see the ground from the top of a mountain.
I run to get lost in my thoughts, and in the wilderness.
I run to learn things about myself.
I run because it’s hard, and because sometimes it hurts.
I run because most people don’t.
I run because in some ways I’m good at it, and in many ways I am not.
I run because some have told me I never could.
I run because it constantly challenges me to be better.
I run so I can live a longer life.
I run because it is my life.
In some ways, I encourage people to tell me what they think of me when they see me running. I welcome the disapproval from judgmental family members, and the disgusted gaze from skinny elite runners as I slow to a walk up a steep hill and allow them to whiz by. And I gladly accept all the wary looks from people who don’t believe that I have run over thirty miles at once (and in one day), because it helps me to sort out the difference between the people I respect and the people I don’t. It fuels the fire in my (rounded) belly, the one that burns hot enough to add strength to my character and poise to my stride.
And I challenge them all to love the run the way that I do.