A Fat Marathoner Overcomes Her Biggest Obstacle: Other People’s Prejudice
I am neither a runner nor a morning person, so how was it that I found myself shivering outside at ass o’clock on a December morning, with a threat of rain looming, listening to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones blasting over loud speakers, waiting, with anxious excitement, at the starting line of the Seattle Marathon? To understand how I got there, we need to back up.
I’ve always loved sports, with the exception of running. I figure that if I’m going to run 10 miles, I want to either outrun a deadly threat, or, at the very least, end up at some fabulous destination 10 miles away; definitely not back where I started but sweaty and with blisters. In school, I played soccer and volleyball, I was a cheerleader and a dancer. In my twenties, I took up ballroom dancing and won three national championships before I moved and stopped dancing. In my new home, Los Angeles, I founded More Cabaret, a fat dance company, and I felt totally fulfilled in my fitness life without ever going out running.
Then, a freak neck injury led to restrictions on dancing, weight lifting, plyometrics, and interval training. Per my physical therapist, I was restricted from everything except water aerobics and walking. One day, bored and restless, I began Googling terms like “300 Pound Marathon.” To my dismay, I found a blog from a doctor who said that people shouldn’t be allowed to attempt a marathon unless they are within 20% of their “ideal weight.”
My mind flashed to the people in the Fit Fatties Forum who were fat marathoners and fat ultra-marathoners. It flashed to Kelly Gneiting who, at over 400 pounds, has completed three marathons. At that moment, my frustration with the message that fat people shouldn’t even try athletic things reached a critical mass. A few more Internet searches and thirty minutes later, I was registered for the Seattle Marathon. Thirty-one minutes later, my best friend Kel responded to my e-mail with “I’m in.” At thirty-two minutes, I realized that I’d signed up to do something I hadn’t even considered possible thirty-three minutes ago, but there was no looking back. We were—literally—off to the races.
When I told my friends and blog followers the news, the most common question I heard was “You seriously want to do a marathon?” That is why I chose Seattle, a marathon that guaranteed that the finish line staff would stay until every athlete finished. That was a rarity, even in marathons that billed themselves as “walker friendly.” My goal was to finish the marathon, as a walker, in 8.5 hours.
After twenty weeks of training that were in turns painful (like the 14-mile run where I learned that “hitting the wall” is a very real thing) and boring (like the 22-mile walk where absolutely nothing happened except that I thought it would never end), marathon day arrived, and I felt prepared to finish in about eight and a half hours, as planned.
The marathon course was billed as “rolling with hilly sections.” I thought I had trained for the hills, but by mile four I could feel what I knew was far too much fatigue in my legs for this stage of the race, and it was apparent that I was not as prepared as I thought.
About six miles in, after the hills, a 20-minute line for a port-a-potty, and the 20mph headwinds on the world’s second longest floating bridge, it became clear that my 8.5 hour marathon was not to be. Kel and I deemed ourselves Team Dead Last, and prepared for a very long day. It sucked that I wasn’t going to meet my targeted time, but I reminded myself that my real goal was to finish a marathon. My focus was on getting to the finish line.
The other runners were incredibly supportive, yelling encouragement and dispensing high fives. It was awesome and I was grateful.
So imagine my surprise when, at mile seven, the one person whose job was to support me– the woman driving the Support and Gear (SAG) wagon that stays with the last person in the marathon—pulled up beside me and tried to talk me into quitting. She told me that it was later than it was, that I was going slower than I was, and that at my pace I’d never make it and I’d need to be picked up in the afternoon anyway, so I might as well quit now.
I don’t remember exactly what I said to her but it started with “That’s enough,” and ended with “I chose this marathon because it said that it ‘stays open until every athlete finishes.’ If I need to be picked up, I’ll let you know.” But it didn’t end there. At different points in the race, she sent three different marathon staff members to try to get me to quit. I asked the third if there was any way that we could get another volunteer, since this was hard enough without her constant discouragement. At the mile 10 medical station, the medic suggested that we officially drop out but finish anyway. Um, no. I picked this marathon because their rules specifically accommodated my slow time.
At mile 11 they closed the aid stations and opened the roads, and from that point on there were no more mile markers, no more water and Gatorade stations, and no more port-a-potties. Because there weren’t sidewalks in a lot of places, we had to walk on trails and muddy paths (which meant that, according to our GPS, we walked about a mile extra.) At mile 14 she sent a final medical staff member to convince us to drop out. The medic told us we looked great but that they were closing all of the medical stations. She gave us medical supplies and wished us luck. I appreciated the luck but at that point I knew I was going to finish this even if I had to crawl across the line.
At mile 14 the SAG wagon lady said, “You can quit now and still get a medal for finishing a half marathon.” Exhausted and exasperated, I leaned into the car and said “I set a goal of finishing a marathon, if I don’t finish this one, then I have to do another one which I do not want to do. Cross finish line, get medal – that’s all today is about now – Cross finish line, get medal.”
At mile 18 we were told that they were tearing down the finish line. I realized that the moment I had trained for and fantasized about for 370 training miles and today’s 18 miles wasn’t going to happen. We were eight miles from the finish line and I was now in pain—exhausted from the uphills, blistered from the steep downhills—and even if I was able to suffer through eight more miles, there would be no finish line to cross, and I would get my medal from a woman who spent the day trying to get me to quit. Through my tears I looked at Kel and he looked at me and we both said “the only thing to do is finish.”
It was at this point that the SAG woman driving beside us had an abrupt change of heart. She started crying, saying that it wasn’t fair; that we deserved to cross a finish line and that she was going to do the best she could to give us our medals with ceremony. From then on she was miraculously supportive. She, and another gentleman in a separate car, began to guide us in.
The next eight miles were a blur of hills, pain, and suffering. As we turned the corner to the stadium we saw my partner Julianne, our support crew, and a couple of guys from the race staff in a group of people cheering. I jogged the last little bit and accepted my medal – which, for reasons I may never understand, actually seemed (and still seems) worth all the work and pain and suffering.
I planned to be on the course for no more than nine hours. Team Dead Last took 12 hours and 20 minutes to complete the marathon. When the woman from the SAG wagon hugged me, she teared up and told me she was proud of me and apologized for “getting off to a rough start.” I accepted her apology, thanked her, smiled and said what I had been waiting 19.2 miles to say—“I told you at mile seven that I wasn’t going to quit.”
In the painful days that followed, Team Dead Last renamed ourselves Team Never Again. That lasted a couple of months. But then, like so many marathoners before me, I decided that I wanted to try it just one more time. Before I could change my mind, I committed to the LA marathon in 2015. Kel agreed to do it with me. That marathon has an 8 hour time limit and one of the most common questions I get is if my almost 13 hour time in Seattle makes me worried that I won’t be able to finish.
I’m not worried at all. In 20 weeks of training, I’ve completed 19 long runs, up to 24 miles, all at an 8.5 hour marathon pace. In Seattle, I had a terrible day, but one bad day (even if it happens to be race day) doesn’t negate 20 weeks of training times (though it will be fun to say that I shaved over four hours off my marathon time in a year!)
A marathon is a distance, not a time, and getting a medal for doing it is all about the rules of the event that you choose. Tens of thousands of people might participate in a marathon that only four people actually have a chance of winning and so, for the vast majority of us, it’s about racing for our own times, and our own reasons, and that’s as it should be.