Running Into Last Place

I didn’t grow up feeling athletic. I played and loved, softball for most of my life, and occasionally dabbled in other sports now and then, but nothing else really stuck. While I was much smaller as a kid (aren’t we all) and as a teen, I still had a bigger body than most of the friends I saw around me. Fitness was hard – why would I choose to be out of breath, sore, and far behind everyone else? Clearly, it just wasn’t for me.

As I got older, I also gained weight, and these things seemed more out of reach than ever. I signed up for a couple gyms with the goal of getting smaller, tried running (because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?), realized I could barely start, and got discouraged. I figured “when I lost the weight” it would be much easier for me to do the things I saw everyone else doing, so I just had to focus on my eating first and the rest could come later. I played softball with my friends in the summer and took some classes at a body positive yoga and fitness studio, but it didn’t take up much space in my life.

Fast forward to a year ago, and something switched in me. My mental health was feeling steady and I had vastly improved my relationship with food but was still living in a bigger body. Somehow it seemed that everyone I knew was doing something exciting and active that they loved, and I had missed the memo.

All because I was waiting (for most of my life) for the moment I would get smaller and that part of my life could begin.

I belonged to countless weight loss communities; on Tumblr, Facebook, weight loss-focused websites, through medical programs in Toronto, you name it. But the posts I was growingly increasingly interested in weren’t focussed on getting smaller, but getting stronger. I had joined a gym with my partner, but I continued to feel alienated from the weight room and world of fitness in general. So when a friend of mine started seeing a personal trainer and started lifting heavy, I decided to take the chance and hire a professional to show me how to get things done.

My journey in the weight room is a story for another time, but I finally felt empowered to take up space at the gym. I knew what I was doing, I knew where to go, and I was getting better at it.

I wasn’t comparing my progress to anyone else’s – I was just working hard and getting noticeably stronger. The world of fitness, which once felt like it did not have space for me, seemed to open up as a world where I could compete against myself. I could push myself to do things that seemed impossible, and when I tackled each challenge I could feel like I was on top of the world.

With endless possibilities ahead of me, I decided to first tackle my biggest hurdle, because why not? I was going to run.

When I was 13, I (very) briefly decided to try my middle school’s jogging club. We laced up and launched headfirst into our run around the neighborhood. My sporty friends took seemingly easy strides far ahead, while I was hunched over taking heaving breaths and suffering from side cramps. Clearly, running was not meant for me.

What I didn’t realize was that I was running far too fast for myself. It was unsustainable, and I didn’t have to keep up with the other girls to try running. No one taught me how to pace myself, how to stretch, or that running and walking is just fine.

But now I was on my own and armed with a different attitude. I was the only person in this space. I started on the treadmill with the Couch to 5k program, only able to run a minute at a time. And it was hard – I huffed, and I puffed. I pushed myself week over week, and gradually got that number to 5 minutes, then 10, then 15.

The moment I hit 10 minutes on that treadmill was one of the most glorious of my life. I felt like I could take on the world.

After hitting 15, and then 20 minutes, I started to get bored and decided a 5k was in my future. It was time to take this show on the road. A runner friend of mine was running a MEC race in a couple months, and I signed up. That weekend I went to the race route to try running outside for the first time and… it fucking sucked. WOW, running outside is so much harder than running on a treadmill. But the weather was warm, and I was surrounded by flowers, water, and birds. I felt deeply alive, even if it was quite the reality check.

I continued running outside, stopping often to walk, but loving the feeling of me and the outdoors, pushing myself in a new and challenging way - sweat dripping into my eyes, and heart pounding in my chest. The 5k came up quickly, and before I knew it I was hovering near the start line waiting to run, for the first time, with hundreds of other people.

There I discovered the joy of being surrounded by people who love doing something incredibly specific -  here were hordes of just beautiful, running nerds. Some were there to run a marathon, others to walk a 5k with three of their friends. People stretched and some warmed up on the course. The excitement in the air was palpable, and I felt like I was part of something.

I started running, at a pace barely faster than my walk, podcast blaring in my ears. Chest thrumming, I wove around women walking with strollers and chatting with their friends, then stopped to walk until I could push myself to run again. Just until that tree. Just until that fence. Just until that flower. My leg cramped in excruciating pain, and I starting channeling Monty Python’s Ministry of Funny Walks until I was relieved and pushed myself to run again. I was so slow, but I was doing it.

I finished with friends at the finish line and a wave of euphoria. Finally, I could make room for myself in these spaces.

I’ve now done six 5k races in the last eight months, with four more on the docket for this year. I still can’t run for the entire five kilometers, and my leg regularly seizes up in cramps (I’m looking into it, don’t worry). I explain this to people when I talk about my runs, not to be self-deprecating, but because I don’t want to see a look of disappointment on their faces later - I feel strong and powerful, please don’t impose your shiz on me. I have proven to myself that I can show up when things are hard, and I have proven to myself that I can work my ass off to continuously come in last.

There still isn’t a lot of representation in runners with bigger bodies. National Geographic recently named ultramarathoner Mirna Valerio of Fat Girl Running one of their adventurers of the year. She Can and She Did, a blog run by Kelly Roberts, is working to redefine what strong looks like, and showcases the running journeys of women with all sorts of body shapes (many of whom used to hate running). But I’m dying to see more! More stories of women working hard at things that don’t come easily, and more stories of women with bigger bodies kicking ass in spaces they don’t often see themselves represented.

In the meantime, I’ll be here huffing, puffing, running, and walking my way to last place. Isn’t it glorious?

*For more from Anna Cunningham, you can follow her on Instagram or keep up with her on her blog.