Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner by Jennifer Graham landed in our mailboxes recently, and we were psyched for the opportunity to dive in—and to share it with you. Here's a Q+A with the author, and at the end, check out how you can win one of three copies for today's giveaway.
For people unfamiliar with you, can you give us a quick bio of you/your family/your running?
Jennifer: I’m a runner, writer and single mom of four who has learned the hard way that relationships are more fragile than we think, but our bodies are stronger than we think.
I started running 25 years ago when I was single and childless and working full-time as a newspaper reporter. Although my life is drastically different now, the one constant over the years has been my running. Although I never became the lithe gazelle that I’d originally hoped – and there have been many more disappointments along the way – running is as a part of me as breathing, and the reason joy is my default state of mind.
When somebody asks you for an elevator speech--or a few sentences--about your book, how do you explain it?
It’s a memoir about what it’s like to run with gazelles when your shadow looks more like a walrus, and a cautionary tale for people who believe, like I once did, that their marriages are bombproof. Also, it’s a reverent ode to ice cream.
I love the scene about you dancing with joy after a great run. You wrote: "For the first time in my life, I recognized that exertion, regardless of one's size, was a reliable source of joy." I love that line. Can you tell us a little more about it?
I grew up overweight, and therefore hyper sensitive about my body, and painfully bereft of healthy male attention, and so I never learned to dance, even though I’ve always been a dancer in spirit.
The scene you mentioned happened a year or so after I started running, when I was finally making peace with the body I’d hated for so long. I’d just finished a two-mile run on a serene country road, and when I got home, I was still so full of energy and joy that it spilled out under the moonlight, and I danced, unselfconsciously, in my front yard. It was a physical expression of exhilaration, and one that is available to all of us, not always on demand, but with satisfying regularity. And dancing like that is something I still do on occasion after a run, although for the sake of my long-suffering children, I duck inside our barn first!
Let's talk about the scene where you're standing at the start of the Kiawah Half-Marathon and looking around at everybody who is so skinny, and you feel "thick and congealed." And then you realize nobody cares about the size of your thighs; they're all too self-involved or worrying about the race. Was that a big revelation for you? Do you continue to think that's true?
I do think it’s true of runners. Runners, as a tribe, are amazingly welcoming and forgiving and embracing of all body types. We honor effort. Unfortunately, sedentary people are the ones who will snipe.
A North Carolina runner whose blog I follow had a post last week about being out on a run and a group of smoking, drinking women cackling at her, “You know you’re too fat to be out here, don’t you?” Another runner would never say that to a runner. I’ve never had another runner say anything belittling to me, at least not to my face.
But the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in the past couple of years is that all opinions are not created equal. Not everyone’s opinion matters. We’ve all got different voices yelling at us—real ones, and ones inside our head—and we get to choose whose voices get through. Choose wisely. Ignore the voices that don’t matter. You know whose they are.
Does Pre still coach you? (And can you explain a little about how Pre started coaching you?)
Thank you for being bold enough to bring this up. Most people ignore this whole aspect of the book, kind of like, Okay, we think she’s a little nutso, so walk carefully around this part lest she start convulsing and foaming at the mouth!
First off, your readers should know that I’m an only child, and only children are famous for having imaginary friends. And some highly respected people have confessed to having imaginary conversations, among them Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Hillary Clinton. Charles Dickens used to get so wrapped up in his that he would laugh out loud in the middle of church services.
Here’s the thing: We all have voices in our head, and, if we listen carefully enough, in our hearts, too. They may be that of our mothers, or God, or our first-grade teacher, or the last song to which we listened on the radio.
For a while, after my husband moved out, his was the loudest voice in my head, and it was really—I mean REALLY— unpleasant. I needed to get rid of it, so I replaced it with the voice of Steve Prefontaine, the legendary rock-star Olympian who died in a car crash at age 24. Unlike my husband, Pre became a grudging fan and an enthusiastic cheerleader who always had something useful to say. I didn’t pull him or our “conversations” out of the air; I’d read several books about him, and watched all the movies, and clips on YouTube, so I had a pretty good idea of the kind of person he was, the kinds of things he would say. And yes, he still accompanies me on many of my runs, and I expect he always will, even if someday I get a “real” coach.
We did two-part Photo Gallery: What Another Mother Runner looks like (here's part I and here's part II). I know you said you don't have your picture on the internet, but given that our mother runners are all shapes and sizes, would you have posed for us?
This is so wonderful, and I applaud you for doing this, and if you ever send a photographer to my house, you will find me hiding under my bed.
No, seriously, there was a time when I wouldn’t have done this, but I probably would now, although I might insist on going to the tanning salon for a couple of weeks first. (Fat always looks better when it’s brown.)
The real reason there aren’t more “fat” pictures of me in the book or on my blogs is, they don’t exist. I remember one picture, in particular, that was snapped of me after I’d just finished the Cooper River Bridge Run (a 10K in Charleston, SC) in a tank top and clingy capris, and I was mortified by it and threw it away. This strikes me as sad now, and I want to hug the person I was then and say, you dummy, you were so amazing, you’d just run a 10K!
I’d like to say that I am self-actualized enough now to not care at all what I look like, but I’m not there yet, and there are still days in which I try on four outfits in frustration before I head out the door for a run, and even then, I might put on sunglasses and a baseball cap, as if this would hide my dimpled legs. I’m still a work in progress. But I'm a work in process with terrific blood pressure and a resting heart rate in the low 50s.
These days, are you training for an upcoming race or putting in your regular miles or somewhere in between?
I’m still running in place, although I am scheduled to run the Kiawah Half again in December, so at some point, I’ll have to get serious about training again.
If somebody who is reading this who thinks they're too fat to run, what would you tell them?
Fat is a state of mind, not a state of body, so you need to change your thinking more than you need to change your body. First, play some head games, gift yourself an imaginary coach, someone who will gently but persistently lead you out there.
There’s a great children’s book called “A Mother for Choco” in which an endearing little bird with striped feet looks for a mother that looks just like him. After animal after animal rejects him (kind of like how real-life coach after real-life coach rejected me), he comes across a warm and nurturing mother bear who says, “Well, if I were your mother, what would I do?” And then she proceeds to do all the things Choco says, proving that your mother doesn’t actually have to be your mother.
Same thing with a coach...being alive and present is highly overrated. A coach doesn’t have to actually be in the room to be effective. What would a coach say to you right now, if he or she were there? Truth is, we all know what we ought to be doing, but sometimes it helps to have someone else say it. Summon the person who will best say it to you, then heed that advice.
Secondly, find yourself an outfit that makes you feel powerful. You might not be able to find one that makes you feel thin—not right away, anyway—but with a little effort, you can find one that makes you feel powerful. Either a T-shirt with an attitude, or a temporary tattoo, or wicked pair of reflecting sunglasses, or a feminine skort, or my personal and inexplicable favorite, a pair of fingerless bicycling gloves. It’s hard to run when you’re feeling small and vulnerable. Create an attitude of toughness before you even head out the door.
Finally, don’t discourage yourself by going too far, too fast, too soon. Build confidence by going slower and shorter than you can. Nothing kills ambition like exhaustion. If you can only run to your mailbox and back, run to your mailbox and back. Then, the next day, run to your mailbox and back, plus 10 steps. And so forth. Over time, you will be able to run to the post office 10 miles away.
If you want to win one of three copies of Jennifer's book, answer this question in the comments below: what adjective would you put in front of "runner" to describe you? Talented? Improving? Striving? Unmotivated? We'll pick three random winners and announce them on June 1.