Listen to this story
Your Slow, Fat Marathon
How to complete a marathon regardless of your size or speed
I had always been an athlete, but I only participated in sports that I was good at right away, and running definitely was not in that category. I’m also a fan of setting big, nearly impossible goals. So when I decided that I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and try a sport that I wasn’t any good at, I skipped right to a marathon.
It was a tough challenge, and I dragged my extremely tolerant best friend along for the ride—but we got it done. After I finished the first marathon, I learned that I could have set a Guinness World Record for heaviest woman to complete a marathon.
Unfortunately you can’t set a record retroactively, so that set me on the path to my second marathon. I’m now a two-time marathoner and Guinness World Record Holder who is training for her first IRONMAN triathlon. Along the way I’ve learned many things that would have been helpful to know at the beginning of my journey.
Busting Myths About Slow, Fat Runners
First things first: slow and fat are not synonymous. I happen to be both a slow runner and a fat runner. But there are slow runners of all sizes, and fat runners of all speeds.
What’s important to me is the fact that nobody of any size is obligated to be involved in fitness at all — let alone marathons. Completing a marathon and watching a Netflix marathon are morally equivalent activities, and are both completely reasonable ways to spend a Sunday. Still, while nobody of any size or speed is obligated to get involved in marathoning, everyone of every size and speed should be welcome to do so.
One myth that you’ll hear about marathoning is that you have to run them, or that if you can’t finish within a certain time, that you shouldn’t do it at all. Both of these notions are crap. First of all, there are plenty of athletes who use wheelchairs and handcycles. For those who are doing this using legs rather than wheels, you can walk the whole thing, run the whole thing, or do a combination of the two. Secondly, a marathon is based on distance, not time — so as long as you’re within the time limit set by the race (we’ll talk about races that have longer, or even no, time limit), all you have to do is get yourself to the finish line under your own power and you’re golden.
While a big part of my desire to set the World Record was that it sounded like a cool thing to do, a bigger part of why I wanted to set this record was for visibility of both fat marathoners and slow marathoners. I’m sure that there are women who are fatter than me, completing marathons faster —I hope they break the record early and often. I also hear from people every day who wanted to run or roll a marathon but felt like they were too fat or too slow to get it done. Being a Guinness World Record holder means that I get to say, loud and proud, that there’s no shame in our fat and/or slow game.
Is a Marathon Really for You?
Size and (lack of!) speed aren’t deal killers, but that alone doesn’t mean that a marathon is right for you. This is a big commitment, so take some time to really think it through and decide if it’s a good goal.
Is your body ready?
Make sure that your body is on board for this — 26.2 miles is a long way to go, and you’ll be doing hundreds of training miles beforehand. Bodies of all sizes have abilities, and all of our bodies have limitations, and that’s how it should be. If this challenge doesn’t make sense for your body, you can always find one that does.
Things to consider for marathoning include previous injuries, current joint health, limitations to cardiovascular health, issues with digestion (you will need to fuel during the race, which is difficult on the gut) and any chronic health issues you might have. If any of these is a concern, see a trusted healthcare professional—one who won’t view you through a lens of fat-phobia!
Even if things seem like a go, you may discover during the journey that this isn’t the right challenge for your body. Either way, there’s no shame in deciding that marathoning isn’t for you for any reason.
Do you have the time required in your schedule?
If your body is good to go, the next thing to get on board is your calendar. Training for a marathon is a serious time commitment. Of course there’s the actual training — most programs include 3–5 walks/runs/rolls per week, with one of them being a “long walk/run/roll” that gets longer as your training progresses. There’s also traveling to and from the workouts, treating blisters, and the endless washing of socks and athletic tights. And there’s sometimes lying on your couch exhausted and unable to move for long expanses of time, which you’ll spend questioning your ability to make good choices.
Your team: friends and family
If your body and your calendar are good, it’s probably time to have a talk with your family and/or friends and let them know what you are undertaking, and how it will realistically affect your lives. It’s possible to go it alone, but it’s much easier with the support of your nearest and dearest.
Sometimes it’s hard, even impossible, to get family and friends behind this effort — they may not understand why in the world you would want to do this (it’s not a completely unreasonable question, but I still think “because I want to” should be reason enough.) They may think that since it’s not for them (which is, of course, completely fine) that it’s not for you either (that’s not their decision to make.)
Consider having these conversations early — find out what their concerns are and address them as best you can. For example, friends and family may be upset with the idea of you being gone for hours a time, especially during long walks/runs/rolls. See if there’s something you can do to ease their fears. For example, if it’s the time committment, maybe find a regular time that you can spend together with them. With good communication, maybe you can get them onto Team You.
Once you check all three boxes, it’s time to choose a race and a training plan.
Choosing a Race
Choosing the right race can make or break your shot at finishing, so don’t take it lightly. There are several factors that go into deciding which race you will attempt.
The first thing I always think about is the time limit. I’m slow — glacially slow — and the last thing I want to do is get pulled off a course for going over the time limit in a race I could have finished. This can also be a little bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, since before you start training you may not have any idea how fast you can go.
One option is to start training first, and then pick a race. Another option is to choose a race with a long time limit. You can find lists of walker-friendly marathons online. My first marathon was Seattle and they have a policy that “Finish line staff and essential services will remain until every athlete has completed the event.” I did my second marathon with an amazing organization called Mainly Marathons. They produce marathons with no time limits all over the country, and the organizers, volunteers, and other runners were so friendly they made me wish I liked running marathons so that I could travel around the country and run with them!
In addition to time limit, you also want to check out course elevation and temperature. It’s important to remember that terms like “flat”, “moderately hilly”, and “rolling hills” can be very widely interpreted—as I learned the hard way during my second race! Get an actual elevation map of the course if you can. Make sure that you can train in a situation similar to your race. If you’re only training on paved flat surfaces, skip that trail marathon in the Rocky Mountains. If you are training in Alaska, a marathon in Georgia in June is probably not for you.
Choose your race and register for it in advance.
Choose a Training Plan
Once you’ve selected your race, it’s time to pick a training plan. You want to make sure you give yourself enough time to train properly for your current level of fitness. Be honest about this — don’t choose a program meant for someone who is currently walking/running/rolling 15 miles a week if the last mile you completed was in the President’s Physical Fitness Test in gym class over a decade ago.
Some things to consider in any training program include:
- Length of the program. Typical training programs last from 12–20 weeks, but you can find programs that are 6 months or even a year (or longer).
- Base fitness level: does it assume that you’re a beginner, or that you walk/run/roll 15 miles a week already?
- How many days a week do you want to work out? Some plans have as few as three days per week, others as many as six.
- Cross training: some plans include training on days when you’re not doing a walk/run/roll.
My advice is to pick a program that fits the best into your existing life and will work best on your current schedule. The best plan is the plan that you’ll actually do.
You can find plenty of programs online, or you can seek out a coach to create one for you.
For my first marathon I just used a 20 week program I found online (sadly, that program is not online any longer).
For my second marathon, I had trouble psyching myself up, so I started listening to audiobooks by endurance athletes, many of whom had completed Ironman triathlons, comprised of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. I realized that an Ironman would be the ultimate expression of my goal to step outside my athletic comfort zone.
I decided to train for the second marathon as part of training for my first (and only!) Ironman. For that, I knew that I needed a coach. I knew Steve Blackmon, who is also a larger athlete, coach, and multiple Ironman finisher, and he agreed to coach me.
It was an entirely different experience to have an expert tracking my progress and tweaking my training program accordingly. Coaching can be expensive and it’s not for everyone, but it’s a great option if your training needs are complex, if you need guidance, and if you want an extra boost of motivation from someone who is dedicated to your success.
Clothing and Gear
When it comes to shoes and socks, I recommend going to a running store that does a true fit, and then buy the best shoes and socks you can afford. It’s your primary defense against the misery of blisters, and from the dream-ending scourge of injuries.
When it comes to clothing, well, if you are a plus-size athlete, you have my condolences in advance. Sometimes I feel like finding clothes that work for me is more difficult than actually training.
For long distances, you absolutely need the appropriate clothing. Often called “technical gear,” it’s made out of advanced materials that wick sweat and cut down on chafing. If you work out in cotton shorts and a t-shirt, you are headed straight to chafe town (more on preventing that below).
When it comes to clothes, more and more companies are catering to at least some plus size bodies. But as a solid size 26/28, even the companies that claim to be for “all shapes and sizes” seem to think that somehow I don’t constitute a shape or size. Also be aware that the sizing is different for athletic clothes. Companies will brag that they sell “up to 4x” but I have found that as a 3x in regular clothing, their athletic 4x doesn’t even come close to fitting me.
I had some luck finding items at Old Navy (though I don’t love their policy of only selling plus-size clothes on the internet and not in stores), and I’ve heard good things about Lane Bryant’s Livi Active line. I’m also a big fan of independent companies like RSport, and Just Curves. Bigger guys have it a bit easier finding clothes, but the struggle is real.
The thing to remember, above all, is that our bodies are not the problem here — the problem is that clothing isn’t being made in our size. I find it odd that so many concerned trolls want to tell me that I need to exercise, but they seem to want me to do it in a toga that I fashioned from a bed sheet.
Let’s talk about chafing. It’s the uncomfortable sensation you get from friction — it can be skin on skin, or skin on fabric. The most common places for chafing are going to be inner thighs, under the arms (if they brush against your body when you swing them) and any place with a band — top of shorts, sports bra band and straps, etc. You may notice it while you’re training, or not until afterward — I’ve heard of some athletes who call their shower a “chafe detector” because you will definitely notice it when the water hits it! It may leave a rash, or be a bit more stealthy.
Like so many things in marathon training, prevention of chafing is easier than treatment. With that in mind, let me suggest that you embrace anti-chafing goo. There are a ton of brands and types to choose from. Some are in sticks (like deodorant) but there are also creams, gels, and sprays. You may have to try a couple to find what you like (I’m a fan of Body Glide for the run and Aquaphor for the bike, personally) — but whatever you choose, your marathon experience will likely be much more pleasant if lubricated by some of these slippery salves.
Also, use sunscreen. Use it every time. Your skin will thank you.
I recommend getting a good GPS watch — I use a Garmin but there are plenty of options. You want a watch that will, at the very least, give you overall time, overall distance, current pace, and pace per interval (how fast you went during each mile, for example) information.
You may also want to use a heart rate monitor — they don’t make the one that goes around the chest in all sizes (and I find that it just creates another thing to chafe), but you can also use a wrist monitor.
When it comes to fancy extras, the sky is pretty much the limit (my coach has a watch that hooks up to his phone by Bluetooth and shows him texts and voicemails!). I find the basics are all I really need, and that keeps it much more affordable. If you want to track your progress online, or if you’re working with a coach, you’ll also probably want a watch that can connect to your computer and allow you to upload to whatever program they use (like Strava or Training Peaks). Most GPS watches will do this, but if it’s an important feature for you, verify that it has this feature first.
By the way, you definitely want a GPS function, and not just a pedometer. For my first marathon, I used an iPod that had a built in pedometer, but it turns out that it was massively wrong in terms of the speed I was going — often giving me a speed that was up to 4 minutes per mile faster than I was actually traveling.
Training with a GPS watch will help you keep a clear picture of how you’re doing. If you’re technology challenged like I am, you can find tutorials on YouTube for how to program your watch and get the most out of your new toy.
Commit to the training program, and commit to listening to your body.
You probably won’t get every single workout in, and that’s ok. Discomfort is normal, but ignoring pain is like an express lane to injuries. Ice is your friend, so apply it liberally after workouts as a preventative — not just after you’ve been injured. If you can afford it, consider getting body work like massages and chiropractic care to keep your body going strong.
If you do experience injuries, you will probably notice a tendency for people, including even doctors, to blame it on your size, and to suggest that weight loss is the only solution. This is bullshit.
Almost every intentional weight loss attempt fails. Over two-thirds of people who attempt weight loss lose weight short term, but gain back more long term. Ask if thin athletes get these injuries (they do!) and then ask for all the treatment options that thin athletes get.
You’ll also have to make a decision about pace for the race itself. You can walk/slow roll it. You can run/fast roll it, or you can alternate between the two. I walked all of the first one. For the second I did walk/run intervals which I actually liked better, not necessarily because it was faster (though it was), but because it broke up the monotony.
While you’re training your body to take you 26.2 miles, you also want to be training your stomach. You are going to need hydration and, depending on your time on the course, nutrition during your race. There are some people who do the whole race on just water and Gatorade, but if you’re out there for a while and/or you’re fueling a bigger body, you’re going to want to get some nutrition. Either way, it takes some getting used to.
Most races offer aid stations that include fluid options as well as food options, so a good first step is to check with the marathon, see what they’ll have, and train with the same options. Be aware that even marathons with long time limits sometimes close down the aid stations early. In Seattle, they closed down the stations when we were at mile 11, so we were on our own from then on. One solution to this is to wear a hydration backpack. Leave the bladder empty, but bring some of your favorite training food, and even medical supplies like bandaids and moleskins. Then, if they tell you they’re going to close down the aid/medical stations, you can fill the hydration bladder and be self-supported to the finish line.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to use the long training walks/runs/rolls as race simulations — get up at the same time as your race day, eat the breakfast you’ll eat on race day, fuel during your workout like you plan to on your race day. That way when race day comes, it’s just another long workout.
The day before the event
The day before the marathon is an exciting day you need to plan for, because it involves packet pick-up and your own pre-race preparations.
You’ll get your packet the day before the race. With larger marathons, this means going into a big expo with music pumping, lots of vendors, and your fellow marathoners milling around. The air will be buzzing with all the excitement of people who are ready to run/roll farther than most people want to drive tomorrow morning.
You’ll pick up your packet, which will include your race number (usually containing a timing chip) as well as instructions for parking and transportation, a map of the race course, and bunches of freebie goodies. They will also have boxes of safety pins so grab some of those to pin your race bib to your shirt — four if you want the thing secured, two if you enjoy it flapping around during your race. You might also grab a race belt which goes around your waist and has clips to hold your race number.
Packet pickup is also where you can make a devastating mistake. You will inevitably get stuff for free, or see stuff for sale — hydration, nutrition, socks, sports bras, whatever — and you might see something that seems like it would be amazing to try tomorrow. DO NOT DO IT! The cardinal rule of the marathon is “nothing new on race day” and this rule applies to you.
The night before
Lay out everything you’ll be wearing the night before — clothes, shoes, socks, backpack, literally everything. Set an alarm. If you’re someone who oversleeps, set a bunch of alarms. If you’re someone who struggles to sleep (like me!) I’ll share some wisdom from Coach Steve: lack of sleep the night before a race doesn’t affect performance much, as long as you’ve had good rest up until that point. Either way, I promise that the morning, and the marathon, will come — so try not to stress.
Read the race instructions that you got at packet pickup one more time. Make sure that you know how you are getting to the race — are you driving and parking (if so, exactly where?) Are they offering a shuttle? If not, how far do you have to walk to the start line? Perhaps more importantly, how far will you have to drag yourself back to your car after you cross the finish line?
I have found that the best solution in a bigger race is to be dropped off, either by friends or family, or a cab or rideshare. The last thing you want to deal with in the morning is 10,000 other athletes hopped up on oatmeal, Gatorade, and race day adrenaline trying to drive and park in a strange city.
The day you’ve been doing all this training for is finally here!
Luckily, you’ve been using your long walk/runs/rolls to train for this (you have been doing that, right?) so you have a good idea of what to expect. Get up at the same time you always do, eat the same breakfast you always eat. Hydrate and relax—you’ve got this.
The starting line
Once you get to the starting line, you’ll likely find that there are “corrals” based on your estimated finishing time. This can be very different in different races — Seattle was a huge race and they had the walkers start first. That’s unusual, as most races go fastest to slowest. The Mainly Marathon race I did had fewer people, so we just self-seeded fastest to slowest.
Finally, you reach the starting line. The adrenaline surges — it’s “go” time. You are officially doing your marathon.
This is another place that is fraught with peril. People may take off at a speed that they can only maintain until they are out sight of the starting line. Unless you started every one of your long workouts with an ill-advised wind sprint, do not follow them. This is an excellent opportunity to practice a skill you’ll be using all day — running your own race.
Running your own race
You came with a plan, and you want to do your best to execute that plan. Avoid getting into “races” with randos whose speed, ability, and race plan are all mysteries to you. When people pass you, let them go. Your goal is to get you to the end—you don’t have the time or energy to spend worrying about what other people are doing. Drink and eat like you’ve been doing on your long workouts.
It’s easy to get caught up on race day and blow past an aid station, but that will come back to bite you later on. This is hard enough without being dehydrated or out of fuel.
The (metaphorical) punch in the face
A famous boxer once said that “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” I don’t know you, and I don’t know what marathon you’re going to be doing, but one thing I can tell you almost for sure is that you will, at some point today, get punched in the face. In my second marathon, the course was 14 loops and the punch was delivered when I found that by “flat, paved” course they meant that the second half of the loop was three hills in a row. (Remember, I told you these terms were subjective!)
I had trained on a pancake flat course, so there was no way that I could do the time intervals that I had planned on the hills. I had been punched in the face. So I made the decision to abandon the timed intervals on the hills and just walk the uphills and run the downhills. I finished it slower than I had planned, but I finished.
Regardless of what obstacle you face, some basic steps for handling it are:
- Stay calm. Blind panic never helped anyone finish a marathon.
- Think back to your training — did anything like this happen? How did you handle it?
- Ask yourself if you need to shift your goal — maybe you were hoping for a “PR” (personal record) or a specific time, but now you’re just going to focus on finishing.
- Seek out support (within race rules) — most marathons have aid stations and medical staff so if you need to get some help with a blister, chaffing, sprained ankle etc. do it. That’s what they’re here for.
- Ask yourself if you can you make the situation better with the things you can control, like pace, form, and, at least to some extent, attitude — or is it going to take a miracle? If it’s the latter, what is the likelihood of a miracle happening?
- Live to marathon (or just live) another day — a marathon will hurt no matter what, but if you fear you are putting your health in jeopardy, or that you may be doing permanent damage, it’s time to call it a day and head for the nearest aid station, medical tent, or on-course personnel. You can always decide to try again in the future.
At some point, you are also likely to “hit the wall,” which is to say that your body will give out and you will feel like you simply can’t go any farther. When this happens, I’ve found it very helpful to remind myself that if I just keep moving forward, at some point I will cross the finish line and get my medal.
In my second marathon things got incredibly bleak. I remember just telling myself that I was going to keep pushing, and I would either finish or I would pass out and someone would find me, but I wasn’t going to worry about it anymore. That’s what I signed up for — to learn about me, to learn who I am after I have run 18 miles and I realize that, unbelievably, I still have 8.6 miles to go. You do what you have to do to get home.
The adoring crowd
Another factor in race day is spectators. Those who know me know that, as a successful athlete and activist, I’ve amassed a large following of internet trolls. While they have been known to show up to events that I compete in, for most athletes hecklers will not be an issue. Though there are a few duds, people who actually participate in these events tend to be supportive non-assholes, at least in person!
What is more likely to happen is a level of support that comes off as condescending and patronizing (ie: they cheer half-heartedly for every other athlete, but cheer for you like you donated a kidney to their kid, or they just clap for everyone else but suddenly become the world’s most emphatic motivational speaker when you head past, i.e., “YOU CAN DO IT! YOU GOT THIS! DON’T YOU DARE QUIT! I BELIEVE IN YOU! KEEP GOING NO MATTER WHAT!”)
It’s okay to be irritated by this since, no matter how well-meaning, it’s singling you out for different treatment based on assumptions and stereotypes that these people have about larger folks. But I find, on race day, it’s easiest just to smile and avoid rolling my eyes until I’m out of their sight.
Cross finish line, get medal
Be prepared that, even though you follow the route exactly, it’s unlikely that you’ll choose the shortest route, so expect to go farther than 26.2 miles. When you have one mile left, you’ll feel like you are almost done. In what seems like about a mile later you’ll look down at your watch, only to find out that you have .98 miles to go. Hang in there, keep moving forward, and this will end.
What the finish line looks like depends on the size of the race, and when you finish. The Seattle marathon finish line happens in a stadium with cheering crowds and a huge clock…unless you take as long as I did. Then it’s a few race officials with a watch in a dark alley.
You’ll cross the finish line, someone will give you a medal and possibly other goodies like a mylar blanket, water, and a banana.
I can’t explain why or how, but no matter how difficult the training and the marathon were, when they put that medal around my neck it became completely worth it, hence my personal motto “Cross finish line, get medal.” For me, a marathon is not about a time, it’s about a distance, and traversing that distance in my own way.
Your own slow/fat marathon
Like I said at the beginning, I’m a fan of setting big, nearly impossible, goals. It’s the experience of a lifetime to achieve something you might have once doubted you could accomplish.
If a marathon is the right goal for you, I hope this helps you achieve it regardless of your speed or size.
Cross finish line, get medal.