Forty-year-old Marcus Jones finished his first marathon in London this year, in just under six and a half hours, an unremarkable, if not disappointing, time for most marathon runners. (Even the average mark for novices tends to be just under four and a half hours.) It was far from unremarkable or disappointing to Jones, though. He took up running last year after developing breathing problems due to his heavy 240-pound frame. He set the goal of completing a marathon largely because the people around him, including his doctors, suggested he couldn’t. His wife told him to start with lighter exercises like yoga or walking, while his friends — who know him as a loud, fun-loving guy who once downed three pints of lager in under 10 minutes — laughed at the idea of him exercising at all.
Jones and I met at the beginning of this year when we joined the same South London running club. The club advertises itself as catering to all abilities, but both he and I still feel like outcasts when standing at the starting line with the other runners. To begin with, we’re the only people of color in the club of 20 runners. We also lack the lean figures, slim legs and well-defined calves that prove our dedication to the sport. Not surprisingly then, on some runs, Jones and I find ourselves in the back, drenched in sweat, just trying to keep up at our own pace, let alone catching up with the faster runners in the group.
Our experience, however, is rarely visible in the running world’s online culture. For instance, on Instagram, #running mostly consists of photos of runners with athletic physiques who never break a sweat. And when struggle is apparent, it’s usually in the form of motivational quotes and memes — e.g., “If you want to change your life, become a runner,” and “No matter how slow you go, you’re lapping everybody on the couch.” The closest thing to reflect what Jones and I are going through are guides detailing how we can curate our own “fitness journeys,” with tips that include hashtags like #healthylifestyle and #weightlossjourney. They also frequently involve photos of “body transformations” that show the progression from fat to slender and athletic.
Jones follows some of these accounts, as well as various runners’ motivational groups on Facebook. And while he finds some of the tips useful, he says they mostly tend to reinforce things about the sport that isolate people like him. “They give the impression that you have to be skinny to be accepted as a runner, without any doubts,” he explains. “Even when I go for races, you can see runners and spectators looking at me, asking, ‘Are you supposed to be here?’ I remember a particular 10k I signed up for where one of the stewards kept directing me to the 5k line. That felt awful — to be reminded that most people thought I wouldn’t make it to the finish line.”
All that said, though, there’s a quiet revolution taking place within the sport (or at least online) that’s challenging the aesthetic expectations of runners and embracing the body-positivity movement — #fatrunner.
#fatrunner has more than 10,000 posts on Instagram, most of which show larger runners training for races, showing off their running gear and posting their finishing times. Admittedly, it might not seem that revolutionary at first, especially because their posts are nearly identical to Instagram’s main running communities — except for the fact that #fatrunner posters openly acknowledge their limitations when training. Such as this sweaty post-run photo from from a #fatrunner in Canada:
Thirty-two-year-old Martinus Evans, a self-described #fatrunner from San Fransisco and the creator of the Instagram account 300 Pounds and Running, says the existence of #fatrunner is a “lifeline for lots of fat and larger people who can feel isolated in athletic sports like running.” More importantly, he tells me that #fatrunner illustrates a wider trend of overweight people creating spaces for themselves where they’ve historically been excluded. “When I started running in 2012, I was 370 pounds. I had a doctor who said that there was no way I was going to be able to run. But I’m a defiant motherfucker and decided I was going to run a marathon.” He laughs and then continues, “I realized I was slow as fuck! But my wife motivated me when she told me that there’s no progress without struggle, and that’s what’s kept me moving forward.”
That mantra also inspired his Instagram presence — and the shirtless photos of him therein. For Evans, showing off his body wasn’t just an expression of his confidence, it was also a way to see people like himself better represented. “Even in body-positive spaces, the focus is usually around white women, rather than black people. After years of complaining about it, I decided to put myself in that space,” he says. “I mean, I’m a fat black man who’s into running, a primarily caucasian sport. I wanted to show that even though people like me aren’t common, we do — and can — exist.”
Evans adds that as a man, this was particularly important because “men are still largely absent from body-positive movement. Part of that’s the machismo aspect, and not wanting to appear vulnerable. Then there’s the society aspect, too, which doesn’t judge men as much about weight as they do with women, but still has a [stereotypical] standard of what a man looks like. With me, I mean, I’m a man with man boobs! That’s not gonna change, but before I was so self-conscious about it. When I started taking up running, though, I thought to myself, Why is it a bad thing? Why should I be ashamed of it?”
Since launching 300 Pounds and Running, Evans tells me he’s received hundreds of messages of support as well as introductions to other #fatrunners from all over the world. “It shows how widespread this really is. Fat runners have always been there, but it was only when I started posting pictures of myself that I saw how big it was.” Big enough that he now has his own clothing line — #slowaf — specifically for larger runners. “Even though there are now more clothes for larger women,” he explains, “for men, there’s barely anything. I’d buy clothes not because I liked them — they were usually really ugly — but because they fit.” And so, #slowaf is meant to remedy that, aiming to help runners feel good by looking good.
“More than anything, I want my story and my brand to encourage people to be happy and pursue the things that make them happy — no matter who they are or what they look like,” he says. For some, he adds, that might be running regardless of how much of a #fatrunner or #slowaf they might be. For others, though, he believes it’s the simple act of “accepting and loving themselves. Because they should know that just the fact that they’re doing it is amazing.”
Hussein Kesvani is MEL’s U.K./Europe editor. He last wrote about the quiet rise of the “shy radical.”