Running, Fat, Scared + Solo
A deep dive into my love and hate for the running community.
Sometimes I feel as if I’m a runner with Stockholm’s Syndrome. I’m deeply infatuated and in love with a sport and community that leaves me feeling invigorated, inspired and broken. My limbs gleefully seize up from each extension; my thick legs reverberate the sounds of an internal protest – this is oftentimes welcomed and expected. I didn’t account for the sounds of my peers telling me that I am not wanted here or how my body is a force of repulsion. My thoughts are not always welcomed in spaces that I once considered safe. I don’t know exactly when I shifted from being a person once invited to join a collective of asphalt clapping runners to being a nuisance in the community but I know how it made me feel once I acknowledged the shift. Despite my treks through unfamiliar terrains, this void feels foreign. These days, I don’t find solace being in a group with like-minded strangers. I learned how to run alone and at times, I find it hard to muster the courage to not feel broken in my solitude.
The Joys of Finding a Tribe
For those that don’t know, I started running because of a post that a MySpace turned real life friend posted on Facebook. He signed up for a half marathon and I thought it would be nothing more than a bucket list item that I'd check off a list of pretentious items. It would happen after learning how to ride a bike and before jumping out a perfectly good airplane to combat my fear of heights and small spaces. Spoiler Alert: I am still scared of heights and under the wrong circumstances, I will panic in tight spaces.
I started running in October 2013 at St. John’s Recreation track. Months prior, I would go to the Boys and Girls High School track – my old high school before being kicked out and transferred – to walk in circles with my cheap headphones and cotton fitness gear. If I came at the break of dawn, I’d watch this older gentleman wearing super bright shorts or leggings – typically neon – and an equally vibrant tank running backwards. Before shifting to what I think was a 7-minute pace, he’d turn around facing forward to do one loop of dancing with his oversized headphones. And because of this, I would try not to watch and stare at his stride or long, lean limbs push through 4 to 8 loops on the track. Before he’d leave, he’d give me a head tilt to greet me on the way out. Either I was exceptionally creepy or he did as I’ve done to countless others as they ran on the track: Extend a gentle gesture of kindness as we carried on with our days. Before linking up with the Bed Stuy chapter of Black Girls Run at St. John’s Recreational Center, he’d unknowingly serve as my cheerleading squad and inspiration to keep showing up.
One breezy October morning, an infectious collective of Black women greeted me while I was on the track trying to figure out this running thing. Once I realized they were not only kind but helpful, they taught me how to breathe, open up my stride and even asked me about my roots outside of running. I was elated to know that I could find joy in this sometimes painstakingly hard sport and even more, I made friends with a group of women that accepted me as I am. Despite my super extroverted ways, I struggled with trusting women. Female friendships, to me, are the hardest relationships to maintain. I’ve been hurt by women in ways that I don’t want to explore but I found myself stripping layer by layer through each run.
What a Time to Be Alone
My Bed Stuy chapter talked me into doing the NYRR Joe Kleinerman 10K in Central Park on January 11, 2014 before my half marathon. They made a persuasive argument that I should get a feel of what race day feels like and frankly, I’m thankful for it. I was able to gauge emotions that I didn’t get from my solo or group efforts. A cluster of emotions took over on race day and I cried around mile four. I met other Black Girls Run members that day that lifted me up in spirit and convinced me to pace it out. Central Park was a harder feat than my very flat track in Brooklyn. At the last 800 meters, I finished my race with a friend that I knew from my open mic poetry days. Her lighthearted comment questioning when I’ll train for a marathon sparked a bug for me to find harder efforts. And harder efforts means that I’d learn how to move for longer distances, attend more events and meet new people.
While the Black Girls Run groups that I met were friendly, I started meeting others that didn’t have a similar mindset. Some reminded me of high school cliques that deeply frustrated me. Others were filled with faster runners that I admire for their impeccable form but not always for their elitist attitude. Even when I caught glimpses of the shadiness that didn’t come from trees or overhear and shitty comment about someone’s sneaker choices, I told myself to be kind to my fellow runner, respect their grit to toe the line and focus on my own reasons for coming out. And eventually, I adopted the bug of helping others through conversations at rough points or simply being someone’s pacer when they were pushing past what I call lead legs.
From 2013 – 2014, my times were somewhere around the 11 – 13-minute pace depending on the distance at races. Around 2015, I started slowing down due to malnutrition, overtraining and a silent battle with anorexia nervosa. Combining these elements with the stress of working long and eccentric hours, sometimes using alcohol as a numbing agent to my son's new Type One diabetes diagnosis, growing marital issues and borrowed advice from a “friend” to look more like an athlete by losing weight, my running and mental health suffered. To many that weren’t too close with me, I was thriving in my fitness and personal life. Others that were up close and personal knew I was a walking train wreck seeking a perfect place to crash.
Coming to terms with my anorexia nervosa diagnosis, I knew I had to change my lifestyle; this meant less training hours, trying to teach myself that eating food wasn’t a punishment and distancing myself from toxic conversations about fitness that I sometimes heard from friends in the fitness circle. I wasn’t open about my hurdles back then. Who wants to walk into a thriving circle to announce what I perceived as a failure? The change was noticeable beyond my behavior. My times started to slow down, weight started creeping up and not being able to keep up with some that I befriended despite the cliquish behavior that I looked past meant that I fell behind. In 2017, my body felt more off than usual. A miscarriage while training for two marathons, a 60K road ultra and being told that I possibly had cancerous ovarian cysts, 21 fibroids and endometriosis sent me straight to hell. I was convinced that I was going to abandon running; being heckled at the NYC Marathon and daring to write about it for The Root changed every ounce of those plans. Before I knew it, life would change and I would not be going back to my prior version of “normal.”
Growth, Shrinkage + Evolving Mindsets
I never aspired to be anyone’s role model but speaking out about being harassed during a marathon can make a fat, Black woman a public figure – who knew. Albeit, I’m being a bit snarky making that statement. I used my platform to speak about the hardships of being plus size in the fitness space. And when you speak about your personal truth, it pisses people off. If you really want to drop a bomb on someone’s cornflakes, sign up for really hard events with your own money without the promise of crossing the finish line. I added on salty sprinkles as I spoke about being a proud "back of the pack" runner. When you're celebrated for being one of the last place finishers and take away the illusions that sometimes look effortless to others, it leaves a burning chafe onto those that think that they deserve public recognition. I am thankful to say that most of this energy rarely came from fellow Black Girls Run members but I experienced more than a wagging of the finger from some of my peers.
At times, I’d watch how the media would zero in on this narrative that I was predominately targeted by White men that scoffed at the thought of a fat, Black potty mouthed woman from Brooklyn running on the trails. The media wasn't completely wrong about that. Unfortunately, parts that were oftentimes abandoned was the hurtful and shameful comments that came from people that looked like me or those that once ran alongside me. Perhaps it’s terrible timing on my part to share these feelings during Black History Month. Oftentimes I want to suppress this personal truth because I am an athlete that speaks up for marginalized communities. But if I'm going to be completely blunt about it, sometimes my loudest naysayers look like me. Some were equally plus size and didn’t like layers that they never took the time to learn about me. A handful would run with narratives that they read about me in the media. Others, mostly Black men, would say that I was a terrible role model to the Black community, demanding that I'd act lady like and of course, "run faster and lose some weight."
If there’s anything that I’ve learned quickly while receiving public attention is even when you don’t intend on being a leader, people will conveniently throw you into that position and demand that you do the impossible. It is a horrific set up for failure and inspiration porn. When you’re part of several marginalized spaces and speak up as often as I do, this means you don’t get to be just an anything in your respective field. Instead, you’re demanded to be the very perfection that others would never want to be. You are a trophy placed at the highest shelf and nobody will dare get a step ladder to touch it. When it collects dust, they will criticize you for not cleaning yourself off. You are now an eye sore because you’re not shining like the day that they placed you on that shelf isolated from everyone. And if you don’t say it’s your fault, you will either be forgotten for anything that you’ve accomplished and known as the pessimistic thing that they cannot wait to toss out. If you’re lucky, you’re turned into a martyr years later for feel good conversations about how your efforts paved a way for someone else – that's if they remember you.
To be fat, Black, queer, an athlete with disabilities and vocal means that I oftentimes isolate myself. It doesn’t look this way when celebrated from a magazine or an outlet. I realize the illusions that my social media can display to others despite openly sharing my feelings. But there’s more times like these where I reflect on the good moments where I wasn’t a semi household name and I sported rose tinted glasses about this sometimes unspeakably cruel running community. I learned that the outdoors is for everyone only when you know your place. And because I refuse to adopt the mindset that a person is required to know their place, I’ve read some disturbing things about myself. I’ve experienced gaslighting from my peers and strangers at a deplorable rate within a two-year span. If I didn’t know myself and left it to a Reddit thread or the comment section on social media, I wouldn’t spray me down with a hose if I was lit on fire.
Surely there’s incredible people out there but once you’ve experienced the heartaches, threats on your life for speaking out and verbally abused in Facebook fitness groups for openly talking about DNFs, it is hard to not feel paranoid of who to consider a ‘friend’ or respectful in this space. I miss running with groups of people but I wish I could use COVID-19 as an excuse of why I presently opt to run solo.
On Why I Continue to Run
I am reminded by own flatulence that I am the shit and despite how many times a person tries to hold me back, I will fill up the room with as much space as I need. Surely this will offend the emotionally fragile but it’s not my problem. When I grew tired of being frustrated about the people that no longer supported me, I elected to shift gears and absorb in the quality of those who stand by me regardless of where I am in my life. If you stay in a bitter place about past or even current transgressions for too long, it's hard to find joy in the things that you love. Adopting a victim's mindset becomes a thing and while I'm never here for toxic positivity, I oftentimes remind myself to come up for air after I had a grandeur pity party. I am allowed to feel and acknowledge my valid as fuck pain but I am also capable of exploring ways to press forward.
At this moment, I’m striving to maintain my happiness and holding onto the joy that the singular act of running serves me. When I’m out there, I am not thinking about the comment section. And when the negative voices occupy space like an uninvited cockroach at apartment 11E trying to borrow sugar, I pull out the bug spray – sorry to the environmentally friendly folks with that analogy. It would be fraudulent to say that it doesn’t sting sometimes to not be accepted by the tribe that once welcomed me but I like to think of it as life teaching me how to embrace my metamorphosis. As growing and evolving people, our thoughts and mindset will change over time; naturally our experiences will adapt and bounce back when a new normal takes place. Who am I to find fault in someone’s choice to remove themselves and their toxicity from my life? And yes, I’m thanking trash for taking itself out or as I politely like to say “fuck em and wish them well.”
I am still healing from the damage that this reality inflicts on me but I am learning from other leaders to continue fighting for what you love. After all, the act of running didn’t do anything to me. I was hurt by the actions of other humans trying to find their path and tribe their way. And with this thought process, I must do what works for me. I promise you that not all run groups – or even your intimate circles – are this toxic but if you come across a few, I hope that you don’t lose hope in finding a great tribe that makes you feel like home. Black Girls Run still serves as a second home for me and my podcast partner Martinus Evans created a wonderful space that he called the Slow AF Run Club. Most importantly, I hope you never forget that bad ass looking back at you when you look at your reflection. We’re all filled up with scars from whatever war that we’re fighting but don’t forget to acknowledge the rainbows when they surface.
If you or anyone might be battling an eating disorder, know that you're not alone. Please reach out to the National Eating Disorder Awareness helpline. On a personal note, there's no "look" nor is anyone above it. Your feelings are valid and if you suspect that you or a loved one is demonstrating signs, remember compassion, empathy and take time with the process.
They say that, “the truth will set you free,” but they don’t mention what that truth telling might cost you. Your honesty and openness are such a huge part of who you are, and I’m glad that you have at least a couple of running groups that make you feel safe and supported because you deserve that and more.
Latoya! You are not alone-I just read your article in Eating Well! You are Amazing! Back in Law School I secretly started training on a treadmill for my 1st 5k (hiding my 300lb body). My husband came to my first race not certain I’d finish-but thought at least we’d recover the day by having a great day at the beach. I did finish! (And it wasn’t the last). I ran 5ks for the next several years getting my time under 24 mins-even with asthma and psoriasis.
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Latoya Shauntay Snell
For my pretentious ass bio, check out the about me page but for anyone interested in who I really am, make me a good meal at your house and I'll tell you a dope ass story.
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