My Turn: Confessions of a Fat Runner

So I'm sitting, nearly naked, on the edge of the massage table, and the masseuse comes in to ask what kind of service I'll be getting today. "The Runner's Revenge," I tell her. Startled, she looks me over. "Why?" she asks. "Uh, because I run?" I answer, recalculating her tip in my head.

But when my hour was up and my deep tissues throbbed with contentment, I forgave the rube. After all, how was she supposed to know?

Most runners are ectomorphs: emaciated and square-jawed. Me, I'm an endomorph, possessed of a soft and thick body that looks as if it was stuffed to order at Build-A-Bear, not sculpted at an L.A. sports club. I look so unlike a runner that, when I first started jogging, passing motorists would pull over and ask if I needed a ride.

Twenty years later, defying all laws of science, my body doesn't look much different, even though I've run at least 10,000 miles.

Ten thousand miles? I pull out the calculator, because it doesn't seem possible that these thick thighs, slapping together rhythmically like a slow metronome, could carry me across the United States and back, twice. Solidly into middle age, I am more ham than hamstring.

But if the science doesn't work, the math does. Ten miles a week, 52 weeks a year—give or take a few rugged months while pregnant—equals 10,400 miles. And most weeks, I run more than 10 miles.

I'm not bragging, mind you. Ten miles is nothing for those long-legged ectomorphs who routinely cover that distance on their lunch breaks. The running magazines to which I subscribe regularly deflate my ego with headlines such as HOW TO RUN A SUCCESSFUL 10K ON ONLY 20 MILES A WEEK!

No matter. Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the fitness guru who coined the word "aerobics," says that if you run more than 15 miles a week, you're running for something other than fitness. Fifteen miles a week is great. But without a significant reduction in ice cream (a sacrifice I'm unwilling to make), it won't make you thin.

And so it happens that, waiting for the shuttle to take me to the starting line of the Kiawah Island Half Marathon, I am a size 14 among size 4s. And yet we all get on the shuttle, ride to the start, wait for the Porta Potties and then, when the gun goes off, start to run together. Me and the skinny people! And nobody kicks me out! Is this a great sport or what?

Of course, many of us are not so much running these distances as covering them. Sometimes we cross the finish line after the winners have already eaten, showered and boarded the plane back to Kenya.

But even calorie-deprived ectomorphs can do math, and at some point the organizers of road races figured out that my $20 entry fee is just as good as amateur marathoner Lance Armstrong's. Go watch any road race—except the Olympics—and you'll see participants of all sizes. Some races even offer special prizes for heavy runners, who are called Clydesdales and Athenas. We may never win the New York marathon, but like Rocky Balboa, we can go the distance and do it in style.

OK, maybe not in style. Even for skinny people, there's something undignified about galloping scantily clad down public streets. (The children of the late George Sheehan, a leader of the running boom, were mortified when neighbors asked why their father ran around town in his underwear.)

If you're overweight, and even faintly conscious of your appearance, care must be taken. Self-conscious women sometimes "double bag," slang for wearing two sports bras. And a bit of advice: try not to run at midday, when the sun is high. Mercilessly, it goes before you and adds 20 pounds to your shadow.

The spirit cries "gazelle." The shadow yells "walrus."

Nowadays, though, there's Lycra and Enell, amazingly forgiving shorts and anatomically engineered tights. We can all look good, at least as good as anyone can look running around town in her underwear.

But this is the beauty of the run: a mile into a good one, you stop caring about what anybody thinks. Push past the pain, ignore the passing cars, and soon you arrive at a place where your head is clear, your breathing calm, and the cares of the day fade away. This is why we run, all of us—the thinnest and the fattest. This is why we race. This, and sometimes there's free beer at the finish line.