When I was twelve, I decided all sports were dead to me—it happened at junior basketball tryouts.
I entered the gym excited, already imagining the glory of being on the team, a part of something, ready to have fun. The coach had us warm up with suicide-style sprints. While the other girls whipped across the gleaming floor in a graceful pack, I struggled behind, brick-faced and breathless. I couldn’t catch up. Humiliated, I walked out before the warm up had even ended. Nobody tried to stop me.
I heard the unsaid words their deafening silence implied: just quit. You can’t do this. You don’t belong here.
Before that, I had tried lots of sports: gymnastics, swimming, t-ball, dance, golf, tennis—the list went on. They had been a fundamental part of my childhood. I had even dreamt of being on the Canadian Olympic team, shining with others on the world’s stage—but after that tryout, all I wanted to be was invisible. It was the first time I realized being the fat kid would hold me back.
My childhood was general happiness with stints of brutal guerilla warfare reminding me that I was different and gross. I remember older kids squealing “suuuey” at me in the halls and mocking my elastic waist pants. I stopped playing outside with my friends because I sucked at tag. If a teacher called on me in class I would automatically sweat from the unbearable stress of people being forced to endure looking at me.
The best part about high school was that it was even bigger than I was. The second I could retire my gym uniform for heavy eyeliner and bright pink hair dye, I did. Sports were like… so conformist. I rejected my mom’s invitations to the gym, while I secretly coveted thinness or a “real” eating disorder. (I tried countless times to make myself throw up, only to find my stomach wouldn’t let me. It was just another thing my body sucked at.) The idea of my peers making jokes about my fat ass needing a bigger coffin kept me away from too many thoughts about killing myself.
It wasn’t until the impending promise of a restart in college that I got anywhere close to sports again. I needed to shed the weight that had made my body into a cage—something I was desperately trying to escape while people leered and jeered from outside. I couldn’t be the fat girl there too. I couldn’t stay lonely. The summer before my last year of highschool, I started running.
Those first runs were always close to home and at sundown, because the fear of being seen was too strong. It’s a (literal) running theme in the essays of other fat runners—being spotted is the enemy. Being noticed might mean a blitzkrieg of judgment and disgust hurled at you by an idiot in a passing car. I’d stand in my running shoes, sweaty and hung up on these repulsive strangers for days.
I lost 20lbs that summer, and even more the following school year. I got a little bolder, and even took Grade 12 gym, basking in field trips to the bowling lanes and group dance classes with my peers.
The weight loss didn’t fix things. In college I would binge eat my stress, panic, and then try to make myself sick. Once, I tried until blood vessels burst under my eyes. Another time, I ended up on the bathroom floor in frustrated tears, my fingers dappled in blood from where my fingernails had scraped the back of my throat. The weight came back.
It wasn’t all bad—in college I also I got into my first real relationship with running. At the time, I was writing for the student magazine. I still don’t know what possessed me—maybe a spark had ignited, or I was desperate for outside pressure to lose weight. Either way, I pitched an article in which I would train for AND run a 10K race. It was greenlit, and soon enough I was back in my running shoes. One of my training steps was to run a 5K—my first road race ever. All I remember is walking a lot and a VERY pregnant lady passing me. At the 10K, I came in sixth-to-last.
Thinking back, all of my first flirtations with a running habit were motivated by weight loss. However, over the years, when the diagnoses began to stack—social phobia, a panic disorder, binge eating disorder, and later, depression—it also became a way to balance my inflamed brain. If I was upset, I would find freedom out on the sidewalks, headphones in, eyes forward.
Through it all, I was still that fat kid. Putting a label on my relationship with running only made me feel like an impostor. I was just wearing running clothes, and putting on running shoes, and using my legs to propel me through neighborhoods and road races. I was just finding calm and happiness and discovering myself every time I hit the pavement. That was all! I didn’t LOOK like the elite gazelle cult who won all the races I entered—how could I have possibly been a runner?
Cue plus-sized ultra marathon runner Mirna Valerio on the cover of Runner’s World—a powerhouse. She was a self-proclaimed fat woman doing things I couldn’t even let myself sarcastically dream of. (Gee I’D sure like to like run a marathon one day, ha ha ha. #Butactuallythough.) She was out there, visible as hell on the cover of my favourite magazine. I had never seen a plus-sized runner on glossy paper before—that photo literally changed my world. It was like my entire being had been a clenched fist, and suddenly, it was relaxed and open. I quietly pinned a half marathon training plan to my bulletin board.
Running has been with me through mental breakdowns and graduations. On and off of antidepressants. I took it overseas when I studied abroad in Scotland. I leave room for my running shoes in my suitcase when packing for vacations. I even sometimes run with my sisters now, despite my inner child cringing at the idea of working out with other people.
In January 2017, I started a health-centric Instagram, initially to hold myself accountable to yet ANOTHER weight loss goal. That account led me to a new community and a revelation: you don’t have to exercise to be someone else’s idea of appealing or loveable. You could run because you valued yourself. It didn’t have to be a punishment, or a means to an end. It could just… be.
This was the real deal too—not the syrupy “love yourself” sentiments that pop stars use to sell albums or women’s magazines put on their covers next to diet tricks. These diverse feminist radicals were fat, fabulous, and unapologetic. They even said you didn’t have to exercise at all if you hated it—but I didn’t. I was falling deep in love with the way my footsteps fused with the beat in my headphones, and the burst of emotional energy that followed even the toughest of runs.
By early spring, I was letting myself dream of bigger goals. I decided to put the half marathon training schedule I had pinned on my bulletin board to work, and signed up for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon in October.
I ran all summer and then trained for 12 weeks before the race. I shyly admitted to people that yes, I was in training—my insides glowed at the words. I changed my Instagram bio to include the word “runner.” I felt strong. Maybe for the first time, I felt one with my body instead of being trapped in it. It was a total mindset shift, like I had escaped the diet-culture Matrix. It just happened—one literal step at a time.
Running the half marathon was surreal. All kinds of people were there: the gazelles at the front of the pack, all sizes, all ages, fat and thin. I was awash in the fact that we had all come for one experience. It felt like being on the team I had never gotten to be a part of.
When I blazed over the finish line, I was sobbing so hard a concerned volunteer asked me if I was okay. I nodded. Tears ran down my face. My lungs heaved. The girl next to me vomited. I’ve never been so happy.
As of writing this, I’m already signed up for my second half marathon. I’ve got a 10K race in a few weeks. I want to run a marathon before I turn 30. I’m less afraid. I run at whatever time of the day I want. I actually talk about running to other people, instead of clutching it close like a secret I’m afraid they’ll laugh at me about. I don’t count calories anymore. Running has led me to the person I was always supposed to be. What’s more, it keeps propelling me forward: to be better, to do better.
Recently, I found out Mirna Valerio not only has an Instagram (and she FOLLOWED ME BACK), but also published a book. In it, she describes trying out for a field hockey team as a teenager. I was floored by the way her experiences seemed to mirror my own, right there on the page. She wrote about how she had to stop in the middle of running a warm up. Then, a miracle happened—the coach pulled her aside and encouraged her to keep going. Somebody followed her. She didn’t walk out. She started running again and hasn’t stopped.
I cried reading this passage on the bus home from work. (Sorry to everyone on the 80 North. Feelings, okay?!) If someone had pulled me back into that basketball tryout so many years ago, or had just told me they saw a spark.... What would have changed? Would I have believed in myself a little more? Loved myself harder? If I had seen more diverse bodies on running magazines, or out moving in my neighborhood, would I have heard my calling, louder? Clearer? Earlier in life?
I think so. That’s why I’m writing this.
I love running. I love moving—dancing, hiking, bouldering, biking, yoga. Uniting with my body through exercise makes my soul sing. I just didn’t recognize that there was a place for me in fitness or sports before—I had to figure it out for myself. If I had seen someone like me earlier, I might have come home to myself sooner. I might have found this amazing thing that fulfills me, even on the hard days, when the memories are heavy and the world feels unloving. It doesn’t have to be that—we don’t have to let it be that.
So I’m here to pass these words on to you, whoever you are, wherever you are, however you’re secretly aching to follow your calling:
You can do this.
You belong here.