“Ultra:” Weight, Fitness, and the Journey

I recently read “Ultra,” an article from Runner’s World about Mirna Valerio, a 240-pound woman who runs marathons and ultramarathon trail races. I strongly suggest you read the article. Valerio radiates positive energy and, despite being overweight, loves to run, casting doubt on the stereotypes that runners are thin, run to get thin, or need to be thin to run. While Valerio states that, “‘Accepting my weight doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with my weight,'” the article points to recent scientific research that proposes that fitness, not weight, is the top factor that should be used to determine one’s overall health.

Valerio runs despite having people constantly questioning how a 240-pound woman can run one, let alone the 31 miles that make up a 50k ultramarathon trail race. With her upbeat attitude and open heart, she has won over her colleagues and students at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Rabun Gap, Ga., many of whom join her for a daily morning three-mile run around campus. She also writes about running on her blog Fat Girl Running.

The article strikes a good balance between promoting running for people of all shapes and sizes, and not passing judgment about the health and fitness of a runner based only on her size, understanding that other factors besides exercise and calories-in vs. calories-out contribute to weight loss. Valerio, for example, eats healthy food and runs every day, but has not been able to dip below the 240-pound range. Despite this, she regularly completes serious endurance challenges, and lives a healthy lifestyle. More importantly, she runs because she loves the sport, not to lose weight. This runs counter to popular conceptions of fitness and health: If you’re overweight, you’re unfit and unhealthy, and further, that runners run to lose weight and fit into our culture’s conception of fitness, health, and beauty.

After reading the article, I want to affirm that running is free and everyone can (and should!) do it, and a person’s weight, standing alone, is not the best determiner of her overall health. Let’s support each other on the roads and not judge someone’s motives for pounding the pavement. And let’s definitely not judge someone who appears overweight and is wearing her most recent NYRR race t-shirt on the subway.

“Ultra” also made my analyze why I run. I haven’t always run purely because I enjoyed the sport. In fact, I ran my first marathon in part to prove to some friends how I could train less and run faster than them. Further, before law school, I ran solely to lose weight, dropping nearly 15 pounds between December of 2009 and August of 2010. I also began running again after law school (because law school did not afford much down time) because I had gained nearly 30 pounds (almost 40 pounds at my heaviest) during my time there, and wanted to get back into some sort of shape. But, the only reason I chose running over other aerobic activities is because, as I’ve discussed before, running makes sense to me, and I am a happier person because I run.

“Ultra” also made me consider the meaning of “progress.” As a competitive person, I tend to measure progress by standard metrics: Did I run this 5k faster than the last? Where did I finish overall? What was my age-graded percentage? Have I lost the weight I wanted to lose? Can I lift more weight in the gym than I could last week? If one wants to improve at a sport, those are all fair questions to ask.

But the metrics by which I rarely measure my progress are likely the ones that mean the most: Did I help anyone else on their running journey today? And, did I become a more open, accepting, and empathetic person today? For the vast majority of us who will line up on the Verrazano Bridge in November, running is a personal journey. We will cross the finish line, but we won’t “win” in the traditional sense.  For us, what’s more important is whether we congratulated the guy who finished behind us, or cheered on the woman who didn’t think she could go on after Mile 18, or comforted the guy next to us at the start that he would be fine out there, or whether we took a moment to appreciate not only all the hard work we put into the race, but all the people who supported us through our journey. Through such gratitude, we can finally stop worrying about the clock and remember that the journey is just as, if not more, important than the race. Fitness and health are just a byproduct of the hard work we put in on the roads and trails.

In other words, let’s strike that balance between competition and camaraderie.

Happy running!

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