Don't Judge a TOJ by the Size of His/Her Shorts

On the Fourth of July over thirty years ago, I was at the start of a five mile race on a then-dirt road that runs along Horsetooth Reservoir, just outside Ft. Collins, Colorado. I had lined up in the second row behind the really fast people wearing singlets and skimpy dayglo shorts. Although I was in good shape and expected run the hilly course in pretty good time, I wasn't a serious racer with any expectation of placing, especially with some of very competitive local runners I recognized in front of me, including one who would soon be one of the top 10K road runners in the U.S.

One guy caught my eye when he took up a position almost right in front of me because he looked like he didn't belong there. He was large, with tent-like baggy shorts and ridge of fat bulging from under a x-large T-shirt. I wondered if he was arrogant or just plain ignorant lining up where everyone most of the field would have to run around him in the first hundred yards.

But when the starting gun fired, he pulled away from most of us and quickly disappeared over the first hill, with the lead pack, in a cloud of dust. By the time I crossed the finish line, he was relaxing with some other early finishers, laughing and drinking a beer. Later when they announced the results, I found out he had finished fifth. He had come within a minute of the winner, the guy who would go on to national fame and a contract with Nike. The heavy mystery runner had come from somewhere up in Wyoming. I never saw him again, but I never forgot him.

I thought of him when I picked up a book called Shape Up with the Slow Fat Triathlete by Jayne Williams, a large athlete who has weighed upwards of 240 lbs. and has also completed over twenty triathlons, among her other athletic accomplishments. I enjoyed her book for lots of reasons. Although it talks most directly to women, the book is full of useful facts and suggestions on training, attitude, competition, clothing, nutrition, and health. With humor and light heartedness, she addresses everything from Lycra and energy gels to hydration and the color of healthy urine. Her words have the authentic ring of experience; when she describes a greasy concoction to help avoid rubbing your butt raw on a bike seat during a long ride, you know she has been there, done that. The core information is pertinent to athletes of all ages and genders, including TOJs.

But it's not the facts that drew me to her book. It was because she conveys such a deep and abiding love for exercise that is shared by every TOJ. Reading her insights, you realize she has fought personal and physical battles to be athletic, starting with being a heavy woman in an body image-obsessed culture and rising to the real challenge of moving that body with skill in one of the toughest endurance competitions. The simple laws of physics dictate that a heavier runner will expend more energy and effort to cover the same distance as a flyweight. And the heavier runner will endure exponentially higher forces on his or her joints, especially the knees.

"Heavyset" and "endurance sports" seem to be concepts that are at odds, but Jayne proves that is just conventional (and wrong) wisdom. Exercise is fun and good for everyone. People of all shapes and sizes love it and have a right to participate in any pursuit they choose. Much of what she has to say about heavy athletes is true for TOJs as well. Until very recently, it was an unspoken rule that as we age, we become less active, as if all there is to do when your hair turns grey is to voluntarily resign yourself to a sedentary life of checkers, knitting and television. The cultural signals are all around us. When you pick up a copy of Runners World, you will never see a heavy runner, nor will you ever see a TOJ.

Jayne Williams gets it -- you pursue your physical passions for your own reasons, whether it's a race or a jog in the park. You will likely never win anything. You may never look sleek or strong. Physical effort might be hard for you and sometimes you might get injured. Other times you will become tired and lazy. Sometimes you train like a Spartan and watch what you eat, other times you eat like a pig. The athletic life is dynamic because your body, the weather, the terrain, skills, techniques, equipment, everything is constantly changing. It's what you have chosen to do, despite all odds. It's how you fill your time, like a Zen master sits on a cushion and stares at a wall.

And after all is said and done, Williams, like a TOJ, feels a great sense of joy, humility, and gratitude. In a book with many memorable lines, my favorite reads: "Simply being able to move your body around is something that should make you feel awed and grateful every day." To that, this TOJ would only add: Amen.

No comments: