If you run, you’re a runner. Regardless of your body.
What makes a runner? Even if we look outside the realm of elite-level, world-class professional athletes, the stereotypical image of a runner perpetuated by the mass media is one that tends to be tall, white and lean. But the truth is, anyone who runs is a runner – whether you’re a hobbyist who enjoys a weekend jog, you’ve run a marathon or two or you’re considered a professional.
The different types of people who make up the wider running community are more reflective of the real world than we think. They have different skin colours, they have bodies that break free from conventions, proving that running is for people boasting all kinds of body shapes – and they can be damn good at it, too.
Michael Falloon (@teddy_rozayruns)
Like many runners who take up valid space in the community, Michael began his journey through a desire to lose weight. What began with feelings of shame and embarrassment evolved into something much more meaningful over seven years – but not without its internal and external obstacles along the way.
‘I got into running about six to seven years ago, mainly because it was free and at the time I did not think I’d stick to going to a gym,’ Michael shares. ‘I began by just running everyday at 5:30am as I didn’t want anyone to see me.’ Michael’s anxiety about being seen running as someone who didn’t fit the stereotype of what a runner should look like is unfortunately not isolated; something he attributes to the pressures inflicted by the rise of social media. But his belief that ‘if you can move quicker than walking pace, it doesn’t matter your size, you are a runner’ shone brighter than his doubts, and along with his dedication to his goals, Michael went from 146 Kg’s to 82 Kg’s from running paired with gym workouts three times a week. ‘This gave me the confidence to complete a sports science degree and becoming a personal trainer,’ he proudly reveals.
While Michael’s journey is one of success and evolution, he is adamant to share that it wasn’t smooth sailing the whole way, and that it’s completely normal to feel that the desire to give up outweighs the desire to keep going at times. ‘I once did a run streak of 108 days and it made me hate running,’ he says. ‘There have been times when I’ve compared myself to others and that has led me to try and train above my level and I found myself not enjoying running as much.’
Michael is also no stranger to online trolls, with his comments section often home to discouraging comments from strangers and nay-sayers. But despite these inevitable setbacks, it’s important to know that there is always a route to keep going. ‘People are cheering you on more than you think,’ he says encouragingly. ‘We don’t really live a world where people congratulate you to your face but they root for you silently.’
His advice to those who are perhaps where he was seven years ago, and are yet to take that initial step on their first casual jog, would be that there is often external support from those around you when you’re not yet ready to give it to yourself. ‘When people see you out running they are often thinking positive thoughts,’ he reckons. ‘I’ve had loads of people come up to me and say “well done” as they’ve seen me out running, and I get a few messages on Instagram from people I’ve never met saying I have been motivating in my journey.’
Lucy Dang (@supermandang)
Feeling uncomfortable in your own body is expected if you’re constantly being fed a picture of what a runner should look like. Lucy felt aware of her body and her skin colour as someone who deviates from this picture, and some of her experiences on her journey only added to this feeling of discomfort.
Although she already had a base level of fitness before taking up running, Lucy still had preconceptions about what she could achieve as a runner due to her body shape. ‘I had it in my head that I needed to be lean, but I’m curvy and short,’ Lucy shares. ‘I remember a Sunday running club coach tell me that I needed to have little fat and have a slimmer top half in order to be a stronger runner.’ Lucy no longer runs with that club.
Despite these setbacks, Lucy successfully went from running a 5K, to a 10K, to a half marathon and finally a full marathon. Throughout the process and belonging to various run clubs along the way, Lucy experienced all sorts of negative reactions to her goals and achievements from friends, run coaches and her own self-doubt. She’s had her ambitions ‘shot down’ by coaches, but eventually found a run club whose members varied in age, body type and fitness level. ‘I felt like I fitted in. It felt very grassroots and I loved it,’ Lucy reflects. ‘After several weeks of training with them, I finished my first half marathon in 1 hour 58 minutes.’
It’s taken trial and error and perseverance for Lucy to accept and appreciate her body, and how good it is at running. While we are seeing more and more run clubs and collectives appear that actively promote inclusivity for all body shapes, there are still many that are passively discouraging to those who don’t necessarily fit the mould. ‘Running clubs need to promote runners from different backgrounds with different body shapes. Running is bloody scary and intimidating enough without having to see groups that don’t make you feel “normal”. They need to start including runners who are curvy, short and slow when promoting themselves.’
‘Looking back on my journey so far, I think I pushed myself hard to show people in the running community that people like me – a 5 foot 4 curvy girl with thick, strong thighs who happens to be from an ethnic minority – can run, and achieve all that I did.’
Neha Patel (@neha.ldn)
‘I had always loved the thought of being a runner but never believed I could be one.’ Who can relate?
These thoughts run through the minds of so many people before they lace up their running shoes for the first time. For Neha, whose negative associations with running from childhood stuck with her through to adulthood, those thoughts continued to hold her back until her demanding job led her to hit rock bottom, quit her 15-year career with a corporate company and pack a bag to travel around Asia.
Throughout her travels she fell in love with movement, but a barrier always stood between her and running. ‘I was always the girl who came second last in the running races at school,’ she explains. ‘I used to hate wearing the athletics shorts because they barely fit. Aged 9-11, during cross country runs the PE teacher would bulldoze me from the back saying “come on fatty, run faster.” These memories are imprinted in my mind and so I’ve always associated running with fear and shame.’
On Neha’s first attempt with running, she started walking within 30 metres. Every excuse she could find came out of her mouth in a bid to convince her coach that running wasn’t for her. Eventually, after many failed attempts and with the help of her coach, she realised that there was a pattern between giving up and noticing people watching her. She pushed on, and the first time she completed a 300 metre run set by her coach, a passion was born. But the obstacles remained.
One of those obstacles was continuously feeling disheartened from running because she thought she didn’t have a typical runner’s body, being morbidly obese at the start of her journey three and a half years ago. ‘There was always an assumption that I couldn’t sprint based on my body type,’ Neha says. ‘I can, it’s just that my sprint speed is different from yours. I’m not a fan of making somebody feel they aren’t capable of something, because truly anything is possible.’
Neha knew that she had an inspiring story, and had the privilege of influencing people along her way. So she set her sights on becoming a trainer. However, there were more obstacles to come. ‘I began to question my belief in myself as the industry that saved me began to reject me,’ she explains. She went through around six months of resistance from global brands and gyms, but eventually landed a job as a run coach at London boutique fitness studio, Victus Soul. ‘I get a lot of runners through the doors and not once have I felt judged by those I coach. However, only last week I was telling another coach about my track sessions and he asked “oh, do you run”? I knew what he was thinking.’
Despite the stories of setbacks, Neha has hope for the future and takes pride in being part of the change. ‘I want to see more running coaches like me and I want to see us in fitness publications. Representing the true essence of what running is, not the image portrayed by the media.’ She also emphasises that there are many reasons to love running, and it’s not always about pushing your speed or distance, as valid as those goals are. It’s also about appreciating the smaller things: ‘The sound of my trainers striking the track, hearing the wind as I pushed a little harder, hitting the 200m mark knowing it was going to be tough, but equally knowing I had that strength and mindset to not give up.’