Heather Meeking is a 42-year-old runner from Toronto who traveled to Florida for the Disney half marathon and was nearly swept from the course at nine miles. Never athletic, she surprised herself as a runner after a friend connected her to the sport. However, despite her intentions, attitude, and hard work, she has faced repeated, dispiriting barriers. When a race shirt didn’t fit, she had to wear men’s clothing, size XL. And when she did participate in an event, even something like a bucket-list run at Disney, she faced cruel challenges, like having to fight race officials from removing her from the course before reaching her finish line. Undaunted, as runners are, she found support in our community, met new people, and, two years ago, got her boyfriend to run. (He’s now doing marathons.) But this October she raced another half marathon, and was again confronted by race officials, determined to sweep her from the course.
“I was cut short around the 15K mark and redirected to about the 16 or 17K mark,” she says, “and still carried on to finish and receive the medal.
For Heather, running—which is difficult for anyone—comes attached with indignities, some of which we as a sporting body can help her avoid. Meanwhile, Heather continues to run. She will race another half marathon this May.
“If I saw someone who looked like me when I was younger, I might have started running sooner and that makes a huge difference,” she says, “because running has become something that I love.”
Running is something that all of us love, and all of us struggle at some point with our bodies—too big or too small, we can’t find the right diet or we don’t like how we look. For plus-sized runners, however, the conversation can be more loaded. When Jennifer Dingle tells people she runs, she sometimes gets looked up and down. She ran the Ottawa Marathon, but before she was photographed for our cover, she was so uncertain about the shoot that she grew teary before our camera. Then, after receiving encouragement from our other cover subjects, including guest editor Sasha Golish, she stripped down to her sports bra and flexed.
“I want to inspire other runners,” she says. “I want to be a role model for runners like myself.”
Lanni Marchant is Canada’s all-time fastest marathon and half-marathon runner and a role model for runners young and old, both women and men. Her body’s been picked apart on social media and chat rooms and everything from what she wears to how she races has been ridiculed, even while she testifies before Congress on women in sport. Despite her public perception, she wears Wonder Woman bracelets and can come off sassy and wry, Marchant acknowledges that she’s not immune to self doubt, criticism, and nasty (usually anonymous) online comments. “We all have insecurities about our bodies,” Marchant, an Olympian, says. “We don’t always like how we look and we don’t always look like the runners we line up against, but running is the one sport that anybody can do. Just because I don’t look like a runner doesn’t mean that I’m not one.”
It’s not only women who succumb to body image issues. Mike Mandel is 48, from Montreal and raised in Winnipeg, and his weight has fluctuated since his days as a high-school athlete. Not surprisingly, his self-esteem and mental health have also rollercoaster-ed up and down. Mandel feels panic every time he arrives at a starting line. But he’s able to face those emotions because he knows how much he receives in return from the sport.
“I struggle with losing weight and know that I’m bigger than a lot of the guys I run against,” he says. “Nutrition and wellness and mental health are all tied together and so despite the depression and the anxiety, the panic and the nervousness, I keep telling myself as refrain, ‘Be happy with who you are, buddy.’ There’s no time I feel that as strongly as when I run.”
On the run we find our tribe, our community, our support crew, and our peers. But there are bad apples in our midst, or maybe just insensitive ones, or naive people. “Wow, you run?” is something that you should never say to another runner. It seems obvious, but it’s not. Two-time marathon finisher Lisa Leblanc was on a bus to a race start line when two runners looked at her and said, out loud: “There’s a lot of inexperienced people running this race.”
No runner would take pride in those behaviors. It goes against everything that’s great about our sport. Empathy and acceptance are the cornerstones of racing and we should all want to help other runners reach new finish lines. That’s what it means to run.
“Running was intimidating and though I wanted to try, I wasn’t comfortable with my body and it took years from when I first volunteered at a race until I actually went out on a run,” says Claudia Quammie, 38. She started running like we all do: first to the tree on the corner, then to the convenience store down the block. She took baby steps forward to make her way in our sport and, as she did, her confidence grew as her obsession with running progressed. She has now run nine 5Ks and two 10Ks, and plans to tackle the half marathon in the new year.
“I go to lots of events now and being able to line up against different races, different body types—different runners—all there for their health, makes me feel more comfortable with myself,” she says. “There are still times where I hate the way I look, but I know, like every runner, that I’m a work in progress. Running helps make me feel comfortable in the skin I’m in.”