Today I’m participating in a virtual book tour for Jennifer Graham’s new book, Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner, published by Breakaway Books.
“Fat” and “runner” are two things I’m not, but I love good writing, books that make me laugh, and inspirational stories — and Jennifer’s memoir is all that. If you’re a runner, or if you’ve ever aspired to run, you’ll love it. Her book speaks to anyone still trying to figure out how to get fit once and for all, or who has ever struggled with body image or a painful past.
I asked Jennifer to share a bit about her new book, and I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did.
Zoe Saint-Paul: Jennifer, this is a well-written and entertaining read — and I mean that in the best way, because you write about some painful stuff. Why did you write the book?
Jennifer Graham: First, thank you so much for your kind comments, and for having me here! The book grew out of an essay I wrote for Newsweek magazine a few years ago. The essay was called “Confessions of a Fat Runner,” and in it, I talked about what it was like to run my first half-marathon, feeling like a walrus among a herd of gazelles. At the time, it was a bit unnerving, but it turned out that walruses and gazelles get along just fine, and nobody stopped me and said, “Hey, what are you doing here?”
After that essay was published, I heard from a lot of people who are like me — runners who don’t look like the archetypical runner — and several of them encouraged me to develop the idea into a book.
I’m one of those readers who, halfway in, looked at your photo and thought, “Fat? What is she talking about?” I’ll grant that you may be bigger than your tribe of runners, but I’m surprised at the strong identification of yourself as fat (which you say began in childhood). Do you think a woman can truly change her body image?
Oh yes, I do, and it’s because mine changes every week! Fat is a state of mind, not a state of body. I know this because there have been times when I weighed 180 pounds and felt like a glob of mayonnaise in human form, yet there have been times when I weighed 180 pounds and felt like a feather. The reality didn’t matter. This is one reason I’m not a big fan of reality.
As for the photo, I’ll share a little story. When we were still brainstorming ideas for the cover of the book, a friend of mine who is a photographer spent a day with me, taking pictures of me running. When we tried to make a selection, every one I liked, she thought I looked too thin, and every one she liked, I thought I looked too fat! (We did wind up using one of those on the back cover, by the way.) Anyway, while a realistic picture of me might give more credence to my credentials as a fat runner, ego prevailed.
In running, you found a passion, an outlet, a way to cope, and something to achieve. How has running changed you as a person over the years?
How many hours have you got?
The first thing that comes to mind is a line from a song that’s on my running playlist, “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers. It’s this: “Man, I ain’t changed, but I know I ain’t the same.”
At a casual glance, my body hasn’t changed all that much. I’m still overweight, still can’t fit into clothes that I couldn’t fit into when I first started running. Look closer, though, and I see I’ve got legs that are as strong as Sequoias, I’ve got blood pressure that shocks and amazes my doctor, and I’ve got a resting pulse rate in the 50s, which is that of elite athletes. In short, even though I’m still fat, I’m undeniably fit.
Most importantly, though, running has made my default emotional state that of joy. This is not to say that I’m not ever despairing, or angry, or grumpy — I am those things, a lot — but those are the aberrations. As long as I’m running regularly, usually I’m stewing in contentment. That’s because the runner’s high is not just a state of euphoria that you experience on the road, but it stays with you long after you stop moving. In fact, sometimes it’s hours after a run, when I’m feeling all clean and relaxed and accomplished, that running gives me the most pleasure.
What are the spiritual lessons you’ve learned from running?
I read an essay on running this morning in which the writer said that when she runs, she’s running to God. I think that’s a beautiful way of expressing the spiritual side of the run. So many times, when I’m out there, it’s like I’m running from something…running away from the noise of my children, the mess in the house, painful memories of my divorce. But it’s true that runners are also running toward something, and often, it’s that big, inexplicable, holy thing that animates us, a thing that I happen to call God.
Has being a runner changed the kind of mother you are?
If I didn’t run, I know I would be a lot more explosive, a lot less patient, a lot less loving, a lot less willing to snuggle and read Harry Potter at the end of a long, tiring day. So there’s no question that it’s made me a better mother. And my kids are aware of it, too. When I start to get cranky, inevitably, one of them will say, “Mom, how long has it been since you went for a run?”
I’ve tried to like running and just can’t seem to do it. I’d rather be dancing or doing yoga or just walking. But you can’t beat a form of exercise that only requires a proper pair of shoes and the great outdoors. Should I keep trying since I like the idea of it, or do you think some people are just not born to be runners?
This question vexes me greatly, because I really hesitate to encourage people to do things that they hate! And if you find joy and fitness in dancing, then that’s your thing, and you should probably focus on that. But I do believe that the human body is meant to be in motion, and that it thrives from being in motion to the point of exhaustion. As William James said, “The strenuous life tastes best.” Also, I think there is great value in being able to run faster than zombies. Yoga will not help you at all with that. So running is not just a form of exercise, but a potentially life-saving skill.
What do you wish someone had told you about being a runner before you ever started?
That what other people think DOES NOT MATTER. That there will always be skinnier and faster people out on the road, but it doesn’t matter, because 1) they’re not paying any attention to me, and 2) if they were, they would ADMIRE me, because it takes a lot more courage for an overweight person to lace up and run down a public road than it does a skinny person. Fat runners are the bravest people I know.
What’s your current dream for your running life?
Well, I gained 10 pounds and got much slower over the winter, so right now, my dream is to get back to the level of fitness that I had just six months ago. Beyond that, of course, the Olympics. (Reality is highly overrated.)
Barring that, I would love to run the Boston Marathon, given that I’ve been a lowly spectator now for eight years. And I would really love to be competitive in my age group some day, although that may not be until I’m in my 90s.
How are your donkeys, Jo-Jo and Foggy?
Unfortunately, they’re still happy and thriving, and continuing to be a useless drain of resources on the family — kind of like teenagers who happen to bray. But they don’t seem nearly as much work since we got a Border collie, which constantly needs exercise and grooming and tooth brushing and walking, plus with the added negative of pooping on the basement carpet, something that donkeys never, ever do. So the life lesson is one that also extends to running: When something seems hard, just keeping adding more stress and pressure, and after a while, what you previously thought was difficult will seem easy. P.S. — I’m having a sale this week: Buy 100 copies of the book, get two free donkeys and a Border collie.
Jennifer is just as hilarious and honest in person as she is in her book; you can read more about her here, and be sure to check out Confessions of a Fat Runner. A big thanks to Jennifer and her publicist, Emily Hedges, for asking me to participate in this book tour!
Images: Debra-Lynn Hook