While I was at school, I never much cared for gym class, and always hated Sports Day. This was because these were forced on me from above. I never could stand being forced to do something I didn’t want to do at a time when I didn’t want to do it. Whenever I was able to do something I liked to do, though, when I wanted to do it, and the way I wanted to do it, I’d give it everything I had.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - Haruki Murakami
To this day, the shrill of a whistle and the clack of a clipboard are enough to make me feel a bit queasy. Instead of engaging with the sport that was forced on me, books, film and music transported me to worlds far from the icy rinks of Invercargill’s Surrey Park netball courts, to Mansfield Park, to Casablanca, to the magnificently moody Dunedin Sound just up the road. Arts, literature, philosophy – that’s the kind of lofty stuff schools should be encouraging, right? Yeah, nah. The only thing that mattered at my school was winning at sport. All I learnt from years of phys-ed induced misery was that as I was never going to win at anything, I probably sucked at every type of exercise or sport ever invented so I really shouldn’t bother. And I didn’t. For the next 20-something years.
Throughout those years, I put on a lot of weight, lived with the constant spectre of depression and somehow managed to establish myself as a writer. My life was comfortable, and not in a good way. I always had a sense that there had to be more. As a result of a couple of nasty curveballs, in 2012 I found myself trying to work out how to put the bits of my life back together again. Surprisingly, I realised that somewhere in that darkness lay an opportunity. An opportunity for me to put that wreckage back together in a way that was better than before.
I set about trying a whole heap of things I’d never done just to see what might stick. There was flying lessons, bungy jumping, surfing, paddle boarding, sailing yachts, hell, I even dived with sharks. But the two things that made something in me feel alive were open water swimming and trail running, so I kept on doing them. Finally I’d found things I liked to do, that I could do when I wanted to do them, and the way I wanted to do them. I found things I was willing to give everything I had. Even better, I’d found things that I could do without competing with anyone but myself.
It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure. Stepping out of the house to train in the early days, strangers constantly abused and taunted me about my weight. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that I’d publicly announced that I was going to do Auckland half marathon – and pretty much everyone I told had laughed at me. There’s a fine line between stubborn and bloody minded, and I stagger that line constantly. When I didn’t want to drag my arse off the sofa, that doubting laughter kept me heading out around the block and gradually further afield.
I’d already lost quite a bit of weight before I mustered up the courage to even look at buying sports gear because I felt so out of place and clueless in sports shops. So unlikely a customer I must have seemed that it took me four visits to sports shoe shops before I could even get someone to serve me. Buying my first wetsuit was so hilariously awkward that I’ll be eternally grateful to the woman at T3 who went out of her way to help me both into and out of said wetsuit without making me feel like a total moron. I still remember the exhilaration of having lost enough weight to fit my first running shirt in the women’s section of a sports store, a selection that is ridiculously limited for anyone over a size 14. Even so, it almost made up for my feet being so big that I’ll always be wearing men’s running shoes!
Dealing with public perceptions of obese people has always been difficult for me. I’ve been only too keenly aware that people who look like me are thought to be lazy, stupid and socially unacceptable – messages consistently reinforced by the media. There are a million magazines out there where you’ll never see a photograph of someone who looks like me unless it’s to do with their ‘weight loss journey’, their ‘fat misery’, or their ‘bikini shame’. And that’s part of why I’m doing this.
I don’t want my story to be any of those things. Yes, I’ve already lost a lot of weight. Yes, I’d like to lose more but only because it will allow me to do more of the things I love, not because it will make me more socially acceptable to people who, in my opinion, need to have a serious look at their own prejudices. Yes, there’ll be pictures of me sweating in running gear that I hate, but then we’ve all got those, haven’t we? I want my story to be one that proves that anyone – no matter their age, size or shape – is capable of setting big, gnarly goals and achieving them.
The gnarliest of those goals for me so far was my first ultramarathon finish at the Great Naseby Water Race in 2014. Completing those 50 kilometres was probably the single biggest achievement of my life. When race director Jamie Sinclair told me afterwards, ‘You, girl, can do anything you put your mind to now!’ for the first time in my life I actually believed it. Luckily for me, some other people do too, so that’s why this year, I’m going to be training my arse off with my coach James Kuegler from Cadence Coaching alongside me. Together we’re going to work towards me achieving another one of those big, gnarly goals. It’s one so big that I can barely say it out loud. But here goes:
In the next year, I want to be able to complete two ultramarathons. The first is a second tilt at the 50km at the Great Naseby Water Race – a magic event that allows me to run in my favourite place in the world with no pressure on me except what I put on myself. The second – well, that’s a different kettle of fish. It’s got to be an event with cut-offs that, right now, I couldn’t make. It’s got to be tougher than anything I previously would have considered myself capable of. And it’s got to mean something to me. At the moment, I’m thinking the Kepler Challenge. But that might change. Who knows what will happen? And isn’t that the most wonderful thing about life. No matter how much, no matter how hard, we’re all capable of massive and profound change. So where do you want to start?