5/30/2013 - Full disclosure: The author of this book is also the Hippo’s book reviewer. She didn’t ask us to write a review — in fact, when I told her I was going to, her emailed response was something along the lines of “arrrghgh!”
But I was going to read the book anyway, and she herself had left us with an empty book review page, having requested a reprieve from writing weekly reviews. I had previously come across Confessions of a Fat Runner on amazon.com after typing in “running for beginners”; I had no idea that it was written by the same Jennifer Graham whose book reviews I edit each week. When I figured it out, she kindly sent me a copy, which she’s probably deeply regretting now, given her reaction to the news that I was reviewing her book.
I don’t know what she’s so worried about.
The book is a memoir of Graham’s life as a runner — specifically, a fat runner, a title that she vehemently defends when anyone dares to suggest that she’s not. “We can sit around all evening, swilling milkshakes and debating if I’m fat compared with other unemployed southern mothers of four. Not open to debate, however, is if I’m a fat runner. Despite the miles I’ve accumulated over the past 20 years, I remain as out of place at a gathering of runners as a lizard in a litter of kittens,” she writes.
Through four pregnancies and a divorce, Graham’s weight fluctuates (between various degrees of heaviness, she would say), and still she runs. The dissolution of her marriage prompts a renewed effort to work on pace and distance. She could use this memoir to write about her kids and her ex-husband and her two donkeys (all of which she does, but briefly). But since this is a book about running, Graham smartly sticks to the topic at hand. She is singularly focused on how those things affect her running — and how her running helps her through them. She admits to channeling the late, great Steve Prefontaine to coach her through tough workouts, to push her when she hits a wall, physically and emotionally.
The book is more a series of the vignettes that meander off course through her experiences as a runner than a direct route from the starting line — when she started running years ago — to the finish (metaphorically speaking, the last page of the book, not her last run — that isn’t happening any time soon). Her stories range from hysterical (let’s just say her two donkeys like to run away) to poignant (she drives an hour back to the first road she ever ran on, because nothing else compares).
But never will you forget that Graham wears an extra-large, because she points it out whenever she has a chance — in this instance, before a half marathon: “I look down at my black capris, the inner thighs worn and slightly pilled. I feel thick. Congealed. Like a fruit salad my grandmother makes with Jell-O and cottage cheese.” If there’s a downside to the book, it’s that Graham is too hard on herself. Her self-deprecation is mostly hilarious, but at times I just wanted to either give her a hug or shake her and say, “You’re running a freakin’ half marathon! Your thighs are amazing!”
And yet, as a fellow fat runner (and single mom, and journalist — we have so much in common I’m starting to think that Graham is my long lost sister), I understand the battles she fights in her head. Her rational, loving self is proud of her accomplishments on foot, but her hyper self-critical side can’t get past the size of her thighs long enough to celebrate, whole-heartedly, those accomplishments.
Graham’s dedication to running is inspiring to anyone, but especially to me, a relatively new runner who’s got more than a few extra pounds to lose. I happened to be in the middle of Confessions when I ran my first 5K, and I thought of her as I huffed and puffed along the course, comforted in the knowledge that someone else had felt my fear — of failure, of running alongside (or behind) thinner athletes, of not finishing. I did better than I thought I would; indeed, crossing the starting line in the first place was harder than making it to the finish.
I would love to run with Graham sometime. If her writing is any indication, she’d be a blast to talk to on a sort-of long, fairly slow run. A-