There’s no hiding from the truth: I’m a big girl. According to the Body Mass Index, I am considered obese and I wear a size 20, except for certain stores where I can just about squeeze into a size 18. If you saw me walking in the street, you wouldn’t describe me as athletic, so it comes as a surprise to many when I talk about being a runner. Not only that, I’m a member of a Dublin running group and I have run a marathon, four half-marathons and numerous other races.
was never athletic in school and was better at throwing things like the shot-put and discus in the school sports day than running. Then there were the school cross-country runs – which I considered the worst day of the year – but at university I did join a rugby team and, while we hardly ever won on the pitch, we were champions when it came to drinking games.
Running didn’t come naturally to me. I tried to complete the Couch to 5K course 10 years ago, but gave up when I felt like I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. I have always loved walking in the countryside but, in my 20s, weekends were for sleeping in and nursing hangovers after late nights in town. In my 30s, I tried to make running and exercise a regular part of my life but I’d lose my motivation and give up, preferring to sit at home after a day at work rather than plod the streets.
It was in 2015 that the seed was planted. I went to support a friend who was running a half-marathon and, as I waited for him to come running past our viewing spot, I noticed runners of different abilities passing us. It was a bit of a surprise when I realised that some of them looked like me – some were even curvier than I was. Running 13.1 miles had never, ever, crossed my mind, but watching the thousands of runners completing the course, I realised that I could run it too – because if they could do it, then so could I.
I signed up to do a half-marathon around Cardiff in 2016 and decided to raise money for a cancer charity. While I did want to raise funds for a good cause, my main motivation was the fact that if people were sponsoring me to do this run, then there was no backing out.
The best piece of advice I got when I started running was: “Slow down”. I always thought that being a runner was about running as fast as you can for as long as you can. When I slowed it down, I was able to run for longer and wouldn’t be fighting for breath when I stopped. That was a huge help with training – when I wanted to stop, I just slowed the pace and picked it up again when I felt comfortable.
After seven months of training, I completed the course in two hours and 48 minutes – and spent much of it crying because I couldn’t believe that I was doing it, I was running a half-marathon.
For the majority of my life, I have been a larger woman and, like most women on the planet, I have self-confidence issues. Being curvy means you get used to avoiding situations where you feel uncomfortable. I know the shops that won’t stock my clothing size as soon as I go into them; I can spot and avoid the teens who will make a comment about my size, and I can pick out that group of men in suits who will dare one of their mates to chat me up. Over time, you learn to put on your emotional armour and get on with things.
When I started running, I would mostly go in the evenings to avoid seeing lots of people, but I soon realised that the reaction I get when running is overwhelmingly positive. People say, “Well done” or “Keep going” as I plod my way around my route – but sometimes, someone tries to make a smart comment, like, “You look like you need a rest”, but when I respond with a smile and say, “Three miles done, three to go”, the look on their face usually changes.
One of the biggest surprises was how supportive the running community is. When you are out clocking up the miles, you will usually get a smile or a “Well done” from another runner. I always try to give a word of encouragement when I see anyone with that grimace you get on your final mile or during an uphill struggle.
When I joined the Esker Running Group, I soon realised that I was the slowest and, when we go running, I am always one of the last to finish. But I get the same high-five as everyone else and because we do different routes in small groups, we all finish up at around the same time. The only time I kept anyone waiting was when I took a wrong turn with another runner and added an extra mile to the route.
My running has brought me closer to neighbours, especially during lockdown: they see me as I set off and finish a run, and follow my progress. If you stick to a routine, then you get to see the same faces and, soon enough, you’ll get a wave as you pass.
For a woman my size, clothes shopping can be a stressful experience. Interestingly, sports apparel is easy to buy as a curvy woman, compared to everyday clothing. While Lycra is totally unforgiving, it does stretch, and that means you can get a good pair of running trousers and T-shirts for a reasonable price. I expected to have to buy bras in specialist shops but the big brands in sportswear cater for a larger bust.
There are specialist knickers available for sale, but if you’re on a budget, avoid embellishments and frills, and stick to cotton. I find that the oldest knickers I have, which have lost some elasticity and don’t have any elastic around the leg holes, are the best pair for running.
The more races you do, the more kit you get, as most races offer a medal and some sort of a training top. The larger-sized T-shirts are usually the first to go at the finish line, because most people prefer their running tops baggier rather than tight-fitting. So I made a deal with a friend who is a lot faster and skinnier than I am – she gets me the size XXL and I get her a medium or small, and we swap at the end.
There are big-girl problems when it comes to running. Chafing is something that people might not talk about but it happens to most runners, especially when you are covering more than 10 miles. One of the most painful experiences I had was when I did a 16-mile run in the rain as part of my marathon training. Every seam on my clothes cut into me – although I didn’t realise until I got home how badly they had marked my skin. Chafing isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to women; plenty of men know the burn.
When you’re a bigger person, you will be warned about the increased possibility of suffering injuries. When I started running, I didn’t stretch my muscles enough before I ran, and my calf muscles suffered. It was on a 5km run that I felt a sharp pain in my left calf muscle and had to stop. I went to a physiotherapist who told me my muscles were tight and gave me a regime of stretches to do before a run. That helped immensely. I’ve an old knee injury that still niggles from time to time but I’ve had no more injuries than my co-runners.
So, with all the exercise I do, why am I not a svelte woman like the poster models you see in magazines and on billboards? I come from a line of sturdy Welsh women. The Irish side of my family is leaner than I am, but the Welsh side is filled with women you wouldn’t mess with.
Genetically, I am built to be solid. As the Welsh say, I “like my food” and don’t always make the right choices. I eat white bread with butter, don’t take the skin off chicken, I eat large portions, and I love cake. I tried slimming clubs with some success, but marathon training and eating plans are a tough juggle when you rely on energy sources like nuts, sugary energy gels and protein shakes.
I did lose a fair bit of weight in 2018 when I went travelling around South America – but I returned to Ireland and faced my father’s cancer diagnosis, months in hospital and then his death in 2019. Weight loss became the least of my worries, and evenings and nights in the hospital next to my dad’s bed meant that fast food and biscuits kept us going. Even then, running was my solace and, during those days, it helped me clear my head when things got tough. I started social media accounts as Curvy Girl Runs just to connect with other women like me who run and don’t fit the mould. I am not going to apologise for my size and, whatever anyone says, weight loss is more than just ‘Eat less, move more’. I’m a work in progress and as long as I keep running and stay healthy, I’m more than happy.
My shape or what the scale says isn’t going to define who I am, and running has become a big part of my life. I have my own personal goals and they are based more on speed and distance than kilograms and ounces.
I may not be the fastest runner and I will always be in the bottom half of the results table – but, whatever anyone may tell you, a mile run in eight minutes is just as long as a mile run in 11 minutes.
Portrait by Frank McGrath