It’s been 25 years since an admittedly out-of-shape and overweight Jennifer Graham first put on a pair of running shoes and headed out the door for a run. Her goals were hardly ambitious.
“It certainly wasn’t a mile,” she said. “It might have been a quarter of a mile. I don’t know if most people can run a mile the first time out. It was definitely a run to the mailbox, and I think I mostly walked.
“When I give advice to runners now, I tell them that most people get discouraged at first. As long as you are going like a snail, you are still making progress. ... I was very slow. I lived on a rural road. I wasn’t embarrassed about stopping. It took for me a year to go a mile without stopping.”
Graham, who lives a mile or so from the starting point of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass., hasn’t stopped running since then. She estimates that she’s gone more than 10,000 miles over the quarter-century. It doesn’t sound like she’s broken the eight-minute mile at any point, or has gotten her weight down to where she wants it, but she seems to have laughed a lot along the way.
Graham has written a book called “Honey, Do You Need a Ride?” although the subtitle – “Confessions of a Fat Runner” – probably is more illuminating about the subject matter. It’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny.
The title comes from an incident that happened early in Graham’s running days. She went out for a run in old sweats when a grandmother-type driving a Buick LeSabre slowed down and leaned out the window. “Honey, did you need a ride? Did you run out of gas? Do you want me to call someone?” she asked. When Graham explained that she was just running, the driver looked at her as if – in Graham’s words – she had just said she was training for the Tour de France.
“That happened more than once,” said Graham, whose weight bounces around the 150-pound mark in the course of the book. “I haven’t been asked recently, maybe because of the high-tech clothes and the iPod. So many overweight women run now. It was unusual back then, but I see them every day.”
As for the book itself, it started as a collection of columns.
“I’m primarily an essayist,” Graham said. “I had a collection of 12 essays on running topics. Some of them had been on line, some had been printed in the Boston Globe, some were in Runner’s World. After I had an essay in Newsweek called ‘Confessions of a Fat Runner,’ a runner in Tennessee told me it was a book. At the time I wasn’t thinking about writing a book. I had gotten mired in the mess that was my divorce, trying to stay sane.
“But there’s an old adage, write what you know, and I know running. So I thought I’d string a bunch of columns together. My agent wasn’t enamored at first, saying there’s got to be more to it than that. It turned into a glorious mess about running and donkeys and divorce.”
The mess covers plenty of ground, including such subjects as running in the winter: “I do run in snow, and when the roads are blotchy with ice. And if you don’t, let me warn you: The few, the frozen, the addicted like me are out there. For your own sake and that of your insurance company, please get out of the way.”
And on her first race: “I didn’t know then that the typical road race is more inclusive than a Unitarian church. The organizers don’t care who registers or who runs, so long as you show up with the cash. I also didn’t know then that, in every race I ran, I’d pass skinny people. And that I’d never finish last.”
No matter how many giggles are along the way, Graham does deal with some serious subjects. She’s very open about the pain involved in her divorce, which left her alone in the job of raising four children, a dog, two cats, and, yes, two donkeys, at a farm house.
Also serving as a subplot to the book is the issue of how people view their own bodies and how it affects their self-image. We all don’t look like magazine cover material.
“I did an event in Hopkinton,” Graham said. “We talked about the book, how people define themselves as fat, and so on. A woman came up to me afterwards. She said, ‘I’m a size 6, and I’m fat.’ Well, I’m a size 12 long before Christmas. So she is literally half my size. It’s a problem in America, and we’re trying to get past it.
“I do want to emphasize that I don’t advocate that people look like me. Size 10 and under is ideal in terms of health. But it’s not all about how you look in your jeans. We’d all feel better if we were thinner. We shouldn’t revel in our fatness. But for those who know losing weight is difficult and maintenance is a problem, larger people should try to feel more comfortable.”
Now that the book is out, Graham has been following the reaction of others to it, starting with her 97-year-old grandmother.
“I was thinking she wouldn’t be with us when it came out. She has it by her bedside,” she said. “It [the response] has been interesting. The people who love it, love it.
“There was a great quote by [actor] George Wendt: ‘It goes to show you, if you stay fat enough and hang on, there are endless opportunities.’ Who could believe that there is a market for books for overweight runners?”