According to Strava, a GPS app that records athletic activities and shares them with other athletes, I have run the Riverwalk Mile, a tree-covered path that follows the Black Warrior River in my town of Tuscaloosa 183 times. It is my most covered route — sometimes running it upwards of six times in one session where I am deep into the teeth of marathon training. I like it mostly because it is flat, but also because it is quiet — there are no cars that can impede my progress — trucks making hard lefts well after the light turns red, causing me to spike my shuffling feet into the ground to prevent taking a front bumper to the hip.
When I reach the end of the Riverwalk, there is a long incline that weaves through the residential halls of the University of Alabama’s campus before depositing me on the corner of University Boulevard and Hackberry Lane, one of the busiest intersections in town. From here, I run west past the quad and academic buildings, before the sidewalk dips briefly past the supermarket, then up a steep hill bridging campus and downtown. It is here where the variables of the run increase: the trio of sorority girls walking slowly, sprawling over the width of the sidewalk. The father in sunglasses holding a to-go bag outside of the restaurant that serves chicken wings. The bicycles that hop the curb because the road got too narrow. Mostly, though, it is the trucks that I want to avoid — windows down, bodies tangled in a cramped back seat, classic rock muffling its way through the speakers. The ones that see my body, squeezed into compression gear, trying to will itself to keep my pace at a respectable number and feel obligated to say something — anything.
Another statistic from my Strava app: I am in 1st place out of all of the runners on the Riverwalk Mile that weigh over 250+ pounds. This is, undoubtedly, the proudest record that I hold. I have run four marathons. I’ve logged 2,555 miles over the past three years. I ran a 2:21 half marathon while I weighed 278 pounds. I would never say that I am a good runner, but I’m not bad at going for a run.
This past July, former Kentucky Wildcats and New York Giants quarterback Jared Lorenzen passed away at the age of thirty-eight. Lorenzen was known mostly for his size: because of his weight, he was a magnetic fan favorite. The prototypical quarterback is tall and lanky: Tom Brady, for instance, is 6’4” and 225 pounds. Lorenzen, in comparison, was listed as 6’4” 285 pounds, though this was his media guide weight; during his playing days in Lexington, he was well over 300 pounds.
Lorenzen was loved because he could do things that people “his size shouldn’t be able to do,” — he is referred to as a “once in a generation athlete,” a “special player.” And he was: his Wildcat teams would push much better teams to their limits — while UK’s best record while he was a starter was 7–5, his teams would give ranked powerhouses much more than they could handle.
However, Lorenzen’s teams could never quite pull off the upset in these games. His mythos always existed in excelling, but not quite enough. He was universally loved because he was excellent, but also knew his place — to put a scare in a team before fading down the stretch; pushing a Top 10 Tennessee before giving up a late field goal to lose by three.
It is fitting that his legacy was cemented in anomalies. In 2002, Lorenzen’s Wildcats lost to LSU on a last second Hail Mary that was deflected twice before Devery Henderson ran 75 yards for a game-winning score as fireworks went off, prematurely celebrating a Kentucky victory. And in 2003, Arkansas and Kentucky tied an NCAA record for the longest football game ever played, as the game went through seven overtimes before Lorenzen fumbled on a designed run, to end the game 71–63. When you are regarded as a spectacle, spectacles follow.
It has been noted on many occasions by various body-positive athletes that people don’t want to see fat people working out — that exercising and “body transformations” should happen in complete darkness. Athletes are expected to emerge from their exercise cocoons fully formed. It is part of the reason why I document every run — a mean mugging selfie for the camera with my mileage covered and my pace: I do not smile because it makes my face look larger than I want it to look, though some times, after a particularly long and arduous run, I am proud of my accomplishments. When I first started running, I made it a point to express how miserable I was while doing it — how I hated the Couch-To-5K experience; of how the robotic woman would bark at me to run when I had yet to recover from my last 30 second push. After weeks of this, my wife wondered why I was so self-deprecating in my posts — it was obvious that I actually enjoyed running; I love getting into a rhythm a mile or two in where my body finally remembers what I am doing and what I do it for. I love having something to rely on each morning; that despite the moments in each day where I come up short, I at least logged a few miles. I love taking note of changes around town — a new flowerbed being installed, or how the water levels have started to lap over the docks after a few weeks of heavy rain. This anger I felt, as well as my self-deprecation over my accomplishments was learned; that I needed to hedge my joy because I did not want to appear threatening — that to be miserable in exercise is what is to be expected of someone of my size. To find joy in running is threatening. To excel at it is insulting.
On my first run after my first marathon, an SUV full of college-aged students buzzed by me as I ran down University Boulevard. A kid in the backseat in a baseball cap shouted, “run faster, fatty,” as they sped through a red light. Later that week, a woman congratulated me for finishing my marathon, and, not being able to help herself, said “Well, if you can do it, I certainly can do it.” Well-meaning friends tell me that I am not “built,” for this — as if there is some magical movement that I am built for; the same way that when Lorenzen, still in high school, introduced himself to Hal Mumme, then coach of Kentucky, as “his future quarterback,” Mumme thought “you might be my left tackle someday”. In Tommy Tomlinson’s 2014 profile of Lorenzen, he recounts Lorenzen winning the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as the best high school senior quarterback in the state of Kentucky. When Unitas met him, he said “You’re awfully big to be a quarterback. I don’t think you’re going to amount to much of anything being that big.”
Unlike Lorenzen, who embraced his nickname of “The Pillsbury Throwboy,” and once said to USA TODAY, “If you want to joke, we can joke about my weight all day. I get a kick out of it. You have to have a niche. That’s mine,” I have had a difficult time with being a fan-favorite. During marathons, on-lookers address me as “big man” while they cheer me on from the sidelines, as if I am a novelty — I am not particularly light on my feet during a run, as my style is more of the plodding type. There will never be a race photo of me where it looks like I am levitating. I am routinely asked if this is my first 5K at races, and I am quick to let them know that I am actually running less than my daily amount because I am a sucker for a Comfort Colors t-shirt and a free banana. People cheer harder for me because of my size; people pass me telling me that I’m “their hero,” during a half-marathon. Fellow runners tell me that I’m “faster than I look.” On more than one occasion, I’ve been passed at the end of a race by someone much smaller than me, who have come up to me afterward to let me know that I “pushed them,” or that “they weren’t going to let me catch up to them.” At a 4th of July 2-mile fun run, I channeled my inner Lawrence Cherono and boxed out a hard-charging Crossfit acolyte at the finish line — I heard him complain to his friends that he would’ve finished with a faster time if I didn’t “get in his way,” while I proudly munched on some victory watermelon.
I fear that I am overly sensitive to well-intentioned encouragement; I often feel as if I am a running imposter — that I still don’t quite belong despite my finisher’s medals and my handful of third place in my age group ribbons. It is easy to hear “good for you,” and feel as if I am a novelty out here amongst “real runners.” It’s why I feel odd about Saturdays and Sundays where thousands on Twitter celebrate a “Fat Guy Touchdown,” or how SBNation gives out “The Piesman Trophy,” an award given to the best play made by a “lineman who does un-lineman like things.” When you’re overweight, greatness always comes with a caveat.
And so, I found myself tearing up in a Target parking lot as Matt Jones, a broadcaster that hosted Kentucky Football’s pregame show with Lorenzen discussed Jared’s legacy with Paul Finebaum: “Many people talked about his weight, and they would joke with him about it in ways that I often thought were so sort of cruel, even though people didn’t mean to be. When people are joking about your weight, you almost can’t help it.”
What struck me is what was left behind: the main legacy an overweight person leaves is their body. That despite Lorenzen’s efforts to lose weight toward the end of his life, we still have the viral videos from his time with the Northern Kentucky River Monsters while weighing over 400 pounds, or him being gregarious enough to pull off a spin-move to get away from a blitzing cornerback before uncorking a pass forty yards downfield. It is one thing to be observed and critiqued for what you do, but another to be judged in the same sense for what you have done — the specter of size always left trailing behind us, casting a shadow over everything that we were.
This is my fear. That I will forever be defined by this body. I recently completed my fourth marathon, which is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. However, I’ve been sidelined with various injuries since then which have prevented me from running consistently. I feel as if I’ve lost this part of my identity and I don’t know how to supplement it — I’ve found myself trying to hide this part of myself more so than usual — the same way that when I know I’ve gained weight, I don’t want to weigh myself; Jared himself admits that after leaving the NFL, he did not weigh himself for six years, afraid of what the scale might say.
In the meantime, I am here. On days I am able, I squeeze into compression gear. I hold my wrist to the sky and wait for the satellites to find my watch as I sway back and forth in the YMCA parking lot. I start out slow, zig-zagging around crooked sidewalks and the awkward incline near the jewelry store. I descend down to the river, where I’ll see the familiar pavement — the waterlogged grass, the washed up baubles that get stuck to the top of my shoes. When it is time to resurface on the busy roads, I know what will be waiting for me. There will be trees and crosswalks. The sidewalks will be blocked as students pool at the bus stop. And there will always be a voice from a lifted pick-up screaming my obituary in the streets. One day, I won’t be there to respond to it. But in the meantime, I’m still here: winded, but with enough breath to yell why don’t you come out here and race me then?