Athleticism for everyone

Jayne Williams

Read Jayne Williams’ blog at Learn more at the Health at Every Size website:

With a blog called Slow Fat Triathlete, you can’t help but be fascinated by Jayne Williams. She’s a writer, an athlete and member of the board of directors at Sacramento’s Capital Stage. Williams is the author of two books: Slow Fat Triathlete: Live Your Athletic Dreams in the Body You Have Now and Shape Up With the Slow Fat Triathlete: 50 Ways to Kick Butt on the Field, in the Pool or at the Gym—No Matter What Your Size and Shape. She’s also a firm believer in eating well and exercising because it will make you feel good, not because you want to lose weight.

Tell me about triathlons. Is that like the Ironman?

A triathlon is a bike ride, a swimming race and a run, all one right after the other. Ironman is a fixed distance—a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon to finish it out. Then there’s a Half Ironman—more attainable for regular people—and the international or Olympic triathlon. It’s a 1,500-meter swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run.

Then there are more accessible distance triathlons called the sprints. Some of those are as short as a 400-yard swim, a 10- or 12-mile bike ride and a 3-mile run/walk, and that is something that a lot of people can aspire to. That’s what I first aspired to when I got into it.

Have you always been a sporty, outdoorsy chick?

I was the tree-climbing, baseball-playing, climb-the-fence and walk-along-the-two-by-four sort of kid. I was also a total bookworm, which is sort of an odd mix. I was an adventure geek.

I was never skinny. I was always big. When I look back at the pictures, I wasn’t a fat kid. I was kind of a big, round, substantial kid.

So if you’d been a boy, you’d have been a wrestler and a lineman.

Exactly! I would’ve been a lineman or a tight end. But because of the time and place and gender I was in, I was put on a diet. Then there’d be the cycle of losing it and gaining it back—yo-yo dieting. There were times when I’d use exercise as part of weight management.

Did that make you hate exercising?

No! I think that because I tried not to use exercise that way, pretty consciously, even at an early age, I didn’t link the two irrevocably in my mind. That’s one of the things I’ve written about: Do not make exercise a punishment for what you ate. Don’t think, “Oh, if I just spend 30 minutes on the treadmill, I can have a doughnut.”

It’s hard to avoid that mentality in our culture, and I’ve certainly gone through my years of “OK, I can have a cheeseburger because I rode 50 miles.” But that kind of accounting increases the stress and sucks all the joy out of being in your body.

And it doesn’t work. On my last weight-loss kick, I was also doing triathlons at the time, and it just became harder and harder to lose weight, because of the things we’re now learning about metabolism and thrifty genes and everything that shifts in your body when you deprive it of nutrients.

But it’s one of the things I try to convey to people who maybe haven’t felt it as I have, or who were put down in childhood for being uncoordinated at sports: Moving is fun. You can enjoy it however you decide to do it. That’s a sort of inalienable physical right that we have, to enjoy moving in our own bodies.

Our attitudes about size, weight and fat keep people from doing that.

Right. We have to show people larger bodies, bodies of all shapes and sizes and ages, in action. When I was out doing my first triathlon, I was inspired because there were people of different sizes and ages: little kids and grandmas; lean, lanky types and fat people; short people and tall people. It helped me think, “Oh, I could do this.”

When you can model being a person of whatever size or shape you are out in the world, you’re doing a public service!

Fat women are conditioned not to look at their fat as contributing anything positive to them. But my mass will overcome wind resistance very effectively, so downhill on a bike, I can cruise past other people. And then on the uphill, they gradually gain on me. I can joke about it, and I think that helped to normalize it with them. They could be, “Oh, there’s a fat chick here, and she kicks my ass on the downhill and I kick her ass on the uphill.”

To me, if you take the fun out of it, why bother? They used to punish people in the 19th century in Britain by putting them on treadmills. I actually saw one in a jail museum in Wales.

I’m not saying there’s no place for machines and gyms. It’s all good. But it should be fun. It should not be punitive.