Books: Running as 'a reliable source of joy'
The word "FAT" stands out in, well, big fat letters on the cover of Hopkinton, Mass., author Jennifer Graham’s book.
As the title suggests, the South Carolina native has written a funny, yet deeply personal and at times excruciatingly painful story about body image and exercise in "Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner."
You’ll laugh, and you might cry reading it, but you’ll also find yourself being nudged to get out there and run, no matter what shape you’re in.
With a touch of the late Nora Ephron in her, Graham, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Runner’s World, Family Circle, the Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and other magazines and newspapers, has infused her quick wit into the story, and laid herself open in this humorous and poignant memoir about life and love, marriage and divorce, and how running has helped her mentally and physically deal with tough times.
Twenty-five years ago, Graham was a young copy editor living in Columbia, S.C. She’d been a standout high school journalist and later a graduate of the University of South Carolina who’d battled weight issues all her life. Sitting all day at a desk at work, she was sedentary at home, too, and about 50 pounds overweight.
"My weight was always an issue, the awkward canvas on which everything else was painted," she writes in the book.
Then one night she had a dream about running around the lake near her home.
"The image was so real and compelling, so satisfying, that I sat up and resolved to start running that day," she writes in the book.
Jumping out of bed, she threw a pair of tennis sneakers, a big T-shirt and a pair of old gray sweatpants, headed out her door and started running down the road.
As she ran, she thought she heard someone laughing, maybe laughing at her. She turned red-faced, but she kept going. And she hasn’t stopped since, now running four or five days a week and entering the occasional race, too.
Beyond cardiovascular health, running is also mental exercise that helps her clear the cobwebs from her mind, Graham says. It’s even given her the strength to chase down an occasional wayward donkey or two.
Donkeys? We’ll get to them later.
Like Ephron’s short, punchy "I Feel Bad About My Neck," Graham’s story moves at a quick pace as she weaves pieces of her life together like a crazy quilt, following no strict chronological form. Her easygoing style draws us in to her busy life, where she tackles challenges with a wry sense of humor.
Taking a poke at herself, she describes she didn’t look like much of a runner back in 1987 when she first set out running. "I could have, however, inspired a reality show called ‘Fanny 911,’ " she writes.
That was before giving birth to her four children, Mencken, 20, Alexandra, 18, Galen, 13, and Katherine, 10, and before her 18-year marriage – and 2009 divorce - to conservative radio talk show host Michael Graham. (If you didn’t like him before, this book won’t change your mind.)
It was certainly before she realized running, by itself, doesn’t really help you lose weight, she says.
"I ran because I thought if I were a runner, I would look like all the runners I knew: square-jawed, angular, chiseled. … A lean, mean fighting machine. That’s the look I was after," she writes.
Slowly, Graham went from running down the road to running nearly every day for 45 minutes or an hour. Despite being overweight, she discovered she was good at running.
But, "It was a dangerous time. In those first few weeks, despite my courageous first run, I knew too much derision could send me, whimpering, back to my pizzas and couch."
Then, after she’d been running for about a year, she had an epiphany during a run one evening, when the moon was full. "For the first time in my life, I recognized that exertion, regardless of one’s size, was a reliable source of joy."
In 2006, because of her then-husband had landed a job with (former) talk radio station WTKK in Boston, they made the move to her current home in Hopkinton.
"The only problem with Hopkinton is that the Boston Marathon starts here, and a lot of people hate all the roads being closed, and all the noise and hoopla," the real estate agent told her. That sealed the deal for Graham, who relishes cheering on the throngs of Marathon runners each April.
And Hopkinton is where the donkeys, Jo-Jo and Foggy, come in. They’re kept in a barn in Graham’s backyard where they aren’t really good for much except for "sucking hay" as Graham puts it, and looking like they’re ready to star in a Christmas nativity. Cute, except when they decide to make a break for it and roam the neighborhood. So running -- technically you’d call it chasing -- has become sort of necessity for Graham.
Now, years after taking those first steps, running is like breathing, says Graham, who admits she’s become "addicted to the endorphins."
And, "I’m at the point where I don’t care what I look like or what people think when they see me running." She’s often seen running through the nearby Hopkinton State Park, clocking 5 or 6 miles in 45 minutes to an hour. Slow but steady is her style, she says.
Over the years running has helped her stay healthy and slim down, and although she hasn’t achieved the look of those "tall Shirtless Wonders," she’s graduated from the old gray sweatpants and oversized T-shirt and earned a sense of achievement.
And, at 5-foot-5, and about 157 pounds, her body mass index might be a little on the high side, but, "Time goes on" she writes. "Wrinkles incur. Still, I run." The point is, it just feels good.