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|April 9-15, 2009
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These competitors are big and proud
By Sam McManis
Jayne Williams, by her own admission, is slow. And fat. And a triathlete.
You gotta problem with that, pal?
Williams, 45, certainly does not. Nor does she see any incongruity. She relishes her body, imperfect though it may be. She uses it — all 5 feet 10 inches, 273 pounds — to swim, run and bike with abandon and without self-consciousness.
Sure, things jiggle. Absolutely, those hard-body athletes whiz by her. Heck yeah, she has struggled at times to complete the 25 triathlons under her Spandex belt. But Williams is out there, dutifully and enthusiastically, pounding the pavement, churning in the water and pedaling in the bike lane as if she belongs.
Which, of course, she does.
“I’ve always been, like, ‘Oh, who the hell cares what people think?’” Williams says. “I can tell myself, ‘OK, I’m out here. I’ve done the work. I deserve to be here and have a right to be here.’”
Williams, who has just published her second exercise book, Shape Up With the Slow Fat Triathlete ($15.95, Da Capo Press, 288 pages), lines up among the throng of recreational athletes each weekend at 10K runs and marathons, triathlons and century bike rides, with other bodies that don’t fit the lean, sinewy endurance-competitor mold.
Such people of size are called “Clydesdales” (for men) and “Athenas” (for women). Though it may at first blush appear condescending or even a bit mean, many embrace the terms and seek out races that feature prize divisions for men over 200 pounds and women over 150.
Far from feeling segregated and demeaned, Clydesdales and Athenas say they embrace the moniker and feel included. Though most races still do not have specific “size” divisions, race directors such as Rich Hanna say Clydesdales and Athenas are participating in growing numbers.
After all, why should those wiry men and waiflike women get all the trophies? The big people are out there working just as hard.
“I hadn’t entered into that division before, but looking up the times (from 2007) I thought, ‘Why not?’” says Brian Olson, a 6 feet 3 inches, 208-pound runner who finished third among Clydesdales in the 2008 California International Marathon. “I ended up getting a nice wooden plaque.”
Lest you think Olson, a 34-year-old Elk Grove resident, was just plodding along like, well, a Clydesdale horse, his finishing time of 3 hours, 12 minutes, 56 seconds (7:21 pace) beat many runners 50 pounds lighter.
“They have age-graded races and categories; why not weight-graded?” Olson says. “I’ve come to realize that, even with my body type, even if I wanted to be the best (marathoner) out there, there’s a certain limit based on my body type. So it’s good to compete with people similar to you.”
Olson certainly does not have a classical endurance-athlete build. He has broad shoulders, a barrel chest and shorter legs. A motorcycle accident years ago messed up his ankle for running — or so he thought. Oh, and his feet: Size 15 and “flat as a pancake.”
Yet, he runs. And runs well.
These days, in fact, Olson has almost run himself out of the Clydesdale division. Depending on the rigor of his training, his weight hovers between 198 and 208. When he started running in 2004, his weight had swelled to 240 pounds.
“I feel a lot healthier now,” he says.
Deceptively fit competitors
But shedding pounds is not the primary motivating force for larger runners. As Williams says, “I’ve actually gained weight while training 12 to 14 hours a week for a half-Ironman (triathlon). How is that possible? You’ve never seen me eat. I just have too big an appetite. It’s not about weight.”
Rather, it’s being fit while being big. Those two notions are not mutually exclusive, Clydesdales and Athenas say.
“You can be really big and deceptively fast,” says Clarissa Theriault, 36, a top Athena finisher at the 2008 Golden State Triathlon.
“Any of these races, when you’re out there, people who you wouldn’t immediately identify on the street as a triathlete will blow by
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