Weighty Words

A chat with the slow fat triathlete.


If you ever looked at a Nike "Just Do It” ad and thought, "Maybe tomorrow…” then Slow Fat Triathlete: Live Your Athletic Dreams in the Body You Have Now (Marlowe & Co.) is for you. Author and triathlete-in-training Jayne Williams is the patron saint of couch potatoes, one who steadfastly holds on to the belief that there is an athlete in all of us. You may not even have to look that hard. 

Throwing herself onto the bonfire of our collective vanities, Williams shares with the reader her own pilgrimage into the world of triathlons and personal fitness. This hard-earned perspective is as insightful as it is funny. Whether describing her relationship to food or her first encounter with a wet suit, Williams is a great storyteller who insists that one need not always be the best. Instead this slow fat triathlete reminds us that there's a certain measure of satisfaction in finding the finish line on our own terms. 

What made you want to do Triathlon? It's not exactly the first sport one would associate with an overweight coach potato. 
For me that was its perverse appeal. I am precisely the wrong body type for the sport. The difference between the elite body type and mine is pretty striking. But it's one of those things where I got a bug and can't really explain it. I had been involved in 5K and 10K [running] races, and I enjoyed improving my times and having that sense of camaraderie—hundreds or thousands of people gathered in the early morning to do something physical. Then I saw a friend do his first triathlon, and that just seemed like even more fun.

What motivated you to write Slow Fat Triathlete? 
I hadn't really thought about writing a book. But in the process of participating in this sport I was learning interesting things about myself and what it was like to struggle to improve and have setbacks. Then one of my friends called me and we talked about triathlon and how there was a connection between what I was doing and what Lance Armstrong experiences. 

Even if you are at a very rudimentary level you are still engaging in a process that is only different in degree from what Lance does to get ready for the Tour de France. Even Lance gets a little out of shape during the off-season. He still has to start at a place that's not where he's going to be when he goes to the starting line of the Tour. The process you go through to achieve your goal has value. Just because you're not at a professional level doesn't mean that the process isn't important. 

It's also worth paying attention to your improvement from the very beginning. Don't wait until you are at a level you have your sights on. Celebrate the little things. 

You're a positive role model for those that are either physically or emotionally challenged to meet their fitness goals. What do you say to those people? 
If you are scared about starting, just think about how you might get started. What would be your first step? It might not even be at the gym. It might be, "Well, first I need a good sports bra.” Try to break it down to the most elementary components: Would you be able to walk for 20 minutes after work? Can you do that in your neighborhood? Can you do it with the shoes and clothes you have? Do you need to find someone to do it with you? You really start to think about the nuts and bolts of that very first day. If you don't get to the first day the rest is not going to happen.

Do you think it could be our all-or-nothing mentality that contributes to our inability to get started? 
We're a country and culture of professionalism. You know, if you can't do it really well, don't do it. For example, people in America are so incredibly uptight about singing in public. If you go to parties in other countries, people will just start singing songs. They don't do that here. That same fear of making a fool of yourself in public stops people from getting started in a fitness regime or pursuing some other goal that, at the start, might seem very far away. 

I've been experiencing a certain amount of this recently. I had a very busy triathlon season last year and when I got back I took a couple weeks off and then I hurt my back and couldn't work out for six weeks. Then I got bronchitis and was sick for another month. By the time I was ready to start training again, I had a fear of starting because I was so far back from where I had been.

Sometimes a little bit of knowledge is a bad thing. 
It is and it isn't, because once you've had the experience of training yourself from the level of couch potato-hood to a certain level of fitness, you know you can do it. In the beginning you will experience a pretty rapid improvement. Those are the positives you can hang onto. 

But people who were athletic in their younger days are afraid to come back and start again, because they don't want to be reminded about how much they've lost. People who have never been athletic, they have no basis of reference at all. They think: "I've never done anything. How can I possibly do this?” Mentally it's a challenge for all of us. 

You take a very frank approach to discussing your body and your physical struggles. Beyond the humor of it all, do you find self-disclosure difficult?
No. I'm all too eager to talk about myself to anyone who will listen [laughs]. Part of it is I can say these things that other people might shrink from saying, so I almost feel obligated to take the taboo off. 

Is embarrassing oneself as bad as we think it is? 
I think there's probably some kind of anthropological reason that we are afraid to embarrass ourselves. But there are times where it's good to challenge the restrictions you put on yourself. 

Even at the gym, with all those beautiful people and all those mirrors?
It is a struggle. Even if I write very blithely—"just get out there and let your fat jiggle”—it's hard. I'm certainly not immune to those feelings, but if you have something else you want to do you have to be willing to override them. 

What do you think of the current state of dieting?
Oh, we are so messed up. I hardly know anyone who just eats intuitively and healthfully. We are so besieged with various messages. It's very hard to make sense of it all. The idea of eating everything in moderation—trying to eat a varied diet and limiting your processed foods—seems like a good way to go, but it's difficult. 

Is that why you compare weight loss to an endurance sport? 
Just like training for a triathlon or a marathon you can't lose all the weight in one day or one month or maybe even six months. You have to break down your goal into sub goals and you have to celebrate your small victories. When you're training you aren't going to go out and run 20 miles in your first week. You have to start with a couple miles and build on it. 

It's all about thinking long haul because there are going to be ups and downs. If you are trying to lose weight there are times when you eat the cake and the pizza, but just move on. 

You provide a get-real approach to getting fit. Is there a lack of honest fitness books out there?
I don't know about honest. But a lot of fitness books are written by people who haven't been coach potatoes, or if they have they aren't eager to advertise the fact. Again, it comes back to that whole professional mentality that we talked about. It seems like one has to be at the level of this incredibly fit person to even think about getting started. That can be intimidating to a lot of people. More than that, though, I feel like a lot of the struggles of getting fit are funny. I want to highlight the fact that we are all kind of ridiculous trying to do this stuff, and that's okay.

In the book you talk about the phrase "unobtainable fitness.” What are your thoughts about the media's obsession that thin and smaller is better? 
It's starting to be an issue for men but women have been dealing with it for a while. I don't want to go off on a rant about it but it's pretty absurd. For a lot of these people a huge part of what they are doing is being professionally thin. It takes a lot of dedication to thinness to do that. 

People look at these ideals of feminine beauty in our culture and think, "I can't get there.” It's like looking at Lance and saying, "I can't win seven Tours. Why even bother? Let's go to the drive-in.” As a culture we don't respect the middle ground.

That's who Slow Fat Triathlete is for—all of us in that middle ground.
I feel like I am at odds with the culture. Sometimes I talk about my triathlon career as celebrating mediocrity. People are appalled in some ways: "Don't say you are mediocre!” But no, that's okay. I'm happy with that. For one thing, it's a huge step from where I was. It's okay to finish in the middle of the pack.

Do you separate your fitness goals from your weight goals? 
I think they do have separate lives. There are things that I want to do in fitness that aren't necessarily dependent on getting thinner. But at the same time, if you are doing triathlon and you lose weight you notice that things become a lot easier. They are linked in that way. But I try not to think, "I want to do triathlon because I want to get skinny.” I think that detracts from the fun of triathlon. 

You seem to like the culture of triathlon. 
Certainly there are triathletes that are very intense and driven but most are very encouraging and welcoming. I have struck up so many fun conversations before a race when I am setting my bike up at the bike rack or arranging my gear in the transition area. Everyone is a little aware of the absurdity of what it is they are about to do. That's a really good bond between people. 

The triathletes who tend to stick around in the sport have had setbacks and have come back from them. They are patient and accepting and determined to keep going. Those are good people to be around. 

Tell me about your upcoming book. 
The working title is: I Need This Donut (To Fuel My Workout). My original thought was that it was going to be a lot of musings on eating and exercise. But now the backbone of the book is my descent into injury, illness and weight gain. Then coming out of that trough and working my way back. 

I don't think there are any books in the marketplace that address that. 
Think about what happens to people when they make their New Year's resolutions. They join the gym, they buy healthier food, and they start out right, but then life gets in the way. They get sent out of town on business or their kids get the flu or they work out too hard and get shin splints. They get discouraged and their discouragement builds and they give up again. Every time you give up again it makes it that much harder to start the next time because you think, “I've failed so many times.” 

How do you see your message evolving in this next book?
There is a chapter in Slow Fat Triathlete called something like, “When bad things happen to bad triathletes.” I talked about how you can get hurt, or sick, or lose your motivation. This next book is going to expand on what you do when the bad things happen. How do you stay positive when things happen that run counter to whatever your goals are? How do you take that next step to start turning things around? 

It's an ongoing and constant struggle isn't it? 
I have been working out regularly for six or seven years but I still fear that if I take too many days off that I'll never get started again. This lovely welcoming couch might claim me forever.