I recently ran in this 5K road race and was interested to see that it had a 'Cruiser' category (150+ lbs. for women, 200+ for men). It's pretty rare for a 5K to have weight classes, but who knows, maybe this is a new trend. Anyway, when I registered, I had to think for a minute about whether I wanted to be a Cruiser or not. Not because I didn't want anyone to know I weigh at least 150 lbs. (ha!), and not because I thought the other runners would judge me -- in fact, I've found the running community to be much kinder towards fat people than most other sectors of society. The reason I was conflicted was that I wondered what the existence of a weight class is saying, exactly. In general I want the world to be nicer to fat people, but do I want special treatment because I'm fat, and do I want people to think of fat as being a handicap that should allow you to compete separately from 'normal' people? I don't know. And you could interpret weight classes that way, because you have a lot better shot at winning a prize in the Cruiser category than in your own age group (for example, in this particular race my time put me in 8th place among Cruiser women as opposed to 18th among non-Cruiser women aged 25-29). (click below to keep reading)
But then I thought about it some more, and I realized that weight classes aren't about the competition. I think they are really about fun. First, the existence of weight classes send an encouraging message to fat people entering the sport. They say that fat people can actually run, and that there are enough of us to warrant a whole category. Second, although the word 'handicap' sounds like something nobody wants, it is nonetheless true that your running speed has a lot to do with how much you weigh. In effect, therefore, weight is a handicap in the sport of running. It's just a fact. I've been able to run a much faster mile at times when I was lighter even when I wasn't in as good a shape as I am now. And if you've watched enough distance running events, you know that the elite runners have hardly any body fat. So I don't think anyone actually believes that a fat person has the same shot at a prize in a 5K as a skinny person even at the same fitness level. But the weight classes add a new twist, because now some really fit heavier people who are great runners can now get some recognition. I don't think it takes anything away from them for the prize to be in a weight class; similarly, that one guy in your hometown who wins all the local events doesn't feel funny about his medals just because he wasn't competing against some world-class champion runner from Kenya. He's proud that he beat out all the people he could realistically compete against that day, namely, the people who showed up at that particular race. Similarly, the #1 woman is a real winner and doesn't feel like a phony because she wasn't competing against the men. By the same token, the fat person who wins the Cruiser category should also feel good and get some recognition for beating out all the people that he could realistically compete against, namely, the other people in his or her weight class.
So after considering all this, I signed up for the Cruiser class. I'm glad I did, because the more names that are listed as Cruisers in the results, the more people will see that fat people aren't ashamed to publicly embrace their weight, and hopefully that will encourage more fat people to become runners. And the more fat runners there are, the prouder the rest of us will feel while we're out there jiggling down the street.