A great conversation with America and Emma from @our_happy_pace

In their words, “We are America and Emma, sisters and runners who are passionate about challenging runner stereotypes and making it known that runners aren’t a certain weight, size, color, or pace.”

I love the honesty America and Emma bring to their Instagram @our_happy_pace.  They are not afraid to share the hard parts and the occasional tears, but they also bring a clear love for the sport. Running can sometimes feel like an unwelcome place for people that don’t fit the stereotypical runner look, but these ladies are out there and creating representation for themselves and others.

I appreciate the time they took to have this conversation with me and their willingness to be so open with their story!

What made you want to start running?

Emma: For me it was a way back from a traumatic middle school experience. It was a really track heavy school and everyone did cross country and I was super overweight and asthmatic and got teased all the time because I couldn’t finish the mile in PE. I had dreams wishing I could run and do all this. Part of the reason I started running was we have a local race here called Reno Tahoe Odyssey and I was like that’s what I want to do. So I found a team and that’s what changed all my running for me.

America: The first time I ever vividly remember running was in sixth grade PE for the timed mile and I tried so hard.  I didn't understand I was having an asthma attack at the time, and I remember walking past a teacher’s aid and she said “you need to pull your shorts down, your thighs look disgusting.” And then I remember collapsing while having an asthma attack and it was awful and really traumatic. So I don’t think I ran again until years later. But Emma started running so I followed along with her.  Emma has always been and always will be the strongest runner I know. She’s just tenacious. Once you see someone who looks like you and has asthma too it makes you want to crush it. Everyone knows she’s a badass. So I think I got into running because someone I admired and loved did it.

You two have led the Global #SportsBraSquad Day runs in Reno and you currently lead the Reno Badass Lady Gang running group, is that something you ever imagined yourself doing?

America: I think the only way we understood we could influence other women is because of the people we brought onto our Reno Tahoe Odyssey team. There were a lot of women that never would consider themselves runners, but now they have done it.  Maybe we didn't realize we could encourage or influence runners, but I think it’s mostly getting people excited for things. But if you asked me in middle school or several years ago I would have laughed.

Emma: America’s and my personalities, once we love something we get obsessed with it and we get other people obsessed about it.  We love running so much, so of course we would have had a running group and gotten other people excited about it. Now that we are older we are always going a million miles an hour to break barriers.

Tell me more about breaking barriers

America: Any time I talk about running I’m automatically met with skepticism so I feel like I have to show my resume of running, like I have done these races and run this many miles, etc., because people don’t believe it at first.  We’re just not what you would typically think of as runners. We have both been fat shamed at races. I remember at one race someone told this guy “you have to run faster that fat girl is going to lap you.” And I was tired and struggling and at that moment I wanted to break down, but it kept me going...and I totally crushed him.  That is what keeps me going, people underestimate me and I’m going to give it everything I have. That’s my drive for doing challenging things.

Emma: The more people that know me the more they know I can do it, but a lot of people assume that because I’m heavier I can't do it or don’t believe I can run a sub seven mile.  It’s this constant underestimation. We have enough support or at least support each other so we are happy to take the brunt of it to welcome other people into this space. I feel like people can say stuff to me now and it’s fine, I don’t care who you are, so I’m going to stand up here and make space for other women. I think the great thing about having America here is I’m never alone in this. At the end of the day at least we have each other and we’ll always be there for anyone else who comes.

America: That’s what we want for other people, we want everyone who comes to our runs or who follows us to know that we would go to bat for them. That is the most beautiful thing: running makes you vulnerable but there are those moments where you see that breakthrough where someone hits a new new pace or gets an achievement so if we can be any part of someone’s journey that’s amazing.

Do you remember the first time you took your shirt off and ran in just your sports bra? How did that go?  

Emma: I don’t think I remember because at this point I do it all the time.

America: It would have had to have been before the first sports bra squad day. I think the first year we did sports bra squad was the first year I ran Reno Tahoe Odyssey shirtless and I remember that was a very conscious choice because I was taking my shirt off in front of other runners and that was a big deal. And I did the thing all fat people do and compared myself to the other people there. But I remember being so relieved because it was so hot and it made it so much cooler. I just remember that being the first race I made the decision to do that and I remember being nervous but so relieved.

Emma: Even now unless it is freezing I run without my shirt because I want others to look at me and say “look at that woman, she can do it.” I want to make other women comfortable...and also make myself comfortable.

Did you ever think you would post photos of yourself running in your sports bra?

Emma: No...no.

America: The first photos we ever took I downloaded an editing app because I was like you can see my stomach! But Emma was like no, you can’t do that.  And I’m ashamed of that now, but as women we get told what is ok about our bodies. Like it’s cool that I have a big booty and big boobs, but not a big stomach.  So there’s power in that vulnerability. And if we take a photo that is because that is where we are in that moment. No matter what we look like, we just did the thing we are proud of.

Emma: For the first time I have one of my bosses running on my team and I’m just going to have to get over it.

America: This race is kind of like a Ragnar, it’s a 178 mile relay race, so you are gross and you are sweaty and you are sleeping in vans and it is the most vulnerable you possibly can be.

Talk a little bit about your personal journeys with body image and how your relationship with your body has evolved over time

America: I remember I wasn’t really aware of my body until seventh grade when I realized I couldn’t fit into some of the clothes the other girls were wearing.  It was also difficult in high school because I was talking to a guy and we had a pretty serious relationship but publicly he wouldn’t talk to me, but he was talking to this girl who was tiny. So I was like I get it, you will bare my soul to me, but won’t be seen with me. That was pretty hard.

When I was 20 I joined a gym and there was a nutrition component and there was a detox every 8 weeks. I lost a lot of weight and gained it back, lost weight, gained it back. I finally got to my goal weight and I remembered emailing a coach and said “I’m at my goal weight why do I feel like shit?” And she said “Maybe you need to try harder.”  And I realized no matter what my weight was it wasn’t going to feel good if I wasn’t right with myself. So we stopped going to that gym. I haven’t weighed myself for a year and a half now and there are times I feel in tune with my body and times I don’t feel good. It’s like being in a relationship, so if I don’t make the time and invest in it I’m not going to be happy with it. I never feel like I’ve totally cracked it.  Some days are good and some days are still hard. It takes patience, like a good relationship. That’s what I need to have with myself. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was self esteem.

Emma: I have always been fat, even in elementary school, and I was mercilessly bullied for my weight. I remember having to wear a sports bra in second grade because I already had boobs.  There was never a time I fit in. So I was like this is how I am, I’m always going to be like this and no one is going to love me because I’m fat. I don’t remember how I started restricting, but I remember having packet of oatmeal in the morning and then having a half peanut butter sandwich with 12 raisins and then I would go home and work out for an hour and a half.  And that was a year of my life. When I started I weighed 275 lbs and when my mom said “you need to stop” I was at 155 lbs. I lost my hair, I lost my period. But all I heard was praise. I got a boyfriend and lots of praise, but I realized I couldn't sustain this if I wanted to live. I could lose more weight, but it would come with a cost. So I finally separated myself from it and realized there had to be a better way. It’s still a daily journey.  There were so many things I felt like I couldn’t eat because they would make me fat, so it has been an interesting journey of telling myself it is ok to eat things.

I was also in a very emotionally abusive relationship for a long time, so coming out of that and meeting my husband changed my life. My husband is very accepting of who I am and I think that has let me be who I am. It was a big thing to know it’s going to be ok, no matter how much my weight goes up and down my husband will be there. I think that had a huge impact.  Over the last six-seven years I’m a different person. I’m less angry and less hateful. And that’s on me, I hated who I was. Now I can dance naked and be ok. I can look in the mirror and say this is ok. You’re not going to get a new body tomorrow, so love it. It’s a constant journey of saying you are enough, and you don’t have to look a certain way.

America: People compliment you on weight loss all the time and it can be a really dangerous feedback loop because it’s not always healthy. But being a runner and running the distances we do it had to change the relationship we had with food.  Part of me still looks at how many calories I burned after a run and think “oh I’ll be in a deficit,” but now I see that I need to refuel. Running has changed our relationship with food, we can see that it’s fuel...and also cake is good.

Emma: I think that also as you get older, there is no point in putting that baggage on you.  It’s heavy and you don’t have to carry it.

Do you have any advice for someone else trying to get into running or feel more comfortable with their place in the running world?

Emma: Take it one day at time. It’s not going to be one to a thousand overnight. There are individual steps that need to happen and it will be a few steps forward and a few steps back. I have no doubt running will change your life, so trust that the process is worth it. So just take it a moment at a time. It may be awesome it may not, but you will never know unless you try it.

America: My husband is one of those people who is naturally gifted. No matter what he does he’s really good at it. I was into running when we met so he’s gotten into it.  Recently in the last few months he has had a lot going on and has had bad runs and that has never happened to him so he is like “I don’t understand.” I remind him you need to have shitty runs so the good ones are that much more special. Take runs as they come, but a single run isn’t going to define you as a runner. I remind runners sometimes you just need a break and that’s ok, running will be there for you when you are ready. So come get it when you can.

Jessie Barnes