Essay: I'm the heaviest woman to complete a marathon

Courtesy Ragen Chastain

No. 136, Ragen Chastain, crossing the finish line.

I was never a runner, and I had already completed my "bucket list" marathon. So why was I in the middle of Maine getting ready to run another one? For that, we need to back up a bit.

I moved to Los Angeles from Austin, Texas, in 2013, leaving my ballroom dance coach behind. After three national championships, I decided that instead of getting back into the ballroom, I would try a sport that didn't come easily to me.

I couldn't think of anything I was worse at than distance running, so a friend and I decided to take on the 26.2-mile challenge of the Seattle Marathon. Before we had even toed the starting line, I had promised myself that I would never do another one.

After completing the Seattle Marathon, I learned that at nearly 300 pounds, I could have set a Guinness World Record for the heaviest woman to complete a marathon. Obviously, it would be cool to have a world record, but I'm not the best runner. However, I knew by setting the record I could encourage other plus-size athletes who are interested in distance running to get involved.

You can't be awarded the record retroactively, so I had to tackle another marathon. But the first marathon had been such a painful slog. I was having trouble psyching myself up to do it all again. To get myself motivated, I started listening to audiobooks about endurance athletes, and many of them talked about completing Ironman triathlons. That seemed like the ultimate challenge for my goal of getting outside my comfort zone, so I decided to take on the second marathon as part of a bigger challenge -- to eventually complete an Ironman triathlon.

Initially, it seemed like I spent as much time trying to choose a race as I did training. I had to find a race that had a long-enough time limit, or my marathon might end in the support and gear (SAG) wagon instead of at the finish line. My Ironman challenge would be flat, so I wanted a marathon that offered a similar terrain. I was also set on a cool climate. Marathons are hard enough without heat stroke!

I chose a Mainly Marathons race in Sanford, Maine. Their marathons have no time limits, and this one was billed as a flat, paved course. I even had a friend there who could help coordinate all the Guinness requirements.

The race was on! And I had to step up my training.

Most of the runners from the audiobooks I was listening to often started out as slow runners, but they quickly progressed, and soon they were flying through their ever-increasing miles. That wasn't my experience. I started out at a 20-minute mile, and it had taken me two years to get down to an 18-minute mile. I knew speed wouldn't be on my side. My strategy was just to stay focused on the end goal and keep my energy levels up throughout. For that, I needed to train myself to include nutrition and hydration breaks while on my weekly "long run," which started at 5 miles and got progressively longer as the training progressed.

Mainly Marathons are looped courses that have one aid station, where you can rehydrate and refuel each go-around. I adopted that schedule. Other races have mobile aid stations along the course, but it may be rolling faster than you are, so if you're a slow runner, be prepared to go it alone. One trick is to wear an empty hydration backpack. You can keep extra nutrition inside, and if they start closing the aid stations, you can fill up the backpack's bladder so you'll have water at the end of the race.

Courtesy Ragen Chastain

Ragen Chastain holding her Guinness World Records certification.

I flew in a few days before the race to prepare myself. The Guinness rules are very specific -- I had to be wearing a camera at all times during the marathon, so I borrowed two GoPros that were alternated each loop, two batteries and 12 memory cards. A weigh-in was required at the start and finish of the race with two impartial witnesses and a film crew. Everyone had to fill out paperwork.

When I signed up for this marathon, I was anticipating a sunny, 60-degree forecast. As the race got closer, rain became a possibility, so I ordered waterproof gear just in case. On race day it was 40 degrees, 20 mph winds, and rain was on the horizon. I placed my iPod in a plastic baggie, put on my shiny new raincoat and just kept telling myself, "At least it's not hot!"

That wasn't the only curveball. When I reached the starting line, I learned that the organizers had made changes to the course so there would be 14 loops and not 12. Then there were the hills. Like a lot of runners of various speeds, I do walk/run intervals instead of running the entire course. On the first of the 14 loops that made up the marathon, I realized that the course was much hillier than I expected. Good news: I was no longer freaking out about hitting my goal time. Bad news: I was now freaking out about finishing at all. My race plan was not going to work, so I made the executive decision to walk the uphills, run the downhills and do walk/run intervals for the rest. 

The other participants were incredibly friendly and supportive throughout the race -- so much so that I wished I liked running so I could see them again. Finally, I ran through the muddy parking lot and crossed the finish line, where I met the Guinness weigh-in team and witnesses, the race organizers and even a few fellow racers who had kindly stuck around.

Like in my first marathon, I had finished my second marathon dead last. The unexpected challenges of the weather and the hills gave me one of those rare opportunities to do more than I thought I was capable of doing. I was overjoyed and more than a little relieved to have finished. I also beat my last marathon time by two hours, which was another personal win.

Then it was time for certification. I was a little nervous because I wouldn't know if I had the Guinness World Record until I submitted all of the evidence. They reviewed my GoPro recordings, verified my weight and certified the record. At a little over 288 pounds, I was officially the heaviest woman to complete a marathon. This title will serve as an example to the plus-size community that there is no such thing as a limitation.

I'm often asked if I think everyone should run a marathon. The answer is no. Running -- and sports in general -- isn't for everyone, and that's cool. What I do think, and the reason that I'm on a journey to complete an Ironman, is that whether you want to run a marathon, or knit the world's largest tea cozy, if there's an achievement that captivates you, go after it. The bigger or more ridiculous, the better!

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