L. Shauntay Snell’s life changed after her essay about being heckled at the New York City Marathon in 2017 went viral. We spoke with her about her fitness journey, what keeps her motivated in the face of negativity, and why it’s important for her to share her story, especially her most challenging moments.
“It’s gonna take your fat ass forever, huh?”
These were the words that greeted L. Shauntay Snell as she began the 23rd mile of her third New York City Marathon. This was the second mile she had mentally dedicated to the twins she had miscarried just months before. The nastiness caught her so off-guard, she says, that she asked the man in the crowd to repeat himself. He did. Snell had heard him correctly the first time.
Snell is no stranger to heckling and harassment. She has a robust web presence, including her blog and website, RunningFatChef.com, where she documents both her triumphs and challenges. She’s encountered all kinds of insults, from “fat ass” to the n-word, but she hasn’t let others’ negativity get in the way of sharing her health and fitness journey.
That journey began after Snell was “tricked” into signing up for a half marathon. After a friend she’d met online via MySpace said he was going to compete, Snell signed up for a half marathon, as well. “I didn’t believe him at first,” she said. “I didn’t really think he was going to go through with it.” As for herself? “It was going to be one-and-done. A beautiful monstrosity!”
In part, her one-and-done mentality came from always finding herself bored with fitness activities after a short period of time. She also felt that runners were, as she put it, “nuts.” “How can someone be happy running? But you don’t understand the insanity until you’re there,” she explained. “And running is the one activity that I haven’t gotten bored with.”
Snell began where many of us do when trying a new activity: Google. She read about running strategies, couch to 5 and 10k programs, and downloaded an app, Runkeeper, in hopes that these would help her train. But it wasn’t easy. “The couch to half marathon programs assume that you already have a three mile run base and go from there. I didn’t have that.”
This was how, early one morning, Snell found herself running at a local track, where she happened to meet members of a local chapter of Black Girls Run. The program, Snell says, was a “lifesaver.” “I was focusing on my stride, and they told me to focus on my breath instead. I needed to learn to walk and breathe first.” The advice was eye-opening, and the group support was indispensable. It wasn’t just the encouragement from others, but learning about others’ motivation for running that kept Snell motivated. “Asking people, ‘why do you run?’ and hearing their stories” was incredibly helpful. “The pavement becomes a form of therapy,” Snell told us, when you learn that everyone has their own challenges. One challenge that many of the women shared was finding time to run amidst busy work and personal lives. Snell, a mother with an active freelance career, struggled with work-life balance. The group runs, she maintains, “gave me permission to take time for running.” They “eliminated any excuses” she’d given herself about why she couldn’t fit running into her schedule. Training together also took away the stigmas Snell faced running as a curvy African-American woman.
Surviving a Marathon
Fast forward a few years, and Snell found herself preparing for her third NYC Marathon, just weeks after another marathon in Chicago. She had gotten a late start training that year, and began to notice her pace dropping all the way from 13 to 16 minute miles. What was going on? “I found out I was pregnant,” Snell told us. That wasn't about to keep her from running two marathons. But a few months before race day in New York City, Snell miscarried a set of twins.
Snell had leveraged personal challenges as motivation before. When her young son was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes just after her first half-marathon, Snell found inspiration in her son’s perseverance: “If my son can go through this, I can push through these longer distances and train for a marathon.” In the fall of 2015, Snell completed her first New York City Marathon.
Snell continued to push herself as an athlete, taking encouragement from other areas of her life. Being a working mom, “there are no days off. My entire life is a marathon,” Snell reminds herself. Running a road race began to seem like just another version of things she was already doing--and doing well. It was also therapeutic for her. “It gave me an escape. I could mentally check out on the road.”
The marathons after her miscarriages were different. In light of them, running had begun to seem superfluous. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m over this entire thing.’” But her friends stood behind her and encouraged her. After all, she’d already paid for the races and trained. Why not just run them and finish strong? “So I said to myself that this would be my last hurrah.” The day of the marathon, she began to reconsider her decision to make this race her last. “Maybe I’ll stay with running,” she recalls herself thinking. That was before the heckler in her 23rd mile.
“I’d been there before, just online,” she says. Online, Snell regularly encounters those she’s nicknamed “keyboard warriors.” Rather than lashing back, she always tries to ask why someone would be compelled to harass her. The goal is not to hurl insults in retaliation, but to start a conversation. “There’s no lesson to be learned when there’s no conversation.” Conversation is precisely what Snell is after. But there was no opportunity for conversation or engagement with the men’s voice that accosted her anonymously from the crowd. So Snell took to the internet to begin a somewhat different conversation: rather than talking with the heckler, she would talk about him and begin conversations with others.
Telling Her Story and Changing the Conversation
After she wrote about her experience at the NYC Marathon for The Root and Runner’s World, other runners began to step forward to detail their own harassment. This experience has been instructive for Snell, confirming the power of sharing not just her successes, but negative aspects of her journey, too. She uses social media, including her Twitter and Instagram accounts and her blog, “Running Fat Chef,” as platforms not only to rejoice in her victories but to be honest about her failures as well as the negative side of moving through the world as a curvy woman. “People assume that you’re supposed to take insults as constructive feedback and just be quiet,” Snell said. “But if nobody talks about these things, we’ll never be able to break the cycle, because silence lets people off the hook. So I don’t sugarcoat or hide my feelings.” But it’s more than just speaking her truth. “When we’re transparent and honest, it gives other people the opportunity to be transparent, too.” Change happens when everyone can be real about their own experiences.
That’s not to say Snell advocates bearing everything. She’s sometimes selective about what hits her blog or Instagram, remembering that self-care is not just about getting exercise or eating well. “You also have to take care of your mental health,” she points out. Snell follows what she has dubbed “airplane instructions”: put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.
But telling her story is important because Snell uses it to work against toxic stereotypes about women’s bodies. Women are expected to “follow the rules of a ‘normal’ size,” Snell explains, “and I use that word ‘normal’ in quotations because what’s normal is different in different places and cultures.” At the same time, Snell admits, “You don’t get rid of stigmas overnight,” either in your own mind or the minds of others. It’s a process.
Telling her story is just one step in that process of changing minds. The other? Hitting the pavement to prove that athletes come in all sizes. Her next challenges include a 50K (yes, you read that right: 5-0!), another half marathon, and her first triathlon. Snell doesn’t let any obstacle stand in her way, including anyone’s idea of what runners and athletes should look like. Her take? “It would be a boring damn world if we all looked the same!”