On a recent Sunday morning jog through Prospect Park, Martinus Evans was received like a conquering champion. Every few minutes, a passing runner would smile and nod, congratulating him as they sped by.
But the runners weren’t applauding him for winning any races. You might even say they were celebrating him for his track record of finishing last.
Mr. Evans is the founder of Slow AF Run Club, a virtual community for back-of-the-packers with more than 10,000 members worldwide. At 300 pounds, he is a beloved figure among runners who have felt left out of the sport. He’s graced the cover of Runner’s World, posed nude for Men’s Health and appeared in an Adidas ad. His Instagram account, @300poundsandrunning, has around 62,000 followers. And this month, he’s releasing his first book, “Slow AF Run Club: The Ultimate Guide for Anyone Who Wants to Run.”
The idea for the club was born at about mile 16 of the 2018 New York City Marathon, just after the grueling Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. Mr. Evans was cruising along when he noticed a man gesturing from the sidelines. He took out his AirPods.
“You’re slow, buddy,” the man shouted, adding an expletive to indicate just how slow. “Go home.” Mr. Evans tried to ignore him, and turned his attention back to the course, which he eventually finished in just over eight hours, or six hours behind the winner. But as the bystander repeated his taunt, Mr. Evans got angrier — then inspired.
The next time Mr. Evans, now 36, raced, he wore a shirt emblazoned with the man’s phrase, SLOW AF, and a cartoon of a smiling turtle. When he shared photos of his new racing uniform on Instagram, followers asked for shirts of their own. By early 2019, a running club was born.
Mr. Evans, who lives in Brooklyn and is now a certified running coach, is helping lead a global movement to make the sport feel safe and welcoming for anyone who wants to run, whatever their size, pace, fitness level or skin color. He said his driving message is simple. “I want everyone to know that they can run in the body they have right now.”
“Mr. Evans, you’re fat.”
Growing up on the east side of Detroit, the son of two auto factory workers, Mr. Evans, who is Black, didn’t know anyone who ran for fun. Most people he knew thought of recreational running as a white person’s activity.
As a boy, he was mocked for his size — he was known in the neighborhood as “Marty the fat kid,” he said. When he tried out for a youth football team, the coach made him wear a garbage bag on the field to “sweat out the fat,” he said. He didn’t lose weight; he just felt ashamed.
But after making his high school’s football team, he began to develop confidence in his physical abilities. He attended Lane College in Tennessee on a football scholarship, before transferring to Central Michigan University, where he majored in exercise science. “I was like, maybe I’ll finally learn how to work out and lose this weight,” he said. “And then I can finally be accepted.”
In 2012, Mr. Evans and his then girlfriend (now wife) moved to Connecticut, where she had gotten into graduate school. He took a job selling suits at Men’s Wearhouse while he figured out his next move. The job, which required him to dress men of all ages and body types, would provide an unlikely path to becoming a fitness influencer.
After months on the storeroom floor wearing stiff dress shoes, he began to feel an ache in his hip. The pain brought him to an orthopedic surgeon, who, he writes in his book, took one look at him and told him: “Mr. Evans, you’re fat. You have two options: Lose weight or die.”
Mr. Evans remembered holding back tears while, “with a half-cocked smile,” defiantly telling the doctor, “I’m going to run a marathon.” He said the doctor laughed and told him running a marathon would also kill him.
He left the appointment angry and still in pain (another physician later diagnosed him with hip bursitis) and drove directly to a running store to buy a pair of trainers, determined to prove the doctor wrong. For extra motivation, Mr. Evans started a blog he called 300 Pounds and Running, where he began to chart both his running progress and weight loss. After a few months, he was surprised to discover strangers were reading and cheering him on.
He found that he enjoyed running, despite the passers-by who would occasionally hurl insults at him. More than once, Mr. Evans said he has also been stopped and questioned by police while jogging. When he felt defeated, he’d glance at a tattoo on his right wrist that reads “no struggle, no progress.”
Eventually he ran a 5K, then a half marathon. Finally, in the fall of 2013, Mr. Evans flew home to run the Detroit Free Press Marathon and deliver on his vow in the doctor’s office. When he crossed the finish line, he wept.
He has since gotten a master’s degree in public health research and another in digital media and design. He said running offers him a sense of self-determination, confidence and purpose. And while it initially helped him lose about 90 pounds, dropping him below 300 for a time, he realized that running to lose weight took away from that satisfaction. “I wasn’t 90 pounds happier,” he said. He decided to stop counting calories and run just for fun.
He remembered that what made him a successful salesman at Men’s Wearhouse was the ability to help customers feel good just as they were. He suspected other runners could benefit from focusing on the joy of the sport over weight loss. On his blog, he leaned into his persona as a 300-pound runner.
“No struggle, no progress.”
Historically, the sport of running has made many people in big bodies feel like they have to lose weight to belong — to be considered real runners, said Samantha White, an assistant professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College. By “amplifying runners who aren’t focused on time, but rather on community,” she said, Mr. Evans is creating a space “where recreational runners, especially Black recreational runners, can find a place.”
As such, the first rule of Slow AF Run Club, which exists primarily on an app by the same name, is that members can’t talk about their weight or weight loss.
“It is a judgement-free zone,” said Jetaun Pope, 42, a high school algebra teacher in Chicago who is a longtime member and moderates the club’s online discussions. “It feels good to feel like you’re not alone,” she said. “The more you see people in all bodies” being active, the more “it encourages you to take the first step.”
The club’s app is free to join; Mr. Evans earns a living through coaching sessions, merchandise sales and brand partnerships. He also works to persuade race directors to keep water stations and finish lines intact for back-of-the-pack runners, and athletic wear brands to include a wider range of sizes.
When counseling runners, Mr. Evans advises that, before even slipping on shoes, they should focus on retraining their brains to adopt the mind set that they can run, despite what a thin-obsessed, speed-focused culture might say. In his book he encourages them to neutralize their inner critic by naming it — his is called Otis, which he imagines like an “ignorant, drunk uncle.” Lastly, he tells runners to move forward however they can, even if it requires what he calls “delusional self-belief.”
On a practical level, he recommends that people run 70 to 80 percent of the time at what he calls “sexy pace” — “the pace you’d go if you were running in slow motion on a beach,” Baywatch style — or what most other coaches call a conversational speed. Starting out, he suggests running for 15 seconds and then walking for 90 seconds. Then over twelve weeks or so, progress to five minutes of running and one minute of walking.
“Starting gradual is great,” said Anne Brady, a professor of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. “It’s all about consistency. So you have to start at something that you’re able to sustain in a short bout.” She also advised that larger people carefully select supportive, comfortable footwear to reduce impact on their joints.
More than a decade after he took up running, with eight marathons to his name, Mr. Evans is still 300 pounds. He’s healthy by all of the usual metrics, though he doesn’t measure his well being — or success as a runner — in numbers. He runs simply to be able to continue running, for himself and for others. The longer he shows up and runs slow AF, he said, the easier it becomes for other runners to do the same.
Danielle Friedman is a journalist in New York City and author of “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World.”