Emmie Harrison-West taking a selfie while running the Great North Run, on a bridge with oher runners behind her.
My head is empty when I run (Picture: Emmie Harrison-West)

Wrapped in a foil blanket, wet to the core and aching, I felt shell-shocked.

I was finally on a train home after an exhausting day full of highs and lows.

Clutching a Paw Patrol paper cup of prosecco, I wore a medal around my neck.

I’d just completed my first half-marathon – the Great North Run in my hometown, Newcastle. It’s something I never thought I’d be able to achieve as a plus-sized woman.

I can’t fully describe how running makes me feel.

I hate the idea of it. Hate getting ready for it by pulling on too-tight leggings and sports bras, and attempting to psych myself up before hitting the pavements.

But after the first few kilometres of heavy techno in my ears, I start to feel… well, free.

People ask me if it’s a good time to think, and I say that I think about absolutely nothing. I don’t worry about what I look like, if my breathing is too loud, what parts of me are jiggling for the world to see, or what’s been bothering me that day.

My head is empty and I just run.

Emmie Harrison-West standing in a crowd, smiling at the camera, before the run. She's wearing a Mind running shirt and her name and marathon number, and there are crowds all around her and trees/sky in the distance.
I never thought I would be able to run 21km with a body like mine (Picture: Emmie Harrison-West)

Though I’ve been running for years – since my late teens – I’ve not always had a healthy relationship with exercise.

I’ve let other people’s presumptions of me and my body overwhelm me and cloud my judgement about using exercise as punishment rather than as a release.

As a way to torture my body for being overweight, not enhance it. Make it stronger. 

I’d done 5km charity races in the past with family and friends, but never committed to long-distance running. It wasn’t for people like me, I said – it was for lean, fitter, athletic people. Those with a ‘runner’s body’.

I never thought I’d be able to run 21km – or 13.1 miles – with a body like mine. Yet, before turning 30 this March, I realised I wanted to live a life of ‘oh wells!’ not ‘what ifs’.

So, holding my breath back in January, I signed up with one of my best friends and successfully secured a place to run for Mind, the mental health charity.

Emmie Harrison-West taking a smiley selfie in her Mind running top before the race, with crowds behind her.
What nearly sent me over the edge during my training was my running gear (Picture: Emmie Harrison-West)

Training for a half-marathon over summer is not the one, though. Not when you have a flurry of 30th birthdays, engagements, weddings, baby announcements and Glastonbury festival tickets.

But while following a training programme for a solid 16 weeks before my big race (I did three shorter runs and a long run each week, with strength training and two rest days in between) I managed to run nearly 16km in one sitting – my longest distance ever. With plenty of stopping and bush wees, no less.

I won’t lie, it was a pretty horrific two hours and 19 minutes. But I’d done it, and a bath had never felt so good afterwards. On the day itself, I thought I’d be carried by the crowds for the last 5km – and I was right.

What nearly sent me over the edge during my training was my running gear. Everything felt too tight – even the XL men’s vests and women’s T-shirts I was sent to run and represent in. I had plenty of tears over my back rolls and arms before the race had even begun.

Picture of a sign reading 'TO THE START' in Newcastle, with buildings/crowds/buses in the background.
For once, no one doubted me, or my ability (Picture: Emmie Harrison-West)

It hit home that maybe, just maybe, this race wasn’t for me after all. Oh, that and a rather tasty bout of plantar fasciitis – it’s when the tissue on the sole of your foot becomes irritated and inflamed, causing heel pain. It’s caused by unsupportive footwear and hard surfaces.

Never again, I kept telling myself.

But with the love and support of my husband, Jethro, my friends and family, the day flew around quicker than I could tie up my shoelaces.

Walking to our starting pen on Newcastle’s Town Moor, my friend and I did 8,500 steps before we even crossed the start line an hour later – in the blazing sunshine.

As ever, I was nervous about being the elephant in the room. A constant anxiety for anyone who has a body that is bigger than society’s idealised figure.

Emmie Harrison-West while running the Great North Run. Picture is taken from behind - Emmie's hand is in the air and there are runners all around her.
My heart soared as total strangers cheered my name (Picture: Emmie Harrison-West)

Except, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

My pen was a perfect example of the shapes and sizes of very normal, everyday people, grinning, laughing, joking with each other. Wishing luck to friends and strangers alike. For once, no one doubted me, or my ability.

We were all different, but we were all runners. We could all do it.

My heart soared as total strangers cheered my name, handing out jelly babies, orange segments, ice pops and lollies in the baking heat – forgoing water bill worries to spray pressure washers and hose pipes over us. I choked back tears as friends and my husband met me on the Tyne Bridge with sweaty hugs and kisses.

In the midst of the race, pace doesn’t matter, either – whether you’re into ‘slow running’, or need to stop for wee or water breaks. What matters is getting past the finish line, and you have plenty of support from the crowds to help.

I passed people dressed as rhinos, holding a model of the Tyne Bridge, and a 102-year-old-man briskly walking it with his family. I was even racing with a man who carried a washing machine on his back the whole way. I never once saw him stop for a break.

Emmie Harrison-West taking a smiley selfie on a train, holding her medal (on a red ribbon) between her teeth and holding the Paw Patrol paper cup of prosecco.
I couldn’t have been prouder of myself (Picture: Emmie Harrison-West)

And, three hours later, 400m from the finishing line, as the heavens opened and biblical rain that followed was like nothing we’d ever seen before, I was hysterical.

Hysterically laughing at the fact that I did it, that my body had made it through one of the toughest challenges yet, even though I could hardly see.

Sobbing in my husband and friends’ arms, clutching soggy donuts and a bottle of prosecco in the pouring rain, I couldn’t have been prouder of myself. 

Family sent me pictures of homemade banners, and offers of a warm bed after they’d tracked me the whole way, repeating that it was an incredible achievement to be proud of.

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That I should be proud of my stamina, determination and energy – even at a size 16-18.

I’d done it with the body size that I was set to fail with, based on other people’s expectations and incorrect, harmful presumptions of fat people.

In fact, despite being scarred by the travel chaos afterwards and my phone freaking out in the flash floods I’ve decided I might do it all over again next year, too.

Yes, even despite the chafing of my bum cheeks.

To donate, visit Emmie’s Just Giving page here

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk

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