Becoming the Badass Within
Ultra running changed Jeffrey Binney‚Äôs life. Now the plus-sized running influencer is helping others feel more confident, both on and off the trail. From BESIDE Issue 13
Jeffrey Binney‚Äôs first stage was a big metal livestock fence. He would straddle the top rail and perform musical theatre routines for the workers on his family‚Äôs pig farm in Missouri.
‚ÄúI was putting on shows for people all the time,‚ÄĚ he tells me over a faulty video connection from his Airstream, parked on a mountain in Utah. ‚ÄúIf you were in the mood for it, I bet I was a fucking blast. But if you were not in the mood for it, I bet I was a nightmare.‚ÄĚ
Today, the 40-year-old ultra runner and body positivity advocate dances for a more eager audience than back on the farm. His extravagantly choreographed videos for Instagram and TikTok have earned him a large following and sponsorship deals.
Among online running coaches and influencers, Binney offers a contrast: he‚Äôs playful, self-effacing, and deliriously affirming.
In some ways, Binney hasn‚Äôt changed much since his adolescent days of moonlighting by the pigpen. He‚Äôs still a husky, red-haired funnyman with the bravura of a Hollywood starlet and a perpetual air of mischief ‚ÄĒ part Miss America, part Dennis the Menace. But becoming who he is today also required him to turn his identity inside out.
‚ÄúI was perfectly fine living my preordained gay theatre-kid chubby life,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúAs it turns out, I‚Äôm kind of a badass.‚ÄĚ
Do cool shit and don‚Äôt die
Binney grew up on a typical farm in the heartland: his dad hunted, his mom cooked, they all shopped at J.C. Penney and ate out at Olive Garden. But he was anything but a conventional farm kid.
Diagnosed with ADHD, he rarely stopped moving and his leg shook constantly when he was sitting. ‚ÄúI remember feeling out of control in my body,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI had energy that wanted to go somewhere.‚ÄĚ
A lot of that exuberance went into singing and choreography. Recognizing his gifts, Binney‚Äôs parents exempted him from most of the normal farm chores. Instead, his mom, Deb, took him to theatre and dance classes as often as five nights a week, which represented a huge investment of both time and money.
The roots of Binney‚Äôs transformation into an ultra running badass go back to that period of his life, though he never could have predicted it at the time. When he was 11 years old, his mother was diagnosed with ‚Äúobesity-related heart disease.‚ÄĚ She was given two or three years to live but survived another 20. She made those two decades an unceasing downpour of love for Jeffrey and his sister.
When she died in 2012 at the age of 58, he realized he was headed down the same path. Her passing inspired in Binney an urgent desire not only to live as long as possible, but to live as much as possible. ‚ÄúMy goal was never to lose weight,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúMy goal was to not die before I got to do cool shit.‚ÄĚ
This story first appeared in issue 13 of the magazine, our Home edition.
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‚ÄúI‚Äôm going to do that.‚ÄĚ
Following high school, Binney completed a degree in musical theatre and fulfilled his dream of moving to New York City to become an actor. For seven years he worked in musicals and ultimately found his niche in stand-up comedy. His career was really picking up just when his mother‚Äôs health took a serious turn for the worse, and he returned to Missouri at the age of 28.
‚ÄúEverything stopped,‚ÄĚ he says. Over the six months that followed, Binney stayed close to his mom, sleeping many nights at the hospital.
One day, while sitting in the waiting room outside the intensive care unit, he spotted a copy of Trail Runner magazine with an advertisement for the Leadville 100, a famously gruelling, high-altitude, 100-mile trail run.
He‚Äôd lately started dabbling in running, and he said to himself, ‚ÄúI‚Äôm going to do that.‚ÄĚ So he went out and bought running shoes and started exploring nearby trails.
‚ÄúI felt like a little kid,‚ÄĚ he recalls. ‚ÄúI was literally jumping over logs and falling in the mud. It was so silly and playful.‚ÄĚ
Most importantly, it took his mind off everything that was happening with his mom.
Running was an instant love affair, but there were challenges. For one thing, it was difficult to dress properly. ‚ÄúMost running brands at the time didn‚Äôt make clothes for [someone my size], so it was really hard to find clothes,‚ÄĚ he says. Today, Binney is an ambassador for Brooks Running, which makes clothing for plus-sized runners.
Binney soon found his niche with trail running. Then as now, he loved the adventure and freedom of running in the forest. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs nobody watching my fat jiggle, there‚Äôs nobody timing me,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt have to care about how I looked or how fast I was.‚ÄĚ
Beginning in last place
The first race he signed up for was a 20-mile trail run in Kansas City. Three weeks beforehand, his mother died. Binney was bereft. ‚ÄúWhen she passed, it felt like my safety net was gone.‚ÄĚ
His mother‚Äôs passing brought with it an unexpected reckoning. ‚ÄúOf course, I understood why she was in the position she was in, because she had led a very unhealthy lifestyle in terms of nutrition and exercise,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúBut I didn‚Äôt really let myself put the pieces together until near the end of her life.
‚ÄúFor some reason, death was what it took for me to realize, ‚ÄôOh, I‚Äôm not gonna just skate by.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
These thoughts were on his mind as the Kansas City race loomed right on the heels of the funeral.¬† He decided to do it anyway.
‚ÄúIt was awful. It didn‚Äôt go well,‚ÄĚ he says, smiling ruefully at the memory. The race took place in February, and the water in his hydration tube froze. ‚ÄúIt was a mess, but I managed to finish it somehow, and I loved it.‚ÄĚ¬† He came in last place, but he was only just beginning.
Binney began building toward the Leadville 100 in Colorado. He started running marathons in 2013, and in 2014 he ran a 50-miler in San Francisco. He hired Ian Sharman, an¬† internationally recognized ultra running coach, to help him tackle the ultimate high-altitude ultramarathon in 2015.
‚ÄúI was a bit skeptical,‚ÄĚ Sharman admitted to me over the phone. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs like, ‚ÄėOkay, do you realize how big a step up this is?‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Binney weighed 340 lbs when he attempted the Leadville 100. He made it 40 miles before he failed to meet the cut-off time and was barred from continuing the race.
Undeterred, he attempted another 100-mile ultra-marathon, the Rocky Raccoon, six months later. He fractured a rib along the way, raised blisters that would have to be lanced at urgent care the next day, and lost two toenails after the race. But he ran the whole thing in 29 hours, 52 minutes, and 16 seconds‚ÄĒless than eight minutes ahead of the cut-off.
The power of not stopping
Since completing his first ultramarathon, Binney has continued to compete in long-distance races. He‚Äôs still big, and he uses his visibility on social media to encourage plus-sized runners. For many, his contribution to the culture of ultra running, and online running culture more broadly, has been very welcome.
In December of 2020, Binney made a video that combined his twin passions of running and dancing. His eight thousand followers loved it, and a year later he tried again‚ÄĒthis time he recreated a classic Dirty Dancing scene on a small footbridge in a trail-running outfit. The video went viral. To date, it has been watched more than 10 million times.
With his background in entertainment, Binney was ready to seize the moment and start churning out content. In just eight months, his followers multiplied more than tenfold. He‚Äôs kept his day job and still doesn‚Äôt quite trust his new-found fame. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs so fucking silly,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúIt came out of nowhere, and I feel like it could go away.‚ÄĚ
Binney is proud to create more visibility for plus-sized people in the trail-running world, but he knows that he‚Äôs viewed differently and faces fewer obstacles than women or people of colour.
‚ÄúThis is all so much easier for me to say as a man. Women have a completely different level of expectation and stress,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI see my friends who are on social media doing things similar to me, and they‚Äôre getting twice as many shitty comments that are twice as vitriolic.‚ÄĚ
Still, Binney isn‚Äôt motivated by changing his appearance. When it‚Äôs pitch-black in the forest, he‚Äôs cold, his stomach is twisted, and his legs hurt, the thing that gets him through is the suffering itself‚ÄĒand what comes after.
‚ÄúThe first epiphany I ever had is that when things hurt, every reasonable person would stop. But if you can push through it‚ÄĒI mean the temporary pain, a blister or a cramp‚ÄĒa crazy thing happens where if you refuse to quit, eventually it goes away.
‚ÄúGetting out of those places is a little bit of a drug for me,‚ÄĚ Binney says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs empowering. It makes you feel so strong and tough. Because you are.‚ÄĚ
Mark Mann is an Associate Editor-in-Chief at BESIDE Media. Previously, he was a freelance journalist specializing in longform narrative non-fiction. His work has been published in Toronto Life, the Walrus, Motherboard, the Globe and Mail, and many others.
Shayd Johnson is a Canadian commercial and editorial photographer. His work ranges from commercial projects for automotive and retail brands to media publications and tourism organizations. His photographs have appeared in the Narwhal, the New York Times, Serviette Magazine, and OFF Magazine.