When “pathetic” loses its irony

Awhile back I joined the Facebook group Pathetic Triathletes. It’s a fairly large, closed group. You need to be admitted into it by the admin. But there’s no screening going on, and it’s got over 7000 members.

With a name like “Pathetic Triathletes” you can imagine that the purpose of the group is to give triathletes a place for mutual support, information-sharing, encouragement, and so on, while also keeping it light. The “pathetic” is meant to be ironic and funny. A little bit self-depracating, a little bit of a reminder not to take ourselves so seriously.

People post about their successes. People post about their failures and mishaps. Failures, mishaps, questions that we assume we should already know the answers to but don’t — all of these are followed by the hashtag #pathetic.

So far so good. I myself have been known to take things too seriously. So what harm could it possibly do to be part of a Facebook group that favours the lighter side of triathlon?

Well, this past weekend I got the answer to my question when I waded into reading the comment thread after someone posted a link to Ragen Chastain’s post “When On-Line Trolls Become Real-Life Stalkers.”  As if the title of her post isn’t harrowing enough, the contents is downright frightening. She’s harassed daily by haters on-line in comments on her blog, her Facebook page, on reddit, in fat-hate forums (which, in my naivete, I didn’t even know existed but why should I be surprised).

The on-line stalking moved into real life when she attempted an Ironman 70.3 recently. Here’s some of what happened:

The short story of the IM 70.3 is that I took 2 minutes too long on the swim and got pulled off the course.  After changing out of my wetsuit I got my phone and posted to my FB wall:

IM 70.3 was a Total disaster, way worse than my worst case scenario. 2 minutes over the time in the swim, didn’t even get on the bike. Thanks to everyone for your support. Sucks to have a setback like this, but now I have a year to get ready so I don’t feel like this next year at the full ironman. I’ll post a race report in at some point.

My family and I decided to go grab some lunch and by the time we got to the restaurant my FB page was trollapalooza – party at Reddit’s house and everyone’s invited!  They were also engaging in one of their very favorite pastimes – lying to accuse me of lying.

But the creepier part of it was an athlete sidling up to her before the race to ask if she was bothered by what was said on reddit that morning. They had a brief interaction and she suspected he was a troll because he didn’t agree when she made negative comments about people who spend their time dissing her on reddit. After the race:

After the race I would find out that prior to the race the anti-me website had posted a minute by minute schedule of where I would be, including updating the site about my choice to wear my wetsuit and my 7:45am start time which I had talked about on my blog.

After my race ended, various forums and websites posted pictures and video that were taken of me and my family, some taken by people standing just feet away from me. Many of the pictures were taken after I had gotten out of the water and exited the athlete area, meaning that they couldn’t have been taken by someone competing in the race.  People online bragged about stalking me and my family, saying horrible things about my partner, my mother, and my best friend and his husband.

This may or may not have had anything to do with the guy who chatted with her before the swim. She has a point when she says she:

…tried to calculate the odds that someone who just happened to stumble upon a reddit forums about me ended up standing next to me in a group of 1600 athletes, recognized me in a wetsuit, swim cap, and goggles, and thought it was appropriate to ask about a forum devoted to hating me, in a way that assumed I both knew about it and checked the forum.

Now, enter the Pathetic Triathletes Facebook group. You’d expect a group that is supposedly supportive of all levels of triathletes from beginners to veterans, and who tries not to take itself too seriously (#pathetic!) to rally round a triathlete, any triathlete, who is brave enough to get out there and attempt at 70.3 distance event.

And some people did. But an alarming number of people jumped in and started saying similar things to the sorts of things she says are said by the haters and trolls on a regular basis.  And the meanness just kept on coming. And coming. And coming.

Where were the admin in all of this? I do not know. I think they eventually took it down. Either that or it fell so far down the page that I couldn’t find it when I went to show it to Sam because I was so astonished.  But not just astonished, also incredibly disturbed.

The vitriol just seemed so out of place for a group that presents itself as a welcoming community with a sense of humor. The fat-hate just kept on coming. And personal attacks on Ragen Chastain, accusing her of lying, of not really having the goals she has or the doing the training she does.  The assumption is that no one her size could possibly be doing what she is doing.  It’s a caricature of all the most entrenched prejudices and misguided assumptions about the relationship between body size, body fat, on the one hand, and health and the capacity to participate in athletic activities, on the other hand.

The comments also have a misogynistic gendered element to them that make them even more difficult to hear. Who but the most entitled and privileged members of our world think they have the right to say shit like that openly and earnestly in a Facebook Group?

I’ve struggled with the irony from the beginning because I guess in some ways I don’t actually think that claiming to be pathetic, even if meant to be ironic, is the best way to bolster confidence and feel good about what you’re doing.

But there was no irony in the hateful comment thread that followed Ragen Chastain’s post about her trolls and stalkers. Pathetic in the truest sense of the world. Like, what’s it to them that this woman wants to do triathlon? Why can’t she just do her thing and be left alone? It’s astonishing that people would have such a violent reaction when her efforts have literally no impact on their lives at all. Like, nothing. It’s sad.

So I left the group. And I have to say that despite the presence of lots of supportive and encouraging members, I cannot in good conscience recommend the group to anyone with an interest in body-positivity and feminism. You may as well go straight to reddit if you want read abusive hate against women who don’t conform to the narrow standards of femininity deemed acceptable by self-appointed gate-keepers.

It’s not that Ragen Chastain can’t stand her own against these types of people. She doesn’t need to be rescued. And thankfully she’s got more supportive fans than vocal trolls and stalkers. But I’m not about to stick around in a group where people feel entitled to talk that kind of fat-hating, misogynistic shit.

And I wish Ragen all the best in her quest to compete in an Ironman next year. You can follow her journey at IronFat.

22 thoughts on “When “pathetic” loses its irony

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this post, shining a light not just on trolls and the absolute insanity of such vitriolic posts, but also on those who support such slander. Many people find such crazy harassment (like what Ragen has had to endure) inconceivable, but it is not only conceivable, it is real, and presents a danger to her and to us. People of good will have to stand against it every time. Thanks for doing so.

    1. It’s that cloak of anonymity that people hide behind but what was scarier in this case was that people didn’t seem to care if they were known.

  2. I just found an entire blog dedicated to harassing her. Talk about pathetic. The comments there bear a remarkable resemblance to gamergate discussions.

    I’ve been a part of the Pathetic Triathlete group for a while, and some fat hatred and (less so) misogyny pop up from time to time. I alternate between wanting to leave and wanting to be a voice for the larger athlete.

    I’m grateful for the Pathetics for putting me in touch with the Athena group (“This group is for triathletes who compete as or empathize with those who race multisport in the Athena class (165+ pounds). Note: You will not get kicked out of the group if you no longer qualify under the USAT rule for the Athena class and go below 165 pounds.”):

  3. I read Ragens post, and I read the ‘hate’ blog. I think it great that all people of all sizes do the activities they want to do. But I don’t think what Ragen is doing is helping the cause of HAES, and I think people have questions about what she is doing and why.
    At what point does asking a legit question about training become harrassment? Discussions on the internet turn to misunderstandings (and I’m putting it very mildly) very quickly, and there doesn’t seem to be room for all 50 shades of grey anymore.

    1. I’ve never seen the hate blog. But I have experienced the ruse of “legitimate questions” as “polite” ways of harassing people. I don’t think anyone has on obligation to answer questions interrogating them about why they are doing what they are doing. Again, I want to ask: what’s it to them? Why do people care so much? I just can’t come up with an explanation for the amount of time and energy people give to this other than misogyny and fat-phobic/fat-hate.

      1. Speaking from experience, some people are just fascinated by stories of lies and deception. I know I’ve run across several instances that just fascinate me. One was a woman who pretended to be an escapee from a religious cult (Razing Ruth), one was a fake 9/11 survivor, one was a man who faked dozens of marathon times. Especially the first one… I read everything I could about her. I read about her previous scams. I found old LiveJournals by Googling her various usernames. I was fascinated as to how she moved from online persona to online persona. There was no -ism that drove my (admittedly weird and perhaps over-the-top) interest. I think, ultimately, I was working through the end of a romantic relationship with someone who, as I found out, was a liar who told lies about the strangest, seemingly stupidest things.

        I absolutely do not doubt that some of Ragen’s critics/trolls come from a place of misogyny and fat-hate. I’ve seen enough comments about her appearance on some of the forums that discuss her. But plenty of other people see her faking selfies, lying about credentials, and claiming to be psychic and just wonder what compels someone to act like that. I follow her because, as I said, Internet deception is fascinating to me.

      2. But if you put yourself out in the open, by writing on your blog, you open yourself up to questions. I don’t have a blog, but I reckon if you have one, you’d like to build a report with your readers, and you’re basically inviting them into (parts of) your life.
        I’m not defending the haters, because a lot of people revel in being nasty whilst being anonymous. But I also have a problem with people (fat, thin, black, white, green, male, female, etc) crying ‘trolls and haters’ the moment someone is a little critical. Sometimes a question is just that, and not answering under the guise of hate and trolling is only a way to deflect, and causes more discussion. And Ragen seems to thrive on that controversy.

  4. I was about to ask what a fat hate forum was but I don’t think I want to know. The internet is an incredible place where you can learn so much but I don’t understand why people- ADULTS- feel the need to bully each other, usually anonymously, as if they’re on the playground again. Why can’t everyone just be a little bit nicer (or at least pretend to like each other)!? Eye opening post thank you.

  5. Can I ask whether the dominant culture of triathlon plays a part here? I don’t mean to generalise or over simplify, but as an outsider it seems to be particularly body-focussed at every level. People who don’t fit the mold disrupt this culture (hooray for them) but others will find this threatening (get over it!).

    1. I don’t know if it’s the dominant culture. I’ve been in a few triathlons and there are all shapes and sizes of people. Yes, the elites tend to have a certain body type (as do elite athletes in most sports), but I think in general people care more about training for performance than for a particular look. But yeah, people in all sorts of realms find non-normative body types threatening. On that you’re quite right.

  6. This is so, so sad. I am so sorry people go through this. The Pathetic Triathlete group has so many sad and mean group of triathletes. A true shame.

    1. Sorry but like in all groups a few are mean. I am a member of the pathetic group and have not taken rudevanswers as a means to disrupt my life. I have also answered question with how was your training. I haven’t attempted a half Ironman because my swim isn’t there yet. Many people don’t finish a triathlon and to be honest I find her story to be incredulous. Having volunteered at an Ironman there is no time to worry about one lone participant. If you are there with a participant you are chasing them to snap pictures of them, to be ready for them to show up. The atmosphere is one of helping. So please when you write an article like this show me the proof. Don’t just allude to what was said, when it was said.

  7. I saw the whole thing and was one of the commenters. I know nothing about her other than having read her “stories” and find her very fishy. Just because someone blogs doesn’t make it true. At any rate it seems like the group has completely disappeared. If you look it up, there are no results or references to it….too bad, there was some funny content.

  8. I just saw this piece, and it made me think of this issue. I really think there is this backlash against anyone (although in general, women seem to be the target most frequently) who is seen to get attention they “don’t deserve.” The most rational response in such a case would be to refuse to give the person attention, not to start a hate blog or go around causing trouble for them. There is some disturbing need to punish people for getting such attention.

    Both Pathetic Triathletes is still around, as is the hate blog.

    The article:

    1. I don’t think the Pathetic Triathlete’s group that is appearing in Google searches is the original group. This group only has 1k likes. the original had close to 10k I believe. I’m wondering if someone shuttered it. Or if I just got banned ^_^.

    2. Also, I agree about not giving them attention. However there’s a sort of stockholm syndrome effect where the people who are diehard supporters of said individual being to vitriolically attack those who don’t believe the story of the supposedly oppressed. In actuality there is little evidence to prove the allegations of this person of interest in their entirety, making analysis purely speculative and subject to bias, as we’ve seen…

  9. Sorry, I am a ridiculous year late to the party.
    I am an active member of the #Pathetic group and LOVE many of the people there. Yes, occasionally, something gets in the pudding and there are ugly threads. And the one against Ragen was especially horrid. I did comment in her defense. I found Ragen’s blog (one of) about 8 months ago and really rethought a lot of what I perceive to be true. Much of what she wrote about valuing the body you have today, and thin people get diabetes, too to really resonate with me. I rethought a lot of how I acted towards others and myself. That is a good thing
    However, I have since learned that it does appear she manipulates information to be completely unrecognizable. I encourage everyone to read the factual (not hate based) rebuttals of the ‘selfie scandal, the dance championship, and the knee and the doctor story (Stories)’ and make your own judgment to as to her credibility.

    As to the #Pathetic thread: The admins did take it down, not soon enough, I agree – but the admins have lives and jobs and when an ugly thread gets started the 3-4 people don’t always have immediate access to delete.

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