A version of this story appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Uncommon Path.
On his long summer runs in Brooklyn, around Green-Wood Cemetery and up to Prospect Park and back, Tyrone Alomia, 32, occasionally takes off his shirt to keep cool. The four-time marathoner loves to explore his borough on foot even when it’s sweltering. His runner’s high, though, is often interrupted by street-side snickers, particularly in his own neighborhood, Sunset Park.
“Man, that guy’s got boobs,” one onlooker remarks.
“Why is this guy wearing tights in the street?” another stranger sneers.
But the worst offender might be the seemingly innocent thumbs-up.
“I’m not dying here—I’m just running,” says Alomia, challenging stereotypes of what a “typical” runner should look like. Those sorts of reactions are part of what motivates the Pansa Boyz, four first-generation Latin American men born and bred in New York City, to run relay races shirtless. At a combined weight of nearly half a ton, the Pansa Boyz are trying to show that running is for everyone, regardless of shape or size.
Alomia admits he could stand to lose some weight, but it’s not his driving factor for lacing up. “It’s about maintenance, socializing and getting better at it,” he explains, adding that he wants to run a sub-two-hour half-marathon.
“What I love about running is that you’re not competing against anyone but yourself—I’m just trying to keep up with my body and what I can do,” says fellow Pansa Boy Emmanuel “Bodega” Rodriguez, who logs 20 miles a week. What started out as a hashtag (“panza” is Spanish for “belly”) turned into a team in early 2019. While working at a Nike store in midtown Manhattan, Rodriguez and Alomia hatched a plan to participate in The North Face Endurance Challenge on New York’s Bear Mountain that May.
“Let’s get two other fat dudes to run the marathon relay with us” is how Rodriguez, 39, recalls pitching the idea. The two had already competed in Oregon’s 199-mile Hood to Coast Relay in 2018, when they ran all night fueled on Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. (Yes, they had a designated driver, and yes, they crossed the finish line feeling good.) Alomia was up for a repeat as long as Rodriguez did the recruiting. “We knew we didn’t want to run with anyone fast,” Alomia says. “We needed a team that still felt competitive, but also would wait for us without getting mad.”
Rodriguez reached out to two-time marathoner Hector Espinal, who cofounded We Run Uptown, a run club that meets for a 5K every Monday evening at a pizza place in northern Manhattan. Espinal started running in 2013 to get healthy and get over a breakup. It quickly became a calling for the 28-year-old, who now works at a hospital as a patients’ financial adviser. Espinal was all in. “It’s taboo for men to speak about their weight,” he says. “We’re giving these men a platform to feel confident in their own skin.”
Next, Rodriguez approached Jason Suarez, 33, a freelance photographer who has run three marathons since 2016 and logs up to 50 miles weekly. He was a natural fit, except for one thing: going shirtless. “I’m body-conscious—the struggle of knowing what I used to look like is hard,” says the former Division I collegiate sprinter. How did they convince him? Peer pressure, rational arguments and FOMO, of course.
Building a team was particularly significant for Alomia. Running had, after all, saved his life. “From age 20 to 24, I was directionless—I’d just work and party,” he says. His boss at Nike challenged him to run a New York Road Runners 4-miler. “It was probably the greatest accomplishment of my life,” Alomia says. “It opened so many doors for me.” That fall, he ran the New York City Marathon. Today, Alomia is a high school physical-education teacher. “With the Pansa Boyz, getting a platform to speak out about a topic that’s often shunned—bigger men and bigger people in general being active—is very important,” he says.
And it’s working. The team’s Instagram account, @pansaboyz, features testimonials from people who say they finally feel like they fit in. One fan wrote, “Keep killin’ it guys and inspiring other big dudes to feel a little more comfortable to put themselves out there.”
At press time, the Pansa Boyz had been planning to complete their next relay, the Ragnar Trail Atlanta. Competing on the roughly 200-mile course at the hilly Georgia International Horse Park, a former Olympic venue, meant the Pansa Boyz had to recruit four new members for a team of eight, each tackling about 30 miles during the two-day event.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how we come together, push and show up for each other,” says Suarez. “We have no idea what we’re getting into, but it should be fun.” Cases of PBR in the home-base tent have not been ruled out. Shirts optional.