In a landscape dominated by hyper-filtered images and rail-thin fitness influencers, 38 year-old social media sensation Erin Azar stands out.
Her self-deprecating “outfit of the day” photos and humorous running videos discussing everything from the realities of getting your period while running to stashing water bottles in the cornfields surrounding her Midwestern home have amassed a huge following: over 60,000 Instagram followers and 25 million TikTok views as well as features in the New York Times and on The Today Show.
It all started in 2019, when the mother of three was in a “postpartum haze” after the birth of her last child and decided to do something she hadn’t done in a long time: lace up for a run.
“I remember sitting in my living room one day and thinking I needed to be by myself and do some kind of exercise, and it was a nice day out,” says Azar.
So she grabbed some old sneakers and set out on the winding country roads surrounding her home in Berks County, Pennsylvania.
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“I had on baggy clothes, my shoes had holes in them, and I didn’t even make it a mile,” she says. “But for the first time in a long time, I felt my mind ease a little bit, so I knew it was something I needed to do for my health.”
To hold herself accountable and make the new habit stick, she decided to run a mile every day for thirty days and posted videos to her “Mrs. Space Cadet” YouTube and TikTok channels, hoping to connect with other struggling, beginner runners.
“I was desperately searching for someone else that ran, who wasn’t super skinny, who could tell me what to wear to not have my thighs chafe,” she says with a laugh.
“I thought I’d make a friend or two,” she continues.
So she was shocked when her videos—”good morning, here’s another installment of a slightly overweight person who drinks too much beer trying to train for a marathon,” she jokes in one TikTok—started racking up millions of views, an online community that buoyed her through months of pandemic isolation and race cancellations.
“I was finally getting to the point where I thought I was good enough to meet up to run with another person, and then everything shut down,” she explains.
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“But people kept commenting [on my videos] with things like ‘you inspired me to start running or do my first 5k,’ and I realized everyone’s life is imperfect, and we’re all in this together.”
Azar leans into that imperfectness, whether it’s sharing the struggles of running on two hours of sleep, showing off sweat stains on her rotation of colorful shirts, or confessing to a lack of motivation for long runs.
“I’m not surprised when I see articles about how social media is bad for you, because seeing only super skinny runners posting super fast times is what kept me from running for so long,” she says of her relatable content and frank delivery. “If I had seen someone out there that looked like me, I’d have started running a lot sooner.”
And Azar didn’t just start running: she decided to train for her first marathon.
“Why start small,” she jokes.
Disappointed when her planned New Jersey Marathon was canceled last October, she jumped at the chance to run the TCS New York City Marathon, raising over $66,000 for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in honor of her father, who has the disease.
With millions of fans ranging from other frazzled moms and new runners to professional athletes like Dana Giordano—a “TikTok mutual”—Azar says she is “blown away” by the attention, and lives for her followers encouraging each other and “vibing” in her comments.
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“No matter what level you’re at, we all have crap running days, and it’s important to be the person out there who isn’t afraid that sometimes this sucks and everything hurts,” she continues. “But at the same time, it really blows my mind what happens when you consistently show up for yourself.”
While she’s mum about her specific race plans for 2022, she will continue to go big and keep it real.
“I want to do something in a really crazy location or that’s more challenging and forces me to up my training and overall health, that’s run to film and edit, so my audience can be excited to follow along,” she says.
This story is part of the “Power Women of 2022” collection. You can find the full list of 15 women making a difference in running here.