I walked into the gym for the first time in December 2011 at 266 lbs. It was cold and smelled like the beach, a combination of Pina-colada and suntan lotion, mixed with sweat and plastic. I didn’t want anyone to look at me, so I would only go after 10 pm, sometimes as late as midnight or 1 am. My first time out, all I could do was walk the treadmill for 20 minutes and from time to time I would add on a few minutes of weight lifting here and there. While you may think that my journey from mobility limited to Ironman motivated started here on this first night, you would be wrong. My weight loss journey, or rather my get up off my ass journey, started years before December 2011.
When I was in high school, I was extremely active, participating in just about every sport offered; I was a member of the track team, a cheerleader, and a volleyball player. At this time despite my poor eating habits, I was able to maintain a size 12 due to all of my physical activity. In high school, a size 12 felt huge to me. And after high school, like many coeds, I gained the freshman fifteen and then some. By the time I left law school in 1995, I was almost 200 lbs. Over the next eight years, I essentially maintained my weight with a gain of only 10 lbs. I had no idea that by 2011 my weight would reach an all-time high of 335 lbs.
But, from 1999 to 2004, I had a slow, gradual weight gain of 70 lbs. One would expect there to have been some great emotional trigger, but it really was just the result of real life happening, being married, working full-time. I come from an eating culture, and my family embodied the “If a little is good then a lot is great” mentality. That combined with work-married life, poor eating habits and low activity led to this gradual gain. We ate really yummy, rich, fat heavy food at home and had fast food and take-out most other times.
Like other plus-sized women, I actually lost weight during both of my pregnancies and by the time I had my second child I was down almost fifty pounds. But, from 2006 to 2011, I gradually made my way to 335 lbs. The recipe for fat was already there with low activity, work and married life stress and poor food choices; the hustle and bustle of a family just enhanced the recipe, like a dash of salt.
By 2011, at 335 lbs., I had a really low quality of life with limited mobility; I was borderline diabetes and had a slew of back and knee problems.
Life changes drastically when one gets to the point where extenders are needed for airplane seat-belts. The first time I had to ask for one, it was embarrassing. But, then it became part of the process. As we age and our bodies and lives change, we start to accept things and become complacent. It was just another thing I had to deal with being overweight. But, there was this one time they didn’t have any extenders. It was embarrassing, but I had to have a co-worker buckle my seat belt because I just could not physically do it myself. One of my defense mechanisms is humor, so I played it off as just another ‘Funny Farrah’ story. And, I wish I could tell you that that was the worst of it, but no…I was turned away from zip-lining due to a weight limit, I didn’t fit into concert and movie seats. Everything was a squeeze.
The worst though was one time when we were in Chattanooga, Tn, and we took a carriage ride as a family. My kids were ecstatic. We took the kids out, paid the fare and the four of us piled into the carriage.
People can be so cruel and so as we were riding along some guys in an SUV started to heckle my family, telling us that we were killing the horses. I was stunned, embarrassed and infuriated. And, conflicted. My kids were so excited to be there and their experience had been marred by the cruelty of others, not to mention how it must have affected them to see their parents ridiculed in such a way. I couldn’t stop the thought…I caught myself there, in my fury and embarrassment, wishing a car wreck on those guys heckling us from their SUV. My rage was so great, I wanted them dead. I hate this memory; I hate how angry I was, how cruel those guys were. Even today, it hurts to think about it, to write about it, bringing about old tears and depression.
In 2008, I lost my mom suddenly. When I lost her, I went into a black hole. Having been an emotional/stress eater since childhood, my mom’s death perpetuated the cycle I was already in. But, it also changed my life. It is hard to admit that if my mom had not died how she did and when, I would still be where I was or worse: dead. However, it took me years to wake up and move; I was depressed, and it wasn’t until a family friend had the surgery that I saw the path I needed to be on to change my own life.
All that being said, if taking back all 172 lbs. would bring my mom back, I would take the weight back in a minute, no question about it.
After Mom’s death, as my weight continued to climb, I sought and found inspiration in the success of others. In the summer of 2009, I watched one of my friends compete in her first Ironman. While watching the competition, I was inspired. I loved the physicality being displayed, and it reminded me of the organized sports I had participated in in high school. I loved the Ironman competition and knew I wanted to do it, but with my health issues at the time, I thought I would never be able to compete.
The following spring in 2010 when my close family friend had her gastric bypass surgery, I watched her body transform. By this time, my weight had been yo-yoing for a great deal of my adult life, both of my parents were gone and so were my in-laws. With all of these things motivating me, my mom’s death, my desire to compete in Ironman, the success of others, my path to a happier, longer life was there, mapped out for me. All I had to do was move.
Additionally, with the loss of my mom as the last living grandparent to my kids, the only people my children had were my husband and I. We were both living a sedentary lifestyle with multiple health issues, and I was overcome with the need to live longer for my children; I did not want to die young and leave them with no one.
In the summer of 2010, I started the long process of getting approved for Laparoscopic Gastric Bypass surgery.
On April 4th 2011, I had the surgery; I weighed 335 lbs.
From April to August 2011, I did not move at all, but was able to lose about 70 lbs. post-surgery. The doctors considered me a success and shut the books on it. But, I was not satisfied and wanted more.
From August to December 2011, I plateaued. And the numbers on the scale did not budge again until that fateful day in December when I joined a gym near my house and started making my midnight trips to the gym; it was walking distance from my house, way too close to ignore.
Initially, I would only go to the gym after 10 pm. For me the later the better; I did not want anyone else who was there to see me or look at me. At first, I could only handle 20 minutes on the treadmill, sometimes I would work on the weight machines for 20 minutes or so. Having been so athletic in my high school and college days, I was comfortable with the equipment and knowledgeable about workout strategies. My main focus was not letting others see me; I wore only baggie sweats and loose tee shirts.
Eventually, on one of these late night trips to the gym I tried to run. The first time I tried I could only run 10 seconds, but I pushed myself further and further, by only 15-30 seconds until eventually I was running 5 then 6 then 10 minutes at a time. I had no stamina, so I did what I could, doing a little more each time. And as time wore on, I was out of breath less and less; my knees and back wobbled less. I felt stronger physically and mentally.
One night I decided to see how far I could run at one time. That night I ran a mile.
I was at the gym all alone, and it felt like I had walked on the moon. Running is addictive and that was the beginning of my addiction to fitness. Even at my most active in high school, the thought of being able to run an entire mile at one time seemed unattainable. It was that moment, upon completing that mile that I felt a shift in my mind and how I thought about myself. I realized that I could do a lot more than I was giving myself credit for.
Throughout my journey, many things have inspired and motivated me then and still do now. But, one notable aspect was Elaine the manager at the gym. I was the overweight person that was always there overnight. But, the culture that Elaine fostered at the gym combined with the success of other members brought me out of my shell.
And, the more I ran, the more confidence I had, and I started feeling some of that “Hey, check me out; I’m a bad ass.” As these emotional and mental changes occurred, I started wanting to be around more people. Additionally, a huge motivator for me is acknowledgement and recognition. I went to social media…I would post my workout plans on Facebook, the idea being that if I posted it I had to go. People were expecting it and living in a small town…they’d call me out if I didn’t show. That level of accountability pushed me to keep on. That accountability combined with the positive feedback I was getting from other members at the gym and Elaine gave me the mental push I needed to continue to push myself physically. Elaine is an excellent manager. She offers boot camp classes for free, and I longed to be a part of the camaraderie I saw between the women in the classes, and I was impressed with how supportive they were of each other. I wanted in.
I have to say it was once I got involved in this group that things really took off. My confidence, fitness level and more importantly overall morale and outlook on life skyrocketed. It is essential to have a motivating support system, and these guys are great. I love being around them! It’s why I hang out in the gym even when I am not working out. Everyone is just super supportive.
By December 2012, I was down to 190 and was running between 1-2 miles without stopping. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am incredibly stubborn and determined. Running 1-2 miles, while leaps and bounds more than I could do a year earlier, was not enough. I still had Ironman on the brain and so I started to really push myself and began training for triathlons.
I competed in my first triathlon in April 2013: Sprint distance- 300 meter swim, 10 mile bike ride, and a 2 mile run. By this time I was running at least 6 miles at the gym without stopping, and my weight was down to 163, a healthy range for someone my height and age.
From April to August last year, I did several fun runs and then in August I started to train for a half-marathon; by November, I was running 14 miles without stopping. In December 2013, I ran my first half-marathon called Thunderbird on a trail called the Beast. And a beast it was! Riding the high of having completed the Beast, I then registered for the Louisiana Half-Marathon.
In January, preparing for the LA Marathon, I decided the day before the race to run for the full 26.2 miles instead of the half. I did it!! I finished the marathon. Prior to the LA Marathon, the most I had ever run at one time was 14 miles, so in that day I was able to almost double my best distance. The feeling was phenomenal, and I was ready to sign-up for my first Ironman 70.3 competition.
In April this year, I competed in the Ironman 70.3. I swam 1.2 open water miles and biked 41 miles before I was pulled for time. Even during the Louisiana Marathon I still didn’t have full confidence in my abilities and most importantly I needed to be prepared to try something and fail. I needed to not let fear of failure stop me from trying. So, I signed up for Ironman. The most challenging aspect was the swim. I am not a strong swimmer and so while I grew-up swimming in the bayou and Lake Ponchatrain, I was anxious but also determined.
When the time came for the open water swim, I was a mix of confident and nervous. I had heard that it could be brutal with folks swimming over each other, kicking and scratching to find their spot in the water. When my age group was called, I approached the starting line with nervous pre-race chatter in my mind, calming me. We discussed toe nail polish and helped each other into wet suits. When the time came, I positioned myself in line and at the whistle jumped into the water feet first. Many, right out the gate, were experiencing panic attacks, taking in water, waving down kayaks, giving up so soon. With my surgery, I cannot take in much food or liquid at one time, so as I am swimming, trying to get oriented, to get my breathing rhythm, I take in a great deal of water and start to dry heave for like two minutes. The kayaks come on by…ask me if I want to quit. I yell back, “Hell no, I am not quitting.” I continue to swim but had trouble staying on course and keeping my breathing rhythm.
That swim was the hardest but one of the most incredible things I’ve experienced, and I still can’t believe I did it. There were moments that I thought what the hell did I do getting into this (dry heaves, going off course, swimming into a boat slip), but there were moments, especially when I was doing the backstroke and looking up at the sky where I just thought about a lot of things: my mom, how far I’ve come, all of the friends supporting me. I cried quite a few times during the swim thinking about why all these people would care about me and how well I do. That is how I got through the swim: knowing I had the love and support of others.
I was pulled from the competition 41 miles into the bike ride for time.
Even though I did not finish the competition this time, I will next time! For me, right now, there is always a next time as I continue to strive and push myself 10-15 seconds at a time…1 mile at a time, 1 marathon at a time, 1 swim at a time; I will finish Ironman.