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Breaking the cycle, one step at a time

Once upon a time not so long ago, I was fat. Really fat. So fat, in fact, that at 30 years old, dying young seemed both inevitable and welcomed.

But yesterday at Sardis Lake, one month shy of turning 34, I completed my third triathlon in a little over a year. This December in Biloxi I will run my third half marathon, and as of last week, I’ve dropped a total of 200 lbs. from my heaviest self.

Freeze frame. Confused? Let me tell you how I got here.

As a college graduate, I crushed the scales at 425 pounds. This wasn’t some beer-fueled anomaly. I was morbidly obese as far back as elementary school and had continually trended upward ever since.

It was a toxic cocktail of genetics and learned behavior. My parents were obese. My grandparents were obese. If their grandparents weren’t obese, it was because they were too poor to be obese. Upon learning of our Welsh ancestry through genealogy research, I used to quip that my family “came from Wales; the country, not the mammal.”

Weighing over 400 pounds is not fun. It is a hard, lonely way to live.

Aside from the way it distorts your self-worth and cripples your ability to date women or purchase shirts that don’t feature Hawaiian print, simple things exhaust you when you are that size. Activities others take for granted are daily hurdles that must be navigated. Brushing your teeth. Wrestling with socks. Standing in a long line at the grocery store.

When I was in the seventh grade, I was enrolled in a mandatory PE class against my will. The class was taught by an Ole Miss alum named George Kersh, a world-class track athlete, an almost-Olympian.

We did not, umm, speak the same language.

The final for the course was to walk a mile – four laps around the school track – in 20 minutes. Each lap was a letter grade. I made a C.

Which, for overweight folk, is really the rub (no pun intended). Once you are that obese, there aren’t a lot of hobby options that don’t make you more obese. I watched a lot of movies, played a lot of video games, read a lot of books; all things I could do from the comfort of an air-conditioned room while eating.

The whole thing was a big, vicious cycle, and I was shamefully aware of how helplessly complicit I was being in my own early demise.

So at 30, I decided I had to break the cycle. I decided to balance the equation.

And that’s really all a person’s weight is: an equation. If a person expends more calories through physical activity than they take in through eating, they will lose weight. You can refine the accuracy of this equation with other calculus-like strategies, but the basic concept never changes: more out, less in. The “less in” part of the equation is a whole other story, but for now let’s just say: I needed to get more active.

So I walked. It was all I could do.

I walked slowly at first, and only for short distances.  Fresh off a traumatic breakup, walking had the simultaneous benefits of clearing my head and improving my body. I eventually started walking everywhere, to work, to dinner, to the gym.

It hurt. I would walk until I couldn’t feel, until I was too tired to hate myself, or her. My students and their parents thought maybe I didn’t have a car, so they would stop and offer me rides. I would politely decline and walk on, alone.

A friend challenged me to run a half marathon with him and I laughed in his face.

Me, a runner?

But one Saturday, out for a walk, I tried it, almost to prove to myself that I couldn’t. I ended up running a mile – a mile! Running! This was something I did not know I could do, and it felt majorly at odds with my self-image. Running was something only normal, healthy people could do, and now I could run too. Was I normal now?

The beautiful thing about running is that it sucks. You can’t breathe, you’re a stupid, sweaty mess, and your muscles and joints have yanked down all sorts of internal fire alarms… all of which means there is no time to think. There is no time for anxiety or guilt or stress or shame. There is only the song in your ear buds and trying not to die. You just exist. It’s an unexpected detox, both physical and emotional.

I ran that race. Then another. A different friend challenged me to run a triathlon with him last summer and, full of cocky bravado, I agreed. I almost drowned.

But I didn’t quit. Humbled, I trained harder.

And although cycling still feels like sitting on a tomato pole, and occasionally I still breathe in a lung full of pool water, last month I finished my second triathlon much more confidently, crushing my original time.

The term “race” is a misnomer. Other than a few fanatics duking it out over bragging rights and a commemorative piece of pottery, the only person you are ever competing against is yourself, past and present. Can I do this, can I be a better me?

Yesterday’s race, with its half-mile swim, 18-mile bike ride and 4-mile run, was my longest feat yet. I finished in under three hours, good enough for dead last in the politely-named “Clydesdale Division” for oversized runners.

Who cares?

I do these races for several reasons. There’s the thrill of accomplishment and the motivation of having something to work toward. There are the obvious health benefits, the satisfaction of improving on a personal best time, and the bonhomie of the friends I train and race with.

But mostly, I do them out of sheer wonderment that I am able. For almost the whole of my time on this planet, participating in even the most basic exhibition of athletic prowess was unfathomable. Yet here I am, a damn triathlete.

I wish George Kersh could see me now.

R.J. Morgan is an Instructional Assistant Professor of Journalism and Director of the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association at the University of Mississippi.