It was Valentine’s Day 2011. I had just delivered flowers to my wife at work. I simply couldn’t have been more miserable. She had been having an affair that had been going on for nearly a year. I hated my job. I was training insurance agents to go out and do a job where the average employee lasted less than 100 days. My father was on his deathbed in a nearby hospital. He was the same guy that was absent for large chunks of my childhood. It was hard for me to feel anything but apathy towards him. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I loved him. However, his problems were completely of his own creation. He refused to take care of his body, and diabetes was taking its toll on him, one body part at a time. He was the man from the Harry Chapman song ‘Cat’s in the Cradle.’ His entire life, he was always at a distance emotionally and physically. From everything I could see, he never really lived a fulfilling life in any sense.
I was 396 pounds and turning into my father. I was checking out of everything emotionally because everything in my life was bringing me severe pain. I had to make a choice. I could die a slow miserable death like he was in the process of doing, or I could do something about it.
The irony was, this wasn’t the first time I hit a crossroads like this.
As a kid, my dream was to play college football. There was a huge problem with my dream. Me. I had always been an extremely overweight kid. I was 180 pounds in 3rd grade and 300 pounds in 7th grade. I had asthma. College athletes are human beings at the apex of physical and mental fitness, not the fat asthmatic kid from the house beside the trailer park. My neighbor, Jim, was a distance runner in his early 30s. Every morning during high school, even during rain or snow, I passed him finishing his morning run on my way to school. Finally, one morning my junior year, he invited me to join him. So the next day, I got up at 6:00 am, and went to go run with him. I made it about 200 yards up the hill that began at my front door before I was wheezing too much to continue. I turned around, went home, hit my inhaler, and went to school. The next day, I got up at 6:00 am and walked outside. Jim seemed absolutely shocked to see me. I told him if I could make it just a little further than the day before I’d be happy. I think I made it about 500 yards that second day. Just like that, I started to become a distance runner. After several months, we were running 5k’s every morning, even on game days. I didn’t need an inhaler. I didn’t need to push myself. I was just maintaining at that point. If I tried to sleep in, Jim would bang on my window and force me out. He said I’d worked too hard to give up results because I was out too late the night before. He was right.
I started getting recruited by colleges all over the country. It wasn’t big name schools. I’m not going to pretend I was some 5 star, blue chip stud. But the reality was, I had worked myself into a good enough prospect to make my dream come true.
The album Lateralus, by Tool, came out just at the end of my senior year of high school. The title track from that album became the foundation for my life in college. I programed my stereo to wake me up to that song every morning. It focused on a theme of continuously pushing oneself with lyrics like ‘spiral out,’ and ‘keep going.’ It was an every morning reminder that ‘over thinking and over analyzing separates the body from the mind.’ I needed that, because I’m one to over analyze every detail of even the most obscure things in life.
I decided I was going to make that song the foundation for the rest of my life. I was going to ‘embrace the random’ and feel connected to everything and everyone I came across.
I was doing it. I was the poor fat kid from a broken home that was going to become a rags to riches story. Then, the forces of this world seemed to come at me with one Mike Tyson like punch after another.
In retrospect, it started simple enough. The coaching staff at my university was fired. A new staff was brought in. They weren’t bad coaches. The problem for me was the prior staff had been running the same offense we ran in high school, so I felt very natural in the system. The new staff had a completely different philosophy and new terminology. It was like trying to learn another language in a matter of weeks. In the middle of that, I developed a shoulder issue, so I eventually left the team. A few months after leaving the team, my mother very suddenly passed away. We’d had a strenuous relationship. She was a police officer, and worked nights when I was young. Growing up, my brother and I didn’t have a curfew because no one was around in the evenings. My mom worked hard her entire life and her body was breaking down on her from years of abuse. She knew life would be short, because she never wanted to get old. So she played hard as well. That playing included lots of drinking. I’m not saying she was an alcoholic, but she was taking several prescribed pain pills to deal with her injuries. She would have wild mood swings, and at times it was scary to be around her. She briefly married a man my brother and I couldn’t stand. He was abusive towards us. He was a cash paid construction worker, so he didn’t really help the already very limited funds we had. I don’t remember the last time I saw him, but I remember coming home one night to police lights flashing everywhere. There was blood on our front door and throughout the house. The smell of pepper spray was nauseating. He’d hit my mom, and she struck back. He was arrested, his friends collected his stuff, and that was that. However, it gave my mother the green light to live a lifestyle that was excess everything. That lasted for a few years.
The last face to face conversation I had with my mother, I told her I was going to have to distance myself because it was too painful for me to watch her kill herself. She didn’t grasp what I was trying to say and didn’t agree with it, but she knew I was being sincere. Tears were in my eyes while I was trying to explain to her how I felt. She died two weeks after that, when I was 22 years old.
It hurt me deeply. Not only had I just lost my mom, but my last true conversation with her was a chilling forecast of her imminent death. When this happened, I was living with a girl, who later became my wife. I was wanting to break up with her before all this happened. I was just trying to find the right time to do it. I decided I’d wait until my emotions settled a bit before ending things. Before that happened, my grief stricken grandfather passed in the night. It was right after getting back from his funeral that I found out the girl I was wanting to break up with was now pregnant. A few months later, in the middle of a routine doctor’s appointment we learned that his heart beat was over 220 beats per minute, and we could possibly end up losing the baby. We had to rush two and a half hours south to a hospital in Little Rock. We packed our bags, not knowing how long we’d be gone, or what was going to happen.
Two days later at the hospital, I got a phone call from a friend who had checked on the house and dog for us. We’d been robbed. They took everything of value, including the majority of my mom’s belongings, and completely trashed the place. We had no money, I couldn’t be at work because I needed to be with my unborn child, and all our belongings were either taken from us or destroyed. We didn’t know anyone we could borrow money from. We didn’t have a church support group or even renters insurance to help. We were truly in a bad spot.
My son was born via emergency C-section, and shocked a couple times to bring his heart rate down. Then his tiny stomach began to balloon up and turn green. Finally, the doctors told us they were going to do an exploratory surgery to try to save our child’s life. It turned out part of his large intestine had died, most likely from the shocks after birth. The next time we saw our child, he had a colostomy bag on him. He’d need it for the next several months of his life.
Upon returning to our devastated home, things went from bad to worse. We’d been home for a few weeks before the woman, who lived above us, left her kids unattended. They flooded her place, and it caused severe water damage and mold issues in ours. Luckily, one of my mother’s life insurance policies finally paid out, and suddenly I had the money to buy a house.
In going through an experience like that, some people turn to drugs or booze. I turned to food. I went from a muscular 265 pounds at the start of college in 2001 to 375 pounds by 2008.
I didn’t think I was depressed. I just accepted this was life. Fast forward to Valentine’s Day 2011. It was time for me to get back into control of my life. I was in the running for a recruiter position at an automotive technical college whose stated mission was ‘to change lives.’ How could I justify working for them with my life as much of a train wreck as it was? That day, I decided EVERYTHING had to change, and it needed to happen fast.
On March 1st, 2011 I moved out, started my new career, and I focused on getting my life back. It started small with walking, then built up to doing 5Ks again. I cut out all fluids but water. I began to eat mostly lean meat, vegetables, and Greek yogurt. I started listening to Lateralus every morning, just like I’d done in college. It took me a few years to drop all the weight, but I got down to 229 before derailing slightly.
Towards the end of 2014, I was 275 pounds. At that time, I was finishing up a project for my buddy J Loren from the rock band HURT. He had received what could described as a suicide note from a fan. He told me this guy was overweight, and he wanted to help him. J asked me to mentor this guy, and help him get in shape. I started talking to him and trying to motivate him as best as I could from afar. Then J got another letter, and he put me in touch with that guy. Suddenly, I found myself at nearly 300 pounds giving weight loss advice. I decided I had to be an example of a success story, and not the guy that has gotten in shape a couple of times, but couldn’t keep things together.
So I joined a CrossFit gym on Halloween, 2014. It just so happened to be the CrossFit gym of Von and Wilson, guys with stories of their own that I’d yet to hear. My first workout was ‘Karen,’ 150 wall balls. I didn’t scale it, and I should have. I was so sore that first day, I couldn’t raise my arms over my head in the shower to wash my hair.
I didn’t quit though. I progressively got better each week. After a couple months in, I managed to put my ass through a wall while trying to kick into a handstand. I became the ‘butt’ of a ton of jokes, but honestly that helped me bond with people that I didn’t know and hadn’t really talked to before. They became a motivating force for me. If I didn’t go to class one morning, I was going to hear about it. It was high school all over again, and I need that.
Some people have enough internal drive to make themselves go to the gym every day. I don’t. I need my community of CrossFitters to call me out when I start missing classes.
As time went on I began to get inspired from the guys J had asked me to inspire. These guys were changing themselves for the better. Our family of HURT misfit music fans, who were using their pain as a foundation for improving their lives, began to grow. Now it wasn’t just growing from suicide notes or directly via J, it was our friends seeing our success and joining in the conversation. We unofficially adopted a couple of mottos to go with the Lateralus lyrics, which were also derived from songs. “What It Took To Build Me, Wasn’t Enough To Kill Me” came from the HURT song ‘Numbers,’ and was a very easy one for us all to relate to, since we all met through HURT. We also took the line “We Build Cathedrals To Our Pain,” from the Machine Head song ‘Darkness Within.’
Robb Flynn, of Machine Head, wrote those words about the songs musicians write to deal with the struggles they experience in life. The songs then become almost a religious experience when played live to a crowd of people who all relate in their own unique way to the pain the songwriter is expressing. There’s a certain bond that comes from truly being part of that experience. Outside of J, no one in our group is a world class musician. However, we’ve all been through dark times and rough experiences. So the cathedrals we build are our bodies. We take our experiences and we use them as a stepping stone to the next step of our lives. We keep going. We aren’t just getting through life, we are embracing new experiences and new moments. That doesn’t mean we don’t need each other for support and motivation from time to time. It means we are committed to LIVING our lives.
It’s that attitude I take to all aspects of my life, not just fitness. Since this is a fitness blog, and I’ve already written a small novel, I’ll try to keep the focus primarily on fitness though.
So where am I at now? I’m not some fitness buff with six pack abs doing muscle ups and posting gym selfies to impress people. I’ll never be that guy. There’s too many other things I want to experience that aren’t fitness related. However, I get bored and unmotivated if I’m not challenging myself and those around me to have a goal. That applies to fitness as well. So, I come up with ever changing challenges for myself.
I ran my first half marathon in March, without needing an inhaler. The race finished on midfield of Neyland Stadium. The last mile of the race, I was all smiles as I sprinted past people half my size. When I came through the tunnel my three kids were right there to cheer me on. I felt like I floated to the finish line, arms up in a Rocky-like pose. My ‘runner’s high’ lasted for weeks.
I just started training for a full marathon next March. I’d like to try my hand at a Spartan Race or Tough Mudder type event. Before I can sign up for one of those, I’ve got to get my upper body strength and core to the point I can get through the obstacles. I’d like to work my way towards an Xterra type event. The bottom line is, I don’t want to just be a runner, a lifter, or even an athlete. I want experience each of these events, say I’ve done it, and keep going to the next event. That applies to all aspects of my life.
I know I can’t be the person I want to be without taking care of myself physically and mentally. For me, that means going to CrossFit, running, and making sure I’m bonding in the most meaningful ways I can with my children and others I love.
I know my time will run out at some point. I just don’t know when. A quick look at my family tree tells me there’s a strong probability that could be sooner than later. I’m not scared to die though. Not in the least. However, when I’m gone, I don’t want anyone to ever question if I lived a fulfilling life. I don’t want my kids to ever have any doubt how important they are to me. I recognize I’ve got one shot at this, and I’m doing my damnedest to get it right.
***At Lift Heavy Run Long®, we are in constant search of inspiration. We are fortunate to have a Facebook group which involves people who have, for one reason or another, decided to make drastic changes in their life, in order to lead a more fulfilled existence.
We want to share with you some of the encouraging stories that have come from the people in our community. We would love for you to be part of the group.