I have struggled with my weight since I can remember. Looking back, my battles with food began around the age of 3, when my parents divorced. Food became my comfort, my safety, my refuge and my best friend. I ate as often as I wanted, and often much more than I needed. Thus began the vicious cycle of my love-hate relationship with food and ultimately my body.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t the fat kid. For brief periods, my weight would begin to dip toward the normal range, but these times were short-lived and I was never, by any stretch, fit and trim. My struggle with weight was compounded by sports-related injuries resulting in four knee surgeries and two ankle surgeries. In addition, at the age of 13, I developed asthma.
Throughout high school I longed to be an athlete. I would get really determined and go to the gym religiously, but within a few weeks I’d be back to the old lifestyle. As a high school graduation present I asked my mom for personal training sessions and I joined Weight Watchers for the first time. I was doing pretty well with this until it was time to go to college, where the “freshman 15” (and then some) found me.
As my weight continued to increase, my health suffered. I had multiple emergency room visits and a few hospitalizations during my college years as a result of my asthma. I was working toward a nursing degree, and I remember sitting through lectures, listening to all of the diseases that I was at such risk for developing, given my weight. I was disgusted with myself for having such a passion for the human body and caring for others, yet being unable to conquer my own obesity. I got married during my junior year of college and wore a size 22 wedding dress.
My first brush with death came after graduation, when I was working in an intensive care unit as an RN. I had developed bronchitis, which triggered my asthma. While at work it became so severe that I was taken to the emergency room. Later that evening I was placed on a ventilator also known as life support. I ended up in my own ICU for a week and a half and in the hospital for almost three weeks.
Over the next several years the cycle continued. I would make up my mind to lose weight and throw myself into exercise and dieting, only to fall off the wagon a few weeks later. My asthma continued to prove difficult to control, and again I found myself a patient in my own ICU. At one point my doctors told my family they were not sure if I would live, and that if I did, they didn’t know how many more episodes like this my body could endure.
I developed a heart condition in which my heart rate would accelerate far beyond the normal limits, especially when I took medication, such as my rescue inhaler. My doctors were caught between a rock and a hard place: If they used the medications to treat my asthma, they risked increasing my heart rate to an unsustainable level. Eventually we found a combination of medications that seemed to work. I now had a heart medication to add to my daily regimen.
Fast forward a few years. My asthma was fairly well-controlled, as was my heart condition, as long as I continued on the medications. I was finishing graduate school. My son was just about to turn 3 and I was facing the big 3-0. I stopped into a running store, Fleet Feet Sports in Winston-Salem, fully aware that I was not a runner, nor did I ever dream of becoming one. I needed some good athletic shoes for what I thought would probably be another futile attempt at losing weight.
The fit and lean runner who worked at the store treated me with respect and dignity. In fact, everyone in the store interacted with me as if I were not the fat girl but someone who deserved their time and attention. As I approached the counter to pay for my shoes, I noticed a poster for a beginner 5k training, called No Boundaries, and I took a chance. I had never imagined it was possible – with my knee and ankle injuries, my asthma and heart condition, not to mention the nearly 100 extra pounds I was carrying around – for me to be a runner. But something rose up inside of me and I decided that I was done being the fat girl. If I could give my son one birthday gift, it would be for him to grow up without the weight problem that I had struggled with. I knew the best thing I could do was to model the kind of lifestyle I wished for him.
I completed that 5k training. I did pushups and crunches in the snow, ran in the rain, up hills and down hills and through mud. Plenty of days I thought I had lost my mind. I was determined not to quit, but not convinced that running was really my thing. Everyone talked about the runner’s high; I was sure that somehow I lacked the gene for that, because most days it was sheer grit and determination along with all the cheers and high-fives from the mentors and coaches that kept me going. Then one day it happened – I felt that addictive runner’s high. I was on cloud nine, untouchable, and dare I say, running was fun.
My time in my first 5k was far from amazing, but the feeling I got that day was indescribable. I had pushed myself further than I thought possible and the taste of victory could not have been sweeter. During that year I went on to complete several other 5k’s, Ramblin’ Rose Winston-Salem, a sprint distance triathlon, and almost a year later, I ran my first half-marathon.
Up until this point when anyone described me as an athlete or a runner, I was sure they were sorely mistaken; I could not see myself in that light. During my training for that half-marathon my mindset began to change. I knew that if I wanted it badly enough, I could do anything I set my mind to.
When I got pregnant shortly after the half-marathon I gained back the 40 pounds I had lost plus some. However, I stayed connected with the running community and even served as a mentor in the beginner 5k program that had changed my life one year earlier.
Once my daughter was born I knew all of my excuses were gone. I had found my fitness passion in running; now it was time to conquer the weight. I rejoined Weight Watchers and began to understand that my struggle with obesity required me to change not simply what I ate, but why. During a Weight Watchers meeting I had an epiphany when my leader said, “If hunger is not the problem, then food is not the solution.” I also realized that no food is off-limits. I can still eat a piece of cake; I just can’t eat the whole cake.
Over the course of the last year I have lost 92 pounds and become more passionate about fitness, nutrition, running and triathlons than ever. I have raced sprint and Olympic-distance triathlons, as well as three half-marathons, shaving 36 minutes off my first half-marathon time. In October, I finished my biggest challenge to date, the Beach2Battleship half-Ironman triathlon. I am privileged to serve as a mentor to other runners and have shared my story with those struggling with obesity. I am not some amazing athlete who was born to run, I am simply a mom who dug deep and refused to quit.
I no longer need my heart medication or my daily asthma medications. I use my rescue inhaler less than once a month – only when I am pushing my body to the limit in training. My knees and ankle feel stronger than ever. But the best part is that my little boy does not remember a time when his mommy wasn’t a runner. He has done several 5k races with me and even completed a kids’ half-marathon last fall. He and I ran a total of 12.1 miles together over the six weeks leading up to one of my races and then he ran the last mile of his 13.1 miles that morning and received his finisher’s medal at the age of 5.
Standing with him at the finishers’ photo booth later that morning was one of the most joyful and tear-filled experiences of my life. That little boy who inspired me to become a better mom, a better wife and a better me is now my running buddy, and I pray that we will both continue to live a fit and healthy life.
Thank you Ariel for sharing your story with us, it is an inspiration to all!
Ariel’s article first appeared in the December 2013 issue of Endurance Magazine.