It started out so well …
I was very thin when I was growing up. My grandmother would always tell me “manji manji” as soon as I walked in her door. She was so worried about me being skinny. You can see for yourself what I looked liked at 14. Hard to believe looking at that picture that I was a summer away from playing football and three years away from boot camp. I was actually drinking weight gaining powder and downing calories by the thousands to just maintain my weight. When I went into the Navy I weighed 142 pounds. Three months later when leaving boot camp and heading to Dam Neck, Virginia for “A” School I weighed 160. And it was ALL muscle at that point. When you grow up like this, you get into a pattern of eating, a habit, and after years and years of it becomes something that is very hard to break. What once you could eat with no issue, now puts pounds on you instantly.
This was me. Then the “Big C” word got me.
In 1990, at the age of 27, I was entering my last year of Navy service, and was being deployed to a destroyer in support of Desert Shield/Desert Storm. I had noticed over the recent 6 months that my weight was increasing, but I figured it was me just getting older, and planned on using the final deployment of my ten-year stint as a way to lose the weight and get back into shape. This was something we did back then. Deployments came so often that when we were in port we didn’t worry too much about healthy eating, because we knew when we were at sea we would lose what ever weight we packed on. The older you got, however, the less that seemed to work.
I was 187 pounds.
It’s funny to me now that I considered 187 pounds on my frame of 5’10” as “too heavy”. I was still in good shape though, so I was concerned about the increase in weight, but not too worried. I got through the deployment, and during my exit physical the first, albeit slight, indication there was something amiss happened. The “doctor” (all Navy doctors, in my experience, deserve quotations) was going through his checks and mentioned, in a “no big deal” manner, “hmm you have a slight goiter in your neck”. Nothing else. He wrote it down in his book and off I went into the civilian world for the first time in ten years.
And I indulged.
I drank. I smoked (not cigarettes). I did “other things”. I entered college for the first time as a 27-year-old, and did very well, eventually earning a BA in Psychology, a Masters in Public Administration, and an MBA, but my health kept getting worse. The more I spent on my own, the more weight I was gaining, but because I had no insurance, there was no way to afford getting checked, so I waited it out.
Eventually I got hired at TJ Maxx and obtained insurance. This was 1992. I weighed around 220 by this point. Over weight, but not massively so, and still had plenty of muscle to “hide” the girth. At least that’s what I told myself. The one thing other than the weight I had started noticing was that the goiter found in 1991 was now much larger, to the point I had a hard time buttoning collars. My wife made me go see a doctor, who was shocked at the size, and immediately sent me to an Endocrinologist in Orlando, Dr. Samuel Crockett. He found that my thyroid had seized to function at all so put me on thyroid to try to get it kick started and reduce the goiter.
It didn’t work.
Surgery was the next option. He explained to me the risks that were there. My vocal nerves are very close but its rare that they are damaged. The parathyroid run a risk of damage, but that’s also rare. So in I went to have half the gland removed. Or so we thought.
The planned 3 hour surgery turned into 5-6 hours. Once the surgeon was inside he noticed that the gland had grown so big that it wrapped around my entire neck. He didn’t like the look of it so it was decided to remove all of it. In the process, everything that was “rare” happened. My left vocal nerve was wrapped in the sticky gland so it was cut out, and my parathyroid glands were damaged. The gland was sent off for routine analysis, so after I recovered I went back to school.
A couple of weeks later I returned home and found my wife crying. The doctor had called and wanted to see us immediately, but when she asked what it was about she was told that the doctor needed to tell us in person. That’s never good. The next day I was told that there was cancer in the gland and that I would need to undergo radiation treatments to ensure that the entire thyroid tissue was no longer floating around my body.
This process lasted 6 years. 6 years of body scans in small tubes followed by radiation treatments. I was “radioactive” after my son was born and could not be around him. Yes. I was alive. Yes. I wasn’t “sick”. Yes, if there is any “good” cancer to have this is one of them. But it was still scary.
Over that span of 6 years, now with no thyroid function, I went to over 300 pounds. When you are hypothyroid you have no energy. It is hard to explain to someone who has not had it. You know you need to get up and move, but there is NO energy. Your mind wanders. Every bone in your body feels like it just ran a marathon. Add this to the already bad metabolism and the weight just keeps climbing. Every effort you make to lose weight ends up failing, so eventually you stop trying. The cookies, pies, cake, chips become your staple. You start using the thyroid issue as your excuse. And you keep getting fatter. The picture to the left is me at about 280 pounds. I don’t even look like the same person I was when I was younger. This picture honestly makes me sick to look at. Even the clothes I was wearing look slovenly and big, because I could stand to have clothes so tight on me that you could see how fat I was. I figured if I wore my clothes big, I would look thin!
Man am I SMART eh???
So most know the story from here. I looked in the mirror one morning after getting out of the shower in 2010 and was done. I had heard a doctor on a radio interview talking about a similar condition I had and it sounded like he was talking about me personally. Even though he was not on my insurance, I scrounged the money to pay out-of-pocket. I credit Dr. Michael Heim with being the first person to save my life. After every test performed by endocrinologists, not ONE ever mentioned, or even tested, that my testosterone level had fallen below 100. Along with that, my body was converting what testosterone I had to estrogen. This, along with the “normal” thyroid issues, kept my weight going up. To make this long story a bit shorter, after numerous blood tests, I was put on T Replacement, Estrogen blockers, and switched to natural thyroid from synthroid. But it didn’t stop with medication. He insisted I get active. Dr. Heim is a triathlete, so he told me “there’s a triathlon called Escape from Fort DeSoto in April of 2011. Sign up for it. You have a year to prepare.”
I went home and did just that.
This was about the time that I met Jennifer Cultrera while working at Moffitt Cancer Center (her office was next to mine). She was on her own weight loss journey (which is not my story to tell … I will let her) and after talking to her awhile she too went to Dr. Heim. But the underlying fact was that she had started riding a bike with one of her nurses. “Why don’t you come with us? She has an extra bike you can use!”.
I have not stopped since. Jennifer is the second person that saved my life.
Since starting this journey I have blogged about it non-stop. I have been told I was both inspiring by some (mostly people I have never met in person) and that I was selfish by others (mostly family members). Since that visit to Dr. Heim I have completed over 20 sprint triathlons, three Olympic triathlons, five half ironman distances, seven half marathon’s, and a full marathon (not including the DNF this year). And I am not done.
Many people have helped me in this journey, from coaches (Kristie Concepcion), to other racers too many to mention (because I will forget someone and I wouldn’t want to do that). I can only hope that I can and have the same effect on people as I continue to move through this journey, and it’s why I keep writing about it. I hope it helps. I hope that is shows someone who is 300+ pounds, and sitting on the couch each week watching the Biggest Loser, or some other dumbass Oprah Winfrey inspired show like Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil, that there is nothing wrong with them other than the information they have been wrongly fed for their whole life.
If I can do that, then I have done my part.
Remember, even though we are Fat Slow Triathletes …
… we WILL be reckoned with!!