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Transformation Tuesday: Pete Olson

As a former student athlete and smoker myself, Pete’s story really resonates with me.  Sometimes it takes a look in the mirror to find yourself again…that’s just what he did 🙂

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From Athlete…to Obese Smoker…and Back Again

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So as you’re reading a Transformation Tuesday feature, you might be wondering why that young baseball player in the picture is being featured! Well, just give it a minute…you’ll find out. You see, the guy in the picture is me, and a couple of years ago, when I looked at this picture, what really grabbed me was not how young I looked. No, what really got me was that I weighed 165 pounds and stood at the same height I stand today.

But what’s interesting is that I wasn’t just a skinny, scrawny kid. I was actually in shape. This picture was taken during my college baseball team’s “Spring Training” in January 1985. Two months earlier, in order to earn the practice uniform I was wearing, our coach stipulated that any NCAA athlete should be able to run two miles in twelve minutes, and he required us to do so before he handed us our Spring Training uniforms. Well, it took me a couple extra weeks because I tweaked my knee on my first attempt – with just two laps to go, too – but ended up completing the two miles in 11 minutes, 27 seconds.

That’s a long way of saying (or bragging about how) I was a pretty good athlete in 1985; however, that well-conditioned young man didn’t stick around much longer. I was “hampered” with arm injuries; and unfortunately, because those injuries never fully healed, my dream of a baseball career was pretty much over before it got started.

So now I really didn’t “have” to run anymore. I really didn’t need to be as finely conditioned as I had been, as there was no game to train for, no two miles in twelve minutes to run. So, in retrospect, the day my baseball career ended was really the day I started heading down a slippery slope to a less healthy life and ultimately to a pretty darned unhealthy one. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened.

Slowly but certainly, I watched the numbers on the scale go up consistently and drastically. After a decade competing professionally (and not very successfully) in golf, I went back and earned my Master’s Degree and started teaching…and that marked the beginning of a sedentary lifestyle to follow for the next fifteen years. In just a couple of years, the scale told me I had gotten up to around 215; and in 1998, I walked into corporate America, sat down at my desk, and within two years I was up into the 230s…and by the time my daughter Mary was born (three years later), I found myself at around 260.

Prior to Mary’s birth, I did have an “I am going to be a dad and need to do something about my health…right now!” moment, and I quit smoking about six months before she arrived. Then, about six months after she was born, I came to realize that I also needed to lose weight (still hovering in the 260 range), and I actually got myself back down to about 210 pounds again…208 to be exact. This was the result of strict adherence to a diet for about a year. That said, though, somewhere in the middle of the weight loss, I thought it would be wise (it wasn’t!) to start smoking again (but “just for a little while”). I actually justified smoking over being obese, and I had the intent to quit smoking again “once I found myself back in the 100s” again. Pretty good logic, no?

At the end of the day, my trip away from obesity was short-lived, and to be honest I can’t remember what triggered me back to my old eating habits…which, basically, was something like “I’ll eat as much I what, when I want it” while hiding from everyone how much I actually ate and how often I was eating. Between fast food places, candy machines at work, bags of chips at home (these were a few of my favorite things), coupled with the days’ “normal” meals (yes, fast food sandwiches became snacks), I once again journeyed back to the 260s and then actually surpassed them to find myself at an all-time high of 278.

From that moment, I panicked and would put myself on crash diets, but nothing stuck…or, more appropriately, I stuck with nothing. I would lose a few pounds here and there, and then they would come back…and this was the cycle for the next few years. The reason why there aren’t many pictures of me from this era is because I guess I was hiding from cameras when I saw them…and I would always seek cover (either consciously or subconsciously) behind people or objects in the photographs that managed to capture my now obese frame. Here are a couple of shots that somehow got by me, though…

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So at the end of this fifteen-year period (from 1996 to 2011), I didn’t recognize the guy in the mirror as a former college and professional athlete. Instead, I saw an obese man who lacked power over food and cigarettes, who was too lazy to get out and exercise, and who was ultimately dying a slow, unhealthy death for which he would be deemed the primary cause.

But on November 1, 2011, an unfortunate event finally lit a spark under that obese guy, and he decided right then and there that it was time to change his life…

As my mother-in-law underwent a surgical procedure to repair the arteries that transport blood to the brain, I spent the day working, smoking cigarettes, and overeating…since I weighed around 260-ish at the time, it was probable that I was overeating.

As Michelle listed the outcomes of the stroke her mother suffered while on the operating table (paralysis, inability to speak or eat), she also shared with me that the sign in the hospital elevator indicated two of the leading causes of strokes were cigarette smoking and obesity…and it was at that moment that the proverbial “light” went off and I knew that it was time to get my life and my health back on the right track. It was at that moment that I realized that my weight and my smoking was leading me down a path of heart attacks, strokes, and lung disease.

So I picked November 11, 2011 (11-11-11 sounded easy to remember) as the day to quit smoking; and over the next couple of very tough months, I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted to eat (couldn’t get too health crazy all at once) while keeping it in the back of my mind that I was going to undertake weight loss after the “give me a cigarette!!!” moments subsided. And on January 7, 2012, weighing in at 275.6 pounds, the cravings subsided and I started dieting again.

But later that year I realized that dieting just wasn’t enough, so with Michelle’s encouragement to “just go out there and run,” I started running again after a twenty-six-year hiatus. The plan at the time was really about running for weight loss. You see, while I had lost about thirty pounds over the year’s first six months, my dieting had gotten me to a weight loss plateau, which is a dangerous place for a habitual dieter. But rather than repeating past behavior and accepting life at an obese 245 pounds, which would have ultimately taken me back to 275, I was finally ready for a real change.

On July 23, 2012, I woke up at around 5:15am on a hot and humid Monday morning, threw on a pair of gym shorts (not running shorts), a white cotton tee shirt (sweat retaining – not a running shirt), golf socks (not sweat resistant), and what I thought was a decent pair of sneakers I had purchased at an outlet mall (I was wrong). After drinking a cup of water, I walked out my front door at around 5:30. I had neither Garmin nor running app to track my pace or mileage…and I had no clear-cut plan but to “just go out there and run.”

After a few stretches I had recalled from my athletic past, I walked to my mailbox and just started running. Immediately, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep this up for very long…my breathing was labored, my fat was bouncing to and fro, and there were varying levels of pain shooting through my body.

I thought to myself, “okay…keep pushing…just make it to that house, and then you can walk.” And I did…so I did. Only later did I find out that the house was just over a quarter mile up the street. After that point, I decided that I was going to walk until I felt good enough to run again. Well, when I reached another house, I figured I would turn around and start running back home. It turns out that the house was about a half mile more up the way, so I had gone a total of three quarters of a mile. I can’t recall how long I ran the next time, but I am certain it wasn’t another quarter mile. In fact, to the best of my knowledge and memory, I don’t know how many run/walk intervals it took to get me through that second three-quarter-mile stretch…but I believe that the walking was about equal to the running. At least that’s what I tell myself.

For that first month, I ran/walked the same route five days a week, and each time I tried to run a little more than I had the last time…no matter what. I iced my knees after every run. I took Aleve at least twice a day. I sweat like crazy even for hours following my showers. At times I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep this up. And at others I just wanted to quit.

But I didn’t.

I just kept running.

And on a fateful day about a month later, I started running at my mailbox, right past that first house, all the way to the three quarter mile house, and then all the way back home. A mile and a half…without stopping!

Over the course of the next year and a half, with the help of a training apps, good friends to keep me accountable, a Garmin, some real running equipment, and stringent training plans, I managed to lose 100 pounds and to work myself up to running and completing my first full marathon on January 12, 2014, at Walt Disney World. And as my sister Karen had put in an email to me after the race…

“What an amazing journey you’ve started!”

Started? Yes, started. This isn’t the end of anything. Yes, a fence post has been driven in the ground, but for me, there are so many more marathons to run, so many goals for which I am reaching. My sister was right. This is not the end. It’s the beginning. In fact, right now I am halfway through my training for the Chicago Marathon in October…and from there I have many more athletic dreams to realize. That athlete has made it back from smoking and obesity…and I don’t want him to go away again!

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Has running at Disney helped to transform your life?  If so, I want to hear your story!  Send me an email at sarah@runningatdisney.com to be featured on an upcoming Transformation Tuesday!

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3 Responses to Transformation Tuesday: Pete Olson

  1. Wow! Very inspiring story…great job!
    Lauren @ Lauren’s Glass Slipper recently posted..2015 Tinker Bell Half Marathon RegistrationMy Profile

  2. […] Transformation Tuesday: Pete Olson […]

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