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From 274 Pounds to ULTRA Runner in Less Than 2 Years
Bluemont, Virginia’s Susan Jennings, 48, recently transformed herself from seriously overweight to ULTRAFit. In less than two years she lost 135 pounds or almost half her body weight and ran her first ultradistance race – a 50K (31 miles). Her inspiring story is revealed in this interview with author Ed Mayhew.
Ed: Susan, you recently traded being seriously overweight for some serious running. In May, for example, you ran 64 miles in a 24-hour race. Were you always overweight? What led to your reaching 274 pounds?
Susan: In my younger days, I was always on the edge of being overweight. As long as I stayed active, I was okay, but I seemed to constantly be on a diet, each time having to lose a little more to get to my goal weight. After I got married, I wasn’t as active and the weight starting creeping up. It didn’t help that my thin husband could eat anything he wanted! The weight really became an issue after the birth of my daughter. It was then that I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Medicine stabilized the blood levels, but I never felt right after that. With raising a child and a long commute to work each day, exercise became less and less, and I continued to gain. Food became the tool I used to combat fatigue and stress. It was my friend and my enemy. I felt so out of control.
Ed: What ways had you tried to lose the weight over the years and what finally worked for you?
Susan: I think I have tried every diet on the planet! The list is extensive: the Lemonade Cleansing Fast, the Hallelujah Diet, Nutrisystem, Physicians Weight Loss, South Beach Diet, Atkins, Pritikin, etc. I have spent thousands of dollars on programs, meals, and supplements trying to find the magic formula. Most diets worked for a while. But after a while, I would stop losing. Some were just too hard to follow. Others just stopped working. I couldn’t figure it out. How could I lose 30 or 40 pounds and then plateau or start to gain without changing anything that I was doing? In frustration, I would quit because it didn’t seem to matter, and quickly gain the weight back. My health issues got worse. I snored when I slept, and would often wake up with my heart racing. Sometimes in the evening, I just felt so bad. I remember looking into the mirror one morning and stared at the blotchy face looking back at me. “I don’t know who you are, “I said, and began to cry. I had to keep trying. I read of a connection with gluten sensitivity and hypothyroidism so I decided to give up wheat for one week. In three days, my snoring stopped. In one week, I lost 10 pounds. It was the motivation I needed to try to lose one more time. I decided to go back to Weight Watchers because I knew I needed accountability, and a structured program to deal with the other reasons I ate. Then I did one thing I had never done before. I took several “before” pictures. I had decided that this was it, last chance. At my first meeting on May 31, 2007, the leader was talking about excuses we make for why we gain weight, including “it’s my thyroid.” I raised my hand and said, “Well, I have hypothyroidism, but I’m not going to use it as an excuse any longer.” That became my mantra – no excuses. If I was tired, I still got up and exercised. If I was stressed, that wasn’t an excuse for eating. So the combination of a gluten free diet, Weight Watchers, and exercise is what finally worked.
Ed: How did you go from being overweight with significant health issues to being an Ultra Runner?
Susan: It’s funny, because I had always joked about my efficient metabolism and how I was designed to be a long distance runner. But that was the furthest thing from my mind at the time. I just wanted to be able to walk a mile or two. We live on the mountain and I felt uncomfortable on our curvy roads. Then, after I had experienced a few rude comments yelled from passing vehicles, my husband suggested I hike on the Appalachian Trail, which is a stone’s throw from our house. He even bought me some trekking poles. The only problem was that the section we live near is called the “Roller Coaster,” a series of 400-600 ft rocky climbs and descents. The first day I made it about a fourth of the way up the ridge before I quit and went home. But I got up the next morning and went back out. Soon my half hour hikes turned into one hour hikes, and then two hour hikes. At other times, while my daughter was dancing, I would walk around the 2 mile loop in Berryville. There, I would see runners. One woman particularly interested me. She was older, and she wasn’t really fast, but she was faithfully running every time I went to the park. I thought that if she could run, why couldn’t I. By this time, I had lost about 75 lbs. So I would run a few feet, and then walk again. This progressed to running all the downhill sections, then all the flat sections, and finally I pushed up those “big” hills at the park. I especially enjoyed “running” on the trails. The day I left my trekking poles at home was the day I became a real trail runner. After a couple of months of this, I got a crazy notion in my head that I wanted to run a trail race. I found a half-marathon that was at the end of September (2008). I had about 4 months to train for it, and about 30 more pounds to lose. My two hour hikes now became two hour trail runs. Fearfully, I toed the line for that race. I wasn’t even sure I could go the distance and was sure I would finish in last place. But once on the trails, I found my rhythm. The last three miles is when I experienced the runners high. I was flying down the mountain, letting gravity take me and crossed the finish line 19th out of 56 runners. Later that day, I broke down and sobbed. I felt like the butterfly who, after years of being trapped in a cocoon of fat and self-doubt, had been set free to fly. If I could lose 135 pounds, train for, and run a half marathon in a year and a half, then what else could I do? I wasn’t through pushing my limits and so I signed up for my first ultra – an 8 hour trail run in February. On my two year anniversary(in May) of walking into a Weight Watchers meeting, I celebrated by running 49 miles in a 10 hour endurance run.
Ed: Can you give us an example of one of your more difficult workouts/runs?
Susan: I try not to take myself too seriously, so I make the challenging runs fun. For instance, I have a run called Woman vs. Mountain. I start at the bottom of a mountain road that climbs in 2 ½ miles about 1000 ft, with 9% grades in parts. If I don’t walk at all, then I win. If I have to walk then the mountain wins. Of course, the fun thing is to run back down the mountain and do it again, trying to better your time on the second go round. Or I make a race course. I have a 20k that starts on the Roller Coaster, climbs 4 ridges for the first 10k, then sprints down the mountain on the shoulder of Route 7; the last 10k is on a hilly mountain road, and ends with a section of “Woman vs. Mountain.”
Ed: How did you learn so quickly about how to survive and thrive doing ultra-distance runs and races?
Susan: I’m still learning! I’ve read everything I can find on training for an ultra. It’s interesting that most formal training programs only go up to the marathon distance. So the wisdom comes from other ultra runners who blog and post online how they trained for certain races. I try to follow the standard running advice and then adapt it for longer distances. I also learn from my mistakes. In my 24 hour run, I had my family there and they set up an area for me that I could go to at the end of each 8 mile loop. The problem was, I was taking too long to get back on the trail. I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t lose over 2 hours of running time, relaxing between loops. In my 10 hour run which was on a horse track, I was feeling good, started out too fast, and didn’t drink enough at the beginning. I got leg cramps around mile 16 and had them the rest of the night. It really slowed me down. I think I could have done over 50 miles without them. But that’s how you learn.
Ed: What is your eating/diet like from day to day now compared with what it was like before?
Susan: Probably the biggest difference in meal times is being gluten-free and learning to control portions. We haven’t gone out for pizza in over 2 years. In fact, our eating out has greatly diminished, mainly because it’s too hard to make sure the meals don’t have gluten in them. One area where I struggled with before was the in between meal times. The quick and easy pick me up is a candy bar, or a bag of chips or a coke. Now I try to pack fruit and veggies for my snacks, and if I run out, I just tell myself that I won’t starve if I don’t eat before supper time. It’s silly to think that we have to put something in our mouth every time we get a little hungry. But I still struggle with and give in to cravings. I’m a confessed chocolaholic. The key for me is tracking every meal. I still use the Weight Watcher’s point system. Some people wonder what you eat, if you can’t have wheat. I made it a point not to substitute with gluten-free bread, cookies, etc. but rather to fill the “bread” spot with brown rice, quinoa, potato or other whole grain. Fish, turkey, lean beef and vegetarian dishes make up the bulk of our entrees. Salads are also a mainstay of the diet. When I come in from a workout, I make a smoothie with frozen fruit and a hemp protein mix. I try to find protein powders that have lots of vitamins and minerals that help with recovery.
Ed: What do you eat and drink to stay hydrated and keep your glycogen levels up during long runs?
Susan: Training runs are for experimenting with food and drink. I have tried everything from gels, to clif blocks, to trail mix and dried fruit. On my long trail runs without access to water, I fill a hydration bladder, and wear a mule pack. It also holds several emergency items. On my last 36.5 mile training run, I used the first aid kit, the emergency rain poncho, the parachute chord, and the knife. So while I complain about the 10 lbs I carry on my back, those things came in handy! For that run I ate a combination of gels and bars, and put an electrolyte solution in my water. I will also carry a source of protein if I’m going to be out all day – protein bars, cheese, or chipped beef (extra sodium). My last shorter run of 20 miles, I only had a couple of gels and still felt fine. During 24 hour races, anything goes. Whatever keeps you moving and that includes chocolate and soda!
Ed: What goes through your mind during hard workouts and races? Are there any mental techniques you use to keep running when your exhausted and your body wants to quit? What do you mentally tell yourself when the going gets tough?
Susan: I consider every run an adventure and I look forward to retelling my tales of getting locked into Skyline Drive at night, or screaming at a bobcat, or running with a herd of cattle (this morning’s run) to my friends and fellow runners. So if I come home after running in single digit weather with icicles in my hair, or blood running down my leg from a fall, it’s another story to tell. Because of this I’ve been dubbed the “Warrior Princess.” So if I feel like quitting when the going gets tough I say, “I can’t quit, I’m the Warrior Princess!” During the ultras, the motto is “keep moving forward.” As long as you’re moving forward, no matter how slow, you’re making progress. I try to focus on form. I have a mental checklist – posture, arms, foot strike, etc. that I go through. And since faith is such a big part of who I am, I quote scripture “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” or “I am strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.” There is a Drill Sergeant who “lives” in my head and barks out orders during my runs. “Get a move on it, you wimp!” she yells. “My grandmother can run faster than that!” And when all else fails, I sing my favorite hymn “It is Well with My Sole.” (Just kidding).
Ed: Is there a religious or spiritual component to your trading in your knife and fork for running shoes?
Susan: My faith is the foundation of my life. I prayed for years that the Lord would help me lose weight. In retrospect, the struggles I faced have allowed me to help others. So God answered my prayer, just not in my time, but in His. I prayed everyday that I would be strong, not give into temptation, and that my journey could be an inspiration to others and a testimony to God’s faithfulness. I believe that I have been transformed from the inside out. Mentally, I was in a bad place, so self conscious and negative, struggling with who I was, and wondering what I was meant to do on this earth. Now, I run for Christ, for the spiritual rebirth He gave me and the strength that comes from knowing Him.
Ed: What would you like folks who are struggling with their weight to know?
Susan: Here are a few things I learned in this journey:
1) Don’t quit, don’t ever give up. Keep trying different things and eventually it will happen.
2) Believe in yourself and your ability to lose weight. Actions follow belief. If you believe you can, you will.
3) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. For me, help came through a structured program, through friends and family, and through my faith.
4) Don’t try to climb the mountain in one day. Take little steps, make small changes. Little steps add up to big results.
5) Take joy in the journey. This is a lifestyle, not a quick fix. Live life to the fullest – carpe diem – seize the day.
These things, by the way, apply to all areas of our life, not just losing weight.
Ed: What’s next?
Susan: I decided that since I skipped the marathon and went on to the ultras, I should go back and run one. So the Marine Corps Marathon is on the schedule for late October. I also have the JFK 50 in November, a 12 hr run in September, and a trail 50 miler in early October. From these I hope to be ready for the next test – the Umstead 100 miler in March. I keep pressing on, the journey never ends, just changes courses every now and then.
Ed: Susan, is there anything we haven’t covered that you would like to say to our readers?
Susan: Most limits we place on ourselves are our limits. We have the potential to do much more than we think. When someone says they could never run a marathon, I reply “Yes, you could, if you were willing to put the time and energy into training for it.” I wrote the following in my training blog after my ten hour race. It is for me, and it is for all of us who are reaching for the stars:
“Nothing is impossible. I stand on the shore of a vast sea, my goals and dreams a shadow on the distant shore. I can hesitate, I can think that they are too lofty and too far away to attain. Or I can believe in the human spirit, and in my God who strengthens me. I take a deep breath and plunge in.”
Ed: Thanks, Susan! You’re a true inspiration and role model to the multitudes who are struggling with weight issues.
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