BY MARK RUCKER
photos by Kentucky Studio
I can’t see anything from behind the large monitor that I’m standing behind, but I can hear the voices going back and forth: “Not only did he lose 135 pounds, but this guy is also a triathlete!” My heart is pounding with anticipation. “Of course he is. I can’t wait to see him!” “And I can’t wait to jump out from behind this big monitor,” I think to myself. “He runs. He bikes. He swims.” And he sweats. Not only when he’s doing all of those things, but as he’s standing here waiting to come out. “Bring him out here!” Hoda says enthusiastically. My focus is solely on Yosef who is standing just out of camera range but squarely within my line of sight. “Is it time YET?” I think to myself. “Mark!! Come on out here!!,” screams Joy. And finally Josef gives me the signal that I’ve been waiting on for what seemed like an eternity. I emerge from behind the life-size monitor displaying a picture of me at my heaviest of 385 pounds like a heavyweight boxer getting ready to jump into the ring. And there I am under the glare of the studio 1-A lights, in front of cameras with red lights burning like the embers of a fire, and for a moment I am just shell-shocked by the magnitude of it all. I am on The Today Show. Right. Now! It seems like that thought lingers in my head for an eternity as I struggle to focus on the lady speaking to me. It’s Hoda Kotb. And there’s Kathie Lee Gifford. And NBC Nutritionist Joy Bauer. Honestly this all seems just like one big dream.
How did I get here?
It was the summer of 2009, and my wife and I had taken the kids to Gatlinburg for a family vacation. All week long my daughter, Abby, who was 11 at the time, had talked about the end of week trip to Dollywood and all the rollercoasters that she wanted to ride. My wife, Annita, is not a rollercoaster person, nor is my son, Mason. So this was going to just be some quality “daddy/daughter” time together riding as many rollercoasters over and over as many times as we could.
When the big day finally arrived we were some of the first people in the park. We wanted to make sure that we had plenty of time to enjoy the rides and the day. And we had strategically planned out our assault, days in advance, to make sure that we would get the most of it.
My first choice was to do a “throwback” to a wooden rollercoaster called “Thunderhead” that was located in the Timber Canyon section of the park. When the turnstyles starting cranking and the chains were lowered we were on our way! And when we got to Thunderhead the line wasn’t long at all. This was going to be great!
We made it up the wooden steps and into a corral. We watched as all the people ahead of us piled into the cars and strapped in. Then off they went. Soon we could hear the screams and “click-clack” of the wheels on the rails as the ride went flying overhead. Abby and I were up next and we were so excited!
We jumped into our little car toward the back of the ride and we buckled our seatbelt. Then it happened. I reached up for the safety bar and pulled it down over our heads. Only it wouldn’t click. Well, it’s not that it wouldn’t click. It couldn’t click. I was so large that I couldn’t get the safety bar over my mid-section. I tried. And I tried. My daughter looked at me with a nervous glance. I sucked it all in. I did my best. The two attendants came over and pushed on the bar. No luck. It wouldn’t latch. And then I knew. We couldn’t ride the roller coaster because I was too large.
I’d always been a “big” guy. Ever since about fifth grade.
And as I got older, I continued to get bigger. Sure, I had my moments of weight loss.
Sometimes for a couple of months.
Sometimes for a year or so.
But it always came back, and it always came back with more than what I had lost. By the time we were on this vacation in 2009, I was maxed out at around 385 pounds.
I promised my daughter that I would get healthy and that we would be able to ride the rides. But I didn’t live up to my promise then. It wasn’t until I reconnected with an old friend from high school who had lost 240 pounds through diet and exercise that I realized that I could do it too.
And eventually I did.
I started with small nutritional changes that led to weight loss. And then after a month of nutritional changes I added in light exercise. Walking. And the weight continued to come off. And then after that I began running. And cycling. And swimming. I ran a 5K. Then a 10K. Then a half marathon. Then a full marathon. And I kept going until I became an Ironman last August in Louisville.
I never could have imagined that what began as a desire to fulfill a promise to my daughter could have ever led me to this. New York City!, all expenses paid and an appearance on The Today Show. How did it happen?
“Hi Mark, I’d like to talk with you about the Joy Fit Club. Is there a good time for me to call you? And what is the best number? We have a Joy Fit Club segment next Monday, May 5 and May 12. “
I couldn’t believe the e-mail. What? “Would you be available to come to New York?”
Me? In New York? On The Today Show? As a Joy Fit Club Member? I was in shock when I read the e-mail.
“Of course I’m available,” I thought. Even if I wasn’t available, I was still available.
So after some back and forth, and a little planning, I was booked for a trip to New York for my appearance. I still couldn’t believe it.
I left for New York on Sunday morning and flew directly to LaGuardia. It may sound strange to admit it but I’d never been to New York. Well, I was there once but for only about 15 minutes. That is an entirely different story though.
As I descended the escalator I saw the sign “Mark Rucker.” I went to the man and said “Hi! I’m Mark Rucker.” He immediately took my bags and turned toward the exit. I wasn’t sure if I should follow him or tackle him because he was stealing my bags. I chose Option One.
We got out to the car and he opened the door to the backseat. There were a couple of bottles of water set out for me. I tried to make small talk with the driver, but I think it only frightened him. I have a feeling that he rarely has interaction with his clients, and try as I might, I wasn’t going to break him down.
He whisked me away and before I knew it we were emerging out of the tunnel into Manhattan. Wow. I could not get over the never-ending amount of buildings and concrete.
No trees. No grass. I truly felt like the Country Mouse in the Big City.
He dropped me at my hotel which was only a block from Rockefeller Center. When I got out of the car I could see Radio City Music Hall just across the street. I was in New York City. I was in New York City. It just all seemed so surreal.
I made my way into the hotel and the young man working the front desk (which was really more like a kiosk) told me that my room wouldn’t be ready for about three hours. He politely offered to store my bags for me though until then and I seized on the opportunity to go exploring.
I made my way out of the hotel onto 51st. My wife told me before I left, “don’t look up at the buildings because you’ll look like a tourist.” But I couldn’t help myself. I was just amazed at the size of the buildings. And I’m convinced it’s just a normal reaction to look up. So I did. A lot.
I made my way around the plaza and made my way down to an outdoor café that was opened where the skating rink is during the winter. It was Mother’s Day so there were tons of families out celebrating. It was nice to see that but I missed my wife who wasn’t able to make the trip with me. I enjoyed a $10 bottle of sparkling water and then decided it was time to do some more exploring.
I’m a huge fan of coffee and in any city I’m in, I always want to find the best espresso. Some may consider me a coffee nerd, but I prefer the term “coffee snob.” I had done some research and found a little place called Oren’s that was only a few blocks away off 51st.
I walked past 5th Avenue. Then Madison Avenue. Then Park Avenue. I felt like I was on a live Monopoly board. And I made my way down to Oren’s for one of the best doubleshots I’ve ever had.
I have to say that I was really surprised at how friendly everyone was. I was fully prepared to just keep my head down and not look at anyone but the people I interacted with were extremely friendly.
I made my way back to the hotel and fortunately was able to check in. My room was more like what I envision you get at a hostel, but it was only for one night and I was by myself so I didn’t need that much space.
For dinner, I found a great little place just a few blocks down toward Park Avenue that would make any salad combination that you could ever want. You choose the base leafy green that you wanted and then you would pay for each additional vegetable that you added.
So it was like getting toppings on a pizza, but much healthier. After I made my selections the guy waiting on me dumped everything out and chopped it. I grabbed a Naked juice and headed back to the hotel.
I decided to turn in early even though I didn’t have to be at the studio until 9:30. Of course once I laid down I started thinking about all the things that I wanted to say but knew that I’d only have about four minutes or less to say them. I tossed and turned. I called my wife who is an ace at calming me down. And she’d packed me some Chamomile tea as well. Shortly after that I was down for the count.
I woke up on Monday morning, headed to the hotel’s gym, got in a run, and then got ready. I was so nervous. I usually don’t have an issue with TV appearances, but they’ve all been local news. I started to think about the possibility that millions of people were going to see me in just a couple of hours. And that really started to make me anxious.
I made my way out of the hotel and headed over to Rockefeller Center. People were still standing outside the studio and I headed to the security guard who ushered me through.
Once inside I met another security guard who sent me down a spiral staircase to the “Green Room,” which was actually white and orange. I had another security guard check me in and I went back to make-up. I heard a voice say “Mark!” I looked over and there was Joy Bauer sitting in the chair with curlers in her hair. I wanted to go over and give her a HUGE hug and say “thank you for this opportunity” but I thought that they might kick me out.
I went back out to the Green Room and watched the show on the monitor and had some water while taking it all in. There’s singer Sara Bareilles. There’s Hoda Kotb. And Kathie Lee Gifford. I just couldn’t believe that this was my life. This was me. An average guy with a story about losing weight. It still didn’t all make sense.
We made our way upstairs and into the studio. It was so much cooler up there. That was so nice. I could finally stop sweating. A guy comes over and clips a mic on my shirt and starts snaking a cord through my shirt. A lady comes over and dabs the sweat off my forehead and applies some powder. The stage manager comes over and introduces himself. He places me behind the life-size monitor and says, “I’m Yosef. Just watch me for your cue.”
“Mark! Come on out here!”
And here I am. On The Today Show. This amazing journey that I’ve been on for three years just keeps getting more amazing. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There have been many incredible experiences on this journey, and I’m extremely thankful for each and every opportunity that I’ve been blessed with to share my story and to hopefully inspire other people to change their lives.
But even with all of these amazing things that have happened to me ,they don’t hold a candle the greatest part. And that is that I’m down 135 pounds. My life is completely different. I’m active in my own life, in my wife’s life and in the lives of my children. And as we celebrate Father’s Day this month, I can’t think of any gift greater that I can give my family than that of being a healthy dad and husband.
Mark Rucker is a Lexington attorney and a contributing health and fitness writer at Hamburg Journal.
This story appears on page 14 of the June issue of the Hamburg Journal, available in retail, restaurant, and health outlets in Lexington’s southeast corridor.