BY MARK D. RUCKER
I’m SO embarrassed,” I thought to myself. I looked at my daughter. I could see the look of disappointment in her eyes. I was crushed. I knew she was too, but an 11-year-old little girl would never say that to her dad. “It’s OK Dad. We can go do some other stuff,” she said.
I wanted to cry. Honestly, later that night, I did.
This wasn’t where I planned on being at age 40 — so overweight and out of shape that I couldn’t even fit on a rollercoaster. My wife and I had taken my kids to Gatlinburg for vacation and my 11-year-old daredevil daughter could not stop talking about riding all of the rollercoasters. All week long that was all that I heard. And when the big day at Dollywood came, I couldn’t fit into any of the rides.
I promised my daughter on that trip that the next time we came back things would be different. I was determined to change my life. I was going to get fit and healthy. I was going to change everything immediately and be Superdad. But it didn’t happen. The desire to change was there, but the motivation to do so was lacking.
I continued on my downward health spiral for another year or so after that trip. I had developed sleep apnea and was forced to use a CPAP machine to regulate my breathing at night. I was on high blood pressure medication. I was also, most likely, borderline diabetic. I say “borderline” simply because I was too afraid to address the issue with my doctor to find out. I honestly didn’t want to know. At my highest weight, I was 385 pounds.
And then one day, I happened to reconnect with an old friend from high school on Facebook. Anita was always such a great person. She was also someone who had battled weight issues her entire life, like me, maxing out at almost 400 pounds. But something was different about her. She had changed her life. Through diet and exercise she had managed to lose, at the time, almost 180 pounds. She has since gone on to lose a total of 240 pounds.
I became intrigued with her story. We talked back and forth about how she did it. I was so amazed at the difference in her, and the fact that she had done it all through healthy eating and exercise absolutely blew me away. I thought “if she can do it, then I can too.”
But I didn’t.
And then came the Super Bowl in 2011. My wife and I spent the evening with friends and I, of course, ate way too much. I woke up early the next morning and felt terrible. I had eaten so much that I had made myself sick. And at that moment, something clicked. I realized that if I didn’t do something right then that I was going to have a very short life span. I’d leave my children without a father, and my wife without a husband. That thought terrified me.
So I immediately got to work. I decided that the best way to change my life was to make small changes. I had tried to change in the past, but I always tried to do everything all at once. That plan usually worked for about two to three weeks and then I’d fall apart. Any weight I had lost would immediately be regained and usually more. This time, I started with small changes to my nutrition.
The first thing that I did was to cut out sugary soft drinks. I decided that instead of going cold turkey that I would wean myself from the sodas. So I went out and bought a 24-pack of diet soda and I made a deal with myself. I decided to allow myself 1 can a day but that once the 24-pack ran out, I was going to be done with soda. I also decided to cut out all processed sugars and carbs to allow my body the time to process out the bad stuff that I had been putting in for so long. Instead of processed foods, I started eating whole fruits and vegetables. And it worked. I started losing weight.
After my first week of cutting out the sodas and processed carbs, I made another change. I cut out salad dressings. Now, I love Ranch dressing, but I knew that it wasn’t good for me so I committed to stop eating it. And after a week of that change, I implemented another. I switched to raw almonds instead of roasted, salted. So far, I wasn’t going back to my old ways. I found that with small changes made over time I was having more success sticking with them. I continued to lose more weight.
In March 2011, I decided that I wanted to start exercising, so I started walking. I was only able to do a mile at first. I was very slow, and it was difficult for me, but I stuck to it. I walked at work on my lunch break, and over a few weeks, I noticed that I lost more weight and felt much better than I had felt in a long time. I was able to work up to three to four miles a day on my lunch breaks. And I was starting to feel really good about this journey.
In April, I decided that I wanted to be a runner. I started using the Couch 2 5K app on my iPhone. I remember the first day like it was yesterday. I had to run 9 intervals of 60 seconds with 90 seconds of walk time in between. I thought that I was going to die. But I stuck with it and ran my first 5K on July 4. Then I used Bridge 2 10K and trained for my first 10K which I completed on July 30, 2011.
I also started biking in June 2011. I love to ride. There is something about riding my bike that takes me back to being a little kid. I love that feeling of freedom. I joined the local cycling club so I could be with others when I rode. I was intimidated at first, but the people in the club were so encouraging and I just loved it. I continued to lose more weight.
After my 10K, I decided that I wanted to run a half marathon, so I began training using another app on my iPhone. On October 23, 2011, I ran my first half marathon in 2:42. I was thrilled. I then moved on to marathon training, using another app, and I ran my first marathon in February 2012. I finished in six hours. It was the hardest thing that I had ever done in my life, physically, but I cannot explain to you the feeling of accomplishment I felt when I crossed that finish line and saw my wife waiting for me.
After that marathon, I decided that I wanted to become an Ironman. Actually, I had always wanted to be an Ironman, but I knew that running would be my toughest sport. I knew that once I completed the marathon, there was nothing that could hold me back.
I decided that my first triathlon would be Ironman Muncie, a half Ironman that consists of a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride and then a 13.1 mile run. I had been running and biking now for almost a year, but I was not a swimmer at all. So in March 2012. I started swimming. It was like everything else that I had done. It was hard at first, but I just stayed focused and consistent, and in July 2012, I successfully completed Ironman Muncie.
But I wasn’t finished.
I decided that I wanted to do a full Ironman, and there was one scheduled for Louisville in August 2012. The full Ironman consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, followed by a full marathon, 26.2 miles. I gave it my best shot, but ended up having to withdraw at mile 50 on the bike ride. I was so disappointed to not finish, but at the same time, I was so amazed at what I had been able to accomplish in just 18 months.
It took a few months for me to recover from that experience, not only physically but also mentally. It was the first thing I’d tried to accomplish on this journey that I had failed, and I took a few months away from hard training to think about what I wanted to do.
Honestly, there was a part of me that wanted to give up, but I didn’t.
I decided to re-focus and dedicate my entire year to Ironman Louisville 2013. I hired a triathlete coach and I also started swimming with a coached swim club. I didn’t sign up for any other races that year and spent February through August training solely for Ironman Louisville.
And it paid off.
On August 25, after 16 hours, 24 minutes and 42 seconds out on the course, I heard those magical words: “Mark Rucker, you are an Ironman!” It was one of the greatest moments of my life.
I’m still amazed at how this incredible journey started and how far it has taken me in just 30 months. I’m down 135 pounds to 250 pounds and I feel amazing. My blood pressure is normal, my sleep apnea is gone and my symptoms of diabetes have all disappeared as well.
People have asked me “what made you change?” Honestly, there is no single answer. I’ve thought about what happened. What was it that made the switch flip?
I’ve come up with something of a multi-part answer. I had the desire to change. The experience at Dollywood and the promise I made to my daughter provided that. I also had the inspiration provided by my friend Anita Mills. Those two elements, combined with the realization the morning after the Super Bowl that my life had to change, I believe are what led to the creation of my “perfect storm.”
Now, I’m currently training to run a 100-mile ultra marathon at the end of April 2014. I never could have imagined three years ago that I’d be doing this, but this journey has been all about taking small steps to achieve major changes.
I know there are many people out there who have the desire to change. Many of them just don’t know where and how to start. My hope is that by sharing my story, I can inspire those people to simply take that first small step.