From 385 Pounds to Endurance Athlete

Robert_first raceRobert Wadhams has shed weight, embraced fitness and found motivation along the way from a personal trainer, online community and beat-up ribbon.

By Henry Howard

Robert Wadhams was a big man living in a small box.

Figuratively, of course. Wadhams spent his time eating unhealthy food and playing video games. His weight had ballooned up to nearly 400 pounds. “Without realizing it, my life began to revolve around food,” he says, rattling off a what-not-to-eat list of pizza, fried foods and more that were his dietary staples. “That was pretty much my downfall.”

Wadhams, however, made major changes to improve his health, get into running and eventually finish half marathons, a marathon and a triathlon. His story continues today as he recovers from two surgeries and has his eyes set on even more daunting challenges.

From 385 Pounds to Endurance Athlete

A change in diet, and outlook

To realize how far Wadhams has come, one must understand where his fitness journey began.

“Life was in a very small comfort zone,” says Wadhams, of Michigan. “When I began to really put on weight, that comfort zone got a little bit smaller and a little bit smaller because there were fewer things that I was able to do. There were fewer things I was able to do that wouldn’t create either anxiety or exertion or whatever. So basically I lived in a very small box and spent a lot of time eating or playing video games, things that provided a lot of hours of mindless entertainment without any real energy expenditure.”

He did enjoy some outdoor activities like fishing and hunting. But as he piled on the weight, reaching 385 pounds, even those activities became impossible.

Things began to turn around when Wadhams took on a night shift job, which prompted his change in diet.

“It’s interesting how things began to change,” he says. “I knew that in order for me to survive the night shift, I would need to eat as lightly as possible to avoid falling asleep or having problems. So I began to eat a lot lighter and began to cut a lot of the junk food. Much to my surprise, the unintended consequence was that I lost about 15 pounds. That was the catalyst to my journey when I began to think, ‘Wow. I am amazed as to how quickly the weight came off.’ “

‘A tremendous turning point’

That initial weight loss inspired Wadhams to start walking for exercise.

“I started walking, super basic things. It started this snowball affect where walking two miles seemed tedious. It wasn’t challenging enough,” said Wadhams, who previously ran while in the Air Force. “I used to run but wouldn’t consider myself a runner.”

He would see a mailbox or light pole down the street, and challenge himself to run to that one. Then he would see another one, and so on. Soon he would be able to jog a mile without stopping.

“It was about that time I wanted to take it to the next level,” he remembers. “So, I enlisted the help of a personal trainer (Amber, starting in 2009). After several months of training, she encouraged me to participate in a local 5K. At first, I was really resistant. Even when I was in the military, we would only run a mile-and-a-half at a time. So the idea of doing 3.1 miles was really going outside the box. I was pretty resistant to the idea.”

But a strange thing happened on the way to the 5K.

“The trainer would put out physical challenges and I would meet those physical challenges,” he said. “And gain more self-confidence and in the interim I would do run-walk patterns, trying to increase my distance. Before I knew it, I was doing 4.5 miles. I still hadn’t committed to the race but what turned out to be a pivotal moment in my journey was a decision I made. I could stay with what I knew was safe (a 5K) or I could have enough confidence in myself to do 6.2 miles.”

Wadhams, at the last minute, surprised his trainer and signed up for the 10K. “For me, that was a tremendous turning point in my journey,” he says, noting that he finished second to last, ahead of someone pushing a baby stroller. “Still, I walked out of there 10 foot tall. It felt amazing. I just did something terribly epic.”

At the finish line, he received a mauve/light purplish ribbon, about the size of a bookmark. The ribbon became a prized possession — and still holds a place of honor on his medal stand.

“Finishing that race meant so much to me that every time I went to the gym, I stuck that ribbon in my pocket,” he said. “Every time I went anywhere for weeks that ribbon was in my pocket. Every time I felt like I couldn’t do something, I would reach in there and feel the ribbon, and know, ‘Yes, I can.’ It was a great feeling of accomplishment that really drove me to do running.”

Robert_before.afterAfter the initial race, Wadhams finished 5Ks, 10Ks and worked up to a half marathon. “When they gave me the medal for that one, it was all over. In the course of about four years, I wound up training and finishing 11 half marathons, three triathlons — one of which was a 70.3 — a marathon and a 2.25-mile open water swim.”

In fact, when he finished his first marathon — in 2011 in Rochester, N.Y., — the ribbon from the 10K race accompanied him, tucked in his pocket. “To me it was very symbolic. Not to mention that I was scared to death.”

Losing weight, gaining fitness

For those who are trying to find the motivation to start a fitness journey, Wadhams knows the struggle.

“The toughest part about getting started is just that: Getting started,” he says.

The hardest thing is to get started, to get that foot out the door, to make that commitment to go outside your comfort zone. Especially if it’s been a long time since you have done anything physical, you will be confronted by a sense of ‘Wow, this is tough.’

Wadhams encourages others to simplify. “When you make small commitments and small goals and you achieve those goals and commitments — walking for 10 minutes, or jogging a quarter-mile — then meet that challenge, you are putting a dollar into your emotional bank account to build up trust and faith. Once you have enough dollars in that emotional bank account, you have the power to purchase the courage to do something bigger.”

When Wadhams set out to lose weight, his goal was not to derive success from the scale. “There are times when the scale is going to cooperate and it’s going to move in the right direction,” he says. “There are times when it is going to fluctuate or go in the wrong direction. That drives some folks crazy. What anchored me in my journey was not so much watching the weight go down, but the sense of accomplishment.”

To literally see his accomplishments, he began to journal his fitness progress. For example, he would write down that he finished 10 burpees. “Later, I would look back after doing 25-30 burpees. “Hey, I am making progress now.’ “

During early morning runs on the trail, Wadhams would pause and smell the pine trees. “The smell of pine was a welcome addition to my experience, where I was smelling nature around me, taking it all in. If I went more than a few days without experience it, I would miss it.”

Still a battle

Wadhams suffered an injury to his left ankle, thanks to being overzealous in his fitness journey.

“When I did my 70.3, I still weighed 270 pounds,” he says. “That is a lot of weight to be carrying on the run course. But I didn’t care. I had tapped my inner athlete, and was getting out there. I was just light enough that my weight was not able to hold me back. But unfortunately, I was just heavy enough so my joints and connective tissues were in harm’s way.”

Excessive mileage created a lot of wear and tear on the left ankle, necessitating the use of orthotics and a special ankle brace. “When that injury took me away from running, away from endurance sports, I ended up being deflated. I tried to get a stiff upper lip and try cross-training, cycling or something else. But psychologically the damage had been done. I just wasn’t feeling it.”

Wadhams let self-pity get the best of him, and put back on 50 pounds. “I had lost 118 on my own,” he recalls. “At that point, I really felt like I needed help through bariatric surgery.”

He went through the surgery on Aug. 11, and since then has lost 40 pounds and has started jogging again. And, he has recommitted himself to jumping back on the journey to fitness.

Big goals ahead

Wadhams has plenty of goals: first get back out to do a half marathon. Then a full marathon and a full 140.6-mile Ironman. “I’m going to take it as far as my body will allow me. I have no idea where that limit is but we have just opened up a whole new frontier.”

The ultimate goal? An ultra marathon.

“My goal is to do an ultra trail marathon, it’s been a goal of mine for years,” he says, excitedly. “Specifically, the North Country Trail Run in downstate Michigan. They have these gigantic medals. And so help me, I am going to hang one of those on the wall.”

For Wadhams, sharing his story is a way that he hopes that he can reach others and motivate someone else. He credits Amber for helping him become an athlete. And, even though Wadhams has earned his certification as a running coach, he isn’t looking to do that full or even part time.

“Not having people who I could really relate to made the journey tougher,” he says. “People on online forums made it easier. They encouraged me. They became mentors to me, and I know how much that meant to me. That is what drove me to obtain these certifications like RRCA because it has been my goal to find someone just like me. I know how much it meant to me. I want to be to somebody else what I wish I had for myself when I was first starting out. When you see someone doing big things, you get a feeling that it is better than anything you could put a price tag on. It enriches life.”


Speed drill

Name: Robert Wadhams       
Hometown: Ishpeming. Michigan
Number of years running: FIve years
How many miles a week do you typically run: Before my operation, between 7-10 miles
Point of pride: The all-time accomplishment was finishing a half Ironman distance triathlon (70.3 miles) with my first marathon a close second.
Favorite race distance: Half marathon
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: pre-race, a packet of oatmeal and a cup of coffee 🙂
Favorite or inspirational song to run to:  Don’t Stop The Party, Pit Bull
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: The Courage To Begin, The Will To Finish
Where can other runners connect or follow you:

One Response to From 385 Pounds to Endurance Athlete

  1. Sharon Hall October 10, 2016 at 7:00 pm #

    Robert, you are an inspiration. Good luck on getting to your goals of Ironman and an Ultra. You can do it!

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