Yep. That was me.
The year was 2009 and I was around 300 pounds. I had more chins than your xenophobic stereotypical joke of choice and was just disgusting to look at. I lived in Morganton, North Carolina, at the time and was on a steady diet of Hardee’s double stackers (2 for $4!), Habanero’s habanero cheese steak burrito and quite literally anything from Buck’s Pizza. I had no intention of changing anything about my health. In fact, it would take much more than me being disgusted with myself every time I looked in the mirror before I’d ever make any real, lasting changes.
Sure, I tried. I “dieted” many times and I hated it. I also picked up the E-Z curl bar I had acquired a few years prior but never did any real exercise otherwise. I sometimes walked the greenway with my dog but ultimately most days were spent eating junk and watching episodes of Dexter.
I tried a few other things once I moved back to Tennessee. I cleaned up the diet a little and found full-body workouts to do with a pair of dumbbells in my apartment. I played EA Active on the Wii, which is surprisingly effective for someone that’s used to doing nothing at all. Any progress made, however, was reversed with a weekly trip to Wishbones for a tray of fried chicken sliders and a pint of banana pudding. I also worked at a clinic that was next door to one of Knoxville’s best burger joints and a fabulous Mexican restaurant — both with portions so big it made little difference that you walked to lunch that day.
I had frequent headaches, was often short of breath, regularly lethargic, snored every night and ground my teeth in my sleep. It would still be years before any real change was made.
I finally woke up in the spring of 2014.
I got a yearly physical because it was required to get a discounted rate on my health insurance. I never really cared about what my doctor said — I knew I was overweight and she’d remind me of it.
All I was concerned with was the doc signing the paper that said I was there, getting that insurance discount and moving on with my life.
So the night before, I had dinner at Cracker Barrel where I enjoyed an enormous country-fried steak with gravy, hash brown casserole and a side of dumplings. It was delicious and I don’t regret it even a little.
My physical went as expected and I wasn’t bothered by that. But then my blood test results came in. To paraphrase what my doctor said:
JTF, listen dude. You’re way fat. Your liver is fatty and you’re probably going to get non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. Your cholesterol is way out of whack and your blood pressure is so high, I wouldn’t be surprised if you up and died before you even left my office today. Also, you’re pre-diabetic and FYI: diabetics can’t get it up. You might want to change some things.
Suddenly shit, as they say, had gotten real. The threat of dying was suddenly very real. I was only 29 years old and had no business thinking about such things. I was just a few months away from turning 30 and 30 was closer to 40 than I’d ever been and if I’m 40 I’d may as well be 50 and a lot of men are full-on dead by then!
The doc suggested I go on the Mediterranean Diet and I went so far as to buy a cookbook and bookmarked a few recipes … but quit before I ever started it. I was a big foodie and I didn’t want to change my eating habits. It was simply too big of a task.
Around this time I watched the documentary Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead that follows a gentleman around the country on his tour touting the benefits of juicing. The guy had turned his life around as a result of the practice and the movie was both eye-opening and inspiring (…and full of shit but that’s an essay for a different day).
Regardless, on July 15, 2014 I started a juice cleanse.
I hated it. Juicing was expensive, embarrassing, tasted awful most of the time and required too much time sitting on the toilet. But all I had to do was last 15 days — I can do that, right?
I lasted 10 days and lost 12 pounds. I’d cleared out nearly every pipe in my system and had eliminated every urge to eat sweets. Those were positives, I suppose. But now I had quit and had to find something else to work.
The body isn’t consuming enough calories during a juice cleanse to warrant any exercise so I didn’t put much thought into physical activity. Since I was no longer juicing, though, something had to happen so I found a boxing workout to follow in Men’s Health Magazine (another topic for an angry essay). The workout consisted of skipping rope, punching a heavy bag for three rounds and doing some core work with a medicine ball. I didn’t have a jump rope, a heavy bag or a medicine ball but I was determined to make it work — no excuses, right? I mimed the jump rope, shadowboxed around a pole in my basement and used a 20-pound dumbbell in place of the medicine ball for the core work. I did this for a few weeks and saw almost immediate success.
Additionally, I started going to a spin class with a friend twice a week and set a couple of new goals: learn to run, finish Couch-to-5k and run my first 5k before I turned 30. At this point I was boxing, spinning and running.
I was also starting to slowly change my eating habits. I discovered Paleo and found that it was the easiest eating philosophy for me to adopt but I wasn’t super strict about it. Make no mistake, I have never denied myself anything I wanted. I splurged within reason and kept trying new foods. If something worked, I kept doing it. If it didn’t, I changed it.
By August I was down nearly 20 pounds.
The rest of the year was made up of several milestones and important events that would all affect my life drastically and happen at seemingly breakneck speed:
- By mid-September I was down 25 pounds.
- At the first of October I was down 27 pounds and two belt notches. My doctor also cleared me of my pre-diabetes.
- By the first of November I had finished my Couch-to-5k training and would be introduced to TITLE Boxing Club a few days later.
- I ran my first 5k — the Knoxville Hot to Trot 5k — on Thanksgiving Day
This was huge for me. Not only did I achieve my goal of running a 5k but I did it nearly two weeks before I turned 30! It was such a statement to myself, my friends and my family. I was a different person. I finished in 35:08 and celebrated with a pancake breakfast at the same Cracker Barrel where I had the aforementioned country-fried steak.
In 2014, I ran from August 8-December 31 and tracked 203.6 miles.
TITLE Boxing Club
Knoxville’s TITLE Boxing Club location is in the same shopping center as Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Store. I didn’t even know it was there until I visited the craft store the week before Thanksgiving. The doors to the gym were propped open and the music was pumping inside. I decided to drop in to see what was going on because I had developed an interest in the sport of boxing.
The owner came out and enthusiastically welcomed me to the Club. He told me what I could expect during their classes and that I could try a risk-free class any time I wanted. I immediately thought Yeah, probably not … but couldn’t think of anything else for the rest of the day. I wanted to try it badly enough that I showed up at 5:45am the very next Monday morning and signed up the day after my first 5k. I was now a real runner, was training at a boxing gym and life simply couldn’t stop me from doing anything.
I spent 2015 occasionally going to spin class, hitting classes at TITLE three days a week and running 2-3 days per week. I ran the Calhoun’s New Year’s Day 5K (no official time because my chip never activated) on January 1, the Zen Evo Chocolate Lover’s Valentine’s 5K (33:10) on Valentine’s day, the Barley’s St. Patrick’s Day 5K (34:34) on St. Patrick’s weekend, the Covenant Health Marathon 5K (33:39) in early April (all the same link — that’s not a mistake) and the Pilot Fireball Moonlight Classic 5K (33:05) on July 4.
By the time my one-year anniversary came around, I had lost 45lbs and competed in six 5k races, accumulating 326.72 miles total for the year. I’d also declared my determination to compete in my first 10K which I did nearly an exact year after my start date with the Man Run (01:12:43) on August 22. My running buddy B told me that since I’d made it 6.2 miles, why not go for 13.1? I told her she was nuts.
Just a couple of weeks later, I signed up for my first half-marathon. Something super important happened in the meantime, though.
I guess it was late September or early October when an announcement was made at TITLE that they were looking for trainers. They wanted someone who was at the right fitness level and had the intensity required to lead a class. I wanted to do it so badly but was afraid they’d all laugh at me for thinking I had a shot. I was too embarrassed to mention it. I had become friends with a couple of the trainers, though, and I casually mentioned it to one of them and he encouraged me to go for it. With his blessing, I decided to bring it up.
The week of Thanksgiving – one year after I had become a member – I did my first class as a boxing trainer at TITLE Boxing Club. Now I had an even bigger reason for staying in shape: I not only had my own life to live and a wife to support but now I had an entire club of people that would be looking at me every single day to make sure I was living the life I wanted them to lead. Nobody wants a trainer that’s getting fat. I had more accountability than ever.
I ran my first half-marathon, the Covenant Health Half Marathon, on April 3, 2016. My chip time was 02:39:42. I’ve never been so proud of an accomplishment. I’ve also never tasted a better-deserved post-race pizza in my life.
The next month I participated in my first-ever mud run in the Mudder’s Day 5K in Maryville, TN. A finish time isn’t important here as I figure the faster the time the bigger you lost in a race like this. Also: I don’t remember it. It was just a pretty awesome accomplishment to add to my athletic resume. At this point, though, I had already broken my 5k, 10k and half-marathon barrier. I’d lost about 80lbs and was down to 15% body fat. Sure, I was always looking to improve myself but since becoming a trainer at TITLE, I was starting to reap the benefits of helping others reach their personal fitness goals and I loved it.
The next step was obvious: become a certified personal trainer.
I spent the biggest part of 2016 studying for my certification exam through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). I grilled myself over and over and over about force couples and altered reciprocal inhibition and lower-crossed syndrome and V02Max measurements. I thought I had made a huge mistake. This shit was tough.
I had four, maybe even five, study guides that I kept with me every single day and went over up until I stepped out of my car at the testing center in January 2017. The woman at the testing center was extremely overweight and was angry about her life and at us for some reason. The weather was freezing cold and I couldn’t wear my hoodie into the testing center because they thought I’d somehow be cheating. Whoever tested at the computer I was at had brought candy in and left it on the desk and I spent the entirety of my test worried they would find it and think it was mine despite the surveillance footage proving otherwise.
The test is multiple choice and you have the option of marking a question you’d like to return to if you’re unsure of the answer. When I read the first question, I marked it. Then I read the second question — I marked it, too.
This was not going well.
About an hour later, I decided I had done as well as I was going to do. I held my breath, closed my eyes and clicked complete. I walked out and anxiously awaited the results. The angry fat lady twisted her face and looked at her screen, hit the print button and then turned to me and smiled…I had passed. I was a certified personal trainer! It took everything I had to not hug her right then and there.
In 2018 I became certified nutrition specialist so I can speak with more authority regarding nutrition and meal planning and am on the verge of being able to switch to being a full-time personal trainer.
Talk about the ultimate icing on the cake of this delicious journey I’ve dedicated the last few years of my life to. I’ve gone from beer-drinking, lazy, lethargic and pathetic Justin to (still) beer (but mostly wine) drinking fitness trainer JTF. Who would’ve thought? Certainly not me.
Being a fitness trainer has been the single most rewarding job I’ve ever had. Helping people get stronger and prettier at a boxing club I accidentally found during my journey is as good as it gets and I love this life I’ve made for myself!