Yep, that was me. The year was 2009 and I was about to get married. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I’ll never forget that spring afternoon standing by the steps of the front porch at that beautiful farmhouse in Mars Hill, NC. I would watch as my bride walked down the sidewalk on her father’s arm smiling from ear to ear. Jon, my best man, leaned in and said “You’re a lucky man,” and he was right. She was beautiful and the happiest I’d ever seen her.
What she saw in me, I’ll never know. I was nearly 300lbs on that day, had more chins than your xenophobic stereotypical joke of choice and was just disgusting to look at. Fortunately for me, Erin was able to look past the tub o’ lard that was me in 2009 and see me for the strange man that loved her so much. Unfortunately for me, however, I had no intention of changing anything about my health at the time. It would take more than me being disgusted with myself every time I walked by the mirror for me to make any real, lasting changes.
Sure, I tried. I dieted, which I hated, and I picked up the E-Z curl bar I had acquired a few years prior but never did any real exercise otherwise. We sometimes walked the greenway together but mostly our days were spent sitting in our apartment eating Buck’s pizza and watching Dexter. The idea of making any lifestyle changes were far beyond my focus at the time – I was happier than I’d ever been. I had a beautiful woman that bought me beautiful pizzas every week. My lifestyle was pretty grand, to be honest.
Shortly after we moved back to Tennessee, I started trying other things. We cleaned the diet up a bit and I found full-body workouts to do in the apartment with a pair of dumbbells. Eventually we started playing EA Active on the Wii, which is surprisingly effective for someone in legitimately bad shape. 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 an office that was next door to one of Knoxville’s best burger joints and a fabulous Mexican restaurant, both of which were places where the portions were so big it made little difference that you walked to lunch.
I had frequent headaches, was often short of breath and lethargic. It would still be years before any real change was made.
In the Spring of 2014, I finally woke up.
The day before our scheduled physical, we had dinner at Cracker Barrel where I ate an enormous country-fried steak with gravy, hash brown casserole and a side of dumplings. The next day, our physical went how I expected: “Justin, you need to lose weight, blah blah blah.”
All I was concerned about was the doc signing off on my paper that said I did my physical, getting my health insurance discount and moving on with my life.
Then my blood results came in. To paraphrase, this is 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 as a result. Your cholesterol is way out of whack and your blood pressure is so high, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a heart attack before you leave my office. 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 29 years old and had no business thinking about such things but the more I thought about it, I was just a few months 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 dead by then!
Despite the selfish I don’t want to be dead motivation, there was also the need to be there for my wife. What good was I to her if I was always sick and constantly needing to be medicated for my conditions? What good was I to her if all I could do was be bedridden or unable to do any serious traveling? What good was I to her if I was dead?
This was the clincher. Selfish reasoning would never get me off my ass, but the thought of Erin having to make it on her own — or even worse, with some other guy that would surely pick her up after my funeral – was more than I could handle.
We had recently watched the documentary Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead that follows a gentleman around the country on his tour touting the benefits of juicing. This 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 a different essay for a different day).
After finishing the film, Erin insisted we give the juice cleanse a try and since I was desperate for a change, I said fine. On July 15, 2014, we started our juice cleanse.
I hated it. Juicing was expensive, embarrassing, tasted awful most of the time and required too much time on the toilet. Luckily all I had to do was tolerate it for 15 days. Easy, right?
Nope. Not even.
I lasted 10 days. In that time, I lost 12 pounds, had cleared out quite literally every pipe in my system and had all but eliminated every urge to eat sweets. Those were the positives. The only real negatives of surrendering were the fact that I had quit and that now I had to do something else to make it work.
While juicing, the body isn’t taking in enough calories to warrant exercise, so I didn’t put much thought into it. Now that the juice was a thing of the past for me, though, something needed to happen. At one time I remember having some success with an at-home boxing workout designed by Men’s Health Magazine (another gripe for another day). The workout consisted of skipping rope, three rounds on the heavy bag and medicine ball core work. I didn’t have a jump rope, a heavy bag or a medicine ball, but I could definitely mime the jump rope, shadowbox and use a dumbbell in place of the medicine ball – no excuses, right? 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 turn 30. At this point, I was boxing, spinning and running – I was already turning into a different person.
I slowly started working on my eating habits, too. I was a big foodie and the thought of changing my ways from Epic Meal Time-style food intake to something more reasonable and moderate terrified me. I was fairly strict at first but make no mistake, I have never denied myself anything I wanted. I splurged within reason and kept trying new foods to see what worked. By August I was down nearly 20lbs.
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 25lbs.
- At the first of October I was down 27lbs 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. A few days later I would be introduced to TITLE Boxing Club.
- I ran my first 5K, the Knoxville Hot-to-Trot 5K, on Thanksgiving Day.
This was huge for me. Not only did I run my first 5K, but I did it nearly two weeks before I turned 30. I had achieved my ultimate goal. 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 pancakes and turkey sausage at the same Cracker Barrel I had the aforementioned country-fried steak. I also made eggnog pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dinner.
In 2014, I ran from August 8 – December 31 and had tracked 203.6 miles.
TITLE Boxing Club
Our 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. Erin, however, was very aware of where Jo-Ann was, and so we went on a random afternoon the week before Thanksgiving. We had to park at the end of the lot and ended up walking by the doors of TITLE. The two doors were held wide open and the music was pumping inside. I decided to drop in for a sec just to see what they had since I had been doing quasi-boxing in my basement for so long.
The owner, Ashley, came out and enthusiastically welcomed me to the Club. He told me what I could expect in their classes and that I could try it all risk-free for a first shot. I immediately thought Yeah, probably not… but less than 10 minutes after leaving I realized I couldn’t think of anything else. I really wanted to try it – like really, really. I dropped in at 5:45am the very next Monday morning and signed up for a membership the day after my first 5K. I was now a real runner and I couldn’t be stopped — I could do 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 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.
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. My bread and butter job is writing descriptions for broadcast and nonlinear content for the largest lifestyle media company in the world, but in real life I’m helping people get stronger and prettier at a boxing club I accidentally found during my journey.
Stronger and Prettier? Read more about what that means here.