My wake-up call was a literal one
My wife, a physician, telephoned me in tears at 4 in the morning in October 2012. Tricia was at the ER, where an overweight man had just died after having a massive heart attack. He had been about my age — just 33. Tricia wanted to say that she loved me — and that I needed to take better care of myself.
We had both known this for a long time. But there was no immediate impetus stronger than hearing my crying wife say that she wanted to enjoy a long life with me and she was terrified I was on borrowed time.
I realized that she was right, and that things had to change.
At the time, I stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 309 pounds. My weight had yo-yoed throughout my life, from high school wrestling on.
After graduating from college, I struggled to find a job during the recession. So when I blew out my knee in 2009, I didn’t have the means to pay for surgery without health insurance.
If I tried to exercise, my knee would dislocate. I’d drop like a sack of potatoes and be off my feet for a week. Plus, I had battled exercise-induced asthma throughout my life.
After Tricia and I married, we had busy schedules establishing our careers, so we ate out three or four times a week, with appetizers, desserts, the works.
In February 2011, I found a good job with health insurance, so I had my knee surgery that June and started rehab. It was then that I set a goal: to bike the MS 150 with my father, an avid cyclist.
Despite my biking regularly, my weight continued to sneak up on me over the next year. Things had gotten so out of control — I just didn’t know how to move forward.
That call from Tricia in October 2012 was all I needed to really get serious about my training. I purchased an indoor trainer, and by Christmas, I had already lost 20 pounds. I wasn’t grunting as much when I tied my shoes.
By the time of the MS 150 ride in April 2013, I had lost another 15 pounds and hovered around 275.
That bike ride was the next turning point for me.
Halfway through, we camped for the night in La Grange, Texas, and I saw a guy with an Ironman tattoo on his leg. It sparked something inside me: I knew that competing in any kind of Ironman at that point seemed nuts — but the challenge intrigued me.
I realized I needed guidance to train, so I began working with Life Time Fitness trainer Matt Burns, NASM-CES, and nutritionist Amanda Kocher, RD.
I competed in my first triathlon during the 2013 Labor Day weekend. Setting the bar high, I skipped the sprint race, the shortest of the competitions, and dove headlong into the Olympic distance, which meant a swim just short of 1 mile, a bike ride of roughly 25 miles, and a run of 6.2 miles.
For endurance events, nutrition is paramount. Making the switch to healthy, homemade foods and eating more frequently was hard for me. But with the nutrients from whole foods — all missing from my previous diet of “convenience foods” — I was supporting my training and dropping more weight.
Amanda helped me break a lot of habits, including my guilty pleasure of Lean Pockets. She also gave me the building blocks to create a healthy diet. We focused on eating meals high in protein and healthy fats, and lower in starchy carbs. She kept me away from anything that came out of a cardboard box. All my meals had to be fresh. I even texted pictures of my meals to her so she could keep helping me with my progress.
After that first triathlon, I was addicted. I signed up for a Half Ironman scheduled for April 2014, followed by a full Ironman the next month. The training schedule was brutal, and my wife was crucial in making it happen by helping me cook healthy meals.
My workouts revolved around building endurance. Matt told me to pay attention to how long I could lift instead of how much I could lift. And he included core workouts to keep me streamlined. Finally, at a lean 230 pounds, I felt ready.
I completed the Half Ironman — a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile run — in 6 hours, 42 minutes. With the wind and waves that day, I timed my breathing on the swim for the valleys of the 2-foot swells, sometimes coming up for air with my head still underwater. I just kept looking for my rhythm. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
A month later, it was time for the full Ironman — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run. As a kid, I could never run even a mile. But now, through better eating and exercise, my asthma symptoms had become more manageable and were no longer an obstacle in my training.
Here I was, on the brink of my biggest athletic challenge ever, and actually feeling ready.
Tricia was waiting at the finish line, volunteering as a medic. When I crossed the line in 16 hours, 16 minutes, and 16 seconds, she put the medal around my neck. You bet I cried like a baby.
In for the Distance
I am not going to be a one-hit wonder. I didn’t want to do an Ironman just to say I did it. I want to keep going.
My wife is doing more athletic events, too. She has always run, but like me, has struggled with bad asthma, so she’s building her lung strength. She learned to swim this past year and signed up for a triathlon, too, so we’re officially a swim-bike-run family.
It’s still not always easy for me. There are exercises I hate, but I love the results of my effort: I’ve lost 77 pounds, increased 3 inches around my chest, dropped from a 44-inch to a 36-inch waist, and lowered my blood pressure from 160/116 to 121/68.
Losing all that weight means I don’t get so tired just moving around, and the endorphins from working out make me so much more energetic.
But there’s a larger lesson in this for me: There’s nothing I can’t do if I try. I’m going the distance.
Meet: Jason Johnson, 35, an engineer in Houston, married to Tricia Dunn.
- Big Achievements: Completing the Ironman in Woodlands, Texas; losing 77 pounds; and managing his lifelong struggle with asthma.
- Big Inspirations: His physician wife, Tricia, who supported him every step of the way, and his father, who has completed sprint triathlons and been Johnson’s cycling buddy. “If he can do it at 62, I can do it,” Johnson says.
- What Worked: Getting help with training and nutrition and sticking to a schedule. He discovered his workouts were more productive in the afternoon, so he rose at 4:30 a.m. to go to the office, left by 3:30 p.m. to train, and got to bed by 9 every night.
- What Didn’t Work: Assuming that time management — or overhauling his lifestyle — would be easy. Training required him to stick to a strict regimen and cut back on social events. Remember, he says, “your friends will still be there after your race to celebrate with you.”
- Words of Wisdom: “Stay committed to your goals, but don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture. Focus on what you need to do day-to-day, and you’ll get there.”