Every Sunday morning, I have a routine. I make a smoothie, stretch, throw on a T-shirt and shorts and lace up my sneakers while my toddler, Sonny, mills about studying my every move.
“Daddy, you running?” he asks as I pop in my earbuds and head to the door for my longest run of the week.
When I say yes, he insists in his bossiest tone, “Daddy, I run, too.”
“Soon, baby,” I promise him.
I started running several days a week three years ago, shortly after I found out my wife was pregnant. At the time, I weighed about 265 pounds, down from a high of 356. I’d come a long way, but I wasn’t yet in toddler-chasing shape, that special level of fitness where you can rise at 6 a.m. after a night of intermittent sleep and do everything from play dress-up to dash around the park at speeds varying from Prancercise to full-blown wind sprint.
Back then, I could barely run for the bus without gasping myself into a coughing fit. I knew I needed to be healthier, and I finally discovered the motivation: Becoming a dad.
Before Sonny was born, one of my greatest fears was that he’d be a fat kid, like I was. Growing up overweight, I was bullied at school to the point where I’d shuffle home crying. Then I’d stuff the wounds inside me with junk food to feel better, sometimes until I puked. Naturally, I continued to put on the pounds, and the abuse worsened — a cycle I thought was beyond my control.
Over time, I was bullied so much that I began to believe what everyone said about me. I was a fat boy. I did look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Jimmy Hoffa really could have been hiding in one of my many rolls.
At home, it wasn’t any better. Instead of consoling me, my mother criticized me for my weight, as if it were easy to lose when she kept the cupboards stocked with Oreos and the fridge loaded with sodas. I felt like I wasn’t good enough, even for the woman who was supposed to love me most. And that just made me want to eat more, because food never judged me.
Of course, this wasn’t the childhood I wanted for my son. It was up to me to set a better example.
By the time Sonny was born, I was running three miles a few days a week. I’d run my first race, Swedish’s SummeRun, and lost 55 pounds. But I didn’t stop there. Despite the rigors of early parenthood, I managed to maintain an exercise routine coupled with a healthy diet of lean meats, whole grains and whatever scraps of fruit and cheese Sonny didn’t finish. Two and a half years later, I run more than six miles several days a week, and I now weigh 183 pounds — a total weight loss of 173.
Since I began my journey, I’ve lost almost half myself, but I’ve gained so much more. I’ve learned what it means to love who I am, to accept my body for what it is rather than what I wish it could’ve been if I hadn’t spent so many years drowning my sorrows in pints of Häagen-Dazs.
I used to live a life of self-hatred and anger. I let my fear of failure stop me from accepting a challenge, then got mad at myself for not even trying. But when I take those first few steps of a run, doubt drips away like the sweat off my forehead, and I realize I’m doing what I never imagined I’d be able to do.
These are the lessons I can teach my son: to take care of his body, to love himself, to face his fears one step at a time.
An hour later, when I get home red-faced, a little sore and extremely sweaty, Sonny sits at the top of stairs behind the baby gate, as if he hasn’t moved since I left.
“Daddy, good run?” he asks.
“Awesome,” I say, smiling big, because I know I didn’t run all those miles just for my own health — it’s for my son’s, too.
Someday soon, we’ll be running together.