AFMC executive director shares path to her new self

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- If you've experienced devastating blows in life, then you know firsthand the crippling effects they can have on so many other aspects of your being. For me, the blows came in quick succession. First, my mother died. Three weeks later -- to the day -- my father died. A few weeks after that -- on what would have been my parents' 60th wedding anniversary -- my beloved cat died. What, I questioned, would happen next?

That was 2004. And what would happen next, over a two-year stretch, would be the decline of my health, accompanied by a 50-pound weight gain. I felt bad. I looked bad. I was bad. The gazelle I once was had become a 54-year-old elephant stomping through the fields of Air Force Materiel Command. Granted, some of my ailments existed before the weight gain: Two bad knees, a broken back and a bone in my left foot that repeatedly kept breaking for 14 years from wearing those stylish heels in the Pentagon.

Fast forward to Sept. 16, 2006, the date of the 10th annual Air Force Marathon. I'd not liked how I looked or felt for some time. My husband, Col. Charles Westgate, and I pulled the trigger on the gun to start the half-marathon race. What a rush it was to see 1,500 or so runners and walkers of all shapes and sizes making their way across the starting line. That's it, I thought, "I'm done not liking what I've become. I'm going to get back on track, and back to what I want to be."

My general goal: Be healthier by losing weight and becoming physically fit. My specific goal: Do something in 2007's marathon. Because of my health issues, I knew running the full marathon was out. However, walking wasn't. Because I likely couldn't walk 26.2 miles in the eight-hour time limit of the Air Force Marathon, I determined that most definitely I could walk the half-marathon -- 13.1 miles -- well within its designated time constraints. Hey, I had eight hours; piece of cake!

But, where to start? For two years, I was cognizant of my weight gain and insufficient aerobic activity. Advice from the doctors didn't produce results. Ditto on the countless diet books (Who eats this stuff?), and magazines (Who has time for that regime?). Not eating didn't help the cause, and while I signed up to Air Force Materiel Command's 10,000 steps-a-day challenge -- a wellness and safety campaign program -- it wasn't enough. I was experiencing no progress toward my goal.

Then one day, rummaging through an old "Prevention" magazine, I found a 42-week program. It was a step-by-step guide combining portion control and exercise: One step in front of the other, building endurance so I could "cross the start and finish lines." This, I could do. Ironic, I thought, that my extensive search, in vain, for the "perfect-for-me" wellness program all along had been in an a stack of old magazines!

Getting started
While I seemingly had found the wellness regime for me, I still had a couple of hurdles to overcome. First, I followed that disclaimer given whenever starting a diet and or physical fitness program: I sought the counsel of my medical care provider, which, for me, was my orthopedist. Because of my health issues (Did I mention that I also suffer from arthritis?), there were some parts of my newly-adopted wellness regime that I would not be able to perform. For instance, I couldn't easily get down to or up from the floor. (It's still a challenge.) My doctor was able to modify the suggested exercise routines for my physical limitations.

Additionally, we discussed changes in my diet. Granted, some of my weight gain was due to medications I'd been taking. But they couldn't account for all of the extra pounds. For me, the solution was portion control, which enabled me to eat like a normal person. Yes, I increased fruits and vegetables, chose an alternative to butter, looked for low-fat labels and cut back on red meat. But I didn't have to bid a fond farewell to all the tastes I enjoyed tasting. The most drastic changes were cutting out fast food and reducing sweet tea consumption while increasing water consumption. I liked feeling empowered with my portion-control solution. However, I now had to be no-kidding serious about food-and beverage-into-my-mouth accountability. I wrote down everything I ate to keep myself in check.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, nor deployed spouse
I was feeling good 10 months out from the 2007 Air Force Marathon. I had a goal. I had a plan to reach that goal. And I had a partner: my husband. He would eat what I ate (no cooking one type of meal for him, and one for me), and we would exercise together. We're like everyone else trying to make it in this world: Our lives are hectic with family, friends, work and social obligations. It's tough planning meals and resisting the temptation to shove the most convenient form of "nourishment" into your mouth when you've skipped lunch, and it's 8 p.m., and you're just turning into your driveway. Likewise, it's easy to reassign exercise appointments. I'd venture to guess exercise is the most frequently rescheduled "appointment."

With my partner, we would plan our meals. And, we would ensure we exercised. Just like the unofficial postman's creed, it didn't matter what the weather (keep in mind, I began my 42-week program in November and there are lots of snow, ice and rain in Ohio in the winter and early spring), nor the time of day -- or night: We "moved" it, whether it was walking, floor exercises, weight training, etc.

"It's not a passive project," I would remind myself. "There is no quick-fix for my road to wellness, so, shut up and move your feet!"

It was all going great. Then my husband received orders for a one-year deployment. On top of all the other emotional challenges that accompany a deployment, my wellness partner was going to the other side of world into harm's way. However, I wouldn't -- couldn't -- let that become any sort of devastating blow to take me back to a world of inactivity and lazy eating habits.

I was determined to keep training and eating right. Charlie could do the same things at his deployed location. Yes, phone conversations and e-mail exchanges were about food and exercise. He, after all, was now training to run the half-marathon at his deployed location, which was one of three satellite locations that sponsored Air Force Marathon races overseas this year.

Social networking: It's nice to have real-time company
If I make it sound like discipline is an easy thing, I don't mean to. It's tough getting dressed for what will be a six-mile training walk in 20-degree weather in the dark of late January. But my desire to feel better, stronger and like my old self endured over weather and temptation to do counter-productive activities, like eating poorly and skipping exercise. Plus, I really wanted to cross the start and finish lines of the Air Force half-marathon AND live to tell about it!

However, while I enjoyed listening to audio books on my long-walk days (I listened to many of them), I missed having the real-time company of an exercise companion. I began walking with a neighbor, and, eventually, joined a walking club that I learned about while (athletic) shoe shopping! In addition to my clothes becoming too big and my body aching less, I could tell my aerobic endurance was building when I could walk several miles while carrying on conversation.

The weeks of training turned into months. My body gained strength, and I had an additional goal. Not only would I walk the half-marathon, I was going to do so in less than four hours. Knowing I would need someone by my side on race day to help me reach my goal, my daughter, Beth Smith, volunteered to fly in from Colorado to pace me.

I was completely set for race day: My weight was going down, my endurance going up and support systems were abroad and local. Only two weeks to go then SPLAT! Six miles into an eight-mile training walk, I went over uneven pavement and I went down. Hard. My right knee hit and my whole leg turned the deepest color of amethyst I'd ever seen on skin. For 40 weeks, I had endured all extremes of weather, and never once stumbled nor suffered from the slightest case of sniffles. Yet on a beautiful, sunny day I fell so hard my toes and heel went numb, and I could barely walk. I was devastated. I was packed in ice. Yet I remained determined to persevere.

With the OK from my doctor, I continued to train for the marathon. It was painful. Knowing, however, that I was going to have total knee replacement in an upcoming surgery, I determined I simply would not give up on my specific goal to walk the half-marathon.

On Sept. 15, after learning my husband finished his half marathon in 2:11, I crossed the finish line at the 11th annual Air Force Marathon with a time of 3:28:26 -- nearly 32 minutes ahead of schedule! Though Beth and I asked aloud more than a few times during the race, "What were we thinking?" the elation I felt at seeing our time, hearing the roar of the cheering crowd and feeling the placement of our medals around each other's necks was a remarkable rush of victory.

It's been nearly a year since I began my wellness journey to a better me. It was a long road, but the end goal was worth it. Incidentally, I've lost 44 pounds, and have maintained the weight loss. I'll be slightly less active a little while after my surgery, but my body is in much better shape to recuperate from the surgery and then I'll be back on the walking trail.

Life is tough, and you never know from where the next curve ball will come. I've learned, though, that it's paramount to take care of yourself physically. Doing so grew me socially, emotionally and spiritually. My next goal is to walk another 13.1 miles at the 2008 Air Force Marathon, which is Sept. 20, in less than 3.5 hours -- this time with Charlie and Beth.