My name is John Jaramillo, and I finished the 2018 Chicago Marathon. In other words, I did something that I once deemed impossible to ever accomplish. Let me give you some context around the lack of believability in that endeavor: I grew up the oldest of five children raised by a single mother in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Exercise and eating healthy were certainly not aspects of focus. Most days it was mere survival.
Some months my mom had to choose between paying the rent and buying groceries, so it didn’t matter what was on the table or in the fridge; most times it was the food that was the most affordable and had the longevity to last more than one day in an environment of five hungry kids. Chips and brownies were prevalent; frozen pizza was a constant.
The frozen food aisle, not the fresh produce section, was the most visited part of the grocery store. Eating out also became a regular venture as we got older; a couple of jumbo pizzas or trips to got us through when we didn’t know the next time we’d eat. When we did have groceries, our mom made some favorites: tacos, pierogis, tamales, kugela or dishes that warranted seconds. Or, in my case, thirds. Again, uncertainty over the next meal called for padding the plate while I could.
Being a Chicago Public Schools student also didn’t equate to access to the most nutritious meals (at least not in the late ‘80s through the ‘90s). I remember the prepackaged donuts offered at school breakfast that were touted as nutritious. Even the simplest and most basic need was often ignored for filler. Soda was a favorite in our household, and it was more natural for us to go through a few three-liter bottles of RC Cola than remember to hydrate with water.
Exercise? That was usually the walk to school and back. But, with the Bulls in their dynasty years and the Bears garnering significant interest during my youth, I participated more and more in pickup basketball and street football games.
However, most of my prolonged physical activity occurred running from manhole cover to manhole cover, aka the designated end zone lines, to catch passes while dodging parked cars and oncoming traffic. That running was rare, as I preferred catching the shorter passes, requiring a short little “sprint” (or whatever that was called when I attempted it). It was no wonder I was 200 pounds, without the height to carry such weight, in the middle of my teenage years.
Continuing into College
This context carried into my college days. While I gained more interest in walking in order to get around Champaign-Urbana with no car at my disposal, I still didn’t have the most nutritious diet. Pizza and burgers were a constant. My eating got a little better as I took more of an interest in weight training as a junior and senior, but I still had the mindset that cheaper food = a more convenient choice. Cooking beyond pushing buttons on a microwave was still a mystery to me.
Those aspects remained status quo post-college, as my seemingly non-stop work schedule in a college athletic department made me think that I had limited time to work out and eat nutritious meals. Free pizza at basketball games? Count me in. All the weight I lost in college, almost 50 pounds or so, was gained right back. While the weight gain affected my confidence, it was not my biggest concern, as I tried to make an impression with my work ethic and move up the ranks.
Catastrophe to Change
Then something catastrophic happened. One day I arrived home and my mom was not feeling very well. She refused to see a doctor, which was another stubborn trait we all had, and tried to rest off the discomfort. Later that night she stood up and fell to the ground, convulsing right in front of me and my three brothers. I frantically called 911, and paramedics arrived and attempted to resuscitate her as we all stood feeling so helpless.
Our mother suffered a massive heart attack that night, an event that caused her to lay in a coma for more than two weeks before she passed away. I saw her every day during those excruciating weeks, wondering how life changed so suddenly, so brutally. Our mom constantly made difficult choices, like either having to pay rent or feed her kids, at the detriment of her own health.
The context of poor eating continued even after we lost our mom. I was 25 years old, still tentative when turning on a stove. The easier route remained to eat out. Managing everything in the aftermath of that loss felt like another full-time job, so the easier route for eating was traveled with frequency.
Things started to change about a year after our devastating loss. I felt more cognizant of my body and when things felt off, especially with my chest, I didn’t take any chances. I scheduled doctor appointments regularly, especially due to pain. High cholesterol and another internal issue were discovered.
Taking the First Steps to Exercise
My first step toward feeling better was exercise. I became interested in running and started to try out various distances, from 5Ks to the Soldier Field 10 Mile. Friends who shared a similar interest in running would sign up for races, and I would do the same with their encouragement. Running was easy; just put one foot in front of the other. It even helped burn off some of the pizza in my regular meal rotation. I even completed a few half marathons, swearing that was the longest distance I would ever run. A person of my build, with my diet, could never do anything longer than that, I thought.
I moved to Oak Park in 2012, around the time of my running rut. I had been running races during the previous four years, and it became clear that I was not getting any faster or feeling any better as a result of all that running. After researching nearby gyms and hearing from two friends about the FFC on Lake Street, I signed up and gave it a try. I was even given four free personal training sessions with the trainer my friends had seen and highly recommended: Steve Malok.
My first session with Steve was memorable in that I couldn’t finish it. I was huffing and puffing, unable to continue. It was pretty embarrassing for me, yet Steve was calm and understanding. He did not make me feel like I was a failure, even though I felt like it. I had been running all these years and completed a few lifting plans torn from the pages of Muscle and Fitness before; how could I not get through this?
I still had the three more sessions. Steve was willing to keep working with me. I was willing to keep working with him and unwilling to accept that the first session defined my fitness. The next three sessions went well, and Steve asked if I wanted to continue working with him. It was a big decision as, going forward, those were not free sessions. It’s the decision every human being has to make in different ways: do I invest in myself?
A Valuable Investment
I decided this was an investment in myself, and I was not happy with where I was at physically, and I needed guidance to get me to a place where I wanted to be happy with my physical appearance and feeling. At the very least, I wanted to be happy with my effort to change my physical appearance and feeling.
So I started working with Steve once a week. That was all I did at first, and he recommended that I maximize our sessions and my membership by coming in a few times each week. He took time to construct plans, (even when he didn’t have to do it), and showed me how to perform movements on my own. Even though my work schedule was volatile, I made it my mission to maximize my sessions with Steve, my membership at FFC, and my time on this planet by coming in as much as possible. Regular gym visits became much easier to do by learning from Steve and being confident in my ability to do the exercises and proper movements.
I still ate poorly. I remember a Monday morning session with Steve after I had worked all day on Sunday, and he asked me what I ate after work. I slyly said chicken. He asked about the type of chicken dish I had, and of course I had not initially mentioned it was a fried chicken sandwich I picked up from Sonic. I didn’t even bring up the tater tots.
That moment caused me to rethink my eating habits and the barriers to healthier consumption. I knew I needed help and needed to invest in myself when it came to nutrition too. I finally mustered up the courage to ask for that help when I saw Amy Silver last summer. Steve had highly recommended Amy; and she was kind and nonjudgmental from the start.
You Can’t Out-Exercise a Poor Diet
Amy’s advice and information opened my eyes to a much healthier eating approach. I ignored nutrients beyond multivitamin pills. I never cared about the amount of sugar listed on a nutrition label or how I fueled myself before and after workouts. She taught me to think outside of the box (of cookies) and plan out my meals. Just like Steve taught me how to plan out workouts and stay consistent with exercise, Amy helped me evade my usual bag of excuses by providing critical tips on meal preparation, planning and, most importantly, the content of those foods.
I became aware of my ideal calorie intake and more interested in making my own meals. Years of hesitancy over cooking fish became a distant memory as I followed Amy’s initial plan by the letter and stepped out of my comfort zone to cook and eat foods that were foreign to my diet but, eventually, became regular staples. I have lost around 30 pounds and about seven percentage points of body fat since I started the Nutrition Solutions program with Amy. I felt stronger in my workouts and even felt proud with the resulting need to buy pants since I needed a much smaller waist size.
Now, to that marathon thing I mentioned at the start. For a long time, I never believed I would run a marathon. Too daunting. Too long to run. Too much time commitment. I couldn’t possibly run one in a decent time after all of those years of not taking care of myself. There was curiosity in the possibility as I started to run half marathons, but it still seemed unlikely.
Then last year happened.
I attended the Chicago Marathon expo and the atmosphere immersed me in the possibility. I cheered on runners at the 2017 Chicago Marathon and felt the energy all around. I watched Shalane Flanagan win the NYC Marathon and Meb Keflezighi finish his final marathon at that same race. The 26.2 elixir was swishing in my brain.
So I signed up for two race lotteries: the NYC Half and the Chicago Marathon. I ran the NYC Half in 2016, so I thought it would be cool to run it again. I figured that, if I didn’t get into Chicago, I had another race to train for and it would be a sign that I wasn’t meant to run a marathon.
I didn’t get into the NYC Half. I got into the Chicago Marathon. I was shocked, and I was ready to get ready for the biggest physical challenge of my life.
Steve and Amy could not have been more supportive. They helped me adjust my training and my nutritional intake to support my new endeavor. I stayed consistent with strength training and mixed in three runs a week, including my weekend long run, in addition to three strength workouts. I upped my calorie and carb intake appropriately. I even completed an RMR test with Amy and a VO2 Max test with Chris Navin, who was quite helpful with his explanation of my test results and providing his own marathon experience and tips.
Rain or shine, I ran. I lifted. I moved around. I ate. I made it all work for me, and I felt like I had a supportive team of experts helping me along the way. The support of the friendly FFC Oak Park staff and fellow members got me through the rigors of the training. From excellent conversations to just a simple “hello” or fist bump after running 18 miles on a hot day, so many people felt like a positive part of my marathon training experience.
Then race day came, and it all came together. I thought of all the support I was lucky to have along the way. The advice I took in. The positivity I experienced. The strength I felt. The fuel I knew I had. Throughout the race I remembered my mom, and how she made things work for her children even in very adverse conditions, and how running this race was a privilege and not even comparable to such difficulties. I felt lucky to feel healthy and in this position as I waited in Corral G. After a brief bout of anxiety as Wave 2 started to cross the starting line, I calmed myself and told myself this should be fun and all of my preparation would make this a piece of cake (not literally, Amy! I swear!).
Running 26.2 miles through the city for the Chicago Marathon was one of the best experiences of my life. I felt surrounded by support, people I knew, people I didn’t know but felt a connection to just by merely being on the same course. I felt this day as a culmination of effort, planning, and changes for the good of my life. I know marathon running can be cruel, but on October 7, 2018, it gave me one of the greatest feelings of my life. I wish I could bottle that feeling up and share it with you.
My goal was to finish in four hours or less, and with a mile left to go, I looked at my watch. I knew that, barring an unexpected hindrance, I was going to be within range of my goal. I pushed through, knowing I had slowed a bit but feeling invigorated that the finish line was near. I stayed steady on “Mt. Roosevelt”, that hill going east on Roosevelt Road that I had run so many times by sidewalk, and to my delight, saw the “400 Meters Left” sign.
Finishing the 2018 Chicago Marathon
I finished the 2018 Chicago Marathon in 3:55.46. After going through a running rut six years ago that brought me down, I felt a sensational high I’d never felt before after crossing that finish line. I knew I would never win this race (congrats, Sir Mo), yet I felt victorious.
I did something that I once deemed impossible for me to ever accomplish. Thanks to the help of multiple people, with special mentions to Steve Malok and Amy Silver, it eventually felt very possible. Now the next challenge awaits, and I can’t wait to make the impossible possible again.
Post written by FFC Oak Park member John Jaramillo.