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Extreme Makeover, the All-Natural Way
DAILY HERALD - March 13, 2005 - Doug Fox

"You should be out here!"

Those words, flung directly at her by an older runner during the latter stages of a 1997 Salt Lake City marathon, both stunned and pierced Pam Hansen.

Along with her children and other well-wishers, Hansen was standing on the sidelines at Mile Marker 19, near the mouth of Emigration Canyon, waiting and watching for her husband to run by.

At one point, Hansen noticed a runner, who she estimated to be around 50 years old, approaching. To her surprise, he looked right in her eyes while making his declaration as he ran past.

"You should be out here!"

Taken aback, Hansen looked around to see if the comment was perhaps intended for somebody else in the crowd.

It wasn't.

The directive resonated with Hansen for several reasons, not least of which was the fact that she secretly harbored the desire to run a marathon.

It also seemed more than a bit cruel, considering Hansen was substantially overweight and the possibility of her actually achieving her marathon dream seemed a million miles away -- or roughly 999,974 miles longer than the race itself.

Humiliated, Hansen felt she was singled out of the crowd that day because of her weight, which, naturally, was a sensitive issue for her.

The more she thought about it, however, the more the statement seemed like a message ... a challenge. One which she eventually took to heart.

The recently released book "Running With Angels" (Shadow Mountain, $14.95) is Hansen's inspiring autobiographical account of how she turned personal heartbreak and tragedy -- not too mention a stranger's perceived taunt -- into a victory over obesity.

Through diet, exercise and determination, Hansen not only lost 105 pounds in 15 months, but she's also crossed the finish line of two marathons and will soon begin training for her third.

Her message?

"My greatest hope for this book, and the reason I wrote it, is to inspire people and let them know it can be done," Hansen said. "Whatever you're going through, whether it be weight issues or grief ... you can get through it. You can do it."

And the man who challenged Hansen with that stinging phrase during the 1997 marathon? She's organizing a local 5K with him on April 30.

But more on that later.

Seeking solace in food

Life had done its best to beat down Hansen, 43, during a 12-year period as she and her husband, Mark, faced adversity of the worst kind -- the illness and death of children. Making things even worse for the Hansens, who now live in Orem, however, were the tragedies were not isolated events and affected four different children.

The calamities started in 1989, when the Hansens, already the parents of one child, Nicholas, were expecting twin girls. Late in the pregnancy, an ultrasound revealed an irreparable heart condition in one of the twins, which meant certain death within days or hours of delivery.

The twins, Amy and Emily, were born on Feb. 3. Amy was born healthy. Emily lived one day before her defective heart gave way.

The Hansens faced a unique emotional dichotomy -- mourning the loss of one child while experiencing joy and thankfulness for the health of another.

Through the grieving process, Pam found food to be a source of comfort. It became her coping mechanism.

Pam put 30 pounds on her 5-foot, 10-inch frame before the birth of her next child, Sarah, on Dec. 31, 1990, and another 30 pounds before the birth of Stephen in 1994.

Hillary was born in 1997 and by early 2001, Pam, in the midst of another pregnancy, had added an additional 40 pounds. That put her at 100 pounds more than she weighed on her wedding day.

Compounding the problem along the way were serious health concerns with Sarah and Hillary, which took up much of Pam's time and allowed her little opportunity to attempt to get back in shape. After fruitless visits to several doctors over the space of 18 months, Sarah was finally diagnosed with Pauciarticular Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, a disease that involves abnormalities in the immune system, causing heat, swelling and soreness in the joints.

Shortly after turning 2, Hillary was diagnosed with Olliers Disease, a rare condition that causes tumors to grow in her hand commensurate with bone growth. On top of that, it was discovered that she had Maffucci's Syndrome, an even rarer form of the disease with only a few other known cases in the entire Intermountain West.

Although she loathed her own physical condition, Pam's weight issues and eating habits seemed the least of her concerns.

"You just kind of live through it and live one day at a time," she said. "I wasn't using very helpful coping methods.

"It was tough. It was really tough. But I look around and it seems like everybody's got something they're going through. I've got a great marriage, wonderful kids. We've just had to go through these health things. That's just, kind of, life."

But just when the Hansens thought things couldn't get any worse ... they did.

Basic, daily care

Pam was five months pregnant when she went in for an ultrasound on April 10, 2001. What started out as a joyful procedure, however, soon turned tragic. The baby was not moving and its heart was not beating. Additional testing proved the baby was dead, and early the next morning Pam delivered the stillborn child -- a boy they named Eric.

"I just felt so completely physically and emotionally empty," Pam said. "There were, certainly, the promises that we believe that we will be together again, but it was still an empty feeling and very painful. I remember thinking part of me has died again, and I just have no control over many things."

But out of despair came the resolve necessary to make complete life changes. Pam started walking and was surprised how much better she felt, even after initial efforts of only five or 10 minutes.

"I realized that in this world, where there are so many things that we can't control or manage, there are some things we can," she said. "And I can manage and control how much exercise I got and what I ate. Nobody was forcing me to eat anything. I think the biggest thing for me was I thought, 'OK, what would I do for somebody who had just been through all this?' I would want to take care of them. 'How would I do that?' I just thought of all the things that would be nice for me to feel and so I started putting myself up higher on the priority list. 'What is it I need today?' I'm not talking about going to the spa every week and stuff like that, just daily basic care. The basic care of eating better, and exercising better and getting more sleep."

To further cement her efforts, Pam also joined Weight Watchers -- mainly so she would be accountable to a program and have to weigh in and report to somebody else.

"If you have to report to somebody, there is a huge difference," said AnnaLisa Dinehart, manager at the Weight Watchers center in Provo, who worked with Pam during her journey to better health. "Most people, I would say, try to lose weight on their own, but there's something about having to report to somebody else that will make a difference as to what your choices are for that week. If you don't have to report to anybody, then it doesn't really matter what you had to eat last Friday, but it does if you have to report to somebody about it."

By July, Pam had lost 40 pounds. That month she once again observed the big marathon in Salt Lake City from the sidelines, but this time the feeling was different. She came away nursing a glimmer of hope that maybe it was possible to achieve her marathon dream.

An audacious goal, considering the extent of her exercise to that point was walking.

One step at a time

It was during one of her early morning walks a few days later -- she preferred that time of day, when it was still dark, because she did not feel comfortable with her jiggling appearance, especially while exercising -- that Pam decided to give running a try.

A funny thing happened on the way to the marathon ... she lasted all of 10 paces.

But, unlike past failures, this time she didn't give up, increasing her stamina bit by bit. Her focus became less on the overall goal and more specifically trained on the immediate objective, whether it be on the marathon, exercising or continued weight loss.

"I remember after I lost 50 pounds, I thought, 'Whoa, that's quite a bit of weight.' But realizing I still had 50 still to go, I thought, 'Wow.' But I started focusing on one week at a time, one day at a time, and then every 15 minutes or something," said Pam, whose doctor was also monitoring her weight loss. "I just had to take that sort of time, you know, just one step at a time."

During this time, Pam took added strength from the example of others -- whether they knew it or not. From her front window, Pam would notice one neighbor in particular, who would religiously walk her dog a couple times per day. Pam drew motivation from models such as that.

She also received inspiration from the memory of her departed children, the story behind her book's title, "Running With Angels." She remembers running a half-marathon in Park City that was particularly grueling because the last half of the race was mostly uphill.

"I just remember saying over and over, 'I just need help to finish this race,' " she said. "Anyway, I felt that day like I had these children just kind of pulling me along, saying, 'Go, Mom! You can do it!' And there were a lot of times when I felt like, both running literally, and also just wanting to get through and wanting to get better, feel better, get healthier ... I just felt like they were with me."

Ordinary people

"Running With Angels" uses Pam's marathon quest as a metaphor for facing life's challenges -- many of which must be conquered one small step at a time. She also learned you can't finish a race unless you're first willing to enter it.

The message she most wants to convey is one of hope.

"I realize that I'm just so ordinary, that, you know, I would have loved to read this story years ago," she said, noting she has learned that a person who is healthy is in a better position to more effectively serve others. To see "that just a plain old ordinary person can do it -- without a trainer, without a gym, without anything but just motivation and desire. So I thought that maybe this might be a neat story to write."

Throughout the text, the first-time author lays bare the insecurities and self-esteem issues stemming from her obesity that held her back over the years. There are numerous examples of hurtful comments and slights, whether intentional or misinterpreted, that stymied her psyche and seem an accurate portrayal of challenges facing the morbidly obese.

"When I realized that I wanted to write a book and to share it, that was a huge hurdle that I needed to get over, because up to now I've been a pretty private person," she said. "In fact, when friends and neighbors have read the book ... overwhelmingly the comment has been, 'I had no idea.' We don't know what people are going through. I realize that people are reading a whole lot of things about me or getting to know me a lot better than they may want to. And that was the hurdle that I had to just jump over and just realize why I'm doing it -- so other people can relate, and people have loved ones that can relate."

In the book, Pam never mentions her exact weight -- either before or after her naturally extreme makeover. She did that for a reason.

"I think for so many years, I was caught up in the scale, the number on your scale, and we all are many times," she said, noting that weight loss often did not correspond with how hard she worked any particular week. "The number's not as important as if we're achieving our goal or working on our plan, and I think that's what we really need to focus on."

In the book's "Afterward," Pam's husband wrote of how her new lease on life has affected their relationship.

"Pam and I now walk together several mornings a week," Mark Hansen wrote. "This has proven to be one of the most beneficial aspects of Pam's newly modified lifestyle. The conversations during those walks have brought us closer together as a couple. We are able to discuss things that would be difficult to discuss in other settings. Life's struggles, and there have been several significant ones since those described in the book, seem to be more easily handled when we are able to discuss them so freely and so frequently. Early morning walks with a close loved one, or sometimes all alone, is very therapeutic, both physically and psychologically."

"You should be out here!"

Hansen ran her first marathon on July 24, 2002. Shortly after the marathon, she reached a new low, or high depending on how you view it -- 105 pounds lost in her 15-month journey.

She ran her second marathon in October of 2003. She hopes to run her third later this year. She is eyeing a marathon in Dublin, Ireland, in October, hopefully with her daughter, Sarah, as part of the Arthritis Foundation's "Joints in Motion" program.

Her compelling story is already causing an unexpected turn of events. It turns out Pam's efforts are motivating some of the very people who pushed her forward.

Lisa Warnick is the exercise junkie who Pam used to watch walk her dog around the neighborhood. Warnick, who teaches exercise classes at the Orem Fitness Center, said Pam convinced her to attempt a marathon.

"I'd never thought about running a marathon, and she was the one that said, 'Oh, come on, you can do this,' " Warnick said. "I've run two since then. And a lot of those were things that she opened up in my mind. So if I did anything for her, she turned around and opened something for me, too. I would probably never have thought that without her."

Then there's the man who addressed her from the pack of runners as he jogged past during the 1997 marathon in Salt Lake City.

"You should be out here!"

In an ironic twist, that turned out to be local running guru Hawk Harper, owner of Runner's Corner in Orem and the winner of several marathons over his distinguished career.

Hawk and his wife, Cheryl, another well-known runner, had befriended Pam during the course of her training as she would visit their store for apparel and tips. It took some while before Pam made the connection.

She finally got up the nerve to ask him about it.

"At first I was a little embarrassed by it, just because you don't want to hurt anybody's feelings," said Harper, noting that he tends to talk a lot while running to relax himself. "But she took it the right way. She took it the way that I meant it, and I didn't mean it in a bad way. I meant it in a good way and she took it that way, so I was actually really happy about it."

Harper, who is organizing an upcoming 5K with Hansen, has since had a chance to read "Running With Angels," and loves its message.

"It really encourages somebody who doesn't think they're athletic, or doesn't think they've ever got a chance to lose weight or be the person they sometimes dream about, it just says to them, 'You know what? You can.' That's why I made the comment in the first place and that's why Pam wrote the book. If you know anything about these things, it's starting someplace and going someplace. And it's a process. You don't get there magically overnight or anything. There's a lot of hard work that goes into it, but you can do it. And that's the neat thing."

Hansen realizes her work is not over.

"As far as the weight-loss effort goes, I think it will always be a battle with me," she said. "So I'm still running. Not just with heavenly angels, but earthly angels. It's so important that we offer assistance to others and to gather angels around us to help us in whatever we're doing."

On a recent bright, sunny afternoon, Hansen stood overlooking the track where she took her first tentative running steps toward a new life.

Ten of them to be exact.

"I'm still amazed," she said.

Now, she is out there.

Running With Angels 5K

When: April 30, 9 a.m.

Where: Race begins at Bridal Veil Falls and follows the Provo River Trail, ending at the new park adjacent to Canyon View Park. Bus will transport runners from Canyon View Park to race beginning. Last bus leaves at 8:15 a.m.

Entry: $25 fee includes the book "Running With Angels," T-shirt, wristband, water bottle, food and drink, and prizes.

Registration: Runner's Corner 330 E. 800 South, Orem, 223-7010, or online at www.runningwithangels.com.

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