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Fat to fit with just true grit
San Antonio Express News - May 15, 2005
Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje

On a beautiful spring morning in April 2001, Pamela H. Hansen decided to do something that was revolutionary for her. Morbidly obese, she went for a walk. The walk lasted all of 10 steps as far as she could go before the pain in her enormous body forced her to stop.

But that trip started an amazing journey that led Hansen, over the course of a year, to lose a whopping 105 pounds and transform herself into a marathon runner. She made these changes in the midst of overwhelming personal pain the loss of two babies at birth and the raising of two other children with serious, chronic illnesses the enduring of which she used to motivate herself during her long journey from fat person to fit athlete.

And Hansen accomplished her goal without the use of drugs, extreme diets or surgery. She did join Weight Watchers, a program she is still involved in and for which she has high praise.

And now she has written a book, "Running With Angels" (Shadow Mountain; $14.95) that not only tells her harrowing story but serves as a road map for those who wish to follow her path.

"I've always been a pretty private person, but as I started to write this book I realized it was the kind of story I wish I could have read when I started my journey," says stay-at-home mom Hansen, during a telephone interview from Orem, Utah, where she lives with her husband, Mark, and their five children. "It was about an ordinary woman who could lose weight without so much as a gym membership. I thought it would give hope to those who felt hopeless."

Her journey started when her daughter Emily, a twin of Amy, died soon after birth from a heart ailment. Already the mother of young Nicholas, Hansen was devastated by the pain and used food to fill the hole. She quickly put on 30 pounds. Then, in 1990, Sarah was born and, as a young child, began showing signs of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis a disease it would take four long years to correctly diagnose. Hansen packed on another 30 pounds. Then Stephen was born, then Hillary, who turns out to have Ollier's/Maffucci's, a rare bone tumor disorder. Hansen gained another 40 pounds. Then baby Eric was stillborn.

The pain of not being able to help her children of watching Sarah not being able to comb her hair because of the pain, or having to crawl up the stairs further fueled Hansen's overeating.

"As a mother, you want to be able to take your child's pain away, and I kept thinking, 'Why are my children having all these problems?'" she says.

In addition to her childbearing woes, the book also includes the excruciating experiences she endured as an obese person the cruel looks, the rude remarks from total strangers.

But Hansen's tome is full of uplifting messages of how to turn pain, sorrow and grief into a motivating force. She eventually realized the only things she could control in life were her eating and the amount of exercise she got. Her sense of powerlessness slowly transformed into a sense of control. The title itself refers to how the deaths of her two babies pushed her on.

"I just felt these little angels with me every step of the way, saying, 'Go mom, you can do this,'" says Hansen, who says prayer paid a large role in her weight loss as well. "I also had lots of earthly angels, too, friends and family who urged me to keep at it. If we all look around, there are so many angels surrounding us."

In her book, she uses the extended metaphor of the marathon as a correlate for weight loss there are many similarities, she says, especially when it comes to "hitting the wall." Although she refuses to say how much she weighed at her heaviest, it took Hansen 15 long months to lose the 105 pounds.

Why did she chose running as her salvation? Hansen had attended a number of marathons as an overweight spectator and was inspired by what she saw. "Watching these runners come across the finish line, their faces were just so full of triumph. I remember thinking, 'I want to do this some day,'" she says.

Those first 10 steps of walking soon turned into hours of walking, which then turned into running. At first, she says, she only ran in the dark, so people couldn't see her. Hansen trained judiciously, putting herself first, something the inveterate mom had trouble doing in the beginning.

"The biggest thing I did in terms of my weight loss was I moved myself a little bit higher on the priority list," she says. "That didn't mean everything else moved off, of course. But I was terrified at first that my family would suffer if I took time to exercise and plan healthy meals. I thought everybody would fall apart. And sure, there were difficult times. But in the end, everyone was better off."

Hansen says different diet programs work for different people. Weight Watchers worked for her, she says, because of the "accountability issue" having to step up on that scale each week. But she realizes eating and exercise "will always be a battle for me, especially those last 10 or 15 pounds."

The book stresses it's those small, daily victories choosing an apple over a brownie, getting up and walking instead of sitting on the couch that add up to eventual success. That's a main point of the book: There's no one key or magic bullet to large weight loss.

Hansen's husband, who during the course of her writing kept pushing her to find "the key," wrote the afterword in her book. He writes: "The motivating message of Pam's story is that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things in life by maintaining a consistent focus on the small root causes of success. Pam went from not being able to run more than a few steps to being able to complete a marathon because she did the little things. She was able to savor the satisfaction of the success along the journey, not just at the destination."

Hansen ran half-marathons first, than ran her first full-length race, the Deseret News, in July 2002. She ran her first Olympic-distance triathlon in July 2003.

Today, Hansen's children are thriving. Sarah is in remission and Hillary's bone condition has not worsened. And Hansen is still running.

"I'm never going to be an elite, skinny runner," she says, "but that's OK. I'm healthy, I'm out there, and it feels wonderful."

mstoeltje@express-news.net

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