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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014

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In Sports

Rik Akey (in green) reaches the finish of the Chicago Marathon.

Once obese, marathoner now leads team from "Fat to Finish Line"


Pictures of Rik Akey taken four years ago show a man who looks like the captain of an eating team.

And no amount of Photoshop magic could transform that pudgy-faced man into the captain of a running team.

It took his own work and sweat to accomplish that.

Akey, 43, is the creator and leader of a team of former fatties, 12 people from around the country who have lost an average of 100 pounds or more, and signed up as a team to run the Ragnar Relay Florida Keys – a 200-mile endurance challenge starting Jan. 4.

The group includes Jennifer Roe, co-founder of Media Meld Studios, who is working to turn their individual stories and their team effort in the Ragnar Relay into a documentary film called "From Fat to Finish Line."

Every one of Akey's teammates has a tale of obesity, depression, anger and frustration; lifetimes of limitations due to their weight and poor health.

Reflecting on his childhood in a family of "really lazy, good cooks," Rik Akey can count his youthful athletic experiences with less than a full set of fingers.

Good meals, though, he could count in pounds, topping out at 275, as he neared 40 years old.

The extra weight meant a limited life.

"Friends would say, 'do you want to go try ... and my automatic knee-jerk reaction was no. Anything physical, bike ride, a hike, going swimming. I had had enough bad experiences; either failures or embarrassing experiences."
The disability of obesity slowed him in other ways. He couldn't tie his shoe without propping up his foot. He couldn't climb a flight of stairs without gasping.

Frustration may have been a nag. Fear was a motivator. Over several years, he watched his dad struggle with health challenges, heart problems that required a stint, back trouble and diabetes.

"Looking at my Dad was like looking into my own future and it scared the hell out of me," Akey said.

The decision to hire a personal trainer, an attempt to solve his weight loss problem for roughly "the millionth time," is one that Akey now says saved his life. It's also one that led to his inspirational role as the captain of Ragnar Relay Floriday Keys.

In his first session with trainer Myra Holtzman , he failed to do a single push up. A year later, after weekly workouts based on simple exercises in his home, he was ready to run.

"I had to accept some additional humility," Akey said. "I had to say I don't know the last time I ran any distance at all. I really didn't even know the mechanics of a running stride. I didn't know how to do it. We cleared all the cloths off the treadmill and she talked me through the mechanics of the running stride: foot strike, arm swing, breathing. My initial thoughts were that I had no idea it's this complicated to run."

The first goal was to run a mile without stopping. With that success, Akey entered the 5K Blarney Run in Wauwatosa, in March 2009.

"I remember showing up to that as nervous as a bag of cats, thinking that everybody there could tell that I didn't belong there. My goal that day was to run the entire distance without walking."

He did, "and that feeling that I could do anything lasted two days."

From that starting point, Akey built up to run a 10K, then a half marathon and the Lakefront Marathon, in October 2010. Slimmed down to 185 pounds, he finished in 3:59:22, with the support of everybody in his office at Northwestern Mutual, his neighbors in Wauwatosa, his friends, and his wife, Cynthia.

"When I crossed the finish line and I spotted my wife, I busted out crying like a four-year-old with a skinned knee," he said. I thought, 'this is it. I'm never going to be fat again.'"

To ensure that's true, Akey sets new goals for himself every few months, continues to run marathons and plans to finish one in all 50 states.

He views his role with the Fat to the Finish Line team as an opportunity to repay those who helped him on his path to a new life. The team concept grew out of email conversations he had with Katie Foster, a mother from Michigan, who lost 120 pounds over 16 months, and writes the blog "Run for Cookies."

They decided to find other people with similar stories – from fat to fit – and quickly assembled a group that includes a woman who lost 155 pounds and another, Ada Wong, who appeared on the popular TV show "The Biggest Loser."

"Our main goals are to inspire, motivate and show people that it's possible to reach goals and make their dreams come true," said Roe, the filmmaker and team member. "We want to show that whether your goal is to lose weight, run a 200-mile race or do anything else in the world, they can do it."

Currently, the group is working to raise money for the movie via Kickstarter, the online fundraising platform. Fat to Finish Line has set a goal to raise $50,000 by Sept. 13.

"The way I got here was building new habits, reinforcing those habits, doing things a little bit at a time, until that change became a normal part of my life," Akey said. "There isn't a single day that goes by when I don't take a moment and say, 'I can't believe this is my life now.'

"I would love it if we were able to take it that additional step and get this movie made and get it in front of people who were like I was, thinking 'I can't do this.' You can do this. Here are 12 people who are just like you who have done it."


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