For years, their bodies swelled with fat.
After 200 miles, their hearts swelled with gratitude.
The team of 12 runners, led by Rik Akey, joyfully finished the Ragnar Relays Florida Keys earlier this month, and celebrated a huge accomplishment built upon hundreds of small ones, overcoming obesity and maintaining fitness.
Strangers just a year ago, the From Fat to Finish Line team had bonded for a year over emails, Facebook posts, and their common life experiences of weight problems, self-esteem issues, social awkwardness and depression.
When they came together for the first time, at the pre-race gathering in Miami, Fla., it felt much like a family reunion, said Akey, a 43-year-old from Wauwatosa and one of the team founders.
"I just felt like I had known these people my whole life because their experiences were so similar," he said. "These people now are just so joyful and happy, and I feel the same way."
Akey weighed 275 pounds in 2008, when he hired a personal trainer, in yet another attempt to lose weight, and stave off almost certain health problems that terrified him. He couldn't run a block.
At the start of 2012, he weighed 185 pounds, had run several marathons and connected with Katie Foster, a fellow former fatty from Michigan who wrote a health blog called "Runs for Cookies." While exchanging stories and fitness information, they conceived the idea of bringing together a dozen people like them to run a Ragnar Relay.
The team they gathered for the 200-mile race in the Florida Keys had lost a combined 1,200 pounds and included Ada Wong, a former finalist on the "Biggest Loser" TV show, a female triathlete who once weighed 250 pounds, and Jennifer Roe, a movie director/producer from New Jersey. Roe pitched the idea of telling their stories in a documentary "From Fat to Finish Line," developed by Media Meld Studios.
"I've been a story-teller my whole life and struggled with my weight my whole life," Roe said. "This was an opportunity to combine those worlds, and inspire others to go on their own journey.
"We think this is a national epidemic: obesity," she said. "It speaks to a lot of other epidemics: depression, lack of being connected, the inability to believe in ourselves, and a lot of these issues are discussed in the film.
"Nobody put on weight because they liked to eat. They all had underlying issues, depression, abuse. Our film explores all of that."
Roe and her production team interviewed team members to gather their stories of weight-loss failures and successes, the tipping points, and the years of dedication and work to finally maintain weights that are 100 pounds or more below their peak.
"I didn't realize how unhappy I was until I started moving in this direction," said Akey, a self-described fat kid who grew up in Milwaukee. "I realized some of the stuff I was putting up with. Once that weight was lifted, I wondered why I was carrying it in the first place."
The Media Meld camera crew captured on video the nervous and happy team at the start of the Ragnar Relay, the celebratory finish, and the painful drama that unfolded when Roe could barely move on her second leg, at 3 o'clock in the morning.
Dehydrated and short on potassium and sodium, her leg muscles cramped severely three miles into a 10-mile stretch. She struggled. She sobbed.
"I was walking and crying and feeling like the fat kid again," Roe said. "I kept thinking, 'we're making a movie 'From Fat to the Finish Line,' what if I don't get to the finish line.'"
As shown on the Today Show, Roe and the rest of the group did make it to the finish line, after about 38 hours of sweaty effort. All of them, however, consider it to be a start line of the rest of their fitness efforts.
"I cried more in three days while I was down there than in the last 10 years combined," said Akey, a trainer at Northwestern Mutual. "People were hot, tired sleep-deprived. On top of the physical and emotional fatigue, there was this sense of reaching the mountaintop.
"It's the end of trying to become this fit person. Now we're switching over to a mode of maintaining instead of becoming, and inspiring others, instead of being so self-focused.
"We're not special. We just decided we had enough of being the people we were and figured out a way to make it happen."
Post-script: Angela Lee, producer at Media Meld Studios, said the rough edit of the documentary should be completed in six to seven weeks. The studio plans to screen the film at festivals during the summer and fall and offer it for wider release around the start of 2014, "when people have weight loss and resolutions on their minds."
Memories of running cross-country for the Slinger Owls motivated Tom Held to get his body moving again when he turned 30. Almost two decades later, he's still on the move. The 49-year-old bikes, runs and skis, and covers news for similarly active people as a freelance writer and blogger.
He spent 26 years as a daily news reporter, and applies that experience to dig out stories about athletes, races, endurance sports, fitness and self-propelled transportation. His work has appeared in Silent Sports Magazine, Wisconsin Trails and Cross-Country Skier.
Held lives in the Bay View neighborhood, where he counts being Dad to twin daughters part of his daily workout.