In 2013, Melissa Johnson described herself as a ‘TV-watching, Candy Crush-playing couch potato who sometimes went for a walk.’ At 5-foot-2 and 175 pounds, this mother of three was obese and depressed.
Her “a-ha” moment came at her son’s eighth grade graduation that year. “I took the obligatory pictures with him, but refused to share the ones with me in them,” she remembers. “That afternoon, I went to a church activity with a friend, and a lady at the event commented on my ‘plus-sized petite’ body. I was shocked, embarrassed and angry. I thought about her brutally honest words and decided to change. That was the last day I drank soda, and the very next day I went to our local YMCA and worked out.”
To aid in her weight-loss efforts, Johnson maintained regular attendance at the YMCA and downloaded MyFitnessPal. With free morning boot camp classes three times a week, cardio workouts in the gym and calorie tracking through the MFP app, she had found her transformation companions. It was a family vacation, however, that sparked a new, unexpected love: running.
“We were on vacation in California and I didn’t have my gym, so I had to lace up my shoes and run,” she says.
As it turns out, she loved running.
“I wondered why I hadn’t been doing this before,” says Johnson. “I live in a gorgeous area in Oregon where I can run year-round.”
When she returned home, she realized the cardio machines inside the gym felt confining, and running outdoors immediately became her new go-to form of cardio.
In October 2013, she ran her first race: a hilly 10K. “After the race, a friend asked me what was next, and I literally laughed at him when he suggested a half marathon,” she recalls with a smile. But the dare wasn’t as far-fetched as it seemed: Johnson crossed the finish line of her first half marathon the next spring.
Then, in May of 2015, she ran her first full marathon in Eugene, Oregon. Two years into her weight-loss journey, Johnson had lost more than 50 pounds, and she was feeling fantastic.
LEARNING TO LIVE THE MACRO LIFE
But, alas, Johnson discovered life isn’t always linear after a series of events curtailed her progress. First, she sprained her ankle at a parkour class with her son and couldn’t run for weeks. She also started a new job after being a stay-at-home mom for 17 years. The new schedule and stress led to a 12-pound weight gain, but, thankfully, Johnson knew herself well enough to not fall completely off the wagon. To help get her on the right track again, she enlisted the expertise of Gina, a personal trainer at the YMCA, and met with her once a week.
“My 40th birthday was coming up, and I had to renew my driver’s license,” says Johnson. “I set a goal to be back to my goal weight of 120 so I could update my license and, for once, be honest about my weight.”
In addition to counting calories, Gina showed Johnson the power of counting her macros (carbs, protein and fat totals) and eating whole foods. When she first started, Gina had her eating a ratio of 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat. Eventually, she shifted to 50% carbs, 25% protein and 25% fat — and achieved even better results. (Whatever you do, she cautions to try it for several weeks to see how your body adjusts over time.)
“When my birthday came on February 17th, I was below my goal weight and could finally see some serious body composition changes happening,” she says. “I never thought I could go below 120 pounds, but by continuing to use MyFitnessPal to count my macros and calories, I hit 108 pounds!”
She even dropped her body-fat percentage from 29% to 15% in less than a year. “I more than achieved my goals and plan to continue to shape and strengthen my body,” says Johnson.
HER QUEST TO QUALIFY
With new confidence and rigor, Melissa set her sights on qualifying for the Boston Marathon, a race so elite that only an estimated 12 percent of marathon runners qualify. She had even more incentive because two of her sisters, Miranda and Maria, were also going to train and attempt to qualify as well. The only problem? They all live in different states, so they would have to virtually train with each other using the same Hal Higdon training plan. Every day, they’d call and text each other from Oregon, Utah and Idaho with their daily run updates to stay inspired and motivated for their big qualifying race, the Big Cottonwood Marathon in Utah on September 9, 2017.
Unfortunately, another life event interfered with Johnson’s plans. In June, just four weeks into her 18-week training program, she found out she would need to have her gallbladder removed. Needless to say, this was not conducive to her training.
With her doctor’s permission, however, Johnson adopted a very low-fat diet (70% carbs, 20% protein and 10% fat) to manage her symptoms and put off surgery until after the race. She even got the OK to continue to train and run the race with her sisters. Luckily, the high carbohydrate intake actually decreased her symptoms and led to huge improvements in her running and recovery.
On race morning, Johnson and her sisters lined up at the start line and all three successfully qualified for the Boston Marathon together. Melissa ran a 3:37, blowing her qualifying time of 3:45 out of the water.
“It’s icing on the cake to do something so hard and share the misery, joy and accomplishment with people who know exactly what you’re going through,” she says. “It gives you the confidence to be able to hold your head up high knowing that you just ran a marathon and qualified for Boston. You stand a little taller and feel a little mightier.”
Her family was already close, but this brought them even closer, she says.
ON THE MEND
Johnson’s gallbladder was recently removed and she’s now on the mend from surgery. Soon enough, though, she’ll be back in training mode combining weekly run training with three days of strength training (one with Gina).
“I’ve never been more confident in my own skin,” she says. “When you feel happy with yourself, you feel like you can give more of yourself to other people. You can serve and love more.”
She certainly understands the ups-and-downs of transformation and her advice is to reach out to your village and seek help if you need it. She also urges people to keep it real. You can’t deprive yourself of life.
“If you slip up one day and overindulge, don’t give up. That’s life!” says Johnson. “Just don’t be afraid to talk about it with a support system.”
Today, at 40 years old, Johnson is stronger, more confident and healthier than ever. “I choose to fuel my body with healthy, whole foods because I feel so much better when I do,” she says. “I used to work out so I could eat. Now I eat so I can work out!”
Written by Carrie Barrett, an IRONMAN Certified Coach, a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach and a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She is a contributor to Austin Fit Magazine, Ironman.com and other running and triathlon-related outlets. She is also the author of two e-books on the sport of triathlon available on Amazon.