When John Starner walked into the Powerhouse Gym in June, he knew he didn't have long to live.
Through the years, injuries, depression and overeating led the 5 feet, 10 1/2 inch Starner, who weighed 160 pounds as a Marine, to balloon to 436 pounds.
At age 41, he suffered from severe sleep apnea, swelling in his legs and high blood pressure, not to mention the shame and embarrassment at not being able to walk a block without getting winded.
"If I continued the way I was, I was not going to make it to 50," said Starner, a Lancaster resident. "I thought to myself, 'I've got to do something, or I'm going to die.'"
On June 13, Starner began a journey that led to him to winning the Arnold Transformation Challenge, a new event at the Arnold Sports Festival. Starner will be given his award and will tell his story on Saturday in the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
Starner and his trainer, Shawn Nutter, will be among the contestants sharing how, through workouts and healthy eating, they've reclaimed their lives. Starner has lost more than 100 pounds.
"His attitude from day one to now has been just nonstop," Nutter said, "to the point where I've had to tell him, 'You're not coming to the gym today. You need to take a day's rest.'"
In June, Starner thought he didn't have a day to lose.
Toward the end of his four years in the Marines (1995-99), Starner suffered a back injury that wasn't debilitating, but, back in civilian life, grew troublesome.
Because he isn't fully disabled, he had to keep working to support his family. (He has a 19-year-old son from his first marriage and two daughters, age 10 and 14, with his second wife, Valerie.)
He grew depressed. Food became his therapy.
"No one tells an alcoholic, 'Have a beer for breakfast, a beer for lunch and a beer for dinner,'" Starner said. "So, while I'm fat, I still have to eat. The battle is all day long. I was committing suicide by food and didn't realize it."
Eventually, Starner could not take his kids to the movies (he wouldn't fit in a seat) or trick-or-treat with them at Halloween (too short of breath).
"I was going to be a widow by the time I was 45 the way he was going," said Mrs. Starner, 37.
What finally drove him to the gym was a bad day at the office. Starner works in customer service for the Internal Revenue Service at the Downtown office. On that day in June, he endured weight-related insults from several angry taxpayers.
After work, he walked one block from his office to Powerhouse Gym on East Long Street.
"I saw him wobbling across the street," Powerhouse owner Matt Catalagno said. "We started talking and I found out we were both military. He said, 'I don't know how much I can do, or if I'm even ready.'
"And I said, 'Us Marines, we don't let each other fall behind.'"
Catalagno paired Starner with Nutter, an independent trainer based at Powerhouse.
The two formed an immediate bond.
"I've helped (extremely overweight) individuals like him, but he was special, because he was a veteran who had been out there putting his life on the line for us," Nutter said. "And he desperately needed help."
Nutter started him on a twice-daily gym regimen, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. (cardio on one visit, weights on the other) and also overhauled his eating.
Starner's sleep apnea, leg swelling and blood pressure have improved. The circumference of his stomach has been reduced from 69 inches to 49.
More important, he can once again enjoy everyday activities. Last fall, he walked around the Fairfield County Fair for the first time in 10 years. He recently took his daughters to the movies.
"I'm doing this to live," he said. "I want to see my girls graduate and get married."
His goal was to weigh in at the Arnold at less than 300 pounds; he was 321 as of Monday. As motivation, he drapes a 25-pound chain around his shoulders as he walks around the gym.
Transformation Challenge director Rob Fletcher said Starner's story epitomizes why organizers have created the event.
"We want to reach out to a new demographic, to people who really need the help," Fletcher said. "We also want to emphasize the importance of the role of the trainer. We want to encourage people to make that phone call or take that step.
"And John's story couldn't be a better story.
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