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Jim Blackburn talks 220-lb weight loss after bariatric surgery: Now a triathlete

Bariatric surgery has soared in popularity as research confirms that surgery beats diet and exercise for producing dramatic weight loss and reversing diabetes and heart disease.

Man details 220-pound weight loss after bariatric surgery: Now runs marathons
Man details 220-pound weight loss after bariatric surgery: Now runs marathonsJim Blackburn lost 220 pounds after undergoing gastric bypass surgery. He's now training for his first triathlon.

Celebrities like Al Roker, Rosie O'Donnell, Lisa Lampanelli, chef Graham Elliot and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have all described weight-loss surgery as "life-changing."

In an exclusive interview, Jim Blackburn, an Atlanta IT executive, revealed how bariatric surgery helped him lose 220 pounds and transformed him from couch potato to marathon man.

The once 420-pound Jim underwent gastric-bypass surgery in 2010, and lost 174 pounds over the next 12 months. Shortly afterward, Blackburn began running, and recently completed his first marathon. On April 26, 2014, Jim completed his first triathlon at the age of 51, proving it is never too late to transform your body and your life.

Blackburn was recently named the 2014 BariAthlete of the Year by the non-profit charity, WLSFA, the Weight Loss Surgery Foundation of America. Jim said bariatric surgery completely changed his life and revealed how his struggles have shaped his never-say-quit attitude.

Question: It has almost been four years since you got gastric bypass surgery. Why did you decide to get the surgery?

Yes, four years April 5, 2014 – my surgiversary. About two years before my surgery, my primary care doctor and good friend suggested that I needed to consider some type of surgical intervention. This was due to mounting medical problems and co-morbidities that came with being severely overweight. At the time, I did not consider surgery to be an option and pretty much ignored the possibility of surgery being a solution that I would consider.

A little over a year prior to my surgery a family member came to me and said that she had done a lot of research on weight loss surgery and programs and said that she and her husband had decided to undergo RnY gastric bypass. This sparked my interest and I was drawn into the process because I took on somewhat of a support role for both of them and was exposed to the educational process as well as what the day of surgery was like and the recovery. Seeing their results increased my interest.

Along with this, another family member, who needed the surgery desperately, was on the fence as to whether surgery was right for her so together we sort of banded together, made the decision to have the surgery, and then progressed through the educational process, the testing process, the day of surgery, and then the recovery.

For both of us the surgery was a success at varying levels but it was this push, or being able to push her, that cemented my decision to have the surgery. In addition to this, there were many of the other typical factors that contributed to my decision such as my mortality, getting older, turning 50, and wanting to live to experience and be a part of my grown children’s lives as the father that walks his daughter down the aisle or helped his son with his first house purchase – all of the things that I wanted to do was clouded in my severe and morbid obesity that I dealt with each and every day.

My health, aching bones, shortness of breath all were decision making factors along with high blood pressure, gout, sleep apnea, fatty liver, and the beginning stages of diabetes."

Question: You've lost 220 pounds to date and look incredible. How did you make the staggering 180-degree transformation from couch potato to marathon runner/triathlete?

I lost 174 pounds my first year and was basically doing the minimal amount of exercise, which consisted of mostly walking. During this year I kept in contact with my surgeon and would send progress pictures to him often. I remember in one of his response emails that he complemented me on my progress and then he said that my skin was starting to look saggy and that I needed to get into the gym. Since he was commenting on a picture I had sent that only showed my face the message for some reason resonated very loud with me.

Looking back, I can also remember my primary care physician having the 'talk' with me about having to have a second surgery to remove excess skin and skin flaps. My comment to him was that there was absolutely no way I was having another surgery and that I would do whatever was necessary to get my skin to tighten up.

Both of these interactions, with two different doctors, stuck with me and were the catalyst to my initial efforts to get into the gym and start a routine and serious workout program. The very next day, after my surgeon's email, I joined the YMCA and started a workout regimen that lasted for almost a year straight.

The regimen was simple: Monday/Wednesday/Friday, 5:00am-6:00am, alternate treadmill and machine weights. I did not do anything too complicated and relied heavily on music and technology to help get me through the very hard first three months. Five-minute walks on the treadmill turned into five/one-minute walk/jogs and then I gradually moved into longer and faster runs until I was doing a constant hour on the treadmill. Along with this I lifted weights with multiple sets of high repetitions. At first I either ran or lifted but not both but soon I was able to do both in one workout session and from there things snowballed into group exercise class and then graduating to running on the street.

Parallel to the efforts in the gym I took a greater interest in social media and learned that it is possible to hold one’s self accountable by setting goals in a social media setting. While I cannot pinpoint the exact reason why this worked for me I can speculate that since I failed so many times throughout my life at losing weight that I was not willing to fail once committed to a goal.

Because of the reach of social media, I felt accountable to those who I am connected with which included my family, close friends, acquaintances, and total strangers. Since I was very public with the decision to have weight loss surgery, a part of me did not want to fail. The perception of a failure to me and to so many people would somehow diminish my major decision to have weight loss surgery with the number one hurdle in the process was that I had never set foot in a hospital in my life for any type of medical treatment.

Media attention to my success fueled my desire to succeed as well. Through media channels at my weight loss surgical center, a health reporter for a local Atlanta station picked up my story and reported on my success, my surgery, and I was on TV. Suddenly I thought to myself I will be able to watch this story five years from now. My grandkids will be able to watch this story 20 years from now. This was exciting but also surreal in that media attention is the ultimate form of accountability. The media attention snowballed and I did a promotional spot for Emory in Atlanta (see video above).

Then came my running and staying healthy and active so I started out slow and ran my first 5k road race. The feelings I experienced before, during, and after were amazing. I can remember the second I crossed the first start line and the tears I had that quickly turned into sweat. I can remember crossing the finish line and the feeling of accomplishment. My motto going forward from that point was/is: 'I won’t be first, I won’t be last, but I will finish and I will finish strong.'

Every race I have done after this I have carried this motto and those same emotions with me. The 5k distance went to a 10k distance and once I knew I could do it – again, failure is not an option – I decided to enter the lottery for the world’s largest 10k, the Peachtree Road Race – I got in. Again, media picked up on this and two local Atlanta new stations did stories on my road to the Peachtree and again my goal was out there, to the world, and therefore failure was not an option. Regaining weight was not an option. Stopping my healthy lifestyle was not an option.

So, with a half marathon and full marathon completed, I will participate in my first triathlon this spring, I will run my 3rd Peachtree Road Race this July, and then I will, as part of the Push America team, run the 2014 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C."

Question: What is your daily diet like now? What about your workout routine?

The type of surgery that I had was the Roux-en-Y Gastric Bypass that left me with a tiny new stomach – often called a 'pouch' that is surgically constructed to hold roughly 1 to 2 ounces of food. Over time, the size of my pouch changed and at about two years was considered to be 'mature' and can hold approximately 6 to 9 ounces of food. The average person can hold approximately 30 ounces of food in their stomach.

Today my diet is driven by my workout routine and my need to consume the correct energy packed foods. Quantity of food and liquid per meal is limited so my daily diet consists of multiple meals throughout the day with three to four hour intervals.

I graze a lot and make choices to eat fruit, whole grain snacks, yogurt, and similar snacks to keep my engine fueled. I do have the standard 'big' meals with my wife and family but keep a home cooked or restaurant cooked multi-course meal to eating a single course at a time – in very small portions – and chewing well.

As far as foods I can and cannot tolerate, there are not many. I can eat sugar (candy) of just about any type in very small quantities, can have the occasional one doughnut, and enjoy a lot of liberty with my pouch and bypass that typically is not tolerated in other surgery recipients.

Acidic fruits and high fiber foods give me some GI distress and I have to limit meat (poultry, chicken, and red meat) to small, moist, and well cooked (and well chewed) portions. Another important point about my diet is that my tastes changed after surgery and continue to resonate between various types of foods. For example, eggs and grits were a big deal for me pre-op but after my surgery both of these foods tasted terrible for the first three years post-op. At four years, I can tolerate these but only in small quantities.

My workout routine varies depending on what I am training for. Since my neighbor is a nationally ranked runner and multi-Ironman finisher, he has taken me under his wing and is my official coach and is programming my workouts very carefully to balance training stress with healing and nutritional needs. Currently I am getting ready for three big events coming up in the next 6 months which include a triathlon, a 10k road race, and a marathon.

My coach uses a training tool by Training Peaks. This week’s training schedule is segmented into three areas: swim, bike and run. Each workout has drills mixed in to improve both my technique and aerobic capacity. Getting to this point has been a long and hard road but doing this keeps me focused on getting better from week to week and while I am not trying to set a record or win any races I do get the ultimate satisfaction of being able to participate and complete athletic events that as of four years ago were not possible."

Question: What are some common misconceptions people have about weight-loss surgery that you'd like to clear up?

Weight-loss surgery is not:
• the easy way out.
• not cheating.
• not accessible to all that need it
• a get-it-and-forget-it solution.

Weight-loss surgery:
• requires commitment
• is just one component of success
• changes lives
• improves quality of life

Surgical intervention is used because we as humans have made great strides in medical care over the past 100 years. Medicine saves lives and obesity, a disease, should be treated as any other disease.

Often a person’s life hangs in the balance and whether their obesity is psychological or a result of an underlying medical condition the access to the proper care and compassion is critical, just as critical as it is to those with heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.

I was fortunate because I was able to borrow the $30,000 to have my weight loss surgery. My insurance did not consider my obesity and associated co-morbidities to be “life threatening” enough to cover weight loss surgery. For others, weight loss surgery is not an option because of the lack of or no insurance coverage and no ability to borrow funds for the surgery."

Question: Do you have any advice for others who are considering weight-loss surgery?

First and foremost a person who has exhausted all avenues of weight loss, has a very high BMI, and is facing one or more multiple co-morbidities should weigh the surgical option very seriously but very carefully and thoroughly. They should not kid themselves or enter the process with a closed mind. Each component/step leading up to the day of surgery should be followed completely.

Compliance and sticking to the program does not end after surgery — it begins and the changes necessary to be successful must continue for life. Weight loss surgery is a lifelong commitment and the decision to have the surgery should be treated as such.

A patient must do the psychological evaluation honestly and thoroughly. Education provided by the weight loss center, including nutritional counseling, should be embraced and taken seriously. A patient must embed themselves in their weight loss centers program and follow the program to the letter.

While there are many very valuable experienced based resources on the Internet including forums, blogs, and social media outlets, it is critical — CRITICAL — that advice from the resources do not override or take the place of the teachings and ongoing advice of the chosen surgical weight loss center, the surgeon, the primary care physician, the nutritionist, or the psychiatrist."

To learn more about Jim Blackburn's triathlon training and weight-loss journey, follow him on Twitter at @JmbAtlanta.