After her older sister died from breast cancer in 2004, Kat Ward consoled herself with food. To honor her sister, Ward left the hotel business and got a job with the American Cancer Society, intense and meaningful work she enjoyed. But she lived on drive-through fast food. Her weight ballooned from 160 pounds to 235. She tried diets, but nothing seemed to work.
Then on Sept. 7, 2008, at age 24, Ward woke with this strange feeling. She doesn't know why. There was no trigger; no photo she saw of herself, no cruel remark about her weight.
She was just done.
"I lost my sister," she thought. "I can't lose myself — and I feel like I am."
No more diets, she said.
She wanted to be healthy, physically and emotionally.
"I'm changing my life," she told herself.
And she did.
Through sheer determination she lost more than 115 pounds. She went from struggling to run a 5K to completing Ironman Florida last November in Panama City. That's a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon of 26.2 miles. It took her 11 hours, 34 minutes. She not only finished, but came in 13th in her age group and 580th out of more than 3,000 competitors.
She is competing again this year.
When Ward began her journey nearly five years ago, all she wanted to be was normal.
Instead, she not only changed her life, she has dedicated herself to helping others transform their lives, too.
• • •
Ward started a journal that first day. She recorded her weight, everything she ate and her exercise. She continued to do this every day, without fail.
Soon, she had an epiphany:
"It's a mathematical equation to lose weight. If you eat less than you need to maintain, then you lose weight," she said. "It's so simple. Eat less, work out more."
And she was eating too much. She began measuring her portions. She realized what she thought of as one serving of pasta was actually five.
She ate more produce. She found out she liked tofu. She cooked and cut up her fruits and veggies on Sundays, so her meals would be ready for the week.
At the time, Ward had left the American Cancer Society and was working with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She decided to quit and go back to school to get her MBA, followed by a master's in entrepreneurship, at the University of South Florida. It was an incredibly busy time as a student with a heavy course load who also worked at least 15 hours a week as a graduate assistant to help pay for school. And she worked full-time doing marketing for her father's software company, Construction Link, which was based out of their home state of New York.
She slept little. It is not a schedule she recommends.
In whatever free time she found, Ward researched nutrition and fitness. She was determined to the point of obsessed.
"My mind was made up," she said.
She didn't have the money for a personal trainer. She never joined a gym. She used what she had available and, in the beginning, she had running shoes.
She signed up for a marathon and joined a running club. Several weeks into training, she was thrilled with her progress. She had lost 20 pounds and was on mile 10 of a 12-mile run when her foot began hurting. She finished the run and went to the doctor.
Her foot was broken.
She had been overtraining. Her weight was still too great for her body to handle so much running. She sobbed in the car. She had come so far and had been so focused on the marathon goal. There would be no race for her.
Then she stopped crying.
"You know what, Kat?" she told herself. "At this point, what are you going to do? Gain it all back and stop this journey?
So she started researching exercises she could do with her arms. She found out about resistance training and how important it is to have a strong core. She bought a cheap set of weights for her apartment. She tied a pool noodle to her legs so her busted foot would be stable and swam in the pool at her apartment complex. She used the complex's teeny gym that was always empty. She bought workout videos. Before bed every night, she did 8 Minute Abs.
When her foot healed, she began running again.
She broke her feet two more times before she lost the weight.
• • •
It took her more than three years to reduce her size by half.
She graduated from USF and split her time between Tampa and New York, working for her dad's company. She started shadowing personal trainers on the weekends, just to learn more tips. She spent more and more time doing that and began cutting her hours back at work. Eventually, she made the difficult decision to not work for her father, but to create her own path.
She became a personal trainer.
"I never thought that was even in my realm to be able to do something like that," she said.
Her business, Fit-Kat Personal Training, became official in September 2012. The majority of her coaching is online — a business path that surprised her. She does do one-on-one training, some group boot camps and running clubs in Tampa. But most of her business is on Skype, working with clients across the country.
Ward, now 30 and living in New Tampa, uses her experience to help others. She tells clients about her mistakes, her broken feet, and shows them how to avoid the same pitfalls. She refers to her bookcase of journals when her clients need help. She can go back to see what she did to shake things up when she hit a plateau. She shares tips on what she did to eat healthy on a budget.
Ward empathizes with clients when they are starting. It is hard being really heavy, she said.
"Your joints hurt, your knees hurt, your back hurts," she said. "When you are heavy, it hurts simply because you are carrying that extra weight. We aren't made to carry that."
Her clients only need dumbbells and a stability ball to do her workouts. Unlike many other trainers, Ward focuses on teaching clients how to do workouts on their own so eventually they won't need her. She doesn't believe in diets. She teaches people how to live a balanced life — to still enjoy favorite things, but in moderation.
She has turned away clients who weren't ready to make that change or who might just want a trainer as a status symbol.
"I'm not your New Year's resolution," she said. "When you are ready to change your life, I'm here."
She loves the role she plays in helping people. Her sister who passed away, Danielle Jane Granger, was her rock; always supportive, always there when she needed her. Ward, in turn, does that for her clients. They get birthday cards and gifts when they reach goals. She doesn't judge when there are setbacks.
"Believe in yourself," she tells people, "because I believe in you."
She now maintains a weight of about 118. The best compliments she has received haven't been about her new figure. It's when people have told her she has inspired them.
"If I can do that for people," she said, "what more can I ask for?"
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.