NEW PORT RICHEY — There's a lot less of her every year when Cathy Bergwall steps up to the starting line for the annual RAP River Run.
The 5K run/walk and 1-mile run help raise money for the Runaway Alternatives Project House, a home for youths ages 10 to 17 who are runaways, homeless or in need of a short-term place to stay.
Over the past four years, the annual run has served as a marker in Bergwall's life — another year of difficult but dramatic weight loss.
In 2007, Bergwall, now 56, who stands 5-1 with a grin that stretches from ear to ear, weighed 389 pounds.
"I was at my highest weight, but was at my lowest low," she said.
When she steps up to the starting line this year, however, she hopes to weigh less than 160 — almost 100 pounds less than she weighed the first time she crossed the finish line in 2008.
Bergwall attributes her immense weight gain mostly to a medication she was prescribed about 11 years ago to treat her trigeminal neuralgia, a nerve disorder that was diagnosed after she had a tooth pulled. Trigeminal neuralgia caused stabbing pains in parts of her face, so she was put on Depakote, a medication that helped control the unbearable pain.
After a few months on the medication, she said, she started having intense hunger pangs all the time. She had always weighed around 160, but eventually became morbidly obese.
She couldn't stand on her own. She needed a walker to walk, and she couldn't bend down to tie her shoes or do things around the house like laundry.
Her husband, Steve, now 58, bought her wife a tricycle in November 2006, but one try after another, Bergwall could not work the pedals. The bike never left their garage.
When her mother-in-law died in Michigan in February 2007, Bergwall missed the funeral. She had recently been hospitalized for weight-related problems and was too heavy to travel.
The Bergwalls' daughter, Sarah Stillman, now 34, did make the trip — and called her mother in tears. She had imagined seeing her mother in her grandmother's casket and said she was not ready to lose her mother at such a young age.
But even after her daughter's call, Bergwall said, she was in denial.
"It didn't immediately occur to me that something was really wrong," she said.
• • •
A month later, however, her husband came home after work with a plan and a new sense of determination.
"He walked in and said, 'Come on, we are going to get you on that bike,' and I just thought to myself, 'Oh, no, not again,' " Bergwall said.
Her husband bent over and turned the peddles with her legs in them so she could feel the motion. He took her down the short driveway to their mailbox and back to the garage.
"I never wanted that moment to end," she said.
After a week on the driveway, they went down the street. On their way back, neighbors came out to watch and cheer her on.
Now motivated, Bergwall decided to get herself in what she calls "my getting healthy program."
After consulting with a doctor, she changed her diet. She cut out fast food and meat, but stuck with fish. She added breakfast — a meal she had been skipping — to her regimen and ate healthy snacks between meals. She would eat dessert after dinner, but only in small portions.
She eventually was able to ride her bike without her husband's help. She set small goals for herself and started losing weight in 25-pound increments.
In 2008, Bergwall's husband told her his employer, Spring Engineering, was going to sponsor the first annual RAP River Run event. "You are going to walk it," he told her.
That became her new goal.
She started rising around 4 a.m. every day to ride her bike for five miles. Her chubby brown corgi mix, Precious, became her twice-daily walking partner and lost 20 pounds.
The days vanished from the calendar, and Bergwall got healthier.
She started standing on her own without the help of a walker, and on her visits to Walmart, she no longer needed an electronic cart.
"She did this all on her own," said Bergwall's doctor, Jennifer Kleinbart. "She used to have diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea, and with the weight loss she doesn't have any of those problems any more."
By June 14, 2008, the day of the RAP River Run, she had lost nearly 150 pounds and weighed 242. She made it across the finish line of the 1-mile walk.
By the 2009 race, she was down to 199.
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On March 17, 2010, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Doctors found a small lump about the size of a pencil eraser on her right breast. They removed the lump and tissue around it, and put her on a hormone treatment that interferes with the activity of estrogen to reduce the risk that her cancer will come back.
Bergwall believes the medication has slowed her weight loss.
"It is very hard to lose 2 pounds, where before it wasn't," she said.
Kleinbart said it may be the medication, but since Bergwall had already lost more than 200 pounds, it is normal for her to weight loss to slow down.
Bergwall is not giving up.
She is now at 164 pounds and hopes to get into the 150s by this year's RAP River Race on June 11.
"This race isn't just about raising critical funds but about opportunities for individuals to focus on achieving healthier lifestyles including exercise," said Jim Simmons, development director of Youth and Family Alternatives, the state-funded program that puts on the run.
Bergwall said she has been able to get through this with the support of her husband and family.
"They are my No. 1 fans," she said. "They keep me motivated because I still love sweets. Let's just say I thank God my favorite fudge shop in Harbor Springs, Mich., is not here."
Jacqueline Baylon can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.