He steps out of his Temple Terrace house with his wife most evenings for 35- to 40-minute walks, each stride a step closer to normalcy.
Mike Stuben looks forward to the day when these isolated strolls will be complemented by more congested and challenging ones. When Busch Gardens reopens, he wants to walk ― not take the complementary tram ― from the parking lot to the entrance. He wants to navigate every acre of the park on foot, to hop on a roller coaster and join the chorus of shrieks during the twists and plunges.
On that day, Stuben, 44, knows the coronavirus pandemic ― and his personal challenge ― will have been conquered.
Slightly more than 500 pounds only 17 months ago, he has dropped 200, enough to finally fit his 6-foot-1 frame into a SheiKra seat. His goal: to get to 190 pounds.
“As long as I’m winning each day by just a few calories, it’s gonna get there,” he said.
Talk about flattening your curves. During this stretch of sports dormancy, Stuben, a USF alumnus employed by the school, has given his fellow Bulls fans something to keep rooting for from a safe social distance: He regularly posts reports of his weight-loss challenge on his personal blog.
“He’s an inspiration for others by doing this, showing that others can do it,” said Barry Clements, USF’s deputy athletic director and chief operations officer, who has known Stuben for a quarter-century.
“It doesn’t surprise me about his success, because he’s always kind of achieved any goals that he’s had, especially in work, and just always has had a good attitude about things, and was just a really, really driven person in general.”
An avid traveler who has visited more than 40 countries, Stuben said he has no history of obesity in his family but acknowledges his weight has remained a struggle through adulthood. About 25 years ago, he successfully slimmed down to 190 pounds but couldn’t keep the weight off.
“In my mind, I always figured I’d get back there, and I’m upset it’s taken me to the age of (44),” said Stuben, who oversees purchasing for a number of USF student government-run organizations.
“But at the same time, I can’t worry about that now. I’ve got to be focused on where I’m going, because I’m just fortunate that, at 42 and 500 pounds, I was alive and mostly healthy.”
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A devout Bulls fan who owns season tickets for three teams (football, men’s and women’s basketball), Stuben was on a football road trip two autumns ago when a seemingly minor injury led to an epiphany of sorts.
The night before USF’s football team faced Illinois in Chicago, Stuben went with a group to Milwaukee to catch a Brewers game. Seated in the left field bleachers, Stuben scraped his right shin on the corner of a bench while exiting his row.
Ultimately, the scrape became infected, forcing him to wrap it in a towel each night before he went to sleep.
“I had this leg that wasn’t healing and, not to be gross, but it just wouldn’t stop oozing,” said Stuben, forced to get a new pair of shoes every couple of weeks because of the fluid seeping into the right shoe. “It just wouldn’t heal.”
That was Stuben’s first indicator he had to lose weight. The second came during a regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment a couple months later. When he stepped on the digital scale, which had a 500-pound limit, it delivered a sobering readout: Error.
“And I said, ‘You know, that’s it. I’ve got to make some changes,’” Stuben recalled.
“I probably thought about it for two weeks, then it just hit me one day. … There was never a (moment) like, ‘I’m gonna do this on a certain day.’ I woke up one day and said, ‘Okay, it’s time. I’ve got to take care of this.’”
That day was Dec. 9, 2018. In lieu of weight-reduction surgery or trendy diets, Stuben embarked on a lifestyle of regular exercise and reasonable eating habits. The daily goal: to burn more calories than he consumed, plain and simple.
He began with walks around the house, which segued to walks around the neighborhood. A year ago, when he had dropped his first 100 pounds, Stuben joined a gym. Before being forced to work from home, he began bypassing the elevator and taking the stairs to his fourth-floor office at the Marshall Center.
During the pandemic, his nightly walks have been complemented by some moderate dumbbell work and step-ups in his house.
“Stuben is my guy,” Bulls women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez said. “Not many people bleed green and gold like Mike. Excited for the work he’s putting in.”
Meantime, Stuben has developed a greater appreciation for vegetables and salads, and has discovered the foods he used to slather in butter really don’t need it. Guilty gastronomic pleasures and alcohol ― Stuben estimates he has one drink a month ― are done in careful moderation and measurement.
Example: During a trip last summer to North Carolina, Stuben, wife Vicky and some other family members stopped at a favorite barbecue restaurant. Stuben had only two ribs, carefully limiting his calories at breakfast and lunch so he could enjoy the ribs that evening.
“Ribs are really fatty and not good for you, but at the same time, I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’m just thinking about what I’m missing,” he said.
“Because then I’m worried that some day when I stop trying to lose weight and try to maintain the weight, I’m gonna go back in the wrong direction. So I want to make sure that I’m not so miserable with what I’m eating, and I’m starving and all this, that it’s (not) gonna be sustainable.”
The philosophy has led him from a 60- to a 42-inch waist, and from a 6X to 3X shirt size. Yet Stuben understands the final 100 pounds represents the most daunting stretch of this journey. He realizes the slimmer he gets, the amount of calories he metabolizes in a day lessens.
Just so long as he wins each day, be it by a slim margin or landslide. This quest can’t be a roller-coaster ride.
But the celebration sure can. Busch Gardens beckons.
“I’m really, really proud of him and very, very happy for him,” Clements said. “I just think the guy is a success story in a lot of ways. It doesn’t surprise me.”