Faith, Fitness, and Finding Myself: How Discipline (Twice) Changed My Life

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They say, “act like you’ve been there before.”

I couldn’t do it.

As I crossed the finish line, an hour and 22 minutes after the start of the first annual Cottonbelt Classic Sprint Duathlon, tears were beginning to fill my eyes. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I’m not a crier, but as I finished the final leg of my first-ever duathlon, I was coming unglued.

To many of the other racers, it might have just been another Saturday morning. To me, it was a life milestone, a crucial moment on a six-year journey full of peaks and valleys. It’s an important chapter in a story that I can’t describe myself without telling.

It’s not just the story about how I got in shape. It’s a story about how I found myself.

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Very rarely does anything happen instantaneously. I used to think that successful people were always winning and unsuccessful people were always failing. That’s simply not true. Life is a journey, a roller-coaster in many respects, and anybody who is moving forward will also occasionally take a step or two – or several – backwards.

My story is no different. I can’t tell you what happened to me with just a “before” and “after” picture. It’s more complicated than that. Instead, I’m going to walk you through four seasons of my life – Denial, Discipline, Disappointment, and Discipline (Part Two). Each represents a chapter of my story that has led me to where I am today.

Chapter One: Denial

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Growing up, I was always a bigger kid. On my first day of eighth grade as a 13-year-old, I was already six feet tall (basketball came pretty easy that year – most of the other players hadn’t hit their growth spurt yet). Like most teenage boys, I loved to eat…and I didn’t always know when to stop. Calories were not just “fuel” for me – eating was an experience. Whataburger and Buffalo Wild Wings were two of my favorite stops for fried chicken, double cheeseburgers, and don’t forget the dipping sauce.

As I continued to grow – both in years and in pounds – my body started to experience the effects. Our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), but mine was not created to withstand the negligence and abuse I was putting it through. Every step I took was putting over 250 pounds of pressure onto my knees, and they weren’t responding well. Soreness turned to pain and pain turned to injury, that surgery was the only answer for. My first operation was February 8th, 2008. My second was February 26th, 2010. My third – and first on my right knee – was September 30th, 2010.

No torn ACLs. No blow-outs. No collisions or impact injuries. Each surgery was the result of repetitive motion of knees asking to carry a load they couldn’t bear.

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I never wanted to admit this to myself. It probably would have been more painful than any of the surgeries. I claimed I had “bad knees”, and used my mom’s one knee surgery to provide an explanation for my three. All the while, I continued to pack on the pounds and ignore what the scale said. My doctor suggested that, for my own safety, I no longer play sports. I was sad, but I understood his reasoning – I didn’t want to have surgery #4 either.

With my newfound free time, I became more involved in church activities (more on that another day) and I got a part-time job at Fazoli’s, which meant free food at work 3-4 nights a week. For many people, a free meal at Fazoli’s might be a bowl of spaghetti and a single breadstick on the side (or two if you’re “splurging.”) For my 17-year-old self, as I exceeded 260 and 270 pounds for the first time, a “free meal” meant bowls of baked pasta covered in handfuls of cheese, countless breadsticks, and large sodas (a quick check on MyFitnessPal.com calculates this meal at around 2,500 calories and over 100 grams of fat).

I graduated high school in May of 2011. I was 285 pounds, wearing 2XL shirts and size 40 pants. Even after three knee surgeries, I was in complete and utter denial about the shape I was in. I looked forward to reaching 300 pounds. After all, most NFL offensive lineman weigh around that much, and I lifted weights every once in a while. We weren’t that different, right?

Chapter Two: Discipline

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Fast forward to the beginning of my freshman year of college. I had just moved into the dorms at Oklahoma Christian, and several of my friends were making plans to go to the gym for an afternoon workout. Like most guys, I had lifted weights on-and-off since I was in middle school. So I went with them. And we went back the day after that. And the day after that.

It didn’t take long for a daily trip to the gym to become a habit. It was always easier if I had a friend going, but I would occasionally go by myself. My eating habits didn’t change much – I spent most of my money on late-night Taco Bell runs before curfew – but it felt good to be active for a change.

After Christmas Break, I hit a true milestone. I can’t point to the exact day (which is strange because I usually remember dates well), but it would have been shortly after we returned to school for the spring semester. I really didn’t want to work out that day. 

I had been lifting 3-4 days a week, but wasn’t seeing any results. I was getting busier with homework and other obligations and was questioning if working out was really worth it. But, because I had friends that were going, I couldn’t say no – I didn’t want to be the only one who skipped the gym.

That day, forcing myself to work out even when I didn’t want to, taught me a lesson that has changed my life. Working out feels good. And, more importantly, treating my body the right way feels good.

It was a weird feeling. I had played sports in middle school and high school (until the knee surgeries forced me to stop), and had been lifting for a while, but I had never felt the way I did on that day. I’m not sure why this day was unique, but I knew that from this point on that I had to make the gym a priority.

As I quickly learned, the best way to ruin the feeling of a tough workout was to eat food high in fat and sugar. I knew it was pointless to make the gym a priority without making other important changes to my routine. So, I cut back. Way back. For the first time in my life, I preferred the increased energy and focus that came from working out and eating right over the taste of a five-layer burrito from Taco Bell or the satisfaction of eating an entire bag of Sour Patch Kids in one sitting. There were still days where I gave into the cravings, but more often than not, I was fighting to make the right choices. And this represented – for the first time in my life – progress.

As I continued to form better habits and make better choices, I started to see tangible results for the first time. I was so used to weighing over 280 pounds that when I first saw 260 on the scale, I thought it was a mistake. When I saw the number 250, I knew it was more than a coincidence – it was the result of hard work and sacrifice.

My body wasn’t the only thing changing. As I pursued discipline and found a new sense of motivation, I realized how driven I could be when I set my mind to a task or goal. My grades improved. My time with God became more frequent. My relationships strengthened.

Working out and eating right changed everything about me, and I loved it. I never wanted to go back to the person I was before. God was helping me reach my full potential, and using the weight room – of all places – to display his transformative power in my life.

After my sophomore year of college, shortly before my 20th birthday, I weighed 215 pounds. was lifting 5-6 days a week, and had dreams of competing in a triathlon. I had taken huge steps forward, but no amount of success could make me immune from future setbacks.

Chapter Three: Disappointment

I thought I had it all figured out, but I didn’t truly know myself yet.

 

I was still doing well in my fitness journey. I was still hitting the gym. I was eating good…kind of. I had spent enough time in college that I was getting tired of cafeteria food, and had enough money from working various part-time jobs and internships that I could afford to get fast food or, as I’ve heard it called recently, “fast casual” food, fairly often.

I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t you already cross that bridge? Didn’t you swear off all the unhealthy food when you first started working out? I did…for a little while. And then I had an excuse to justify eating (almost) whatever sounded good.

My friends will tell you that my catchphrase at the time was, “I earned this.” I would get in a morning lift, followed by a quick run, and walk into lunch armed with the ammunition to consume anything I desired. “Oh, it’s okay. I worked out this morning.”

So, what was my problem? I can point to it easily now, but back then, I didn’t know myself well enough. I had a food addiction. 

Even now, it feels weird to use that word. It’s so dirty. When we talk about people who have “addictions,” we’re referring to people who do hard drugs or watch pornography. You can’t possibly be addicted to food…after all, we have to eat to live, right?

My problem was, I wasn’t just eating to live. I was living to eat.

The effects of eating the food I had “earned” snowballed over the next two years. I went from 215 to 225 to 245 all the way up to 265. I had lost 70 pounds over two and a half years only to put 50 pounds back on in around six months.

On the outside, I was handling it okay. I hid behind a mask of confusion. I would ask my friends, is it normal to gain this much muscle weight in such a short amount of time? Is it the new protein that I’ve been taking? I should write the testimonial! 

Unfortunately, the mirror told the truth I couldn’t bring myself to admit. On the inside, I was facing new levels of disappointment. I thought to myself, you came so far, only to throw away all of your progress. You had a great story, but you won’t be able to tell it anymore – you ruined it.

Chapter Four: Discipline…Continued

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Even in the midst of that disappointment, I never hit rock bottom. Looking back, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. I don’t think it’s representative of my character.

I’m an overly positive person. It drives my wife crazy. I always tend to look for the good, even when it would probably be more responsible to understand the real implications and consequences of a situation.

This season in life was no different. The more I realized I had let myself go (again), the more confident I was that I would be able to make things right. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to get back into the shape I had been in before. Still, I had decided that living a disciplined life was more enjoyable than the alternative.

I’ll be honest, progress came much slower the second time. I had been lifting even while I was gaining weight (which gives you an idea of how terrible my diet was), so I couldn’t just start going to the gym and expect all my problems to go away. I was already doing that.

I had to change something else, so I changed portions. I began to realize that I didn’t have to stuff myself at every meal. I discovered an app called “MyFitnessPal” that helps me see exactly how many calories I need to have per meal and per day. This app has changed my life, empowering me to eat smaller quantities and lose more weight than before.

265 turned back into 245. 245, with several months of “chipping away,” turned into 230. 230 turned into 220 and 215 and, for the first time, 210. That was a huge day, because it meant that I was – once again – making new progress and setting personal records.

Losing 60 pounds is an accolade few people can boast, and I’ve done it twice. As cool as it feels to say this (imagine me pausing to pat myself on the back), I know that this was only possible because of setbacks I had experienced based on my own bad choices. I’m the one who let myself get into such bad shape – twice. I’m the one who spent months and years in denial about what I was going through. However, I know what it feels like on both ends of the spectrum, and it gives me a greater appreciation for how far I’ve come.

It’s also why finishing my first duathlon on September 30th was such a major accomplishment in my life. From walking out of a hospital on crutches in high school to “earning” my way to an awful diet in college that could have erased this entire chapter, there were so many moments in my past where I never would have dreamed that such a moment was even possible. All of these defeats, still fresh in the rearview mirror, made this victory taste even sweeter.

I’m honestly still relishing it to this day.

God’s Story Found in My Story

In 1 Timothy 4:8, Paul writes the following words: “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”

It would be easy to tell this story with the focus on me instead of God. It would also be inaccurate and foolish. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my story has very little to do with me and much more to do with what God has done in me.

I could write a book on what God has taught me on this journey, and maybe one day I will. However, for today, I’ll defer to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

One of the underlying causes of a heart in denial is an inability to admit weakness. After all, nobody wants to be weak, right? Have you ever walked into a job interview and immediately started bragging about your weaknesses? (Unless you’re Michael Scott in Season Three of “The Office,” the answer is probably “no.”) Have you ever gushed over your inadequacies on a first date?

No. Nobody does that. But maybe we should.

In his book #Struggles, Craig Groeschel writes that we impress people with our strengths, but we connect with people through our weaknesses. I would take this another step further and argue that we connect with God himself through our weaknesses. Our weaknesses remind us of how great our need for God is, and that we experience his presence in our lives as he empowers us to overcome our weaknesses.

In my weakest moments, God has taken over my life and empowered me to make better choices. In every valley and in each defeat, God has walked alongside me and helped me overcome my obstacles. I believe the words of Paul in 1 Timothy, that physical training is of some value, not because I think muscles will get me into Heaven, but because I have encountered God’s transformative power through my physical journey. By transforming me physically, God has displayed his power in my life and increased my faith, making me a believer in his power to transform others – both physically and spiritually – and influencing my ministry in more ways than I can describe.

Simply put, God transforms people’s lives. He transformed mine. And he can transform yours.

My name is Brady Ross. I’m 24 years old and this morning I weighted 202 pounds. I’m a duathlete. I’m also a recovering food addict. Most importantly, I’m a child of God, under his grace, with a future undefined by my past and countless reasons to believe in his transformative power.

And the victory I have found in Jesus still tastes sweeter than them all.