OGDEN — Most birthday parties revolve around gifts, cake and maybe a bit of off-key serenading.
But when Garth Harris turns 39 next week, he will celebrate his birthday with the kind of suffering and struggle that he could only dream about three years ago.
“Even when I was overweight, and I knew it wasn’t possible, I wanted, one day, to be able to run a marathon,” said Harris, who will celebrate his birthday by running the Deseret News Marathon in an effort to show himself — and the world — “how far I’ve come.”
The father of four daughters said he’d been overweight for as long as he can remember.
But it wasn’t until he realized he was struggling in seemingly insignificant situations, that he decided to try to make a change.
“I’ve always been overweight, but it really started creeping up on me later in life,” he said. “You settle into an office job, and life just becomes more and more sedentary.”
At 5-foot-11, Harris said he was “well over 400 pounds” three years ago. His doctor told him he was pre-diabetic, and he’d developed sleep apnea.
“By the end of 2015, I was ready to make a change,” he said. “My weight was just really starting to take a toll on me. My knees were always hurting. Simple tasks like bringing in the groceries, going up stairs were just exhausting.” The chronic pain, the fatigue and the stares that he felt were loaded with judgment became so demoralizing and unbearable that he decided he both wanted and needed to change his lifestyle.
“It really started playing on me mentally,” he said. “I’d walk into a room, and I’m the biggest guy in the room, and always in the back of my mind, was that thought that they were judging (me).”
So he downloaded a fitness app (My Fitness Pal) where he logged all his meals before he ate them, and he began walking.
“I really watched what I ate, and that was the biggest piece,” he said of an effort that began with New Year’s resolutions in 2016. “I really counted calories. I made very conscious choices each day about the amount and what type of calories I’d eat.” Meanwhile he started walking.
The first walk was just around his block.
“I started seeing success,” he said of losing weight. “My walks would get a little longer and a little faster, probably until November. Then I started trying to run a little bit on the treadmill. I remember running my first mile on the treadmill, just how I felt about it. It was quite an accomplishment for me.”
In the fall of 2016, his brother-in-law invited him to run a 5K race on Thanksgiving morning.
“It was the Bountiful Rec Turkey Trot,” he said laughing. “I attempted that, and that’s where I really fell in love with running.” It wasn’t the racing or the medals.
It was the atmosphere — the cheers of spectators, the support of other runners, the camaraderie of strangers.
“It was a very supportive and great atmosphere, and I fell in love with it,” he said of his first race.
It also made his daydreams about running a marathon seem a bit more realistic. He joined a running group that was following a marathon training program, and it included a “structured run every weekend.”
The group helped him “with all the nuances — running longer distances, nutrition and hydration. Things I never knew existed.”
Unfortunately, six weeks before that first marathon — Ogden of 2017 — he had to have emergency gall bladder surgery. He was off his feet for three weeks, and he said he lost some of the fitness he’d worked so hard to attain.
“I wasn’t as prepared as I wanted to be going into my first marathon,” he said. “It was a bit of a roller coaster for me.” About halfway through the Ogden Marathon, there is an uphill section just past Huntsville.
“That’s when it really started to get tough,” he said. “Once I actually started heading down the Ogden Canyon, my legs really stared hurting. I started questioning why I was doing this. I thought, ‘I could quit here, and honestly, no one would judge me for it.’”
He admits that he may not have finished if he’d happened across an aid station as he struggled.
“I probably would have pulled the plug,” he said. “It was a pretty low point for me. Fortunately, the scenery was beautiful, and all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other.” Eventually, he realized if he just kept moving, he’d cross the finish line of his first 26.2 race.
“That finish was pretty amazing,” he said. “You turn this corner and you start heading down the long section of street, and right there at the finish were my wife and my four girls waiting for me. … I tell you, after putting myself through that, it’s going to sound sappy, but just embracing my wife, knowing my family was there, it’s kind of hard to explain what it felt like to me, what it meant to me, but anytime I do a race, I kind of reflect back on that particular moment, of seeing my wife and kids there as I cross the finish line, and it keeps me motivated.”
Harris said his family, especially his wife, has been supportive of each of his new goals — including last weekend’s where he finished his first ultramarathon (a 50-kilometer race) in 11 hours.
He wanted to run the Deseret News Marathon because he wanted a chance to redeem himself in a 26.2-mile race. He wanted to do that on his birthday — for himself and his family.
Running hasn’t just changed his pant size or his weekend activities.
“As I got more active, I wanted to do other things,” he said. “I started playing catch with my daughter, and that really started an interest in her to play softball. She’s on the school team and participates in rec leagues. My oldest daughter took up swimming. I felt like because of my journey, it spilled into my own family.” His better choices influenced their choices, and for him, that was far more rewarding than any finisher’s medal.
“If I can help them avoid some of the challenges that I faced, with being sedentary and overweight, and really get them to experience life and what it’s like to be active, that will be the best reward. … When you’re overweight, you don’t realize what you’re missing.” Running has been a particularly strict and influential teacher.
“”It’s a lot of different things that I’ve learned,” he said. “First of all, the reason I’m really in love with running longer distances, and I eventually want to run 100-miler, is because I want to be able to push myself and see how far I can take myself. I want to know where my limits are, and that I can push past them.”
Secondly, he said, running has helped him deal with life’s challenges with a kind of grit and perseverance he didn’t have before 2015.7 comments on this story
“When you hit a low point, especially in a long-distance race,” he said, “there are ups and downs, and it really teaches you how to work through them, to assess where you’re at, to make changes on the fly and to be able to continue on.” Harris said the commitment is easier when he focuses on all he’s gained through better nutrition and consistent exercise.
“I didn’t realize what I was missing,” he said, “Being active, playing softball, running in the mountains — it’s all amazing. It’s so much fun.”
Editor's note: You can register for the Deseret News Marathon here.