Monday, March 3, 2008

She lost 110 pounds and found a passion: running

March 1, 2008

Five years ago, climbing a flight of stairs was a challenge for Rosemarie Hernandez Jeanpierre. She was 5 feet 2 and weighed 220 pounds.

On Sunday, the 43-year-old nurse -- now half the woman she used to be -- will try to break four hours in the Los Angeles Marathon, and burnish an impressive racing pedigree.

It's a long shot that would mean cutting almost an hour off her fastest marathon time. But odds mean nothing to a woman once considered morbidly obese, who shed 110 pounds and worked her way into the city's amateur running elite.

Or, as she told me again and again -- in a voice reflecting her own amazement -- "Never in my wildest imagination did I believe I would be able to become an athlete."

I wanted to meet her because I was intrigued by her story. No Jenny Craig or LipoZap; no Lap-Band surgery or boot-camp training. Just daily vigilance and exercise -- healthful food, small portions and hours spent running and working out until 100 pounds fell off. All immeasurably hard work.

I met up with Jeanpierre at LA Fitness on La Cienega and Pico. I'm grateful she spotted me, because I'd seen only her pre-diet photo and would never have recognized the slender woman who called out to me.

She was wrapping up her daily 90-minute routine -- 30 minutes on the elliptical, then an hour of weight training on upper body machines.

Her shirt and pants were soaked; her face was dripping sweat; damp strands of hair dangled from beneath a red bandanna.

She works out in T-shirts with 3/4 -length sleeves and cargo shorts that come to her knees. That's to cover the folds of loose skin left when half of her body weight disappeared. "When I race," she told me later, "I have to wear compression shorts" so the extra skin doesn't flop around. It bothers her, but surgery to fix it is not a priority. This has never been about vanity.

Still, her body looks trim and tight. I can see her calves flex and biceps tighten when she throws a punch in kick-boxing class.

"She's an animal," said instructor Jeann Young. "The first time she took my class she came up to me afterward and said, 'Thank you for challenging me.' I wanted to say 'Heck, I'm just trying to keep up with you.' "

Young had no idea that Jeanpierre used to weigh more than 200 pounds. "That explains it," Young said. "She's one of the most driven students I've ever seen."

As a child growing up in the Philippines, Jeanpierre "was always the heaviest student in the class," she said. She first tried dieting at 18, when she weighed 180 pounds.

"I starved myself. And it worked," she said. Over the next year, she lost 55 pounds. But after she moved to Los Angeles and got married, the weight crept back. She weighed 130 pounds on her wedding day in 1987. Within three years, she was pushing 200.

By 38, she weighed 220, had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and was pre-diabetic. "I looked on the bottom of the paper with my medical test results and it said 'High risk for a heart attack.' "

Scared, she headed for the library, where she read everything she could find about nutrition and exercise. She began counting calories, taking walks with her husband, Kenneth, and using the treadmill in their apartment complex. In six months, she lost 60 pounds.

It's the medical stuff that scares most of us straight. You keep buying bigger pants, looser styles, trying to find better mirror profiles . . . until you realize you're jeopardizing your life.

For me it was the message from my doctor on my answering machine, relaying test results from my annual physical exam. "You have the heart attack risk of a 65-year-old woman," he said. I was about to celebrate my 50th birthday.

I had only 10 pounds to lose, and that took months of yogurt for breakfast and tuna for lunch, evening gym classes and morning walks. When my doctor pronounced me fit, I quit. Now I drag myself to the gym only out of guilt.

But the trimmer Jeanpierre discovered her inner athlete.

Her nephew, a marathoner, signed her up for her first 10K race in 2003. She was satisfied just to finish. But a week later, a notice came in the mail. Her time had been good enough for third place among women in the 40-44 age range.

She began racing almost every weekend, collecting medals and dropping more pounds. Now -- another 50 pounds lighter -- she has the year's fastest times among local women her age in 5K events, the fourth-fastest 10K time, and the seventh-fastest in the marathon.

Running sucked her in and became her passion.

"When she was going through all those problems with her weight, I tried to tell her to find something that would calm her down," recalled Azlee Ross, an 84-year-old patient at Western Convalescent Hospital, where Jeanpierre spent 12 years as a nurse.

"Well, she got completely carried away. Now I have to sit in front of the TV trying to pick her out of all those people in the marathon. And I can't say 'She's the chubby one.' "

by sandy.banks