Reader Success Stories

Readers share their amazing personal health and wellness transformations. Read their stories to be inspired — and feel free to share your own!  

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Experience Life Magazine

Steve and Zachary Hamrick: Finishing Strong at the 2014 NYC Triathlon

This week, I’ve been really inspired by the father-and-son triathlete duo, Steve and Zachary Hamrick. Featured in our July/August issue, their story reminded me that dedication, perseverance, and love can afford the human body miraculous accomplishments.

At 4 years old, Zachary was diagnosed with autism. His degree of autism is so severe that he struggles with conversation, so for this piece, Steve translated the story of training for triathlons with his son. Through several wonderful exchanges with Steve, I learned so much about this young man and an important lesson as I’m on the verge of having my first child this November:

As parents, we spend so much time trying to teach our children and guide them in the world. But there are many delightful surprises when we start to see with clear eyes what our children are teaching us. As Steve notes in his story, “I get a lot of wisdom from my son.”

On Sunday, Zachary finished his fourth Olympic-distance New York City Triathlon at 2 hours and 55 minutes. And a greater feat: He did so in the rain, a weather hurdle that, in the past, would have stopped Zacko as he hated getting his clothes wet.

If you haven’t read Steve’s piece, find his story here. Learn more about the work of Zachary’s former school, the Alpine Learning Group, based in New Jersey, here. And check out the video of Zachary and family below from the PBS special Autism Now.

Experience Life Magazine

Sara Bown: Spring Update and Virtual 5Ks

Here we are, almost May, and the snow on our property here in New Brunswick, Canada, is almost gone. I am just waiting for one of my favorite nights of the year: the first night I hear the frogs. I love sitting outside at night, or in our sun room after dark, and listening to the magnificent song they sing. It reminds me of why I love living in the country, and it’s a promise of all the beauty the warm months will hold.

SaraBown_springIn waiting for those first signs of spring, I experienced a wonderful first last week: Getting in our first 5K as a family of five. With the snow off the sidewalks allowing us to use the baby carriage, the walk felt amazing after a very long winter and having had our third son in November. There I was, walking with my husband and boys, who are 12, 8, and 5 months. It felt wonderful being able to lace up my Mizunos and get some miles in, and it was great practice for my virtual 5K that we participated in just a couple days later.

What virtual 5K? I started hosting a virtual 5K through my Facebook page as a way for everyone, from all over the world, to participate and stay motivated in their fitness goals. Every month I come up with a date for our 5K and no matter your location, shape, or size, you can get involved and participate. You can run/walk it on the road, or on the treadmill — the idea is to get moving. Many people shared with me that they started by walking in 2012 and are now running strong.

Don’t think you can accomplish a 5K? You may be surprised. Even if you don’t finish, it’s a wonderful feeling to try and do your best!


Sara’s virtual 5Ks include a race bib and support from a community of over 700 participants.

As participation grew, I was able to gain sponsors and offer prizes: Currently there are three official prize winners per month, with prizes graciously provided by Mizuno, Clif Bar, and Lola Getts Active. I do want to stress, however, that each participant wins, as we all accomplish a 5K as a team from all over the world. The virtual 5K is absolutely free to join, and participants will be joining a great community of over 700 health-motivated people. (If you would like to get involved, please send me an e-mail at or find more here.)

Each day I can barely believe how blessed we are as parents with our three amazing boys, and I also realize now more than ever how important healthy living truly is. As parents, we teach our children with all of our actions. We teach them with what we do, and also by what we don’t do. So living our best and healthiest is part of daily life.

Now that Andrew is 5 months old, I am getting back into pre-pregnancy shape, and working on surpassing my previous health and fitness level. I know one thing: When it comes to running, I have a lot of training ahead of me to be able to participate in my second half-marathon come October 2014, but I’m excited about the continued training and progress.

One thing I learned to do when I began to make life-lasting changes at the end of 2011 was to really love the journey, and not view it as a diet or work. To love the process, because the process is my life. It’s family memories, and time we are blessed with that should be cherished and lived to the fullest. So every day I am getting stronger physically, and every day my goal is to live with no regrets, as we just never know how much time we have. I intend to rock every moment with the ones I love.

I hope you had an amazing April, and wishing us ALL a fabulous May — maybe one where you rock major miles in a 5K or our virtual 5K.

Sara Bown is a certified life coach in New Brunswick, Canada. Her success story appeared in the May 2013 issue of Experience Life. She hosts virtual 5Ks through her site and Facebook page, and is currently hosting an 11-week health-makeover challenge. Find more info on the challenge here.

Experience Life Magazine

Sara Bown: Half-Marathon Training Update

racebib14Here I sit, the evening of February 24, 2014, and I just finished another 5K in my basement for the virtual 5Ks I lead at my “Sara Bown Use It 2 Lose It” Facebook page (search the hashtags #Week5 #13WksPostCsection #Workout#18 for tonight’s workout). It’s been 13 weeks since my C section to bring our third son into the world, and I am feeling GREAT!

As my story for Experience Life‘s May 2013 issue was being finalized, I found out we were expecting our third son. At the time, I was still moving along in my health and wellness journey, but felt ready to shift into maintenance mode. In October 2012, I had completed a half-marathon a month after my beloved grandmother passed away. I was proud of my achievement, but with the emotional loss, I took some time to pause and reevaluate everything.

I was in a place where I really realized how fast life can change, and I wanted to adjust my journey even more so that it wasn’t just a slice in time but me living a happy, healthy life, well, forever. I wanted to always give my best to my health in a balanced way.

During my first visit to the doctor for Baby No. 3, I was told I needed to be on a low-activity plan for my pregnancy, meaning no running and no weightlifting — exactly what I had come to love doing during my recent 80-pound weight loss. I was concerned about the outcome of that, but I was excited about the pregnancy so I went with the flow. I was growing a human and whatever my doctor said it took to keep him safe and sound is what mattered to me.

I will say, once I reached the six-month mark, I did start to worry a little as I knew the end of my pregnancy was coming. I wondered: Would getting back to working out be hard? Would I even want to work out again? Would I love salad again or would just the thought of it forever now make me sick? Even if I knew in my mind that I wanted to work out, when it came right down to it, would my body go along with it?

Wondering if I could or would was the biggest barrier to getting back into a routine again once I was cleared to workout post C section. The moment I started my first 60-minute workout, I was feeling so proud and so very much relieved. I was relieved that I proved to myself that this really is my lifestyle now and that the days of being a yo-yo dieter and emotional eater and “wisher” really are GONE!

Do I have work to do? Oh boy, sure I do. After 11 months of no weightlifting and no running, I have to build muscle again. Even thought I traded the muscle I had built up for fat over the last few months, I am still nowhere close to where I started.

mommyboysThis body of mine has carried me for 37 years in many shapes and sizes. It has allowed me to grow three amazing boys over the last 11 years, so I love my body at all sizes. It just so happens that I am getting back into pre-pregnancy shape (and will surpass it!) day by day, and I am truly loving that as well.

Half-marathon No. 2, here I come!

To join Sara in one of her free virtual 5Ks, which includes prizes from Mizuno Running Canada, Clif Bar, and Lola Getts Active, visit her page here

Experience Life Magazine

Kathe Yamagata: My First Super Spartan

Spartan finish

Last August, I participated — and survived! — my first obstacle-course race, the Super Spartan. It was the hardest thing I have ever done physically, mentally, and emotionally, and it seemed that sentiment was being echoed around me from my fellow racers — including Marines and Navy Seals!

Spartan 2This particular Spartan was so challenging, the organizers said, because of the Virginia terrain: 8 miles of rocky paths with steep slopes, most of which were at a 45 percent grade. Those double- and triple-black diamonds that advanced skiers go down in the winter were the same mountains we climbed up for a mile at a time with 75-pound sandbags on our shoulders or 50-pound logs in our arms. Going down the mountains, we traveled through the woods down creeks and streams with jagged, slippery rocks under our every step.

The obstacles became a twisted treat but included things like climbing 6-, 7-, and 8-foot Berlin walls, army crawling through ¼ mile of barbed wire, and pulling a 75-pound concrete rock up 20 feet in the air using a rope attached by a pulley. No wonder it took us seven hours to go 8 miles!


Miles 4 to 6 were the worst. As I watched most of the participants sitting on the side of the trail refusing to go on, crying with pain and injuries or lost in a fog of disorientation, I decided that I had no choice but to finish what I had started. My inner grit kept encouraging me to keep going by just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, just as I had so many times before in my life. I couldn’t blame my body for punishing me after so many years of self-abuse, but the pain I was feeling only confirmed for me that I had made the right choice to better myself and my body. That day, I renewed my vow that I would forever more honor my body with the respect and dignity that it so well deserves.

Spartan Peyton

Above: My daughter, Peyton, with her medal commemorating her first Spartan Kids race. Left: Proud Mama and daughter at the finish line.

This wasn’t only a solo achievement: My daughter also raced in the Spartan Kids and completed a mile of running the obstacle course. I can see that this experience has forever changed her. She was able to tap into a passion, camaraderie, and sense of accomplishment that no one can ever take away from her — especially important as she enters middle school and sees her own body change. We have set the course of a positive, active lifestyle for my daughter so that she can hopefully avoid some of the struggles that I had in my life. The quest to be healthy has truly become a family activity.


Experience Life Magazine

Where Are They Now? Sara Bown’s Update

Since her story was published in our May 2013 issue, Sara Bown has been very busy. She’s become a certified life and wellness coach, and has grown both a client base and online following through her blog and Facebook page, which has more than 11,000 likes.

And she had a baby last fall.

Now that she’s been cleared to start exercising post C-section, Sara told me about her next big goal: training for her second half-marathon come this October. It’s an awesome challenge for this mother of three, and reading where she started, at 284 pounds, I was definitely impressed. And inspired.

What I enjoy most about Sara’s story and online updates is to see her authenticity. She values sharing what’s real, including the challenges, because those setbacks, too, are instrumental to her story and her success.

“When you are made to slow down, you are forced to figure out how not to stop,” Sara said about her recent pregnancy after losing more than 80 pounds.

She had to adapt many of her fitness pursuits during her pregnancy, and after her C-section, she has been eager to resume the activities she loves, including running.

I’m happy to share that Sara will be updating us regularly on her training progress here at How I’m Doing It. Look for her blog posts and more in the next few weeks, or sign up to receive notifications of new posts so you can stay up to date.

Experience Life Magazine

Just Keep Moving Forward: A Swim Bike Mom’s Journey

Back in August of 2010, I decided to become a Triathlete.

What is funny about this?

At that point, I had only completed two 5K events in my entire life; zero cycling events (and my bike was gathering cobwebs in the garage). Oh, and zero swimming laps since about age eight.

So that was the first funny thing.

The next funny thing is that I was about 100 pounds overweight. Okay. So 50 pounds, but still. Probably 65 pounds. Regardless. Overweight. Chubby. Chunky. Fat Albert. Hey hey hey.

And even funnier, I had two kids under three years of age. And a husband. And I worked a full-time job as a litigation attorney. And I thought I had time for triathlon.


Now, in deciding this, I wasn’t a complete idiot.

I used to be an athlete. Sort of. I played basketball, volleyball and softball. I was a lousy softball player, because I could not hit the ball on purpose. But if I hit it by accident, it would go pretty far. I did swimming and gymnastics as a kid, but I was too chubby to really be any good at gymnastics and too young and stupid to recognize that I was a good swimmer. Plus, I am (and always have been) a massive chicken, so gymnastics was terrifying.

Then there was my real sport – Olympic weightlifting. By “real”, I mean the one that stuck the longest and the most intensely. I won the Junior National Championships back in the day, went to Junior Worlds in South Africa (placed fifth in one lift, and seventh overall, and missed the next world team by a hair), did a few stints at the squad camps at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, etc.

Weightlifting was a good sport for me, because while there was a huge risk of injury (e.g., dropping 200+ pounds upon my head, busting apart my knees, spontaneous breaking elbows), it felt safe for me.

Triathlon. Was. Not. Safe. For. Me. Triathlon. Scared. Me. To. Death.

So where did this idea for triathlon come from?

Well, after I had my youngest child three years ago, I was a puffy, sluggish and tired mess. I joined the athletic club and found my way to a Spinning class. I ran (a little). I did NOT get into a bathing suit. I continued to spin off and on for almost a year.

And then it hit me. I had been in this crazy rut for so long. And I liked to blame the rut on my commute or my kids, but really, it was my fault. I had let it all go.

I needed a new “for me” purpose. One that was separate from work and family. Something that was me. And for some crazy reason, I thought triathlon could be me.

I hired a triathlon coach. And I haven’t stopped since.

Since October 2010, I have competed in my first Sprint Distance tri, several other sprint tris, several 5ks, 10ks, a half marathon, my first Olympic distance race in May 2011 at St. Anthony’s, and another Olympic distance race.


My first half Ironman (70.3) finish was October 30, 2011. That was 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of biking, and a half marathon. My second half Ironman finish was September 30, 2012 – and was almost 40 minutes FASTER than my first.

Mere (8)

And in six weeks, I have my first IRONMAN (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile marathon).

The message? You. Can. Go. Go forward. Move. If you move, no matter how slowly, you are passing all the people who aren’t moving. Go take your dreams. They’re yours for the snagging.

My mantra is “Just Keep Moving Forward.” And so I do.


Experience Life Magazine

Lessons Learned From Fitness Competition

patricia dunne pic

After having been pregnant twice, your body goes through some changes. I had worked out since I was 14, but my body seemed stagnant in my weight after having children. I was determined to get back into shape.

I starting training with a trainer at Life Time Fitness in Novi, Mich. My trainer, JJ Thomas, would work with me for an hour once a week and text me workouts for the other four days of training, for a total of five days of training for 60–80 minutes each day.

Each training session was approximately one hour. It consisted of a warm up of cardio  (15–20 minutes) and 45 minutes of intense weights. I then cooled down afterwards for 15–20 minutes.

My diet consisted of protein and vegetables (two protein shakes and three meals a day) four days a week, then protein and vegetables(two protein shakes and three meals a day), and carbs (sweet potatoes, oatmeal, brown rice) the other three days a week

My entire regular diet contained no dairy or fruit, and one cheat meal once a week. the cheat meal was really heavy and fattening:  steak, potatoes, dairy, fruit, dessert, alcoholic beverage — whatever I wanted. (No limitations whatsoever!)

After training for a few weeks, my trainer suggested that I enter a fitness competition. I looked into it and, given my lack of size, found that bikini fitness was the best fit for my body type.

Unfortunately, there is no master division in bikini fitness — I was competing with 19-year-old girls. Even though I was the oldest competitor, I came in third. I was happy to have checked the activity off my bucket list.

It was a great experience. I have learned from training for the competition that you really have to constantly challenge your body to produce any results. Exercise with the correct diet is really the determining factor in achieving your ultimate level of fitness.

Experience Life Magazine

Setting and Making Triathlon Goals in Commerce, Mich.

Life Time Fitness in Commerce, Mich., has a triathlon team that works out together on a regular basis. The roster consists of 65 members of various ages and abilities. Workouts are early in the morning throughout the week, starting on Mondays with swimming, Tuesdays with biking, Thursdays with running and the weekend with long bike rides and runs.

Not all members have the same goal, but this year was special because many people accomplished their goal of completing an ironman distance race for the first time.  Members completed in Texas, Kentucky, Quebec, and Florida to accomplish their goals.  Throughout the training process, many members have lost weight and gained valuable lessons on leading a healthy lifestyle.  One of our team members even lost over 100 pounds in the process of training for his first ironman distance event.

For 2013, the team has some ambitious goals for its teammates. Many have succeeded in qualifying for nationals at the Olympic distance triathlon and will try their luck at qualifying for Worlds and represent U.S.A. in their respective age group.

Two members will be representing Michigan in the best of the U.S. Challenge in June. Others are going to challenge themselves and complete another ironman distance race and look to improve on their time. There are some members that have taken the leap of faith and will try to complete their first ironman distance race.

The Life Time Fitness Triathlon Team puts in many training hours together and has fun doing it. We welcome new members that are willing to take on triathlons and enjoy the dynamics of being part of team.  Check us out at many of the triathlons held in the Detroit Suburban area of Michigan!  Attached is a photograph of our members who completed the ironman distance race in Panama City, Florida and their supporters.

Experience Life Magazine

Recovering From a Decades-old Injury

When I was 6, I fell off a tree and impaled myself on an iron fence shattering my pelvis. After a blood transfusion, several surgeries and last rites, I spent the remainder of first grade in the hospital recovering and learning to walk again. Despite a very successful recovery, as I grew and progressed into adolescence, my hip injury resurfaced.

In high-school, I curbed my running on the track team, opted for high jump and joined the swim team. Throughout my 20s I struggled with infection, chronic osteomyelitis and frequent pain. In my 30s, after a ski accident and needing to move progressively towards lower impact sports, I discovered spinning and yoga. I bought a bike and signed up for my first road race.

It has been joy ever since. My hip is healthy and my limp has improved with the strength garnered from both yoga and biking. I am stronger in my 40s than ever before. I spend my mornings at the gym (Life Time Fitness in Beachwood, Ohio, 6 a.m. classes) continuing to enjoy learning new ways to strengthen and push myself.

Experience Life Magazine

You Want to Compete in WHAT?

When the topic of health and fitness transformations comes up, my clients come to me wanting to lose weight yesterday. They often seek the fastest possible track to get there. My transformation is different — I have never thought about weight loss (although I did lose 40 lbs on my journey). To me fitness is the medium by which I experienced transformation not only physically, but also mentally, socially, emotionally and spiritually.

I grew up as a workaholic, who ate 3 square meals of fast food a day as a teenager. Those habits continued through college, grad school and my first few “what am I going to do with my life” jobs after grad school. As far as activity, I tried fitness class after fitness class and nothing seemed to stick. I did not enjoy working out in the gym, and I didn’t enjoy working out outside of the gym either.

One day, a personal trainer came up to me and told me he was starting a new body-building show in town. He wanted me to try it. I honestly thought he was crazy. The next week, I saw a fitness competition on ESPN and thought, I would like to do that! I went back and hired the trainer to teach me how to apply nutrition and program design to my goals, and six weeks later competed in my first fitness competition. That was the beginning of committing to regular workouts, changing my nutrition habits and embarking on a mental, social and spiritual journey I would never have imagined.

Today, seven years later, I perform a fitness routine that currently ranks top 10 in the world. I’m often asked why I compete. That answer lies in the journey of transformation, and that journey is infinite and fulfilling.

Physically, photos show there is obvious transformation, but when asked what I weigh or what my body composition is, I honestly rarely know. When I first met with a choreographer, she told me to show her what I could do. Then she gave me skills that were one to two levels higher than my ability. She continues to do this with me every year, and I do the best I can to step up to the challenge.

Mentally, the transformation has been profound. Joint injury has taught me to work smarter by learning visualization instead of just practicing more. Illness has taught me that there is a fine balance between recovery and perseverance. Not only that, but I’m also constantly learning the science behind recovery and modifying it each day in order to have a productive day at work, training and in life outside of these activities.

Knowing my goal in the face of obstacles has lead me to be much smarter. When I see a task or obstacle, instead of saying “I can tackle that!” or “I can’t do that,” I now ask “Under what conditions can I make that work?” That is a lesson I’ve learned to apply not only in stage performance, but also in life. It has lead to great creativity that I would have never otherwise discovered.

Socially, I have realized that there are many people that will tell me that I can’t do something. The process of finding like-minded people to encourage me to try has lead to more friends and peers than I could have ever imagined. Even though I have multiple degrees and certifications in Allied Health and Fitness fields, I still reach out to other colleagues and professionals on a regular basis to learn, apply and change.

Emotionally, one of my teammates summed it up best. When she was asked what makes her win, she told the team that she gets out of her head. She asked us all to place our hands over our hearts and just breathe and be in the moment. The process of breathing, feeling, and being fully present in the moment is one that has not only lead me to be a high level competitor, but also one that has lead me to find and share my passion in everything I do. It is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned on my journey of transformation.

Spiritually, I have learned to stop and experience the process and the moments throughout this journey of transformation. I am thankful to share my passions with others, continue the infinite process of learning, and for every moment that I get to experience the joy of being active.

Most of my clients come to me seeking physical change. My journey and transformation in becoming a world level fitness competitor has lead me to have an open door and open mind to share as my clients realize that the change that goes with any physical transformation usually becomes a holistic journey.

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