The Lighthouse Fitness Project is an opportunity to share and grow the vision, mission and focus of the Platte River Fitness Series through the stories and photographs of 10 individuals who have generously agreed to let us share their journey to wellness and the “Lighthouses” who helped guide them. Click here for more posts from the Lighthouse project.

Trudy Merritt

Trudy Merritt

It has been a true joy to write the first eight stories of the Lighthouse Fitness Project. The athletes featured in these stories of struggle and triumph embody courage and grace, and they speak to the work of the Platte River Fitness Series. A new lifestyle made them new creatures. I am in awe of the community of people who walk together, run together, swim and bike, compete with and cheer for each other.

There is a thread that winds through each of the first eight Lighthouse stories, and that is "community." We can conquer even our greatest challenges with the support of community, and those who light our way. When I first developed this idea, I had no intention of sharing my own story. It is personal and private, and I prefer it that way. How could I, however, ask others to share a darker time in their lives, and be unwilling to do so myself? I also decided that if others know that I, too, walked the long road to a new lifestyle, they would trust that I understand them. You have no idea how much I get it and this is my story.

My story started a very long time ago. It is a story about dresses really, and how dresses defined my senior year of high school and marked a struggle that is still a part of me today. I have always loved to swim. I spent 10 years of my childhood, from age 8 to 18, competing in synchronized swimming. (No laughing, please. It is really hard!) "Sychro" was a summer only sport, so when I entered my freshman year of high school, I decided to join the competitive swim team, as well. Athletics for girls was fairly new, and I enjoyed the benefits of being on a high-level team with an amazing coach who believed his female swimmers could train just has hard as the boys. My twin brother was the real athlete, but my swim coach helped me improve, mainly by believing that I could, and being a swimmer became very important to me. It was critical to my sense of who I was.

We swam twice a day, six days a week, and Coach had us weight training in an era when "girls really didn't do that." I had gradually gained a few pounds during high school, but swim season usually took care of the visible signs of my lack of discipline when it came to the way I ate. My senior year was such an emotionally intense time for me. I was on track to be my high school Valedictorian, something that was absolutley my most important goal. I defined myself by my performance in the classroom and the pool. It was also a time when I knew that the most important relationship I had up to that point was going to change. As I was choosing colleges in the Rockies and my twin brother was looking at an eventual move to Florida, I realized I had no idea how to live without him. That extra nine months twins spend with each other forms a bond that "singles" can never understand. It was hard enough to figure out how to leave my parents, but my twin? I felt lost.

My Homecoming dress in the fall of my senior year was a size 8. In the "old days" of high school athletics, the girl's swim season was in the fall, and the boys in the winter. Couldn't have boys and girls swimming together, you know. My final swim season was less successful than I had hoped, but my coach had a way of making me feel accomplished anyway. He was a wonderful teacher and coach, and as the season came to a close, again, I felt lost.

You don't have to have a degree in exercise science to understand what came next. Swimming is a very good calorie-burning sport, especially at the level we were swimming at. The one failing of my coach, and many coaches and parents today, was that he never told me that exercise and sports are not exclusive. When the sport is over, the exercise still has to continue. It can look different, be less structured, be less intense, but exercise is a lifetime requirement. Exercise and fitness don't end when your participation in sports ends. I went from swimming 10,000 yards a day to absolutely, positively no exercise. Not only did I not exercise, I became so focused on my studies and straight A's, I was much more sedentary than I had ever been. To understand how much changed in my senior year, you also have to know that I had then, and still do today, a poor relationship with food. My mom confessed that with twins, she sometimes felt a bit overwhelmed. Easiest solution to a fussy twosome was to stick us in our high chairs and feed us. Food became my comfort. When you are feeling lost on multiple levels, you need a steady diet of comfort ... which meant a steady diet of comfort food. What I remember most about the final semester of my senior year is the pain my very rapidly expanding waistline caused my mom, and the shame I felt as she tried to help. She would gently suggest I head to the pool. "Nope, have to study." She would hide the sweet treats, I would find them. If I had a test, I'd head to McDonalds for my favorite comfort meal, Filet 'o Fish, fries and a Coke. Eat and study, study and eat.

Trudy and her prom date

Trudy and her prom date

My prom dress in the spring of my senior year was a size 16. From Homecoming in the fall to Prom in the spring, I had grown 4 dress sizes. The picture with this story is from Prom, and is the only picture there is of that time in my life. God Bless Joel Knudson for taking me to Prom. I have no idea whatever became of him, but I have always appreciated his kindness. I did become a Valedictorian, but by the time I graduated, my gown for that all important moment had become a size 18. I had gained over 50 pounds in just a single semester, and I spent the better part of the next decade and a half trying to lose it. I was able to lose a bit in college, and took off a few more pounds in my mid-twenties.

When I was 33 years old, I, like the other Lighthouse athletes, just decided to make a change. With four small ones at home, heading to the pool was very difficult. I ran the 1 mile to my mailbox on our ranch, and thought I was going to die. I didn't die. Instead, I fell in love with something so unexpected and completely life-changing, and my life, and my dress size were never the same. Running changed me in every good and wonderful way, and I like to think that I have helped others find that same gift.

I keep that young girl in her size 18 graduation gown close to me. I keep the girl who was "moo-ed" at as she walked down the street and the girl who moved into her college dorm with calls of "Look, it's Orca the Whale!" from the upper classmen close to my heart. I need that sad and lonely girl to give me the words to say to someone else who is struggling to find themselves on their journey to health. I keep her because she loves them and is grateful for the health she has found. By the way, since this is a story about dresses, the dress I wore a couple of years ago at my daughter's wedding was a size 2. The running life has made all the difference.

There are two very important Lighthouses in my life. When I gave racing a try, I met two very gifted runners, Wayne Wallace and Chris Jarvis. They, like my swim coach, had such passion, but unlike my coach, helped me to learn that exercise and running and racing were lifestyle choices. The more I raced, the better I ate, the better I ate, the stronger I became, both inside and out. I learned from them how to be generous with this love of running and how to share it with others. I did not deserve to be included with runners of such talent, but they never made me feel so. I learned how to run, train, and appreciate all of it from them. I also learned how to endure as they challenged me to try longer and longer races. Wayne and Chris have been fitness Lighthouses for an entire community, and I am blessed beyond measure by their gifts. In the end, my dress size doesn't matter. What does matter is that I am more of who I was meant to be.

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