Edlyn McLain Gets Moving

(A version of this article appeared
in Woman’s DayJune 2, 1998.)

Oprah lost lots of weight and got fit, but could Edlyn McLain? On April 28, 1995, as Edlyn sat waiting for the cable guy, she flipped through the TV channels, and happened onto “Get Moving with Oprah.” The mega star’s advice: start walking, reduce your fat intake to thirty percent, eat five fruits and vegetables a day, and keep a journal. Edlyn, 33, a San Francisco office manager, says, “It was stuff I knew, of course.” Record before weight. Use my trainer, my chef, Oprah offered. Get my recipes off the Internet. Write down everything you eat.

“Oprah’s inspiration was the catalyst. That moment was an epiphany. Something clicked. …I was tired of being judged by my weight,” Edlyn says. “I decided to try it for three months. I needed to get kick-started… To lose enough weight so I could tell — and other people could tell –that I’d lost weight.”

Recording her before weight was going to be tough “…because I was too big for all the scales. …I weighed four hundred and fifty pounds. Maybe even four hundred and sixty. I couldn’t even go to the movies, or fly on a plane, because I didn’t fit into the seats…” Edlyn knew it was time or life changes!

Old Habits Die Hard
As a child, Edlyn says, she was twenty or thirty pounds overweight. Her parents divorced when she was four, and she became a pass-around kid, living with mom, then dad and his new wife. Grandmother, aunts and uncles, a few foster families. But, she says, that doesn’t totally explain it. Nor does the fact that her grandmother and others would say, “If only you’d lose weight, your father would love you.” Maybe she needed to prove he loved her anyway.

As a sophomore, Edlyn tried out for the softball team and weighed in at one hundred and ninety pounds. “I didn’t think that was so unusual because I was five feet nine inches tall.”

At 16, she ran away from home, and when she became ill in Nevada and was admitted to an emergency room, “I weighed two hundred and sixty eight pounds.”

She became a yo-yo dieter. “I tried every single TV infomercial diet. Even the little chocolate-flavored aerosol spray that came on a cheesy gold chain that came down to my belly button. ‘Anytime you feel hungry’ the ad said, ‘all you have to do is spray a little into your mouth and the weight will disappear.’ ” It didn’t. She even invented diets, like taking handfuls of fiber pills to make herself feel full.

During her early 20s, Edlyn reduced her weight to between 200 and 220. But, at 23, her mother died the very week she’d lost her job, and was notified she had to move from her apartment. “…that’s when I really fell apart. Over the next six months I piled on 100 pounds. After that I soon got up to three hundred and fifty pounds. And my weight just kept going up.”

Edlyn ate convenience store meals. Dinner might be a half gallon of ice cream and a bag of tortilla chips with a jar of processed cheese. “I might make nachos in the microwave. Sometimes I’d add a bag of potato chips and a package of cookies.” She began serious bingeing and purging.

Making Changes

Oprah’s inspiration carried Edlyn through that first week. After two weeks, “I hadn’t really keyed into it. I thought, I’m missing something.”

One Sunday, “I sat down and started writing about why I ate. About my mother, who had had a weight problem. About my father …who left after she became overweight.” After five pages, Edlyn realized, “I was just using the weight to protect myself… My mother was devastated [when my father left]… she never really recovered. …She died of obesity, really. She had cancer, but it was really brought on by her weight. She was morbidly obese. Just like I was.”

The revelation, Edlyn says, “Freed me. I realized I didn’t have to hide behind my weight.”

Through a friend’s recommendation, Edlyn enrolled in the Doctor’s Weight Management Program. The program encouraged her journal use. Another program key: setting then accomplishing one small goal at a time. Understanding why you’re overweight is important, Dr. Joan Saxton, M.D., Program Director, told Edlyn. But also, in real life you have to live with food. Support sessions featured practical how-tos.

This approach put legs on Edlyn’s determination. By August she’d lost 35 pounds.

The Next Step

The diet part of Oprah’s plan, combined with the weight management program, was working. By the end of 1995, Edlyn had lost 80 pounds. But she hadn’t exercised. “Ever, since my teen years.” When the program consultant asked, “Edlyn, What about exercise?,” she knew it was the secret to “keeping the weight off and losing more. I just didn’t know how to start.”

Dr. Saxton’s advice: burn 2,000 calories a week in exercise. (See Chart II.) “At over 300 pounds, I only had to walk half a mile a day to burn that many calories.” Still, the prospect was daunting.

New Years day, 1996, Edlyn decided to start by walking to the store for pack of sugarless gum, a half mile. Donning black stirrup pants, a green-and-black plaid top, and a pair of Timberland hiking boots, she started out. Most stores weren’t open, but by the time she found one — she later learned — “I’d walked a mile. One way.”

To take a bus home, Edlyn struggled half way up a steep hill to a bus stop and waited. And waited. Finally, she started walking again. “When I got home, I collapsed on the bed almost in tears, and said, ‘Now all I have to do is get up tomorrow and do it again.'”

That evening, she heard a radio announcer say that ninety-eight percent of Americans break their New Year’s resolutions within the first couple months. “I said, ‘I’m going to be one of the two percent who succeed.” Edlyn set a goal to exercise every day of 1996.

Dr. Saxton, a counselor, and her support group, encouraged Edlyn to use her calories-and-exercise computer journal to start setting small exercise/weight-loss goals, which added up to the big goal of losing 200 pounds in 10 months.

She was exercise-ready. Pulling on the hot pink stretch shorts, a sports bra and a big t-shirt, she started early morning workouts walking on the treadmill at a 24-hour gym she’d joined. Later she added the Stairmaster, then the Lifecycle.

Her computerized journal became an accounting system: calories in (consumed), calories out (burned through exercise). She adjusted her exercise to “burn off” any extras she ate. “My endurance built-up quickly, and exercising gave me more energy.” Plus, “It opened new worlds for me. Like hiking, and biking.” Courage and confidence building, Edlyn hired someone to help her take running and biking to the street. “It was scary, but wonderful.”

Meeting the Big Goal

Drawing on the tenacity that got her through 11 years of night school to get her college degree, and the encouragement of her support group, Edlyn overcame the inevitable weight gain setbacks. Then two weeks before her 10-month goal deadline Edlyn’s weight loss stalled. Those last pounds will come off, Dr. Saxton said when she observed Edlyn’s discouragement. Stick with it.

On her 10-month anniversary, as her support group watched, Edlyn stepped on the scales: 200 lbs. eight ounces lost. “I made it!”

On the last day of 1996, Edlyn celebrated another victory. She’d exercised everyday. “I didn’t miss a day!”

Two years after watching Oprah, April 16, 1997, Edlyn weighed 190 pounds. She’d lost 270 lbs.!

Setting New Goals

“Another secret for me was changing my exercise, creating new challenges, keeping it interesting.” Pedaling the Lifecycle, Edlyn read a tiny ad for the Danskin-sponsored women’s triathlon in Palo Alto. (The six Danskin-sponsored, sprint-distance triathlons across the country include three end-to-end events: swim 1,000 meters; bike 12.1 miles; and then run 3.1 miles.) She asked herself, “why not?” even though “I didn’t know how to swim. Not a stroke.” And, “I hadn’t even owned a swim suit since I was ten.”

After she called and registered for the triathlon, Edlyn phoned about swimming lessons. Later that morning she stormed San Francisco’s sports, big women, and department stores in search of a swim suit; finally selecting an aqua and blue, “huge” skirted model.

On her lunch hour on April 16 — exactly nine weeks and four days before the June 22 triathlon — Edlyn, accompanied by a friend, went to her first swimming class. Getting out of the pool, her friend said, “You’re not going to do this. You’ll drown.”

But Edlyn had set her goal: “Ten lessons, two-a-week, and practice swimming everyday.”

Putting her suit on for that first practice swim at the gym left Edlyn sitting and clutching the bench in the women’s locker room. She’d arrived at 2:00 a.m., “hoping no one would be there. But, of course, in San Francisco there were a lot of people there. I had to walk from the locker room about fifty yards past the men’s weight-lifting areas on both sides to reach the pool. I said to myself, ‘The hardest thing you’re ever going to do is walk out of this locker room and down that hallway to the pool. Once you do that, you can do anything.'”

She did it. Every day.

She set mini running and biking goals. “I told myself I’d already done one mile on the Lifecycle, so I could just keep increasing the distance… Then I got on the treadmill and ran a mile. I said, ‘O.K., I just have to add two more miles.'”

Testing Her Skills

Edlyn started looking for competitive events to see how she’d measure up. She signed up for a biathlon (running and biking), knowing “I’d be the heaviest woman there. And I was.” But she competed in several, even finishing one race long after everyone else had gone home. “The barricades had even been taken down, and it was getting dark when I finished. But I said ‘You started, and you’re going to finish.'”

Daily Edlyn was swimming a mile in the pool, running two miles and biking 20 miles. She knew open water swimming would be tougher, but it wasn’t until Edlyn showed up for the annual San Francisco Bay “Sharkfest,” and came face-to-face with a hundred reed-thin, competitive men and women swimmers, that she found out just how tough.

Standing in San Francisco Bay, “My heart was racing as the countdown began. …I started, but about fifty feet out I couldn’t see anything. I panicked. I was so scared. I had to turn around and go back. It was absolutely the lowest point of my life. I was ready to quit. Not do the triathlon.” She spent the rest of the day in bed.

But the next morning, “I said O.K., I need to find the murkiest, scariest, lake in the Bay Area, and go there and swim.” Saturday Edlyn and a friend went to the new-found lake. Very gradually she worked her way in. “I practiced swimming, and flipping on my back. That was my safety net.”

Those last two weekends before the triathlon, Edlyn ran and biked early in the morning, then about 10:00 a.m. headed for the lake. The day before the triathlon, “I took off work early and drove to the lake. I said, ‘This is it. Tomorrow is the day. I felt pretty confident.”

The Triathlon

That night all Edlyn’s doubts resurfaced. “I’d trained so hard for two months, but I still knew I’d be the last swimmer. I also knew I would be the heaviest woman there…” [She weighed 190 pounds.]

She reviewed her goals: “I had two. One, I didn’t want to drown; and, two, I wanted to finish.” Sally Edwards, triathlete and spokesperson for Danskin, identified all Edlyn’s fears: “To the whole group she said, ‘You’re probably thinking, gosh, I should have lost those extra pounds; I don’t think I can swim that far;’ and ‘I’ll be the very last person out there.’ But Sally also said she’d be out on the course along with everyone else, doing the ‘sweep.’ That gave me confidence.”

Before daylight Edlyn made her way to the lake. When the swim signal sounded and she entered the water, Edlyn says, “I couldn’t swim. I froze. I couldn’t breathe. But I rolled over on my back and made myself calm down. Then I started again.”

Edlyn didn’t drown. She wasn’t even the last woman to finish. Her personal record postcard from Danskin officially lists Edlyn McLain as finishing number 656 out of the 1,133 Palo Alto triathletes to cross the finish line!

But Edlyn’s real triumph is knowing exactly how far she’s really come.

Calories per Pound
Each pound of body weight, confirms Dr. Joan Saxton, M.D., of The Weight Management Program of San Francisco, requires 10 calories a day to maintain itself. For example:


Present Weight 200 lbs. Goal Weight 140 lbs.
X 10 X 10
2,000 calories/day 1,400 calories/day
Take present weight calories and 2,000 maintenance calories
subtract goal weight calories 1,400 goal weight calories

X = 600

X, or 600 calories a day, represents the lifestyle change required to get to and maintain goal weight, Dr. Saxton says. By reducing calorie intake by 300 calories, and burning 300 calories each day (600 total), ideal weight can be reached and maintained.

Sandra E. Lamb is a Denver triathlete, and a writer of literary fiction, nonfiction, and humor.

Copyright 1998. These articles are not to be reproduced or distributed in any form, manner, or medium without the express, written permission of the author.

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