BY EMILY BEERS
From: CrossFit Journal
It was a routine night shift at the firehall in 2009.
As his colleagues went to bed, Mike Richards stayed up watching Netflix, downing Mountain Dew and pounding pistachios from a giant family-sized bag.
“Eventually I was like, ‘I need to go to bed.’ My mouth was actually hurting from eating so many nuts,” said Richards, a firefighter since 1997.
He then passed out on the recliner in the TV room.
“I would snore pretty badly when I was that overweight, so I’d usually sleep on the recliner,” said Richards, who at 5 foot 8 weighed 350 lb. at the time.
Later that night, Richards’ crew got a call to attend a basement fire.
“Basement fires are rough because they’re always really hot, and this one was particularly bad because it was a hoarder’s house,” said Richards.
He put on his gear and went to extinguish the fire with his partner. When he resurfaced from the flames, he felt physically destroyed. But the fire was still burning, and he was soon instructed to return to the basement. He wasn’t sure he could.
“I couldn’t breathe and I was so hot and soaking wet under my gear, and I couldn’t escape this feeling that I was going to die. I was just so out of shape,” he said. “I got back to the fire station and I was like, ‘Guys, I gotta do something. I felt like I was going to die in there.’”
He spent the next day in bed.
“I was so overweight and out of shape it had gotten to the point that whenever we had a fire, the next day I would just need to sleep,” said Richards, now 43.
After that basement fire, Richards became determined to get fit. He dabbled with running and P90X over the course of the next eight months but had little success. Then he found CrossFit.
“My chief asked me one day, ‘Have you heard of CrossFit?’ And I said, ‘Of course I have,’ but I was totally lying,” Richards said. He went home and searched online for a CrossFit gym near him, discovering SPC CrossFit in Kent, Ohio. He joined immediately.
Richards lost 30 lb. in the first month. But he still hadn’t made the diet changes he needed to reap even bigger benefits. He thought keeping a food log might help get him on track, but all it led to were dishonest entries.
“Let’s say I was at the fire station and we were going to get a pizza. I’d be like, ‘OK, this is a cheat meal.’ So I’d eat four, five, maybe six pieces, but I’d open my food log and write down three pieces of pizza,” he said.
Even when he wasn’t sharing the log with his coach, he’d still omit indulgences.
“Even though I was the only person who was going to see it, I had this habit of self-destructive behavior. I just didn’t hold myself accountable,” Richards said.
He added: “I think a lot of people struggle with this. It’s a mental-health problem, and I think to a certain extent I’ll always have to deal with it. I grew up addicted to food, and it’s not like I can just stop eating food. You have to eat every day.”
Richards continued to struggle with food addiction. Though small improvements to his diet helped him lose nearly 100 lb. by 2011, he still often overate, still lied in his food log and still had more weight to lose.
By 2013, he decided enough was enough and began tracking his macronutrients, which played a key role in helping him with portion control and accountability. Today, he follows a diet consisting of mostly whole foods—cauliflower rice, chicken breasts and egg whites are his staples—and weighs in at around 205 lb.
That doesn’t mean he never eats pizza. The key, he said, is recognizing that one cheat meal doesn’t need to derail an entire day.
“It’s like if you are driving down the street and you get a flat tire, you go out and fix the tire, right? You don’t go around popping all the other tires. So if you mess up on your diet, it’s not a big deal. Get out there and fix the next meal. Don’t go around popping all the tires,” he said.
It also doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“I know there are those athletes who say they love working out and love the pain—I ain’t that guy. It hurts. I still hate working out. I really do. But I do it because it works. And I like how I feel when it’s over,” he said.
Though he jokes about his hatred of painful workouts, Richards is deeply in love with CrossFit, so much so that he became a CrossFit Level 1 and Level 2 trainer and even owned an affiliate—CrossFit Cadre in Hudson, Ohio—for five years. He also works as a floor announcer at the CrossFit Games.
The workouts might hurt, but they make life better, he said.
“I am from head to toe just a better human being. I sleep better, I’m happier, I enjoy life more, I enjoy my wife more. … I love annoying my kids to hang out with me and be active,” Richards said. “I love having a dog that loves running around and that I can chase her. I love working around my house and working in my yard for 10 hours and being tired—but not stopping until I complete a job that I never would have started before.”
Richards’ wife Sarah agreed that her husband is a changed man.
“(In 2009), he found it easy to just sit in his recliner and dismiss my nonchalant attempts to get him moving. … I’d ask if he’d like to join the kids and (me) out in the yard to enjoy the sunshine. He’d reply, ‘No, I’d rather not get sweaty.’ It seemed as if he had mentally given up on himself,” she said.
That’s not at all who he is today, she explained.
“Mike is now much more confident, excited about life, and motivated to stay fit. … His willpower and tremendous dedication over these last eight years have changed the course of his life,” she said.
No longer does Richards use self-deprecating humor as a defense mechanism.
“I was always the first one to make a joke about myself because I thought it was better if I said the joke first,” he said. “I always just felt like people saw me as this sweaty fat guy. I felt like I was all sweaty and nasty and I’d overcompensate by wearing cologne and taking four or five showers a day.”
He recalled what it was like to be the 350-lb. guy on an airplane, uncomfortable and self-conscious. He thought everyone was looking at him, hoping they weren’t going to get stuck sitting next to the stinky fat guy, he said.
Today, he loves traveling—even on cramped airplanes.
“Now, I can sit in the seat and fall asleep peacefully,” he said.
Better still: He now has the strength, stamina and endurance to fight fires and save lives—without fearing for his own.
“While I’m at work I can focus on my job and not worry about my capabilities physically,” he said.
“Just the other day, I was talking to someone at the gym about it. We were laying on the ground after a workout and I said to him, ‘I don’t even know where I’d be without CrossFit. I honestly don’t know if I’d be married still. I know it sounds dramatic, but I honestly don’t know if I’d still be alive.”
About the Author: Emily Beers is a CrossFit Journal contributor and coach at CrossFit Vancouver. She finished 37th at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games.
Cover image: Shaun Cleary