That’s how Tom Giammalvo describes his health and lifestyle prior to 2010. Not atrocious, not disgusting, not embarrassing. Not any of the extreme, negative descriptors we’ve come to expect with stories of transformation. Just average.
And that’s why his is the perfect one to share. As far as his health was concerned, Tom wasn’t the guy you see on The Biggest Loser. Instead, he was your next door neighbor.
Tom is an RN at Falmouth Hospital in Massachusetts. When he worked night shifts in the intensive care unit, the odd hours made it difficult to find a healthy routine.
The way he describes it, “I ate an average American diet. Food was the least of my worries.”
At the peak, Tom weighed around 190 pounds. Just 0.9 below average.
What does ‘average’ mean?
What’s funny — or maybe the opposite of funny — is what average has come to mean.
Tom smoked between a half a pack and a whole pack of cigarettes a day, partly because he “needed nicotine to stay awake” on his 45-minute commute. He was also fond of energy drinks like Red Bull and Rockstar, “to keep my ‘energy’ up,” he says, looking back.
Tom wasn’t completely sedentary. He worked out some, doing mainly weightlifting and sometimes a 15-minute session on the elliptical machine. Always followed by whey protein or casein powder. His smoking inhibited these workouts, Tom says.
As for his average meal: “Having Portguese, Italian, Polish and French heritage, I mainly had meat for a centerpiece of lunch and dinner. At restaurants I would mainly order beef, chicken, or fish and always end up with that ‘I’m sooooo full’ feeling after dinner.”
To boot, Tom watched about 10 hours of TV a week, and occasionally stayed up until 3 in the morning playing World of Warcraft.
This is what average is.
I met Tom in Boston at the Vegetarian Food Festival in October. He was fit, slender, energetic and overtly positive. The next day, he would run his first full marathon, and not just lollygagging along, but in a time of 3:48:10. This was barely a year after he first ran a 5K race.
During that year, Tom had run his first half marathon and finished a Tough Mudder event. Most importantly, during this time he lost 30 pounds and six inches off his waistline, en route to completely transforming his lifestyle.
When I sent him the first round of questions to start fleshing out his story, here’s how he began his response:
As I sit here on my stationary bike typing this out, I’m feeling determined! This is how the change makes me feel. I now thrive on inspiration, efficiency, and positive outlook on life. I just went through some before and after pictures and, man, do I feel good.
You sure don’t feel like that, and you definitely don’t do what Tom did last year, by just being average.
So what happened?
There’s another thing about Tom’s story that makes it very real: he didn’t get knocked to the ground by a bolt of lightning, see a burning bush, or have a health scare or near-death experience serve as a wakeup call.
Those things are dramatic and inspiring, and they sure make for good stories. But most of us have heard those stories so often that we tend to wait around for our lighting bolt, our light-bulb moment, thinking that until it happens, we can’t really be expected to change.
If there’s a moment we can point to when Tom’s trajectory changed, just slightly at first, it was when he started working days instead of nights in January 2010.
Tom started to exercise more on his new schedule. He completed the P90X home workout program, and saw some muscle growth as a result. Though he still ate “lots of meat and dairy for protein,” his diet was about to make a major shift.
How Tom went plant-based: “I wanted more”
It’s at this point that Tom did what most people don’t (and won’t).
In what might be the first instance of a recurring theme, Tom wanted more. “I think I may have an addictive personality,” he says. “After deciding to do P90X — and not thinking it was going to change my life — I guess I wanted more.”
So somehow (and to be honest, I’m still not sure how, and I don’t know that Tom is either) his experience with P90X led him to explore a plant-based diet. It was in this search for information that he first stumbled onto No Meat Athlete.
“I used your ‘less legs‘ approach,” Tom told me. “I really weened off meat. First beef, then chicken, then fish, then no meat at all. I really did this. My last routine meals with meat were salad with tuna. As for dairy and eggs, I have to give credit to T. Colin Campbell and The China Study. I really had no intention of becoming vegan; it just happened.”
And so the positive changes started to stack. He was exercising more and eating much better than before. But there was still a big one to make.
How Tom quit smoking
If you’ve been through a change that’s anything like Tom’s, you know the compounding effect that small changes have. It starts with just one habit, then it’s another, and soon, perhaps out of the desire to be consistent, you change your whole life.
A trip to visit his best friend and his family in Florida seems to have been the catalyst for both Tom’s quitting smoking and becoming a runner. He didn’t bring the P90X DVD’s with him, so to get a workout in, Tom went for a run. It was his first in many months, and just three miles or so.
“I felt great. So I kept running daily that week and by the end of the week I ran for 8 miles. I not only surprised myself but my friend I was visiting as well.”
And so Tom become a runner, almost by accident, the way it happens for so many people (myself included).
So what does this have to do with quitting smoking?
I’m the godfather for my best friend’s three children; Abby, Zach, and Tyler. As I ran that week I thought of quitting smoking and that I’d like to be an example for them in the future. I don’t want them to see their ‘Uncle G’ smoking! I’d rather them see me running.
So I decided when I returned to Massachusetts I would quit. I had one or two cigarettes that month and that was it. The exercise took over and the smoking lost. No meds needed.
August 2009 (left), August 2010 (right)
Tom, the runner
Excited to have discovered that he could run, and driven by his “I want more” personality, Tom decided that he would run a half marathon.
But it wasn’t just the snowball effect of his own changes that inspired Tom to take on the distance:
I used my father as inspiration to run it. My dad was diagnosed with Gliblastoma Multiforme (a fatal form of brain cancer) at age 56. He was an unbelievable man and fought an inspiring fight for four years. My mother and I, in addition to the entire family, pulled together during that time but he did all the hard work. So 13.1 miles was nothing compared to that.
Tom finished his half marathon in 1:45:45, holding his father’s prayer card as he crossed the finish line. His uncle had met him on the course, with a six-foot high sign supporting him, which “was the boost I needed to finish strong.”
Looking back at the achievement, Tom says, “I couldn’t believe this was me! Not only finishing my first half marathon but ending the training on a vegan diet was an accomplishment. I felt great, recovery was awesome for any injury, and I attribute that to my NMA lifestyle. I felt the healthiest I had in my life.”
Three months after completing the half, Tom was — surprise, surprise — hungry for more. He chose the Cape Cod Marathon, scheduled for October 2011, as his next challenge and expression of his new lifestyle.
Tom downloaded the Marathon Roadmap and used it as his training plan. He told me, “I dedicated myself to your schedule and used the advice of yourself and Brendan Brazier (from his book Thrive) for diet.”
Eighteen weeks later, with a time that most first-timers would envy, Tom completed the hilly Cape Cod course in 3:48:10, and became a marathoner.
Of his experience with the Roadmap, Tom says:
The schedule is really helpful and doable; it really is! I never thought I could run a marathon and the Roadmap is what did it for me. It was challenging and it worked.
As for the experience, and what that first marathon felt like, “I had a great time out there. It’s your own personal adventure. There were points when I had to talk to myself. Dad’s prayer card came out multiple times during that race. I had a great cheering squad as well; they were strategically placed during the race and were a great inspiration.”
“As I approached the finish line, I prepared to take it all in. I acknowledged my family and then crossed the finish line with Dad’s prayer card in hand and relished every minute of it. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
As you’ve probably guessed by now, Tom isn’t stopping there. His race schedule for the next few months is already booked full: next up is the Martha’s Vineyard 20-miler, followed by the New Bedford Half Marathon in March.
The new Tom
Looking at Tom’s lifestyle now, it’s hard to imagine that only two years ago, he was so “average.” He shops mainly in the produce aisle, eats daily salads, and his whey and casein protein powders have been replaced by pea, artichoke, and hemp versions. (His favorites are Tru-Food Vegan and Vega Whole Food Optimizer.) He cooks a lot at home and loves finding new recipes, and says he never has that “I’m so full” feeling anymore. Tom is grateful that his girlfriend, Aimee, and his mother have been so supportive of his new diet with their cooking and support at races:
“Aimee is always looking out for me. On our nights out she will search for places that conform to my lifestyle. She also figured out how to master seitan, so I only eat homemade seitan … I’m spoiled. And my mother is a wonderful cook. She at first had a hard time understanding my choices, but now her spaghetti and meatballs have turned to spaghetti with lentil and leek tomato sauce. Her Polish golumpkis, which are cabbage stuffed with pork, beef and rice, have become cabbage stuffed with rice and beans. And her rice and bean dish is a staple of mine, but she won’t give me the recipe because she says, “I wanna have something I can make you.”
Tom has ditched the energy drinks, opting instead for a little black coffee or green tea about every other day. “I used to not care about what I drank,” Tom says. “Now I’m conscious. I drink primarily water, about three liters a day.”
He told me that he used to enjoy going out to bars, but “now, there’s no time when you’re running in the morning or training for an event. I’m on to wine now, and that’s usually about once a week.”
Tom’s changes have even shown up in areas beyond diet and exercise: While he was training for his marathon, Tom decided to go to school for National Ski Patrol. In November of 2011, he completed the three-month course and became a member.
To sum up his new lifestyle, Tom says:
I have more energy at work. It feels great to be health conscious while taking care of people. I choose to be active most of the time instead of being sedentary. I actually enjoy mornings and have steady energy during the day. All these healthy lifestyle changes make me sound like a prude, but I find I appreciate the little things in life a lot more now.
Be like Tom
I love Tom’s story. It’s real, he’s real, and it’s a story that could be anybody’s. Your coworker’s. Your neighbor’s. Yours.
There wasn’t a sudden wakeup call. Tom’s doctor didn’t tell him “change or die.” Tom didn’t lose 300 pounds; he lost 30.
But that 30 pounds — and more importantly, the things he did while losing it — changed everything about his every day.
So how did Tom do it? How can you do it? For those who are tired of being average and are inspired to create Tom’s results in their own lives, here’s how you can follow his lead:
Make commitments to others, not just yourself.
In the goal-setting section at the beginning of the Marathon Roadmap, you’re asked to share your marathon commitment with others, so you’ll have a strong reason to follow through. Most people won’t do it, I’m sure, but those who do will have way more success.
So how did Tom commit? When he filled out the application to sign up for his marathon, he took a picture of the completed form. But he didn’t stop there; he sent it to his friends — so that they could make fun of him if he bailed! We know how that story ended.
Immerse yourself in your change.
When Tom decided to try a plant-based diet, he didn’t just wing it and simply eat the same diet he was eating, minus the meat. Instead, he soaked up every bit of information he could about how to do it the right way, and in a manner that meshed with his training for races.
Tom listened to The China Study on CD while he commuted to and from work. He did research, and found not only this site, but also Brendan Brazier, Robert Cheeke, Forks Over Knives, Dr. Michael Greger,and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, among other influences.
Just as importantly, Tom made it a point to see his physician regularly and get vegan-specific labs like B-12, iron panel, electrolytes, complete blood count, testosterone. “Last check, all were normal,” he says proudly.
“There is a lot to learn about vegan eating,” he says. “You can’t do it without learning. Which is why it’s fun. The research out there is very intriguing.”
Find your mantra.
Tom’s favorite line was “I just want more.” He repeated sayings like, “Go big or go home,” “Shoot for the stars but keep your feet on the ground, and “Never live your life ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda.'” Cliches? Maybe, but anyone who has ever been at the 20-mile marker knows that doesn’t matter.
Tom says of his desire for more, “I couldn’t be satisfied with eating healthy so I turned vegan. I couldn’t be satisfied with ‘just’ a half marathon so I did a full. I’m now a vegan marathoner … hmm … Ironman?”
Follow a plan.
P90X is what started everything for Tom. He actually completed it a second time, before he started training for his marathon with Marathon Roadmap. (And he excitedly tells me that the next version, P90X2, includes a vegan meal plan.)
P90X and Marathon Roadmap worked for Tom. Whether or not those particular programs are for you, the point is that when you want to make a change, it’s extremely helpful to have guidance from those who have done it before. Find something that fits your personality and your goals, and let it lead you where you want to go.
If you want to go vegetarian or vegan, do it in small steps.
“I like the word ‘wean,'” Toms says. “That’s how to go about it if you’re thinking about it. Don’t be pressured, try the ‘less legs’ approach. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it.”
If you want to quit smoking, try replacing it with exercise.
In Tom’s words: “I suggest a total reverse when you quit smoking. You don’t need to run, maybe just start walking while you’re weaning off cigarettes. Hopefully you’ll find yourself wanting to walk more distance and you can see how less and less cigarettes will help you to do it. I would suggest aerobic exercise versus weightlifting, because you can definitely see the difference in your endurance.”
Plan ahead and be smart about eating out.
Tom used to stop and eat fast food when was hungry. Nowadays, he packs a cooler for the day: “Now I can control what I eat, versus what I feel society tells us to eat.”
When he does eat out, Tom calls ahead to see if they can make him a vegan meal. As he says, “At first I felt a little pretentious, but good chefs like to create amazing dishes for me.” (This has been my experience as well — most chefs love the challenge and a chance to do something different.)
To sum it up, and for those who want to do what he did, Tom offers these words:
This is a true story! I used to watch lots of TV, play World of Warcraft ’til 3 in the morning, smoke, work nights, not care about what I ate … and I changed. It’s small steps.
The lifestyle is very addictive. For me, I just wanted more and more as I worked hard and got results. Quitting smoking feels better period! Working out feels great period. Eating better and eventually choosing this lifestyle feels great. Put all three together and that is where I ended up. Losing 30 lbs 6 inches off my waist, and from my first 5K at the end of August 2010 to a marathon in October 2011. I challenge anyone to try it. Just get a taste of it.
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