I'll be honest: Michael Schechter, even the very inspiring 138-pounds-lighter version of Michael Schechter, did not look to me like a man who could run two laps around Green Lake without stopping.
I told him this on the cold afternoon of January 10, as we were in the second lap of our nonstop six-mile jog around the lake, and he didn't flinch. There is no one less attached to how Schechter currently looks than Schechter. He is focused on what's coming: a day when he's shed so much of his excess weight that you'd never suspect he had 396 pounds packed onto his 5-feet-10 frame just over a year ago.
It's not really possible to take good notes while jogging, and Schechter is a busy downtown lawyer who couldn't easily be reached after our run, so I'm going to paraphrase our conversation from memory. What he told me that day instead of flinching was that, yeah, he's still got a lot of fat bouncing around on him as he runs, and yeah, he hates it. Worse, it's hard on his back. But the thing is, after a year of doing long runs and bike rides, including a half-marathon and a 70-mile fundraising ride for Livestrong—the organization Lance Armstrong created to help support people with cancer—Schechter's "motor," by which he means his aerobic conditioning, is way ahead of the rest of him.
I might be surprised by his motor's abilities, especially considering the weight he's still pulling around—258 pounds—but he's not.
What's more, this motor is way ahead of the motors possessed by most people who weigh 258 pounds and have a body mass index of 37.2, as Schechter currently does. That index score puts Schechter, 33, solidly in the "obese" category, even though he's lost, as he points out, the equivalent of a whole teenager in the last year.
What's his secret? Are Oprah and acai berries the catalyst for this rapidly shrinking man and his amazingly determined, unself-conscious attitude?
Three things are behind his metamorphosis: a picture, a surgery, and an outlook that, if he could bottle and sell it, would rake in more than Oprah and acai berries combined.
The picture—which in an e-mail before our run he called "the fattest pic ever," and on his Facebook page leads off a photo album entitled "Transformation: The Defatting of One Michael S. Schechter"—is above. It was taken at a Huskies game in October 2008 when Schechter weighed 396 pounds.
Before Schechter saw this photo, he honestly didn't realize he'd gained so much weight. He has always been a big guy. He was raised in a Jewish family in a heavily Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, which, he says, involved a lot of food. He played football in high school and was often teased by his coach about needing to practice his "push-aways." That is, pushing away from the dinner table. But this was just motivating locker-room shit talk to Schechter, and he moved onward through life without a feeling that his size was any sort of serious liability. He went to law school, married a woman who never hassled him about his weight, got a job at the fancy Seattle firm Foster Pepper, and just never paid much attention to how large he was becoming.
He had love, he had money, he had a job, and he had confidence in himself. Plus, as he explained after I asked him, incredulously, whether he really, truly didn't notice his ballooning figure: "I'm a guy."
What Schechter meant is that the social consequences for heavy men are much lighter than the social consequences for heavy women, which is true in many ways. But still, this doesn't fully explain it. Plenty of guys pay attention to their figures. Plenty of men have body issues that would rival those of the most body-conscious ladies. I told Schechter that in the guy circles I move in—circles that include a lot of gay guys—most men are incapable of letting 10 pounds pile on without notice, much less more than 100. He laughed. He couldn't explain it, he said. For whatever reason, he just really, truly didn't notice what was going on with him.
True, he knew that he was having to request the seat-belt extender when he went on an airplane. Yes, he realized he was avoiding certain "cozy" restaurants because he wouldn't be able to fit into the booth or between close tables. Yes, these things caused him some shame. But for some reason, he just didn't get it—didn't have a body image that accurately perceived his body, as he put it—until he saw that photo.
This is not the body-image problem most people have. But it was his. And as soon as he overcame it, he sprang into action.
"I'm a big believer in the assumption of risk," Schechter told me as we ran. That's a legal term that means basically what you'd guess: No one is responsible for your risky choices and your likely-to-harm- yourself behaviors except you.
So, without a lot of attention-demanding sentiment, and without any self-pity at all, Schechter went about fixing the consequences of his own risky behavior. He signed up for Lap-Band surgery (laparoscopic adjustable gastric band surgery), which, roughly speaking, involves a rubber-band-like thing being placed around the top of one's stomach with an inflatable saline pouch tucked under it so that the now-cinched stomach can be cinched further or made more expansive as events require.
This significantly curbed his appetite, which had grown tremendous along with his girth, but it wasn't enough on its own. He also had to start exercising.
Hence the running and biking. The first time the 396-pound version of Schechter exercised, he felt destroyed. It made him understand, he told me, how hard it is for inactive, overweight people to become active again. He felt like he'd been run over by a truck, or dropped from a significant height. From football, he knew that this was actually good, the pain of progress. But if he hadn't had that memory of past conditioning efforts to translate what his overweight body was telling him, he probably would have heard it telling him something different: Stop. Now. Please. Or you're going to die.
He carved out more and more time for jogging and biking and swimming. It took him away from watching football, but that was fine, because while watching football he just tended to eat, anyway. He became a member of "Team Fatty," run by the man behind FatCyclist.com, Elden Nelson. Nelson has long biked to stay healthy, and after his wife was diagnosed with cancer he started using cycling to raise money for cancer research and to support those living with cancer.
You obviously have to be willing to call yourself fat to be a member of Team Fatty, and clearly, Schechter is more than willing to call himself that. He also is able to keep his effort at personal improvement in perspective. "Nothing compared to fighting cancer," is how, in a recent e-mail to friends, he described the endurance challenges he's now setting for himself.
"The past year has been one of amazing personal change for me, and I could not have done it without your support and encouragement," Schechter continued in the e-mail.
This wasn't a ploy for compliments or kudos.
That's not Schechter's style. He fights his fat on his own, with his own powerful engine and quiet motivations. This was a pitch for pledges.
The 70-mile Livestrong ride Schechter did in 2009, he wrote, "gave me the purpose and goal I needed to stretch out of my comfort zone and radically change my life." This year, he's going to take on a 100-mile Livestrong biking challenge in Seattle on June 20, a half-marathon benefiting Team Livestrong one week later, and a half-Ironman race (that's biking, running, and swimming) later in the year.
"Livestrong and the Lance Armstrong Foundation are making a difference in the fight against cancer, and that's why I have joined them again this year as a member of Team Fatty," Schechter wrote in the pitch. "My goal is not just to participate in the Livestrong Challenge, but to raise $11,000 (yes, that is eleven!) to help further LivestrongLivestrong's mission of inspiring and empowering people affected by cancer. To reach this goal, I need your help."
If it's not clear already, let it be clear now: Schechter does not need your help slimming his body. He doesn't want your pity. He doesn't need your congratulations. He won't eat your acai berries or read your O magazine. He wants your money. He wants it so he can help people with cancer. That's the way he's found to motivate himself to keep on exercising, creating a good by-product for others out of the type of project that, for most people, involves mainly focusing on the good by-products they're creating for themselves.
Schechter paid $412.88 for this article through The Stranger's charity auction, Strangercrombie—$412.88 that went directly to local charities helping the homeless, the elderly, and those without health insurance—so that he could publicize his fundraising effort and encourage people to give to Livestrong via him and Team Fatty.
So if you're inspired by his weight loss, great. So am I. So is everyone who knows him. Now take that inspiration and channel it into helping the people who actually inspire Schechter: those living with cancer.
To donate to Livestrong through Michael Schechter's fundraising page, go to: http://seattle2010.livestrong.org/kamala .