Reporting from Fort Defiance, Ariz. — Two miles down, four to go. Pain consumes him, but the Fat Man will not quit. His immense legs churn. His sweaty, barrel-size chest heaves, and the sound of his labored breathing fills the gathering dusk.
He is jogging slowly — very slowly — up a hill on a two-lane road above Fort Defiance, where he lives on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. Puddles along the roadway are turning icy. Trucks speed by, a few short feet from his wide shoulders.
Some people might turn back.
Not a chance, the Fat Man says, reciting a Bible verse and declaring he will never give in. “With what I’m facing,” he says, “I have to prove to myself I can do this.” He has never run up this hill before. “Just gonna keep my head down. If I look up…it’ll be too much.”
With a trace of humor and no small amount of pride, Kelly Gneiting, 40, calls himself the Fat Man. He weighs 405 pounds and is not embarrassed by an ounce of it. He stands out. He is one of a very few white people on the reservation. He is 6 feet tall with a 60-inch waist. That makes him 5 feet around the middle. His fleshy body is devoid of angles.
Even so, he is an athlete, and he is hardly shy about saying how good he is. “I honestly think I’m one of the best athletes in the world,” he says. Bold overstatement, maybe, but this man who weighs nearly a quarter ton can do the splits, then bend at the waist and shoulders until his forehead touches the ground. He can reel off four consecutive sets of 25 pushups.
The Fat Man is a three-time national champion sumo wrestler.
Now he has willed himself into something far more unlikely: He has become a long-distance runner. On Sunday, at the 26th Los Angeles Marathon, he wants to set a Guinness world record. Of the roughly 25,000 entrants, most of them honed into taut and sinewy shape, he hopes to be the heaviest to cross the finish line.
If he does, he says he will be sending a message to a society obsessed with being thin. “Big people,” he says, “can do the unimaginable.”
When he talks, and he so loves to talk, Gneiting has a habit of marking the milestones in his life by weight.
“In high school, I was 190 pounds, so I know what it is to be thin,” he says, eating a late lunch at a Denny’s a few hours before his evening run. Oblivious to patrons craning their necks to look at him, he orders a mushroom cheeseburger with what appears to be half a pound of beef, thick-cut French fries, a fried chicken sandwich, and a second helping of thick cut fries.
“In college, I was on the wrestling team, and just over 200,” he says. “I was fit then. Still am. The doctor says I’ve got good blood pressure. My resting heart rate is 60 beats per minute. I always have had one weakness: food.”
Born and raised in eastern Idaho, the second child of a banker father and a homemaker mother, he kept his weakness largely in check during a two-year Mormon mission and his first years at Ricks College in Idaho. Then everything changed.
“I married my wife at 205 pounds,” he says, sliding the fried chicken sandwich into a hand so massive hand it nearly disappears. “Suddenly, jeez, I didn’t need to attract anyone. I just kind of let myself go. “
Twelve years ago, Gneiting and his wife, Karen, had the first of their five children. Around then, they also hit hard financial times. Eating (gorging, really; he once downed eight Big Macs at a sitting) relieved his stress. “The next thing you know,” says his father, Gary Gneiting, “Kelly was physically a different person.”
Karen, unable to find a job, stayed home with the kids. Gneiting couldn’t find much of anything other than minimum-wage jobs like baling hay.
Soon he hovered around 350 pounds. He was seeing how cruel people could be.
“I would apply to jobs and people would see me and it was like they were wondering, ‘Do we really want this monster walking around the office all day?’ ” he says. “Some people were just really shallow. Here’s an example. I was at a store and this guy right near me says to his friend: “Look at how freakin’ fat that guy is.” I’m like: “Dude, I am right here in front of you, c’mon.” When you’re this size, it’s strange, but it’s like you can be invisible.
“I just got to where it didn’t matter to me what people think, I am going to live my life.”
Gneiting is a dreamer. Running 26.2 miles is a goal he’s harbored since grade school. But someday he would also like to hike from the Dead Sea to Mt. Everest. He would like to swim the English Channel, because, he says, he floats like a cork. He would like to play in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles, and recently sent a resume in hopes of a tryout. He hasn’t heard back.
In the late ‘90s, he discovered sumo wrestling after watching a tournament on ESPN. He marveled at the confidence of men who looked much like he did but had a bravado, even though they competed practically naked. It wasn’t long before he was entering tournaments. He lost badly at first, but kept at it.
“In sumo,” he says, “there’s an advantage to being big, of course. That’s when I actually made it over 400 pounds. My wife kept saying, ‘Hey, being so big isn’t healthy.’ I think what she was really saying was, ‘You are unattractive.’ But we’re still married, so maybe I’m not all that bad.”
In 2005, four years after his first match, Gneiting won a U.S. Sumo Federation title. He repeated in 2006 and again in 2007.
By then, he was working as a long-haul trucker, ferrying cheese and potatoes. Driving the country in his big rig, he kept thinking about his boyhood wish to run a marathon. He admits he had doubts.
“Finally, I just said to myself, ‘I don’t care if I am going to have to crawl to the finish, I don’t care if I am going to end up handicapped afterward, I am going to finish a marathon’....At the time I weighed 425.”
The 2008 L.A. Marathon was his first race of any kind. With almost no training, he lumbered through the course — stopping, sitting, walking for the final half, but he finished in just under 12 hours — nearly 10 hours after the first runners. It was thrilling, but stunningly painful. His size 13 feet, hammered for hours under his weight, were swollen, badly blistered and purple with bruises. He vowed that he would never run again.
By last November, he had lost his trucking job after he was involved in an accident, he says, and was living on the reservation, working as a statistician at the Fort Defiance Indian Hospital. Even though he’d rarely see his family — Karen and the kids stayed behind in Idaho — he had to pay his family’s bills.
He came to the reservation nearly broke. He couldn’t afford a car and rented a sparse room. He rode a single-speed Huffy bicycle six miles to the hospital.
“I killed the bike in two months’ time,” he says, deadpan. “The pedal broke off. It was my weight.”
The bike died, but Gneiting gained a new perspective. If he could bike to work every day, why couldn’t he try running again?
“Honestly, by then, I needed the marathon,” he says. “There wasn’t much else to point to in life....My family, every night I don’t have them to come home to.”
He has trained this time with an obsessive zeal he didn’t have before, taking only Sundays off . He uses the stair climber at the hospital gym. He jogs after work or on Saturday mornings, often on the thin shoulder of reservation highways, tuning out the gawkers who stare at the 400-pound man in his tight black track suit.
As he lumbers on, he thinks of his wife and kids and how he wants them to be proud, how he wants his kids to see that being big doesn’t mean dreams have to die.
When he runs the marathon this time, he hopes he’ll stop less, walk less and finish sooner.
He also has another goal, too: the Guinness Book of World Records, something he hadn’t known about in 2008. Guinness will ask him to step on a scale just before the race, to provide photographic evidence of his journey and proof from race officials that he finished. Fulfill these requirements and Guinness will make him a record-holder: Heaviest runner to finish a marathon.
“I’ll have something very few thin people out there can say about themselves,” Gneiting says. “I’ll have made a little history.”
On the recent nighttime run, though, he doesn’t inspire much confidence at first.
Every step is a shuffle, every breath a bellowing wheeze.
But then, in the middle of the pitch-dark desert, as the hill steepens and the temperature drops, he keeps going, big neck bent, big body leaning forward, one foot in front of the other.
“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” he says, muttering a favorite Bible phrase as he nears the crest. “I take that to mean, don’t quit. Ever.”
He has pushed for over an hour, but he makes it to the hilltop without a break. He promptly turns around. An hour more, 3 miles more, and he is at the bottom of the hill.
“If I can do this, I can do Los Angeles,” the Fat Man gasps. “I’m going to finish that race, and better than before, you’ll see.”