Louisiana man takes on 100-mile race after losing 120 pounds

Published 4:51 pm Sunday, August 26, 2018

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — On Aug. 18, 2018, at 4 a.m. Jason Cohen showed up at the starting line of a 100-mile foot race that covers literal mountains.

But running an “ultramarathon” almost 2 miles above sea level wasn’t the craziest part, nor was the 30-hour window he has to complete the race.

It’s that seven years ago, this version of Cohen didn’t exist. Then he weighed 300 pounds and would not have called himself an athlete.

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Over the last seven years he’s lost at least 120 pounds and incrementally changed so much about his life.

Now he definitely is an athlete. The Lafayette native spends hours of his day running portions of the course in Colorado to prepare him to take on this challenge.

And crossing the finish line of the Leadville 100 was “the latest step in a seven-year journey to prove that impossible is only a word.”

That’s how Cohen describes it in a trailer for a documentary that will tell his story. He and Mark LeBlanc, a fellow photographer and avid supporter of healthy living, are producing “Heavy as Lead.”

“Obesity has affected some of my friends and family,” LeBlanc said. So this was a chance to help Cohen while also creating “something to potentially inspire and help them dig their way out.”

He wants the message to be, “It’s hard to do, what Jason did, but you should do it anyway.”

LeBlanc ran 10 miles with Cohen right in the thick of it, joining his buddy at mile 50. They’ve also been shooting while training in the months leading up to Leadville.

Cohen has been living in the area most of the time since May, getting his Louisiana body accustomed to breathing and running at nearly 2 miles above sea level. He said it feels about normal now.

His wife, Jen, had been spending her summer vacation there, too, but had to return to Lafayette for the start of school. She’s the librarian at Prairie Elementary.

The couple started dating while at Comeaux High School and later graduated from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Cohen never really cared what he weighed, but one day seven years ago he stepped on a rotary scale that only went to 300.

“It almost crested,” he said.

It showed 297 pounds. He was 27 years old.

At the same time a close friend of his died from a heart attack at a young age. Cohen was afraid he was seeing into his future.

Another friend had given him a bicycle, and Cohen used it to make a change to more than his body.

“It gave me a new way to see the world around me,” he said.

Cohen describes his lifestyle then as not just sedentary but with a lot less color. He ate mostly what he calls “beige foods” like macaroni and cheese or bread.

Little by little he started to change that, with Jen adjusting with him.

“She’s allowed me to explore these things and also come along on every step of the journey,” he said.

They liked how these healthier meals with colorful fruits and vegetables made them feel.

He started to get addicted to trying something new and seeing results from it. So he tried more new things like running, hiking and eating only plant-based foods. These incremental experiments over the last seven years have stuck.

Now instead of being on the couch eating “beige foods,” they’re walking the dog and cooking in the kitchen together every day they’re home.

“What I previously thought was impossible was now possible,” he said. “… It unlocked these new parts of our life.”

And just in time, too. They have a baby boy due in December.

So he thought now, before the baby comes, was the time to run a 100-miler. The longest distance race he’d done was a 50K, or 31 miles, so it was “a big step up,” he admits.

He has experience spending more than 12 hours on a bike, but this was up to 30 hours straight of moving.

“There’s really no way to prepare yourself to run through the night,” he said.

He measured his runs and hikes by “time on feet” rather than miles since endurance running means a lot of time on feet. He tried everything he could to acclimate his mind and body to take on this race.

He also has been part of the Leadville race before. Three years ago he and Jen were on vacation in the Colorado town and he decided to run the “heavy half,” a 15.5-mile foot race.

It was his first race and his first run over 8 miles.

“It was a life-changing experience for me,” he said. “It went against everything I had believed about myself for so long.”

Then he joined others who have lost an incredible amount of weight in Leadville to run it again and again.

In the back of his mind he thought, “If that was so good, pushing it to the extreme has got to be better.”

He tried to enter the 100-miler, which has a lottery system, and was chosen this year.

Healthy living and chasing new challenges are part of his lifestyle. He said his expectations of what a meal is have changed, and now he enjoys food more.

“It doesn’t have to be a world series of food,” he said. “… I look at (food) as an investment now. The ramifications of a bad investment are lasting.”

So he knows his good investments will pay off both in the race and in life.

“So much of this race and life is what you make of it,” he said

In between all the running, hiking and eating he answered emails about his photography business and shoots footage for “Heavy as Lead.”

He didn’t want to do the documentary when LeBlanc first proposed it.

“I never thought (my weight loss journey) would become what it has turned into,” he said.

But his friend reminded him that his own story could help others, which he understands. He’s already passionate about telling similar stories.

Another one of his “day jobs” is interviewing people with incredible stories of weight loss on YouTube and a podcast.

He has more than 100 episodes already in the weekly series. Together the people featured have lost a combined 12,500 pounds.

Four of them will be featured in a documentary called “Big Change the Film” that Cohen and Jamie Orillion are creating.

Combined the four have lost 775 pounds. Their story should be out in fall 2019.

“The documentary focuses on four people who have done this incredible thing, but there are thousands of people with incredible stories out there,” he said.

That’s why he does the interview series.

“If I can change the conversation and the perceptions people have by saying here are people who have done it, then hopefully we can change the statistics,” Cohen said.


Information from: The Advertiser, http://www.theadvertiser.com