Three hundred and some odd pounds separate Derek Mitchell and the man on the phone. Something much more important bonds them, and this is where a story of bravery, compassion and self-improvement is inspiring people here in Kansas City and across the world.
The two men met last month, though it was brief, and Derek’s head was a mess of adrenaline and pride at the moment. But when Philip Alvarado introduces himself, and mentions he was the one who came up from behind and patted Mitchell on the back as he finished a five-kilometer walk that would leave his legs numb the next day, Mitchell nods his head at the memory.
Yes, he remembers, because how could he forget? That was the day that changed Derek’s life.
“You’re not doing this for anyone in this world other than yourself, sir,” Alvarado says. “People are going to tell you they’re proud of you, and they mean it. But this is about you. Only about you.”
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Mitchell is sitting in a conference room at The Star. He’s speaking with Alvarado and sharing his story. He hopes it can help someone. He hopes it can help himself, too, a 34-year-old from the Northland who’s just trying to get healthier.
“At the beginning, I was just doing it,” Mitchell says. “I just wanted to do a 5K. I didn’t think anything beyond that. Just finish. I couldn’t have imagined any of the rest of this.”
The last time Mitchell weighed himself, the scale said 576 pounds. That was about a month ago, and about 50 pounds less than the number in November that convinced him to change how he was living and take back his health.
Alvarado is one of several people who’ve reached out with encouragement, with help, with hope. Alvarado has done what Mitchell is trying to do, though on a less extreme scale, losing 125 pounds with a combination of diet and exercise.
Mitchell wants to lose twice that much, and by the end of this year, and has committed himself to a goal that was probably bound to go viral — he wants to complete a race of 5K or longer every month.
He started with the Big 12 Run last month. That was the day Alvarado patted his back and helped encourage him through those last steps. The truth is that finishing that race was one of the thrills of Mitchell’s life.
He walked the last half or so with a police car right behind him, since he was the final person through. He’d timed an app on his phone to play the Rocky theme as he was finishing, and the adrenaline of the moment rushed through his veins enough that he started running.
His clothes are starting to wear a bit loose, so he had to keep one hand on his back to keep his shorts up.
“I wanted to finish like Rocky did, at the top of the stairs,” Mitchell says. “Obviously I didn’t, because I’m trying to breathe.”
Mitchell is quick with good-natured jokes like this, and that is part of the reason his story has reached so many people so quickly. His Facebook page is up to nearly 2,000 friends and followers, and through both social and traditional media, his story has gone global. He’s heard from people in Serbia, Ireland, Australia — he even saw a video that played in French on Canadian television.
It’s more than he expected, of course. Much more. In the beginning, he was just trying to get healthier.
Mitchell was skinny as a kid, very active in baseball and soccer and all the other things kids do. But around 13 or 14, he started to put on weight. A lot of weight. Two hundred pounds. Then 300. Then 400.
He ate unhealthy, and in portions that were too big, and meals that came too often, but Mitchell’s struggles were about more than what he knows were bad habits. About five years ago, he was diagnosed with a non-cancerous tumor on his pituitary gland called prolactinoma. In most cases it isn’t severe, but in Mitchell’s case it was conspiring with his eating habits to wreck his health.
Prolactinoma blocks the body’s ability to create testosterone. Mitchell’s case is severe enough that he can’t grow facial hair, but among many other things testosterone affects metabolism, energy and drive. Mitchell’s numbers were off-the-charts bad, and for a while he says he let his condition double as an excuse to keep putting on weight.
But when the scale read back 625 pounds in November, he had enough and was ready to make a change. At first, he vowed to eat better and cut out soda. That was always a particular problem for Mitchell — particularly cherry Pepsi and Sierra Mist.
Then his sister pushed him further. Gina Reed is an avid runner. She’s completed marathons and used to compete in a local roller-derby league. She told her brother he needed to add some physical activity to his new diet.
Mitchell took his first walk on Jan. 15. He made it a mile. It felt good, like an accomplishment, and now he’s hooked. He keeps track of his walks with a phone app, and he’s done more than 90 miles. He’s even heard from a few people who’ve seen him out walking and found themselves motivated to start exercising.
He’s like a Pied Piper of getting off your couch and into your running shoes, and as the weather turns nicer, couldn’t we all use that?
The exercise is what Mitchell is asked about the most, and it makes for the most visibly inspiring part of his story. But there is much more to it. He’s about halfway through a vegan cleanse, and after that he will go back to healthier control over his portions and meal frequency.
Medications are helping, too. His levels are inching closer to normal, and the doctors have told him that once his testosterone levels are where they need to be, the extra weight will burn off.
His next race is next weekend. He already has a group to walk with him through the 5K course of Rock The Parkway, and he’ll be proudly wearing a red shirt with an eagle on it — the identifier for a veterans running group that’s taken Mitchell in.
Running communities are close. That’s true virtually everywhere, and certainly holds true in Kansas City. Mitchell didn’t know how his quest would go over at first. He hadn’t planned on it becoming A Thing, but his mom was so proud she had the announcer at the Big 12 Run tell his story. Ever since, his life has been, to use Mitchell’s word, outrageous.
He figured he’d hear some encouragement, but also some nastiness. The world is full of both, after all, and Mitchell guessed the response would be 75 percent positive, 25 percent negative. So far, it’s been closer to 95 percent positive.
Strangers have been so moved enough by Mitchell’s story that they are flying him around the country to complete his 5K-a-month commitment. Dallas in June. Washington, DC in July. New Mexico in October. Complete strangers, booking tickets and flying him in just to walk five kilometers with him.
“I can’t believe it,” he says. “I hear it all the time. People writing in from everywhere, ‘You’re a rock star, keep doing what you’re doing!’ It’s amazing.”
Maybe there’s something universally appealing about someone willing and motivated to improve his life in such a visible way. A lot of us want to lose at least a few pounds, right? Seeing Mitchell’s determination makes shedding those last five or 10 pounds sound pretty easy.
One of the great parts of Mitchell’s story is that he’s creating a two-way street of inspiration. He’s hearing from people who’ve lost 200 pounds. Three hundred pounds. Even more. People who’ve fought prolactinoma. They tell him he is inspiring them, but they are helping him, too.
They talk about feeding off the encouragement of strangers and ignoring the occasional nasty comment. Think about the results, they say, but always understand that results don’t come without work.
In their phone conversation, Alvarado warned Mitchell that he’ll hit a plateau of weight loss at some point. Alvarado’s came after the first 100 pounds or so came off. When that hits, he told Mitchell, start swimming or do some other exercise to shake your body onto the next level of weight loss.
Mitchell takes it all in. This is his life now. It’s hard. Painful, even. He couldn’t feel his calves 36 hours after finishing the Big 12 Run. There are days he wants to skip his workout, just like we all do. But the more he gets into this, the more he wants to continue.
Maybe by the end of this year he’ll be ready for a 10K. After that, a half-marathon, maybe even a full. That was Alvarado’s path. That’s the path of so many Mitchell has heard from.
He won’t stop now. He can’t stop. That’s part of what he’s hearing, too, even from his mother.
“Your story is out there now,” she told him. “You can’t quit now.”