Island Profile: Heavy Task

Part-time Islander Gary Marino battled obesity by walking from Jacksonville to Boston over 3 1/2 months


December 8, 2004

Elaine Skylar/Staff

Part-time Marco Island resident Gary Marino, creator of The Million Calorie March and author of Big and Tall Chronicles has been speaking around the area about obesity in this country.

In December 1999, Gary Marino took a three-week trip to the Hawaiian island of Maui. Physically, he says, he was in paradise, staying in a rented house overlooking the sandy beach and the clear water.

Mentally, though, he was in hell. He weighed almost 400 pounds, and at 34 years old, he was suffering from sleep apnea. His size and his health resulted in his having a "perfectly lousy time," he says. On his flight home to Boston, the part-time Marco Island resident met an overweight 11-year-old boy who provided him with the inspiration to change his lifestyle.

Now 38, Marino weighs 242 pounds "with another 40 to go," he says a shadow of his former self.

How did he do it?

The old-fashioned way: with diet and exercise, and the help of a nutritionist, a fitness trainer and a therapist. While the nutritionist and trainer are obvious choices, Marino says he enlisted the therapist to help him dissect his problem. "Find out where you're broken and fix it," he says. "Everyone's different."

Part of Marino's problem was hereditary, but he also had bad eating habits and was sedentary. He now eats from 1,600 to 2,000 calories a day on a low- calorie, low-carbohydrate diet that combines "the best of both worlds," Marino says. He walks five miles a day and does weight training three days a week, throwing in other activities for variety.

One of his "other activities" was a Million Calorie March a 1,205-mile weight-loss walk Marino began April 5 in Jacksonville. Marino walked 15 miles a day, six days a week regardless of the weather. He finished his march July 17 in Boston.

For years, organizations have held walks, runs and bike rides to support various causes, Marino says. But before he came along, there were no anti-obesity marches. He decided to walk all the way from Jacksonville to Boston for the "shock and awe" factor, he says. He wanted to raise people's awareness of the problem. Marino planned the march before 9-11, but the tragedy shelved his plans.

And when he put his project on hold, his good-health goals began slipping. His nutritionist asked him to keep a food journal, and his therapist asked him to keep an emotional journal. "Up until this point, I had written nothing but bad checks and apology letters," Marino says. He spun his humor, which at the time was self-deprecating, into a book. Big & Tall Chronicles: Misadventures of a Lifelong Food Addict combines Marino's wisecracks with nuggets of weight-loss wisdom.

Marino's publisher, iUniverse, released the book along the East Coast on June 24, just in time to coincide with his march. It was a "moving book tour," Marino says. He distributed 150 copies of his book to people he met during his three- month trek. He also kicked off Generation Excel, a nonprofit foundation that is part inspirational, part educational and part fund-raiser.

Generation Excel sends overweight kids to weight-loss camps and is working to return physical education programs to schools. Although Marino and his wife, Julie, don't have kids yet, he thinks it's important to educate kids and their parents early in life.
"I really want to make an impact on kids," Marino says.

It's important for people of all ages to be vigilant about their health, he says, and to realize the environment is stacked against them. "You can't put a price on your health," Marino says.

"When it comes to your dreams, head right toward them and keep marching." Which is exactly what Marino and many others did earlier this year. Several supporters joined Marino on his Million Calorie March, some alone and others with walking groups. When he was alone, Marino listened to the Beatles on his iPod and enjoyed the scenery.

As he had suspected, the business aspect of his task was more daunting than its physical toll. He was constantly talking on the phone, speaking to groups and visiting radio stations.

As if that wasn't enough, Marino was videotaped for a documentary on his project. "It was hard work," he says. "It wasn't like an escape."

Like eating. Before his weight-loss efforts became serious, Marino spent 20 years trying out fad diets: Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, weight-loss clinics, liquid diets and diet drugs, none of which worked for him.

One thing that keeps Marino on target today is the fact that Kelly Ripa once took his measurements. "That was motivation," he says. On his march up to Boston, Marino stopped at the Live With Regis and Kelly show in New York City, which was surreal to him. Both Ripa and Regis Philbin had adorable faces, and they were tiny, Marino says.

"I thought, 'I'm gonna look like Chewbacca next to these people,'" he says. But the appearance helped him, both business- and health-wise. He aspires to lose even more weight before having children, and he's confident he will reach his goals.

And yes, he plans to someday return to Maui to have a fabulous time.