Losing 145 pounds, gaining a love for ultra running
By Henry Howard
Ultra runner Wes Smith has lost more pounds than I weigh. It’s an inspiring journey that is far from over, as he not only lost weight and become more fit, but found mental wellness through the joy of trail running.
When Smith joined the Army in 2002, he says he was “athletic, more of a gym class hero than a standout sports athlete.” He did some long runs to prepare for One Station Unit Training (OSUT) in the Army. It seemed to work as he was placed in the fast “A” running group.
But the only runs he did during his three-year service were during morning PT. “Never really ran outside of that, I was more into lifting at that point,” he says. “I joined the Guard for a year after I returned home from active duty and Iraq in 2005. I’m pretty sure I only ran once for a PT test.”
Like many veterans, Smith experienced issues with transitioning.
“I didn’t exactly have the best transition into the civilian world and suffered greatly with PTSD and guilt,” he says. “Within a year of being out of the military I had put on 100 pounds, and it only got worse from there. My highest recorded weight was 378 pounds. I thought a lot about getting gastric bypass surgery in 2017 but I knew I wasn’t mentally ready to make all the changes. I’m so glad I waited.”
6,000 calories a day
On March 16, 2022, Smith weighed 330 pounds and was ready for Roux-en-Y Gastric Bypass surgery. Essentially, surgeons reroute the patient’s stomach and they have a small pouch the size of an egg that funnels food down through and connects to the lower intestines.
“My stomach is still intact and still does what stomachs do except for seeing food come through,” he explains. “Now I have four vitamins I take daily for the rest of my life and stay away from all the fatty, sugary foods that I used to binge on.”
The surgery also means Smith can never have NSAIDs again because they would give him ulcers. He uses a liquid Tylenol now while he looks for other options to help ease aches, pains and inflammation.
Before the surgery, Smith’s daily diet consisted of over 6,000 calories a day. His standard menu would include eating out three meals a day, at least a six-pack of Mountain Dew, Whoopie pies, and Reese’s Big Cup peanut butter cups. “I was spending approximately $1,000 a month just on food for myself,” he says. “Now post-surgery I can barely eat a small salad and it takes me about 30 minutes to get it down.”
Running after gastric bypass surgery
As he prepared for the surgery, he also found something else that would change his life.
Smith started watching Wes Plate videos on YouTube and became enamored with beautiful ultra marathons. “That blew me away. I wanted to do that when I got this weight off me! That was an early motivator.”
When he was recovering from surgery, a co-worker sent him a link to a 5K in his home state of Maine.
“It was for the Travis Mills Foundation,” he says. “And, being a veteran, I wanted that to be my first race if I could do it, even if I had to walk it! Three weeks after surgery I took my first walk, it was only a quarter of a mile and it felt good, but it was so tiring for me. How in the hell am I going to do 3.1 miles in six weeks?”
Smith pressed on, walking daily, a little further and slightly faster each time. His weight was down to 280 pounds, even though he had not run a step. He eventually lost 145 pounds.
“After a mile of walking, I said to my buddy that was doing the event with me, ‘Let’s try jogging to that pole up ahead!’” he recalls. “So, we did, and it felt all right. I had a lot of fat bouncing around so that was uncomfortable, but I didn’t really get out of breath which really surprised me. At that moment I knew I could do this. I knew that I’m going to be a runner! We continued the race with a walk/jog method for the last couple of miles and finished in 49 minutes.”
Keep showing up
After the 5K, Smith wanted to run longer distances and started running with a friend on a local rail trail. On their first run, they met two women on the trail and one of them invited them to join a Wednesday night running club.
“I was so excited because for 15 years I barely socialized and went out, and to be running and joining a social running club really helped break some anxiety barriers,” he says. “My surgeon didn’t want me to lift weights for about six months. She really wanted me to get the weight off first because she said once you start lifting your body will crave more food and with the muscle mass, you’ll see your scale go up and psychologically that could really mess with your mind. And like everything, I followed all the guidelines the surgeon and dietician recommended. She thankfully gave me the OK to pursue running in the meantime.”
Smith describes his first runs as “slow and terrible.” When he joined the running club, he was going at a 15-minute mile pace.
“Fortunately even the fastest members of the running club would take their time and run with me at my pace and wait for me at the turnaround point,” he recalls. “Something that’s amazing about the running community is that everyone is accepted at every ability.”
He also struggled with running apparel because he was dropping five pounds a week. He wore compression shirts “to keep everything from flopping around,” and kept moving one foot in front of the other.
“The big motivator to keep going at the beginning was knowing that I would get better if I kept showing up,” he explains. “I was seeing such drastic great changes with mood, fitness, and general discipline. Three things I had lacked for years.”
By the end of 2022, he completed eight more 5Ks, two 10Ks (including his first trail race), a half marathon and his first marathon, eight months post-surgery.
“It was in December, in the middle of Maine, fortunately it was above freezing,” he recalls. “However it poured the entire second half. I finished in 4:58!”
In 2023, he has completed two 5Ks, a 10-miler, a 20-mile event, a marathon in just over four hours, a 50K and did 50 miles in a Last Man Standing.
Pushing hard at a Last Man Standing
Smith quickly ascended to longer distances like ultras but he has no regrets.
“I did it for the same reason others do, to see what I’m capable of,” he says. “I may have jumped the gun quicker than a lot of people but I’m happy I took the leap to try the longer events. Going into my first marathon I kind of felt like an impostor. Most people have a base level of fitness, do a training block, strategically plan and then execute. I just did it, with the longest run I did in preparation being the half marathon I did two months before the marathon. It's crazy to think I’ve now doubled that distance and have longer events to accomplish in my future.”
Smith became interested in Last Man Standing (LMS) events after watching a documentary on YouTube about Big’s Backyard Ultra, which was invented by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell. Last Man Standing events typically have runners start to run a 4.167-mileish loop at the top of every hour, with the exact total equating 100 miles in 24 hours. Runners can no longer continue when they do not return to the starter’s area on time for the next loop.
The race continues until one runner remains.
“The idea of running a loop over and over every hour at the top of the hour until there is only one person remaining seemed challenging, monotonous, painful, strategic, and tiring so I figured, sure, why not?” he says. “I was a little worried about it possibly being my first Did Not Finish (DNF) but after my first LMS, I accepted that DNF with pride! You really must go with the flow and not think about a distance or goal, just keep running the loops. Once you begin thinking about a distance you want to accomplish your mind and body starts shutting down once you’ve reached that goal and it’s hard to keep pushing.”
50 miles, a loop at a time
He did his first LMS in July at the Back Cove Backyard Ultra in Portland Maine. Runners completed a 4.167-mile trail loop around Back Cove, consisting of stone and paved surfaces which were mostly flat.
“I was quite nervous going into the event because I had a Grade 1 hamstring pull a few weeks before and I barely got to run most of June,” he says. “Luckily with some hasty physical therapy I was able to still compete.”
He ran the first couple of loops with a friend he hadn’t seen much since high school. “It was good just to catch up and take my mind off the early loops. In the earlier loops I was getting back to my aid station with about 10 minutes to prep before the next loop.”
Due to his gastric bypass, Smith must wait 30 minutes between liquids and solid foods. “It was quite challenging from the nutrition standpoint,” he explains. “I opted for Tailwind to give me electrolytes and additional liquid calories in each loop. Sometimes I was able to sneak in a few energy bars, gels, and reduced fat graham crackers.”
Around the seventh lap, he started pacing off a runner from Boston who was doing a run-walk approach. “That was a huge help conserving energy but now I was returning with about four minutes available at my aid station.”
The weather turned misty about 12 hours in.
“I had mentally checked out at that point, along with the dehydration and nutrition issues and knowing I had to drive myself two hours home,” he says. “I was able to finish the loop and secure 50 miles, something I was hoping I would achieve. So that was a huge accomplishment.”
Smith called it a day after the 12th loop, signed his name to the DNF board and finished in 27th place out of 89 participants. Up next: He is looking forward to his next LMS, Sept. 2, at Pineland Farms.
The Smith of March 2022 would barely recognize his current self.
“What inspires me to run is how much it’s changed me in the last 16 months,” he says. “I’ve lost 145 pounds since the morning of surgery. My mood is so much better. I’m probably more motivated than I’ve ever been even in my Army days, and I have an immense amount of willpower and discipline. I love the feeling of accomplishment when finishing a run. I also love the camaraderie the sport offers. I’ve met a lot of great people out on the trails and at the events.”
Name: Wes Smith
Hometown: Searsport, Maine
Number of years running: “16 months post surgery and I ran some back in 2002 before I shipped off to the Army and the normal morning physical training (PT) running for the three years I served active.”
How many miles a week do you typically run: 20 to 30 miles.
Point of pride: “Going from a 5K to 50 miles in 15 months while losing 145 pounds.”
Favorite race distance: “Probably the 50K, but I’m sure I’ll like the much longer events when I get there.”
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “A toasted plain bagel, reduced fat Jif peanut butter, and a tiny bit of honey.”
Favorite piece of gear: Shokz OpenRun Pro headphones
Who inspires you: As far as running inspirations goes, Courtney Dauwalter is a running machine, hard to not be inspired by what she does out there every event!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I have four songs that can really fire me up on a run; Forty-Six & 2 by Tool, My Hero by Foo Fighters, The Hand That Feeds by Nine Inch Nails, and Lose Yourself by Eminem.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @run_wesley_run