As she walks down the street these days, a Columbus mom of four kids looks into the store windows and is puzzled by the reflection.
Who is that woman?
Yes, it is Jennifer McCleary.
“I still have the image of the old me,” said the 5-foot-1 McCleary, who has lost 168 pounds from her 330-pound body since having bariatric surgery in July 2013 and subsequently taking up a healthier lifestyle that included running.
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On Sept. 26, McCleary, 43, will run her second Mill Race half- marathon, the participation in which is a triumph of, well, enormous proportions.
“It has been a major change in my life,” said McCleary, who has photos of her larger days on her cellphone.
She needs those photos almost as proof of her transformation.
“I didn’t realize she had lost 168 pounds,” said Shayla Holtkamp, who directs the “Pace For The Race” running series McCleary joined last winter and spring. “I am sure people won’t even recognize her.
“Jennifer is a very committed runner. She is steady and looks for the goal, always with a positive attitude and a smile on her face.”
She is smiling for a host of reasons.
“I was diabetic and had high blood pressure,” she said. “I don’t have either of those anymore.
“And I have so much more energy. It is amazing how much I can accomplish in a day.”
One of the things she is about to accomplish is a degree.
After her effort begin to get healthy, it inspired her to take classes at Harrison College. She expects to complete her two-year degree in human resources and accounting in September. A former Head Start preschool teacher, she hopes to find a job such as an office manager.
Her journey to better health really began about five years ago when her youngest child, Luke, ran into the street in front of their Shadow Creek home. Luke was 3 at the time.
Jennifer was sitting in a chair as she watched what could have been an dangerous situation unfold.
“He ran into the road, and it was hard for me to get up and go after him,” she said.
It was time for a change.
“I wasn’t really heavy in high school, but I got married (her husband is Oscar McCleary) and we settled down,” she said. “I started having children, and I was slowly gaining weight.”
The incident with Luke was a signal that things had to change.
“I tried many of the fad diets, and they really didn’t work for me,” she said. “I ultimately would gain back any weight I lost and then some.
“So I had bariatric surgery. I used that as a tool to help me lose weight. You know, you can’t do much exercise when you are 300 pounds. But I started walking.”
After the surgery and following a better diet, along with the walking, the weight started to come off. Her friends then started to tell her about the benefits of running. She had lost 80 pounds at that point and was ready to give it a try.
She followed the Couch-to-5K running plan that she found online.
“The first day I tried to run was in my neighborhood,” she said. “I made it a block and I came back home. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t breathe.”
But from reading the Couch-to-5K program, she understood that it was going to be hard in the beginning.
“You have to start off slow,” she said. “You walk, and then you might jog, not even a whole minute. It progressively builds you up. I really liked the app because it broke down running into small pieces.”
Once she felt a little more comfortable running, she joined the Mill Race Marathon’s series of free classes geared toward beginners who wanted to participate in the 2014 Mill Race Marathon or half-marathon.
“It was beginner runners all the way up to experienced runners,” McCleary said. “It was a little intimidating at first. When we went out to run those two miles the first day, it was overwhelming. I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’
“But I would run and walk, and I finished. I met other people at the same beginning level where I was. We were in the same boat. How do you say nicely … they had some weight to lose?”
She was worn out by the time she finished her first training class, but she went back.
“I questioned whether I could do this up until the time we ran 10 miles,” she said. “I ran the whole 10 miles without stopping — well, I stopped for a drink. But once I had completed the 10 miles, I knew I could do a half-marathon (13.1 miles).”
The encouragement from other class members kept her going.
“You get to know everyone’s story,” she said.
Everything began to snowball. She joined Tipton Lakes Athletic Club and began cross training. She took a strength training class. She eventually worked her weight down to her current level of 162 pounds.
Then came her first half-marathon last September in Columbus.
“It was exciting,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I was really doing it. We lined up in the corrals and I knew several of the people in there with me because we had trained together. I wasn’t alone, but we all had to run our own race.
“I remember it being really hot that day and that the train (which blocked the course for more than 15 minutes) already had left by the time I got there. I ran and walked and ran and walked. I finished in three hours and 28 minutes, which was under the 15-minute mile pace so they wouldn’t kick you off the course.
“I got really excited when I finished. I was breathing really hard and really fast. I couldn’t believe I had done it.”
Her goal in this year’s race is to finish in 2:45.
“I would tell anyone who wants to do this to take small steps. It is worth it.
“I have more self-confidence now and I know I can set a goal and attain it. I don’t know if I will lose any more weight. The charts say I should weigh 112 pounds, but I don’t want to be that. It’s not so much about the scale anymore. It is how I feel.
“I’m not going back.”
KIDS: Eden, 17; Sara, 15; Noah, 13; Luke, 8
OCCUPATION: Expects to receive her two-year degree in accounting and human resources in September from Harrison College
THE SKINNY: McCleary has lost 168 pounds, going from 330 pounds to 162
NEXT UP: McCleary will run her second Mill Race half-marathon Sept. 26