Kelly Gneiting took up sumo wrestling in the late 1990s and won three U.S.… (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Fort Defiance, Ariz. — Two miles down, four to go. Pain consumes him, but the Fat Man will not quit. His immense legs churn. His sweaty, barrel-size chest heaves, and the sound of his labored breathing fills the gathering dusk.
He is jogging slowly — very slowly — up a hill on a two-lane road above Fort Defiance, where he lives on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. Puddles along the roadway are turning icy. Trucks speed by, a few short feet from his wide shoulders.
Some people might turn back.
Not a chance, the Fat Man says, reciting a Bible verse and declaring he will never give in. "With what I'm facing," he says, "I have to prove to myself I can do this." He has never run up this hill before. "Just gonna keep my head down. If I look up…it'll be too much."
Photos: 400-pound marathoner
With a trace of humor and no small amount of pride, Kelly Gneiting, 40, calls himself the Fat Man. He weighs 405 pounds and is not embarrassed by an ounce of it. He stands out. He is one of a very few white people on the reservation. He is 6 feet tall with a 60-inch waist. That makes him 5 feet around the middle. His fleshy body is devoid of angles.
Even so, he is an athlete, and he is hardly shy about saying how good he is. "I honestly think I'm one of the best athletes in the world," he says. Bold overstatement, maybe, but this man who weighs nearly a quarter ton can do the splits, then bend at the waist and shoulders until his forehead touches the ground. He can reel off four consecutive sets of 25 pushups.
The Fat Man is a three-time national champion sumo wrestler.
Now he has willed himself into something far more unlikely: He has become a long-distance runner. On Sunday, at the 26th Los Angeles Marathon, he wants to set a Guinness world record. Of the roughly 25,000 entrants, most of them honed into taut and sinewy shape, he hopes to be the heaviest to cross the finish line.
If he does, he says he will be sending a message to a society obsessed with being thin. "Big people," he says, "can do the unimaginable."
When he talks, and he so loves to talk, Gneiting has a habit of marking the milestones in his life by weight.
"In high school, I was 190 pounds, so I know what it is to be thin," he says, eating a late lunch at a Denny's a few hours before his evening run. Oblivious to patrons craning their necks to look at him, he orders a mushroom cheeseburger with what appears to be half a pound of beef, thick-cut French fries, a fried chicken sandwich, and a second helping of thick cut fries.
"In college, I was on the wrestling team, and just over 200," he says. "I was fit then. Still am. The doctor says I've got good blood pressure. My resting heart rate is 60 beats per minute. I always have had one weakness: food."
Born and raised in eastern Idaho, the second child of a banker father and a homemaker mother, he kept his weakness largely in check during a two-year Mormon mission and his first years at Ricks College in Idaho. Then everything changed.
"I married my wife at 205 pounds," he says, sliding the fried chicken sandwich into a hand so massive hand it nearly disappears. "Suddenly, jeez, I didn't need to attract anyone. I just kind of let myself go. "
Twelve years ago, Gneiting and his wife, Karen, had the first of their five children. Around then, they also hit hard financial times. Eating (gorging, really; he once downed eight Big Macs at a sitting) relieved his stress. "The next thing you know," says his father, Gary Gneiting, "Kelly was physically a different person."
Karen, unable to find a job, stayed home with the kids. Gneiting couldn't find much of anything other than minimum-wage jobs like baling hay.
Soon he hovered around 350 pounds. He was seeing how cruel people could be.
"I would apply to jobs and people would see me and it was like they were wondering, 'Do we really want this monster walking around the office all day?' " he says. "Some people were just really shallow. Here's an example. I was at a store and this guy right near me says to his friend: "Look at how freakin' fat that guy is." I'm like: "Dude, I am right here in front of you, c'mon." When you're this size, it's strange, but it's like you can be invisible.
"I just got to where it didn't matter to me what people think, I am going to live my life."
Gneiting is a dreamer. Running 26.2 miles is a goal he's harbored since grade school. But someday he would also like to hike from the Dead Sea to Mt. Everest. He would like to swim the English Channel, because, he says, he floats like a cork. He would like to play in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles, and recently sent a resume in hopes of a tryout. He hasn't heard back.