Five miles into a brisk run in 90-plus-degree heat, Rachel Thomas was not winded in the least. She was breezing downhill, on a sidewalk along Northside Drive in north Macon, striding back toward the gym where, six days a week, she exercises for four hours.
A sport utility vehicle motored past and the woman driving it, a friend from the gym, yelled out the window, “Run, Rachel, run!”
Thomas smiled, waved and cruised on. She still had work to do, three hours of exercise ahead of her.
Thomas, 36, is a participant in Walk Georgia, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension fitness program with the slogan “Move More. Live More.” The idea behind it is to encourage exercise by letting those who take part log their progress online and compete against one another and as teams for bragging rights.
The nine-week challenges in spring and fall rank exercisers across the state based on weekly “mileage” totals. For example, seven minutes of playing basketball is the program’s equivalent of one mile. As is 20 minutes of bowling.
Thomas runs eight miles a day on a treadmill and then sprints on another machine and also works out on an elliptical trainer for an hour. Last fall, she was tops in the state. This spring, she is topping the charts again with 2,312 Walk Georgia “miles” so far. Her nearest competitor in Bibb County has yet to amass half that many.
“I’m a very competitive person. That’s another motivator,” she says. “You’ve got to enjoy it. You have to have a goal.”
During the rest of the year, Thomas still hits the Wellness Center gym most every day for three hours. Hers is a regimen born of a personal weight-loss crusade she embarked on in 2006.
She was 32 then and weighed about 220 pounds. Her doctor was about to put her on medicine for hypertension.
“They said I was a walking stroke,” she says. “I was stressed out. And then after about a year they couldn’t believe the results.”
She dropped more than 50 pounds.
“I got tired of people picking at me, talking about how fat I was. ... People would come up, ‘Oh, you done got fat.’ Then when they’d see me later it was a different story,” she says.
“I let my haters be my motivators, too. Sometimes I do an extra mile for the haters. The ones that put you down before, when they see you now they can’t do nothing but drop their mouth.”
At first, a family friend invited her to a gym. From there, the friend quit going, but Thomas kept at it.
“I started feeling a lot better,” she says.
Then she started walking along Macon’s riverfront.
“I’d see people running and say, ‘I wish I could do that,’ ” she says.
After going to an outlet store and buying some running shoes, one day on a walk she started running and was hooked. That first day she did four miles and wasn’t tired.
“Running is one of the most peaceful things because you can release so much. That’s when you really get your inner thoughts together,” Thomas says.
“I like challenging myself to do more than what I would normally do. You’ve got to enjoy it. ... It’s a lifetime fitness thing. It’s not something you pick up and put down. I don’t care how toned you get, it’s easy to get back out of shape. You can be the most muscular guy in the world, but if you stop it, it’ll go away.”
Thomas, during the Walk Georgia contest, usually hits the gym at 4 in the afternoon and stays until 8 at night.
For dinner, she usually has chicken or turkey breast and has cut fried food from her diet.
Still, she says, “My eating habits are real bad. I want to lose 20 more pounds. I don’t eat but once or twice a day. ... I have to have something sweet every night before I go to bed. I love butter-cream cake, you know, like birthday cake. Now I don’t eat that every night. I might have a cookie instead.”
For her, the workout routine has become a way of life.
“Because a lot of people come in there and they lose weight and they get big heads, get cute, then next thing you know, three months later, they’ve got to come back again. So why leave?”
And, you might say, what with all the workout hours she logs at the place, she never does.
“Strangers come up to me and they say, ‘You just motivate me.’ They don’t know it, but they motivate me. One thing that inspired me was going and seeing people in their 60s, 70s or 80s doing exercise. I’m like, ‘Lord, that’s the way I want to be.’ ”