Six hours, 19 minutes and 36 seconds after the starter’s gun sounded, Tim Kaufman crossed the finish line at the Buffalo Marathon having whipped the demons. His time Sunday mattered little. He covered 26.2 miles, another benchmark in his mission to take down obesity, one step at a time.
Four years ago, Kaufman weighed 400 pounds and had a difficult time walking up his driveway in Alden. Back then, the thought he would complete a marathon was, well, absurd. He ran the final 8.2 miles with his wife, Heather, at his side, as she has been since their first date in high school.
“I did it. I did it,” Kaufman said. “And it’s fantastic. I was getting mad that my time was down, but I had to put things in perspective. It’s quite a blessing. I don’t ever want to take it for granted. Every day that I get up, I remember that.”
Who cares about the time?
Kaufman’s story was much like the course he ran Sunday, punctuated with twists and turns and obstacles. He persevered step by step, overcoming more in the past four years than most could in four decades. He was committed to putting one foot ahead of the other and seeing how far it could take him.
On Sunday, it took him on a life journey.
You see him now weighing about 225 pounds, his size 52 waist replaced by size 34, his legs strong, his will stronger. You think about how far he had to come just to reach the starting line Sunday, never mind the finish. It’s no wonder the talkative technology teacher had trouble finding the right words.
He was overcome with emotion several times during the race, once when he came upon a woman in a wheelchair who had a poster that read, “When you can’t run with your legs, run with your heart.” He was reduced to tears while thinking about the people cheering during the race and others who supported him along the way.
“It hit me hard,” he said. “It’s hard to complain when you see that stuff.”
Nobody has been with him more than Heather. The two married at 20 years old and had two children. Heather nursed him through health problems and helped him through an addiction to painkillers. She became his emotional backbone, his primary reason for living through difficult stretches when hope seemed lost.
And she was there Sunday. She jumped into the race and helped push him to the end for the final 8-plus miles. She was there when his body told him to stop, when he needed someone to push him home, when he needed a crutch for his wobbly legs after hearing his name announced at the finish line.
“He’s always been there for me for different things, and I want to be there for him,” Heather Kaufman said. “You want to be that teammate. That’s the person that you love. That’s your whole world.”
Four years ago, it was a different world, a darker one.
One thing about Tim Kaufman: At his best, and his worst, nobody could accuse of him of going halfway. Life had been an ongoing internal dispute, a tug-of-war between the extremes of his addictive personality. In short, his was a lifelong battle of self-destruction against self-preservation, with the clock ticking.
The same man who dropped out of high school now has a master’s degree in mathematics and is teaching at Williamsville North High. His subjects include Engineering Design and Development and Energy and Aerospace, courses in which students can receive college credits.
The same man who was hooked on drugs prescribed to him for a genetic disease weaned himself off painkillers and is now drug-free. The same man who had trouble walking to the bathroom was intent on running more than 26 miles. His primary competitor Sunday wasn’t the humidity or 80-degree heat.
It was the man in the mirror.
“I hate running,” Kaufman said. “I love the challenge.”
Four years ago, Kaufman left the doctor’s office convinced that his days on this planet were numbered. He figured he had a year to live, maybe two, at the rate he was going. He weighed about 400 pounds, a rough estimate. All he really knew was that the lever on the scale maxing out at 350 pounds dropped like a sledgehammer.
Many nights, he would fall asleep wondering if he would wake up the next morning, wondering how long his heart could withstand blood pressure measured at 255/115, wondering when he would leave his wife and two kids behind. Sadly, it didn’t matter to him either way. Death, he concluded, was an upgrade over his life.
“The truth is that when you’re 400 pounds, you really don’t care about yourself that much,” he said. “You’re kind of committing suicide. There was a good chance that I wasn’t going to wake up, and I don’t think I really cared. That portrays the attitude I had. It wasn’t like I was going to shoot myself. I had nothing to live for other than getting back to the couch. You lose interest in living.”
Kaufman, 42, grew up a heavyset farm boy in Alden. He was 5-foot-10 and 250 pounds, built like a fire hydrant and strong as an ox. He played football in high school. He would have wrestled every year if he were academically eligible. He was long on intelligence and short on interest in academics as a teenager.
The master plan called for working as a machinist with Niagara Machine and Tool Works, marrying his high school sweetheart, having enough money to pay his bills, own a home and raise a family. Invariably, however, life has a way of getting in the way of living happily ever after.
In 2002, the company closed. With two young children at home, he worked with Heather at a cleaning company they started. At age 28, he was a college freshman. He attended Erie Community College for two years and graduated from Buffalo State in 2006. At times, he slept in his truck in the parking lot between work and class.
“We did what we had to do,” Kaufman said. “We made the best of it.”
How he arrived at his top weight in the first place is a separate story.
Kaufman suffers from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disease that in his case caused his joints to move more than they should. His sister also has the disorder. In simplest terms, his tendons and cartilage were like gum. The slightest movement would cause him to suffer sprains and severe swelling.
He remembered suffering a simple knee sprain years ago that swelled so much that Heather needed to cut off his pants. “I would sneeze, and my arm would fall out of me,” he said. He was treated with medication, but it didn’t prevent persistent problems with his joints. It also limited his exercise. His weight skyrocketed.
“You get there from making excuses,” Kaufman said. “You can always rationalize addiction whether it’s food or drugs or whatever. You get stuck in a world of why you have all these reasons for why you are what you are. There’s no reason to change. For me, it was a series of things that meshed together.”
Kaufman was so heavy that he taught almost exclusively while sitting down. He broke two chairs. He perspired so much that Heather bought him three identical shirts for each day of the week. That way, he could slip away from class and change his shirt without students or teachers noticing how much he was sweating.
Add the extra weight to the disorder, and you get a body in pain. It led to heavy-hitting painkillers such as Lortab and Fentanyl, which led to opioid addiction and kidney problems. Mix a little booze, too much sitting around and no escape plan, and it’s easy to comprehend why he was losing his appetite to live.
Kaufman’s awakening came in 2012 after his mother-in-law died of leukemia, three years after his father succumbed to kidney cancer. He made frequent visits to Roswell Park Cancer Institute and realized how much other people, especially children, were in a battle much larger than his own.
“You’re looking at these kids who are dying, and dying to do anything, and I’m complaining that my knees hurt or that I can’t walk,” he said. “I started learning how to be grateful for what I had in my life rather than what I didn’t have. That really was a big change for me.”
Kaufman came up with a simple objective that essentially said: Do more today than you did yesterday. He wrote down goals and kept a food journal. He focused on exercise and changed his diet. He began cutting slivers from his Fentanyl patch, allowing his body to gradually adjust to having less medication.
His first goal was getting out of a chair by himself twice in the same day. He had a friend who hiked in the Adirondacks and he wanted to join him. It meant walking more than five steps and climbing more than five stairs without getting tired. After all, the guy was approved for handicapped parking for a reason.
Kaufman cut meat, dairy, oil and processed food from his diet. He began eating plant-based whole foods and rice. These days, he and Heather typically buy a 50-pound bag of red potatoes every three weeks. He built a 40-foot greenhouse with an irrigation system and began growing his own vegetables.
Remember the part about him doing nothing halfway?
Six steps turned into eight. Eight became 20. Twenty steps turned into a half-mile, 1 mile, 3 miles. His energy returned. The weight started coming off. He reached a point in which he would walk 5 miles on a trail knowing the only way back to his truck was walking back, 10 miles in all, another mark surpassed.
The first time he ran in years, he jogged 200 feet and vomited. The goal the next day was running 201 feet without throwing up. He started wearing out tires on his bike and turning short distances into 100-mile treks. As his muscles grew stronger, his joints became tighter. His progress was gradual, the results dramatic.
Self-preservation won its fight against self-destruction. Once he regained his energy and zest for life, self-preservation turned into self-improvement. He shared his progress on his website, fatmanrants.com.
“He was always on the ball, is a sharp guy and knows his teaching strategies,” Williamsville North principal Gary Collichio said. “It’s a holistic deal, and that’s what’s so great about it. Mentally, physically, holistically, he’s a different guy. The real guy came out. He’s able to do the things he wanted to do. He can get out of his chair. He doesn’t sweat through three shirts. Those things are extremely important and go into making him the guy that he is. He’s inspired a lot of kids here.”
Three years ago, Kaufman finished his first 5-kilometer event, the Grace Race at Christian Central Academy. Heather was waiting for him at the finish line. The two sobbed while thinking back to how far Kaufman had come, where he was a few years earlier and what might have been had he remained on that path.
“Cried like a baby,” he said.
It started with a simple goal: Do more today than yesterday.
And now, well, now there’s no stopping him.
Kaufman had run six half-marathons before embracing the challenge Sunday in Buffalo. His body weight has been nearly cut in half over the past four years while becoming twice the man. He’s no longer on medication. He’s also not stopping. Ten minutes after completing his first marathon, he was planning his second.
“I can’t even describe it,” Heather Kaufman said. “I’m just so thankful and happy that he wanted to do this to take care of himself and for me. I’m just so blessed. He’s amazing. I’m just so thankful for him. It’s been amazing to watch him progress, whether it’s running or biking, just his love for life.”
Heather also lost considerable weight while joining her husband for the ride. She helped him along the marathon route before joining him on Mile 18. They’re happy. More than anything, they’re healthy. Never mind his time in the Buffalo Marathon. His success was measured in years, assuming it could be measured at all.
It didn’t matter when he finished Sunday or even that he finished.
What matters most is that he started.
“What I’ve done my whole life is trade addictions,” Kaufman said. “I would quit one and pick another one up. Something always had to take its place. I can’t buy a lottery ticket or I’ll lose my house. Some people say I have an addiction to fitness or eating so clean. Addiction is something bad that ruins your life. I’m not doing that.
“I’m passionate about what I do. I pour myself into it, and it’s not destructive anymore. It’s good stuff. I’m addicted to life. You know how I said I didn’t know if I was going to wake up in the morning and didn’t really care? Now I can’t sleep past 5 o’clock. I can’t wait to get out of bed.”