Jarmo Pitkanen, a 31-year-old from Denmark, is attempting this week to complete his third multiple-day endurance footrace. This one, the 132-mile Manaslu Mountain Trail Race, is taking him across the Himalayas over seven days, starting in Katmandu in Nepal and traversing snow-capped mountains near Tibet.
In addition to a pack of about 45 pounds of provisions, Pitkanen is carrying extra weight. He is obese. And that is a part of the challenge.
A burly salesman with a round face and belly, Pitkanen is on a quest to be one of the world’s rare obese endurance athletes.
“I think the most interesting part is it’s mind over matter," he said before setting out on the Himalayan race. “That it’s a challenge to do something that no one else has done before."
At 5 feet 11 inches and with a weight that rises and falls between 230 to 286 pounds, Pitkanen has a body mass index well over 30, the cutoff used by many to determine obesity.
Although he said he had “naturally always been heavy," he sometimes gains more weight before a trek to ensure he is still considered obese when he finishes.
Pitkanen is the first to admit that his regimen is unusual. He said he visited a doctor at least every two weeks. His physicians discouraged him from gaining more weight and yo-yo dieting, he said. But by completing the multiple-day competitions as an obese athlete, he is doing a small part in changing the perception of overweight athletes, doctors said, although most physicians have long warned that obesity can lead to an array of health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
“Fat doesn’t play as much of a role in fitness as people think," said Dr. Linda Bacon, a physiologist and member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. “Some people who are really fat exercise regularly. We see top athletes perform well in fat bodies. Times are changing. The population has gotten bigger, so we’re going to see more fat athletes out there."
Bacon said physical activity is important to good health but might not necessarily equate with weight loss.
“Exercise is the greatest thing you can do for your body," she said. “But you can be fit and still be fat."
While Pitkanen is obese by most measures, he is not considered morbidly obese, and he may have developed strong muscles over the years, said Dr. Nada Abumrad, an obesity researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “I’m not saying it’s recommended, but there is some evidence that if you are obese, your muscles have to adapt to carrying the extra weight."
Pitkanen said he avoided junk food when gaining weight, but he admitted, “I don’t think increasing your weight and decreasing it like this is good for you." He added, “It’s more about the challenge."
The quest began when Pitkanen’s friend Krister Skoog registered for a footrace in the Sahara in April 2011 — the punishing Marathon des Sables — and was seeking a running and training partner. Skoog asked some friends, but they turned down the offer to join him on the 150-mile course that organizers describe as vicious terrain over six days. Athletes must endure searing temperatures and run through sand dunes.
Then Skoog asked Pitkanen.
“I didn’t think he would make it," Skoog said. “He’s a bit, well, obese."
Before the race, Pitkanen said he increased his weight by 100 pounds to 286, to ensure that his body mass index would still be over 30 when he finished, carrying much of the weight in his abdomen. At the extremes of his training, Pitkanen said, he eats more than 5,000 calories a day, but he tries to avoid sugars and processed food.
He said his training for competitions had been minimal, but he showed considerable strength in the weight room.
“I saw him do the bench press and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is really strong,’ " Skoog said. “In terms of muscle, he’s one of the strongest guys I’ve met."
While on the trail in the Sahara, Pitkanen subsisted on a diet of lard and foxtail grass. Then came foot pain. Pitkanen blamed the wear and tear from the trek, not his girth. The soles of his feet were badly damaged, and he required regular visits to the doctor after the race to prevent against infection of his wounds. “He was in a very bad state," Skoog said.
Still, he finished. Then Pitkanen decided to do a second race, in the freezing temperatures of Alaska, without Skoog, giving him experience traversing some of the hottest and coldest parts of the world.
Pitkanen’s feet met a similar fate, and he again ended up having severe problems walking after the race. He started the Alaska trek at 242 pounds, a lighter weight than when he started the Sahara event — but still obese.
“I thought, ‘Is this guy mad?’ " Pitkanen’s girlfriend of six years, Louise Lindholm, said of his desire to do a second race. She has followed his treks online, as he charted his progress with the aid of a GPS. “When he came back, his feet were bloody. He couldn’t walk for weeks."
She added: “These guys are really battling themselves. Lunatics."
Pitkanen said that while the injuries the second time were also painful, he again did not blame his weight but rather the brutal nature of the courses.
“Maybe the injuries were more serious for me due to my weight," Pitkanen said. “But the human body is an incredible healing machine."
So onward Pitkanen treks through the Himalayas this week. He said he was running out of multiple-day races in his quest and did not know what his next adventure would be.
“I wanted to show that a regular guy could do it," he said. “It’s a personal accomplishment."