In Debbie Dillon’s mind, it was more likely to turn a pumpkin into a carriage and ride to the finish line of the Peace Arch Hospital Foundation’s Pumpkin Run than it would be to complete it on her own two legs last year.
But with a lot of training and a boost in support, the Newton mother of two completed the five-km route with help from her trainers. And now, she’s getting back into training mode for this year’s annual walk/run event 80 pounds lighter.
“It’s so hard to believe where I’ve come from and what I’ve done,” Dillon said, recalling reaching the finish line at last year’s event. “On the other hand, it’s like, I came in last, and I was angry, because I’m a competitor, but knowing that I did it, I had to realize, the doing and completing of it was more important than where I finished.”
As recently as last year, Dillon, 59, relied on a cane to support herself in order to walk after surgery on her knees in the ’90s. The former triathlete and onetime nationally ranked racquetball player gained a significant amount of weight as a result.
“I’ve always been big, but I’ve always been an athlete, until my knees stopped,” she said. “And then I’ve just gotten out of shape and done nothing. Then after my knee surgery, I didn’t know what I could do. And there was nobody there, no one around that could help me.”
After hearing about trainers at Live Well Exercise Clinic in South Surrey, the North Surrey teacher decided to sign up in February 2013 and get her life back.
“My goal was to walk. Just walk, like a normal human being,” she recalled.
Her first steps on the treadmill resulted in agony. “No pain, no gain,” she reminded herself constantly.
“On the third day, I couldn’t do it. So I started crying. And (the trainers) were like, ‘why didn’t you tell us?’” she said. “But I just thought, if I can’t walk on a treadmill, how can I walk in real life?”
Despite the setbacks, Dillon persevered and was soon persuaded to join the clinic’s walking club last September.
“I thought, ‘are you kidding me? There is no way in this world I’m going to be walking with you guys. Forget it,’” she laughed.
She skipped the first night of the walking club, but was encouraged to come to the second week. Cones were set up across a field as markers for the walkers.
All of a sudden, the hour was done. Dillon had done it.
“It wasn’t even that I walked for an hour, it was that I stood for an hour.”
Each week, Dillon came back for another hour, until one day, she slowly put down her cane and took her first steps in more than a decade without assistance.
“I didn’t tell anybody, but I finished the section myself,” she said. “The owner of Live Well took a photo of my cane and posted on Facebook saying ‘cane needs new owner.’
“I’ve never used it since.”
Then came Dillon’s new challenge: last year’s Pumpkin Run.
While she had grown comfortable walking on grass, the 59-year-old was unsure how her knees would stand up to cement.
Despite her concerns, Dillon practised on the five-km route prior to the run and set out the day of the race to check off yet another goal on her list.
“For those who didn’t know – those who weren’t the Live Well people – for them, it was like, ‘there’s this fat lady who’s trying to walk.’
“That was their perception.”
She recalled when her children were younger and participating in races, how spectators would cheer for the winners and “for the losers, basically” out of pity.
“So there I was, the loser, the last one,” she said. “I was so angry, because I’m so competitive.”
She admits now she wasn’t looking at the bigger picture.
“I can walk, and I did it. But I can’t go fast,” she said. “But I can walk to the office. And that’s something I could never do before. I walked to the office twice today, so I thought, ‘OK, Debbie, you can do this.’
“Before I was immobile. Now I’m mobile.”
Despite her boost in confidence and the unwavering support of her family, friends and trainers, Dillon admits the stigma of being overweight is one that is so firmly rooted in society that it can make it difficult to want to try new things.
Even before her surgery, comments about her weight were always something she had to deal with playing racquetball.
“I was over 250 pounds, and people hated it,” she said. “My husband would be sitting upstairs watching and he’d hear these people go, ‘oh my god, look at how fat she is.’ And if it was a husband-and-wife team, they would just say, ‘look it, you just have to make her move, get it past her’ and then I’d smoke ’em.
“I’ve always said, if I was a boy I’d be in the NFL. Because I was so quick for such short periods of time and I was so strong. But as a woman in today’s society – and back then – it’s just not acceptable.”
Those experiences – and her position as a teacher at LA Matheson Secondary – have been a major catalyst for her mentoring other young women she sees in a familiar position, and encouragement to keep working on her health.
In the last year, Dillon has taken up hot yoga and zumba and will soon begin training for this year’s Pumpkin Run, which she hopes to do in less than one hour and 20 minutes, to beat her previous time.
“I’m comfortable and I’m happy. I feel like I’m back to when I was 40 years old,” she said. “It’s changed my life.”
This year’s PAHF Pumpkin Run is set for Sunday, Oct. 26 from 8-11 a.m. at Peace Arch Hospital, 15521 Russell Ave. For more information, visit www.pahfoundation.ca