Sumo marathoner strikes again

May 03, 2013

This Saturday, a man who weighs 407 pounds will run the Shiprock Marathon in New Mexico.

Fat Passion Sumo wrestler and marathoner Kelly Gneiting doesn't do subtle. Here's the cover of his book, "Fat Passion." (Photo courtesy of Dustin Snipes)

And that’s not wishful thinking. This will be Kelly Gneiting’s third marathon. The runner and sumo champ has been training for months from his home in Fort Defiance.

Gneiting runs countless hours every week through winding trails in this little corner of the Navajo Nation. He frequently breaks into a walk, always breathes heavy and goes slow. But he doesn’t seem to care, because Gneiting knows it will not be long before his body starts breaking down in his 50s.

“I’m 42 years old right now, that means I’ve got eight years,” he said. “Why not dream? Why not go for it?”

His critics could give him plenty of reasons. When he completed the Los Angeles Marathon in 2008, his first, he heard a lot them.  

Like what?

“He shouldn’t get credit,” Gneiting said, impersonating a naysayer. “Anyone could lumber around L.A. all day. That’s not a feat. The real feat would be to lose weight, buddy.”

Gneiting is a big, bearded bear of a guy. He is Mormon and staunchly conservative and is confident in all this. But he’s not proud of his weight, which he’s carried around for nearly 20 years. He believes it’s a weakness.

But we’ve all got weaknesses, he says. Gneiting remembers the moment he decided to go for the marathon. He was a trucker then, pumping gas in a small town in Montana. He had been kicking around the idea for a while, when a clarity came to him.   

“I went outside myself and I looked at myself, and I thought ‘You’re just being a wimp. Why don’t you just decide to do it, and put this to bed?’” he said.

Only three months later, he did. Gneiting battled blisters, soreness and delirium – for an agonizing 11 hours, 48 minutes and 11 seconds.

“It was just bulldog persistence,” Gneiting said. “It was fatigue that you can’t really describe. It’s just one foot in front of the other.”

A few years later, he returned to the race, and finished in under 10 hours. That time, he became the heaviest person ever to complete a marathon according to the Guinness Book of World Records. But racing is only a small part of Gneiting’s life. He has a wife and five kids in Idaho, and he is working at the Fort Defiance Indian Hospital to support them.

Kelly Gneiting marathon Above, sumo wrestler Kelly Gneiting competes in his second LA Marathon during a rainstorm. He made it in just under 10 hours. He hopes to do his next race, the Shiprock Marathon, in even less time. (Photo courtesy of Dustin Snipes)

“I have no doubt that I’ll be reunited at some point with my family,” he said, “but while I’m here I might as well do all I can for my dreams to come true in those other areas.”

And he’s not just talking about the marathon. Gneiting’s a four-time and current U.S. heavyweight sumo wrestling champion. He is also training to swim the 12 mile Anacapa Channel in Southern California.

After that? He plans to do the English Channel. And this might sound outlandish and optimistic for a man of his size, but one day, Gneiting would like to climb Mount Everest.

But what does his wife think? Is she proud or bewildered? Karen Gneiting answered by phone in rural Idaho.

“You know, a little of both,” she admitted. “I mean, I’m proud that he has dreams and he wants to accomplish them, but definitely bewildered by far, sure.”

From his stark, white room in government housing, Gneiting opens up his computer and starts to play a song. “Until the End” by Daniel Jimenez Afanador was once used in a YouTube documentary about him. Gneiting says it describes how he sees marathons – and life.

“Someone told me not to dream,” he said, speaking his favorite lyrics. “Someone has to pay the bills. I found a cure for that disease along these streets. I hope that you can dream with me.”

At 7 a.m. Saturday, his dream will take him to a cold and desolate starting line near the Arizona/New Mexico border.

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