For Charles Ray Bell, his greatest gift was one that initially led to loss—loss of many things that were weighing him down. At about 300 pounds, Bell was taking medication for high blood pressure, struggling with sleep apnea, and living a lifestyle filled with alcohol and poor food choices. “I always knew I had to do something about my health because of family health issues,” he told Runner’s World. “I was getting close to 40, and I kept thinking about my father passing away at 41.” His father passed away from a sudden heart attack and his mother passed away at 60 after struggling with emphysema, high blood pressure, and diabetes. On his 39th birthday on March 28, 2007, he became determined to lose 100 pounds and change the state of his health in hopes that the outcome of his story would be different. “That morning, I woke up, took a look in the mirror, and I just couldn’t believe what I’d seen, “ he said. “I guess I was just hiding from myself. I was definitely hiding from the scale.”As a child, Bell was active and played baseball, football, and basketball. After his father passed away and his mother left unexpectedly a couple of months later, Bell found himself homeless and on his own at 15 years old, staying with friends and at various homeless shelters for the next six years until he got married at the age of 21.He said after he got married, his lack of physical activity and weekends spent abusing alcohol ultimately led to his weight gain. So at 39, with a hard past behind him and a major challenge ahead of him, Bell started to exercise for the first time in more than 20 years.
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For the first three to four weeks, his workouts consisted of walking. Bell then transitioned to a light jog and was eventually able to run two miles without stopping. He hit his goal and lost more than 100 pounds within his first year of running, and he kept plugging away at it despite back pain that came with more regular exercise. One year after starting, right around his 40th birthday, Bell participated in his first race. He did it in memory of his father, the 2008 Cincinnati Heart Mini, which raises funds for heart disease. “I remember telling him I would never quit, never again,” he said. Bell also ran his first marathon in 2008, the Cincinnati Flying Pig, and finished in just more than five hours. “I was frustrated with what I had done to myself so I finished,” he said. “I walked the last 10 miles, but it was a finish.” Harvey Lewis, a Cincinnati-based high school teacher and world-class ultramarathoner who trains with Bell, said Bell’s consistency in his routine and mental change led to his success. “He just came to this moment where he had had enough and he was going to do whatever it took to fight back, to make it and to survive,” Lewis said. “It was like that internal thought process that was so determined to transform.”
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Bell’s dedication to running and getting healthy started to filter into all areas of his life. As an overload truck driver for more than two decades, he frequently traveled throughout the U.S. He said his first stop when arriving in a new city was a running store to get information about group runs in the area. Bell would show up and jump right in with the group.
As a volunteer for Step Forward, a program offered by City Gospel Mission in Cincinnati, Bell serves as a mentor and motivator for recovering alcohol and drug addicts who are preparing for different races during the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon weekend. “He always had this spirit about him, just a motivating spirit, and that never ever changed.” said Greg Lewis, 51, who grew up with Bell and was one of the friends who offered up their homes when he had no place to live as a teenager. Bell also got Greg Lewis to start running. “I think his spirit actually got even stronger. That kind of spark drives other people to look at their own goals in life and try and achieve things.”
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For Harvey Lewis, 41, Bell had an influence in some of his most pivotal accomplishments, including his first-place victory in the 2014 Badwater Ultramarathon. “He really said some things to me before that race that were pretty profound to me personally,” he said. “He really believes in people.” Now 49 years old with a PR of 3:05 (and down 150 pounds), Bell is training for a sub-3-hour finish at the Jacksonville Marathon on December 16. He took temporary leave at work to train and said he has been running 100 miles each week. “I can’t imagine being more grateful than what I am now for what the Lord has done for me,” he said. “It felt like a gift from God, and it was a gift I wasn’t going to return.”