There's no doubt losing weight takes a lot of grit and determination, and so does keeping it off.
The Daily Herald and Push Fitness in Schaumburg once again have partnered to produce the annual "Fittest Loser Challenge." For the sixth year in a row, we will be looking for contestants who are willing to tackle and triumph over a 12-week workout and nutrition program to see who can lose the most weight, based on percentages, during a three-month period.
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The Challenge winner nabs a host of prizes. Each contestant will be privy to weekly one-on-one personal training sessions at Push, have the oversight of a nutritionist and physician, and their journey will be documented in the Daily Herald.
Combined, the six 2013 competitors lost a hefty 266 pounds. The 2013 Fittest Loser champ, Marianne Costales-Roman, 38, of Carol Stream, lost 60 pounds and dropped 27 percent of her original body weight, which was a Challenge first.
During the 2013 competition, not only was Costales-Roman busy attending weekly fitness trainings and working out on her own, she was also clocking in at two jobs, tending to a husband and two daughters and serving as caregiver for her brother and mother.
Since then, her family has moved into a larger home. Her mother continues to live with her. Costales-Roman rarely works a second job now, and her brother is cared for in a group home.
Initially, she wanted to lose weight for her high school reunion, but it was postponed. Yet, the thrill of winning was prize enough.
"It was the most amazing feeling. I was in shock and proud," says Costales-Roman, a high school social worker who went from 222 pounds to 162.
Yet, somewhere in the frenzy of life following the competition, her focus faded and her weight started to creep up. She estimates it to be 190 now.
"I was ashamed. I didn't want to tell the truth. Honestly, I lost track of myself again," says Costales-Roman. "But I want people to understand it's about modifying your behavior. I am still on my weight loss journey -- despite my weight gain. It's a lifelong thing."
Many of the 2013 competitors experienced dramatic highs and lows. Yet, they all count it as one of the highlights of their lives.
Joe Gundling was runner-up. The 19-year-old from Hanover Park was also the youngest 2013 contestant. He initially wanted to get in shape for his girlfriend's senior prom. "It was a ton of fun; she said it was the best prom that she went to," he recalls.
He also had more practical goals, like being able to see his toes, which he achieved.
At first, Gundling was resistant to many of the changes that the competition required him to make, including getting adequate sleep, exercise and nutrition. "Well, it was uncomfortable to do something different," he explains. "Completely changing everything I was doing was a little weird, but I adjusted."
Today, he continues to redefine his goals. Instead of trying to drop the 30 additional pounds he initially planned, he now looks to bulk up with muscle work. "I've been doing some of my old high school football and wrestling workouts," says Gundling, who ended the challenge at 208 pounds and now weighs 225.
Occasionally, he reverts to his old ways, like recently when he pulled an all-nighter for school and reached for a steady stream of energy drinks and soda. "That was one of the main things that I turned away from," he concedes.
Other adjustments have been lasting. "I used to stay up until 5 or 6 a.m. playing Xbox competitively," he says. "Now, I keep a regular bedtime."
Gundling knows the holidays will come with temptations, but he and his girlfriend plan to make healthier versions of their favorite desserts.
His biggest take-away of the challenge was learning about determination. "Nothing comes easily," he says. "If you really want something, you have to put 100 percent in."
Megan McCarthy-Cook of Hoffman Estates had medical concerns that kept her focused on weight loss. The 34-year-old was a borderline diabetic with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Her triglyceride levels were twice the normal levels. After shedding 50 pounds and almost 18 percent of her original body weight, those concerns melted away.
"It's all about living a healthy life," she says. "After the competition, it amazed me how much my weight went down and my confidence went up. It was so worth it."
By the time of the finale in May, McCarthy-Cook -- once a couch potato -- could run a mile without stopping. Yet the greatest triumph was sharing her weight loss journey with her mother, who battled lung cancer. Two days before the finale, her mother was hospitalized; she died in June.
"This whole thing has been tough," says McCarthy-Cook, who ended the competition at 232 pounds and admits that she hasn't kept up with the numbers since. She's counting on time to heal her grief and restore willpower. "It's been an emotional five months," she says.
"My mother was worried about me. I don't want to disappoint her; I have to find my way back," says McCarthy-Cook. This fall, she and her brother ran in the Chicago Lung Run to honor their mother.
At age 40, Greg Moehrlin of St. Charles knew that he would have to take better care of his body. In 2010 this Hersey High School science teacher developed a heart arrhythmia that required a pacemaker. That was before the competition, but it was enough to scare him into making serious life changes.
Moehrlin ended the competition at 208 pounds and weighs 215 now. He says the biggest shock following the challenge was how he couldn't motivate himself like his Push trainer Wade Merrill had. "I don't think there is any way to work out as hard as a trainer works you; it's not possible," he quips. "It's like having a coach. It helped me get kick-started."
Moehrlin now enjoys the freedom his new lifestyle and body affords too. He goes to local gyms and his school's gym to stay in shape. He is more likely to eat yogurt and an apple for breakfast than the sausage biscuit he used to grab daily. He goes bird and deer hunting with friends, and he runs. "After the competition, I did two half marathons," he says. "I've learned that I'm a happier person when I stay active."
Karen Castillo, 37, of Carpentersville used to huff and puff to get up the stairs. By the end of the competition she could run. Yet, as fate would have it, shortly after the contest, she had ankle surgery.
At the end of the challenge, Castillo weighed 184 pounds. She's a few pounds over that now, and she just got the release from her doctor to do lower body exercises. "I was basically not able to do any weight-bearing activity for five months," she says of the time following surgery. "I kept working out my core and upper body. Now that I have clearance, I can do more."
Her advice for others? "Remember that it is mostly mind over matter -- even when it gets tough," she says. At some point, she says it's easy to see the trainers as the enemy. "They made me realize I can do another rep and push through pain. Back then, I hated doing planks. Now, I do them every day."
Mike Paulo, 59, of Woodridge was the oldest competitor this session. At the end of the competition, Paulo weighed 253 pounds. He says he is now at 270. Head softball coach at Elmhurst College, Paulo loves the freedom of having his blood pressure medications cut in half, thanks to his smaller frame.
One of the reasons he wanted to participate in the competition was to look great for his daughter's wedding, and he did. Now, he continues to work out with his Push trainer Brodie Medlock. "I am much stronger than I have been in the last 20 years. I am doing things that I didn't think I could do," says Paulo, who also ran a 5K this summer.
His workouts to date consist of walking and jogging two to three miles on the treadmill. He's changed his eating patterns, too, with one of his new favorite breakfast options being a green smoothie made of spinach, chia seeds, coconut milk, water and berries.
During the competition, Paulo says he never thought of giving up; he felt committed to the cause and the other competitors. "Everyone was in the same battle," says Paulo, a coach with a team player's heart. "You feel committed to them."
He advises others to apply. "You're going to feel fantastic," he says. "As a coach, I thought I knew quite a bit, but these people taught me that it's never too late to change."
Joshua Steckler and his team of trainers at Push Fitness have been helping contestants turn unfit bodies into turbo machines for years, but not without lots of hard work. "There are no weight loss gimmicks. What we do with the Fittest Loser contestants, we do with our clients -- sound nutrition and exercise."
He urges only serious applicants to apply. Of the 30 people who have gone through the competition, Steckler says they have had two things in common: "Everyone has done well, and everyone wants to get great results."
To apply for the 2014 Fittest Loser Challenge, go to surveymonkey.com/s/fittestloser2014. The deadline for entries is Jan. 6, 2014.