When Leon Thomas is half the man he used to be, he'll run a marathon.
For now, the half-marathon in today's Baltimore Running Festival is challenge enough.
The 3,000 entered in the inaugural CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield Half-Marathon range from professional runners, such as Russian Dorota Gruca, to novices such as Thomas. The 39-year-old hotel manager will be easy to spot. He might be the only one in the bunch who exceeds 300 pounds.
"I needed a shock to my system," Thomas said. "This is it."
His indoctrination into the sport should come with a warning: Do not attempt this at home. Thomas didn't consult a physician before he began to exercise, didn't have the right footwear and started just as winter was beginning to roar. His incentive and discipline, however, are textbook.
In the spring of 2002, Thomas weighed nearly 380 pounds, the equivalent of three world-class Kenyans. He was two decades past his own glory days.
Thomas graduated in 1982 from Mount St. Joseph High School, where he started for the basketball team. The Gaels didn't lose in the Catholic League tournament until the final, against mythical national champion Calvert Hall. He did the dirty work for David Gately, Robbie Nieberlein and George Young, all of whom enjoyed success in college at the Division I level.
"Leon was our power forward, a big person, but so easygoing," said Pat Maggio, his coach at Mount St. Joe. "He could talk to anybody on campus, and had eclectic interests. He was a great bowler [with a 200 average]. His father was in the airline business, and Leon had flown small planes. He told me, `The only problem I have is landings.' I said, `You better fix that.' "
Thomas studied sports management at Robert Morris College and got into coaching. The 1980s ended with him assisting Maggio at Mount St. Joe. He directed the Mount Carmel High varsity from 1992 to 1997.
Newly married and managing three hotels, Thomas could spend a day going from a property in Northern Virginia to a practice in Essex. His next job, conducting training for a hotel management firm, put him on the road for weeks at a time. The position provided for his wife, Maysirria, and their two sons, Aaron and Joel, but there were drawbacks.
"I was so involved in my job, I wasn't taking care of myself," Thomas said. "That's the case with too many hotel managers. I would hold seminars or work on site, usually from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. You don't watch what you eat."
In spring and summer of 2002, Thomas began to monitor his caloric intake. Last September, at a hotel in Louisiana, he stepped on a scale in the exercise room. Thomas had gotten under 350, but he needed another jolt to take action.
On a job in Atlanta last December, after he struggled to button his dress shirt, Thomas put on the previous day's clothes and shuffled around the parking lot for 10 minutes.
"All hotels have fitness centers, but to me, riding a bike for an hour is boring," Thomas said. "I wasn't fit enough to enter a basketball league. I thought about racquetball, but that might be hard to fit in. The more I ran, the more I became addicted."
He kept at it, adding 30 seconds to the previous day's run, then a minute. The miles piled up, and the pounds came off. He's now around 310.
A business acquaintance turned Thomas on to Jeff Galloway, a 1972 Olympian who espouses a "run-walk" regimen for beginners. Thomas heard Galloway talk at the grand opening of a running store in Pikesville. He found the right shoes there and a training partner.
Sheri Jacobs, 37, an art therapist at a state hospital, sought a similar change in lifestyle.
"Leon is such an inspiration," Jacobs said. "He has become a good friend."
"I joined a Fleet Feet training group, and we run every Saturday," Thomas said. "I started that in April. Had Sheri not been there, I wouldn't be running like I am."
They have gone as far as 21 miles on the Northern Central Railroad Trail in northern Baltimore County. Thomas also has plotted several paths near the hotel in Columbia he manages. Some mornings, he'll cross-train at a YMCA. On others, he'll circle a shopping center parking lot in Catonsville before 5 a.m.
Initially, Thomas went there to avoid dogs and ridicule. A 52-inch waist pair of pants offers negative reinforcement, but he is holding off on a new wardrobe. Thomas ordered an XXL shirt when he registered for the Baltimore Running Festival. His initial aim was the marathon, but family and friends convinced him that a more modest goal for 2003 was in order.
Thomas wants to get down to 220 pounds and then up to 26.2 miles.
What:Baltimore Running Festival
Times:Marathon and team relay, 8 a.m.; 5K, 8:30 a.m.; half-marathon, 9:30 a.m.
Where:M&T Bank Stadium; half-marathon starts at the Inner Harbor