From a Quarter-ton to a Quarter Horse: How a 500-pound Man Lost Weight, Found Himself, and Finished an Ironman

Kevin Masters, before and after his transformation.
Courtesy Image


Age: 51
Occupation: Mechanical engineer
Home: Elgin, IL
Height: 6’2”
Starting weight: 500lbs
Current weight: 226lbs
Total pounds lost: 274lbs

As he stepped on the scale at the doctor’s office in 2011, Kevin Masters knew the news would not be good. Already on medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and pre-diabetes, he had been putting on a lot of weight in the previous five years.

The scale read 500 pounds exactly.

The doctor’s message to the 45-year-old mechanical engineer was grim, Masters recounts: “You’re in line for a heart attack,” she told him. “It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s a matter of when. You’ve got to do something about your weight.”

That something started with getting gastric bypass surgery later that fall—a scary prospect, given the failure rates and complications. (His mother later died from some of those long-term complications from her procedure). But that surgery was only the first step.

“Gastric bypass is nothing more than a tool,” Masters says. “It’s not the solution. It’s not a cure-all for heavy people. If you don’t change your mindset, it’s not going to work. I’ve worked my butt off the last six years.” (Marcus Cook, another extraordinary success story we’ve featured, expressed similar sentiments.)

Masters literally worked his butt off, gradually moving from a tight-fitting 62-inch waistline down to 38-inch pants, and Lycra shorts for running, biking, and swimming.

And, yes: Masters has combined those sports to do a triathlon. In 2014, the unlikely endurance athlete started with a sprint triathlon. The next year, he worked up to an Olympic-distance triathlon. Last year, he completed two half-Ironmans. And last weekend, 274lbs lighter than he was that day in the doctor’s office, Masters finished what was once unthinkable: an Ironman triathlon, swimming the 2.4 miles, biking the 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles in 16 hours and 24 minutes.

Men’s Fitness visited with Masters shortly after the race to learn more about his amazing transformation.

MF: How did you get up to 500lbs?

KM: I was always heavy. I was picked on a lot when I was young. I was 220, 230 in high school, wrestling heavyweight. And I kept putting on increments of weight.

What were you eating?

It was nothing for me to buy a 16-oz porterhouse to throw on the grill, cook a potato and smother it with butter. I’d have eggs, sausage, and bacon for breakfast, and for lunch I’d go to McDonald’s and eat a couple Big Macs. All the wrong things. Sometimes I miss it. Sometimes I would love to have a steak. But my stomach can’t handle it anymore. And that’s OK.

At 500lbs, were you able to do any exercise?

In spring of 2011, I couldn’t even stand for 10 minutes. I went to see a doctor because my left arch was collapsing from the weight, and my ankles were swelling. I considered having the bones in my foot fused.

How about after the gastric bypass surgery?

After getting the surgery, the only thing I ever wanted to do was to go back to downhill skiing. I hadn’t put on skis since 2001. I did start to go to the gym a couple times a week, but wasn’t really focused on exercise. Late 2012, a buddy of mine set me up on a spin bike. The first spin class I went to, my freakin’ heart was coming out of my chest. But, it got easier as time went along.

It must have been tough that first time out running, too.

When I started running, I couldn’t run around the block. The first time I went running these two kids came out and started making fun of me. I didn’t care. That was my mindset. I did my first 5K when I was 300lbs, and I walked the last half and finished dead last. I didn’t care.

It had to have felt good to finish that first triathlon.

I struggled—I had a terrible swim, and had to walk the 5K leg. But, I was feeling high on life, boasting to my wife. And then this guy comes up and says to me, “Well, we’ll see you at the Ironman in two years.” Later I went online and researched the Ironman and thought, “That’s what I want to do.” That one statement has changed my life. This journey started on that particular day. If I could find that man, I’d shake his hand.

Was there a point in the Ironman that you thought you might not finish?

Oh yeah. In the second half of the marathon, I got to the point that I could hardly lift my feet to walk. It was pure, 100% determination to get to the finish line. There was nothing that was going to stop me from getting there. I was going to crawl if I needed to.

What did it feel like crossing that line?

The finish line never looked better in my life. All the pain inside of me went away. The crowd is just screaming, the red carpet is there, and I started running. I crossed the threshold and felt like I just won the race. It was incredible. You’ll never forget that moment in your life.

Have you had a lot of support in the months and years leading up to that moment?

My coach, Jennifer Harrison, has been great. My wife, Nancy, has been through every part of it. She’s been to every race. At the Ironman, she got up with me at 3:30 a.m. and was out there with me until after midnight.

No doubt you’ve had to make some big sacrifices along the way.

Since January 1, I’ve trained every single day. My totals: 2,950 miles of biking, 480 miles running, and 247,000 yards of swimming. It’s taken me away from everything I enjoy. I’ve only been out on the boat once. My garden is a wreck. My wife has hardly seen me in nine months.

Given those sacrifices and the fact that you’ve reached the Mt. Everest of endurance sports, any thought of doing another Ironman?

[Checks to see if his wife is within earshot] If you’d asked me yesterday, I would have said, “Never.” Now I’m not 100% certain. I do want one year of getting my life back, doing the things I enjoy. I’m also considering later doing a 100-mile ultramarathon or a triple triathlon—a sprint, Olympic, and half-Ironman in one weekend. Who knows? Maybe I will climb Mt. Everest.

What message do you have for other people who might now be standing in your old shoes?

Anybody can do what I am doing. I am nobody special. There are some physical limitations for some people, I understand that. But almost anybody can do an Ironman. They just have to want it bad enough. It’s not impossible. There was a gentleman at Ironman Wisconsin this weekend who was 80 years old. You just have to believe it. You just have to believe it.

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