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Originally published June 8, 2012 at 12:12 PM | Page modified June 8, 2012 at 1:40 PM

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Meet the regular folks who became fitness inspirations

Ages 36 to 82, they know pain comes with the gain, but, for them, it's well worth it. The trick is to push smart and be happy with your performance at any age.

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SO HOW do you go from exercise-averse to exercise enthusiast? And how do you keep doing it, even as you age? Meet the inspiration:

Nicole Nazzaro

"I thought I had the fat gene."

Looking at the woman sitting across from me at a Kirkland Starbucks, sipping a skinny caramel latte, you'd never guess it. But that was what Nazzaro told herself for years. It made sense. Her parents were overweight, and she was carrying an extra 30 or 40 pounds. Her blood pressure was high, too. Her father died of a heart attack at age 58.

"I told myself I was destined to be overweight and live out my father's life," she says.

She was unhealthy and pretty unhappy. Only she didn't quite see it that clearly.

"It's a real mind game I played with myself," she says. She believed she was exercising, even though it was only sometimes. She told herself her lousy diet would get better. Tomorrow.

In 2008, at age 36, she signed up for a half marathon. She intended to run it, but wound up mostly walking. Then, from the sidelines, someone snapped a photo.

"This is the picture that changed my life," she says. Nazzaro looks not only overweight but completely miserable.

"I was lumbering through life, like Eeyore," she says. "I wanted to be like Tigger."

She pulls out another photo, this one taken last year, at a West Seattle 5K. Here, she is slim and muscular, her expression determined. She is also 40 pounds lighter.

The athlete was there all along. Yet in her Eeyore phase, she couldn't even conceive of the "self" the second picture reflects.

"I literally thought my body was broken," she recalls. "I tried everything — except eating well and exercising."

Today, the two pictures hang side-by-side in her office, where she does freelance writing and is a workplace wellness consultant. They are a reminder of where she was and of the potential inside her — inside just about everyone, she says.

"I want people to realize it's not all over if your parents are heavy," she says. "It's not over if you've been heavy all your life, or if you think you can't do it."

Janet Palmer

A Metro bus driver, Palmer spent a lot of her life on the sidelines.

"I didn't even start running until I was 50," she says.

The woman before me at Shoreline Stadium is in pigtails and shorts, catching her breath after a little jog. And she's smiling. Good Lord, is she smiling.

At 53, she ran her first marathon.

"I thought what idiot would do this again?"

Being wise, she sticks to halfs, running one every other month.

Why? Turns out that once she tried running, she really liked it.

On this warm evening, she has just finished a fun event held weekly called the Jogger's Mile. It's for runners of all ages and abilities, and Palmer finished way in the back of the pack. The object is to predict exactly how long a mile will take you. The person whose time is closest to their guess wins.

"Even if you lose, you could win," she says. "That's what makes it so fun."

A few years ago, she was a lot less healthy. She remembers when the problem smacked her right in the face, watching the Torchlight Run along the parade route.

"I'd see all these runners and none of 'em are fat," she says. "And we're sitting there with our coolers looking like Jabba the Hutt."

No more. As she begins describing how she lost inches around the middle, and gained something more important, there is an announcement:

"And the winner of the Jogger's Mile is . . . Janet Palmer!"

She starts jumping up and down. "I won! I won!

She doesn't stop.

"I don't need a prize! I got the glory!"

David Ortman

"Never ask a masters athlete how he's doing," says Ortman, 59. "Because he'll tell you."

Then he launches into a litany of afflictions: the hamstring pulls and rotator-cuff injuries, the calf strains and so on. Once, he was laid up for two years with plantar fasciitis.

All this as a result of competing in the sorts of track-and-field events, like hurdles and sprints, normally done by people one-third his age. As a trained journalist, I know the next question to ask: Why? He laughs. Then he talks about friends who are really hurt. He's running and throwing and jumping, even as he's nearing 60, because he can.

"I figure, well, until I get to needing the hip and knee transplants, I might as well do it now."

If you aren't active today, he says, it's only going to get more difficult tomorrow.

Besides, it's a whole lot of fun. He's part of a track-and-field club and goes to meets where he gets to swap stories with friends old and young. With every new season comes a new challenge.

"You have something to work for, something to plan for," he says. "That's what keeps most of us going."

Fred Luke

When you give something up for, say, 30 years, it may be difficult to start again. But that is exactly what Luke did.

Now 65, he competed in javelin in the 1972 Olympics and continued for several years after that. Then life got in the way, and he stopped. He became a Boeing engineer and took up tennis and golf, but it wasn't the same. His weight went up, as did his blood pressure and cholesterol. Then a friend asked if he could help coach some high-school kids.

"The first day, I almost pulled a groin," he recalls. "I thought, this isn't going to work."

In his second year back, he ruptured his Achilles tendon and had to be carted off on a stretcher. He realized the answer wasn't to give up; it was to get stronger.

Being athletic is in his soul, so he knew what to do. He threw and threw, then started adding weights and medicine-ball workouts. He's got arthritis in his knees, but his doctor told him to keep working out; he'd have the arthritis no matter what.

His cholesterol came down. And his throwing improved.

He rattles off his three goals: "One, be able to walk away in one piece; two, not get beat by a girl; and three, get a decent distance."

Now, he's ranked sixth in the country for his age group, though his distances are about half what they were at his peak.

"I have to accept where I am and enjoy it," he says.

Al Erickson

The world-champion decathlete stands tanned and sinewey; he talks nonstop; he doesn't stop moving. Shot put, javelin and yes, pole vault, at age 82.

He won the gold medal for his age group at the World Masters Athletics Track and Field Championships in Sacramento, Calif., last year, after taking up the sport just five years earlier. Why? For all the reasons most of us wouldn't take up decathlon.

"It's 10 events over two days," he says. "You don't have time to get any rest to speak of. The best part of it is you just train all year long."

He retired as a University of Washington professor of wildlife science in 1993, but the last thing he wanted to do was slow down. The bigger the challenge, the better.

"You can't go up to throw a discus and have a misthrow and blame it on anybody else."

Watch him high jump and you think, wow, how does an octogenarian even get his body in that position? As he throws the javelin, you can't help but wince. He sure doesn't look like Luke. In the 100-meter, he takes twice as long to finish as the rest of the pack. He doesn't care.

"If you could run like you did when you were 19," he shrugs, "there wouldn't be any competition."

Maureen O'Hagan is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW staff photographer.

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