Fat Chance

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On November 19th, 2008, a man weighing five hundred and thirty-one pounds won the New York City Marathon, covering the 26.2 mile course in a blistering two hours, seven minutes and fifty-eight seconds. How he transcended the severe cardiopulmonary limits of his obesity and traveled such a distance has never been determined; to this day his triumph over thousands of highly-conditioned runners remains one of the most baffling cases of physiology known to man.

Amazingly, the contestant, Kenny James Thorson, 34, a chain-smoking, corn chip-addicted security guard from Hackensack, New Jersey, had no prior experience in marathon racing. Nor was he even a casual weekend jogger, or had he undertaken even the crudest efforts at physical fitness. In fact, until that fateful day, the farthest trek Mr. Thorson had made in weeks-if his post-race comments to WFAN radio are to be believed-was from his couch to the refrigerator.

What quirk of ambition drove this unsightly behemoth to enter the premiere long-distance race in America? And what superhuman force pushed his quarter-ton body to take the tape before thousands of delirious fans?

No one knows. But one fact remains indelibly clear: his victory, preposterous as it seems, stands unrivaled as the most preeminent track and field accomplishment of the twentieth century, and perhaps, of all time.

 

When Mr. Thorson appeared amid the swarming crowd of sneakered humanity clogging the Verrazano Bridge that brisk November morning, the reaction of the other contestants ranged from titters of laughter to dumbstruck awe. The sight of his triple-chinned form drooping saddlebags of pink, rucked fat was as incongruous to the setting as a bulimic at a Weight Watchers meeting, and no less shocking. “He looks like a walrus in shorts,” one repulsed woman was overheard saying, as she knotted her Asics and gazed at his ballooning tonnage.

Of course, none of the whippet-thin runners stretching their hamstrings on the tarmac believed that a being of such planetary girth actually came to compete; that was a physical impossibility. No, the presence of this corpulent young man in the baggy cut-off sweats and sleeveless Nobody Beats The Wiz tee-shirt was obviously a joke, a sick gag by a radio shock-jock, or a vile PR stunt. How else could they explain the sight of him plucking sauerkraut pirogues out of a paper carton and stuffing each dripping, buttery load into his mouth? His gluttony confirmed it, and without further notice they readied for the start.

But when the stranger reached for his fanny pack, things turned truly bizarre. Lifting a mezzanine of flab off his midsection, he poked about in the steamy folds of his abdomen, feeling for the pack, before finding it and zipping it open. A moment later, after searching its interior, he produced a slip of paper, which he fixed to his chest and unabashedly displayed.
The crowd of runners gasped-for there, pinned between those pendulous breasts, read the timekeeper’s digits: 1-1-0-2-5.

There was a moment of lingering silence, then an ear-ringing cacophony of howls stung the air. This tub o’ lard was going to compete? It was ludicrous, insane, the most delicious thing on earth. It gave every svelte, aerobic body a smug sense of superiority-for that gigantic capsule of blubber looming in their midst was their nightmare, their antithesis, the worst thing they could ever possibly be: fat.

Mr. Thorson, however, remained oblivious, ignoring the laughter, his eyes two piggish black beads of concentration drilled into his hamhock face. He toed the ground with a tattered Rockport, steeling himself, and when a NewsFour chopper scissored low over the crowd and the mass of bodies surged ahead, he remained stationary, letting them flow around him, as stoic and immovable as a boulder in a stream.

Slowly, the seconds wound down, and the mile-long army pressed tighter and tighter. Police officers locked arms; camera crews jockeyed for position, and after a tense, ten-second countdown, the starting cannon exploded with a deafening shot. Gunpowder whiffed skyward, and with a celebratory roar, the herd of bodies surged across the Verrazano’s undulating span in a stampede of swishing nylon and pounding polyurethane.

The parade of runners poured into Brooklyn, past hydrants, bodegas, and a banner-waving crowd. A pack of leaders quickly distanced themselves, and it was obvious to everyone that the victor would hail from that esteemed vanguard. Miles four, five and six sped by, and the gap widened between the elites and the second tier.

But all that changed, abruptly, at mile seven, when Mr. Thorson made his startling emergence. First there was a ripple, the hint of a turbulent presence within the mob. Slowly, as its speed built, the surrounding runners peeled away, fleeing from its rampaging path. Then, in a glorious parting, the sea of bodies cleft open, birthing a glacier of jiggling, triumphant flesh, a joyous bathysphere of flouncing, shimmying cellulite that bounded down the avenue with astonishing speed.

What made Mr. Thorson’s emergence so memorable-aside from the sheer visual shock of it-is the curiously smooth way he glided over the pavement, defying the profundity of his size, as powerful and fluid as a whale skimming through the surf. It was majestic, a ballet of impossible moves, Thorson’s legs and arms, lubed by a sheen of sweat, operating in flawless synchronicity. Fans marveled at his flopping breasts, at his magnificently-sagging underarm wattles, and the curious way each step sent a shockwave of ripples through the great orb of all-dominating stomach. No one who witnessed the prancing, rolling style of his locomotion will ever forget it.

Especially the leaders, who could only gaze back in stupefaction at this most ridiculous of opponents. Stunned, they shot forward with a burst of acceleration, and within minutes, their obese challenger dropped away.

For the next three miles, Mr. Thorson chugged on amid wild, deafening applause. At one point a cadre of media journalists joined him, thrusting their cameras and boom microphones into his face, begging for an on-the-run interview, but Mr. Thorson made no reply, keeping his eyes locked on the leaders, his face as blank and expressionless as a passport photo.

Meanwhile, the media reports rushed in, and as news spread across the city, hundreds of citizens rushed out of their abodes to throw impromptu “Go Kenny!” parties on sidewalks and roof-tops, carting televisions outside to watch Mr. Thorson’s impossible quest. Cabs skidded to a stop as drivers tuned in race reports; priests and rabbis delivered Sunday sermons to empty pews, and in Times Square, live footage of Mr. Thorson aired on the appropriately-named Sony “JumboTron,” where a crowd of Japanese tourists amassed to cheer this strange, sumo-like competitor.

By mile twelve, a horde of overweight citizens, varying in degrees of avoirdupois from the chubby to the barely-able-to walk, gathered along the course route to fly homemade banners and salute their new-found hero with bags of potato chips and other fatty snacks. It was a gustatory orgy, a “Foodstock,” as one hastily-scrawled sign read, and the pavement echoed with a Nuremburgian roar at Mr. Thorson’s every stigma-erasing step.

Accustomed to being worshipped by race fans, several of the elites, including Olympic silver medalist Josef Nyakerantu of Kenya and Mexico’s “Iron Pony” Diablo Ruiz, objected to Mr. Thorson’s heightened media coverage, and could barely conceal their disgust. But what could they do? Mr. Thorson’s appeal was undeniable.

Amid screaming pandemonium, Thorson steamed into the mile thirteen fluid station, where he blew past the drinking cups without taking a sip. There was murmur of concern, but a hundred yards later, his intent became gloriously clear.

Who placed the customized ‘snack station’ along the marathon route has never been determined, but it is widely assumed that confidants of Mr. Thorson’s, perhaps working in collusion with other pro-obesity support groups, were responsible. The station, sagging under an avalanche of circus peanuts, White Castle sliders, garlic knots, Gummi-worms, chicken wings, Ekrich turkey franks and other unhealthy comestibles, appeared magically, borne out of the crowd, providing a much-needed boost for Thorson’s insatiable metabolism. Cramming whatever he could sweep into his mouth as he trotted by, he danced down the avenue, jowls chomping, his toes spry and youthful, energized by the quick hit of food.
For the remainder of the race Mr. Thorson would gain sustenance from more high caloric pit stops, and as he plowed into Queens he picked up speed. He ran past warehouses and drab industrial facilities, a full three minutes behind the leaders, and with miles fourteen, fifteen and sixteen blurring by, he followed them into Manhattan.

The first few miles went smoothly, but at mile nineteen, catastrophe struck. A shoelace on Mr. Thorson’s five-year old Rockports worked itself loose, whipping around his ankles. Fans screamed, trying to warn him, but he raced on, oblivious. And right as he seemed to be reaching a newfound fluidity, it happened. Abruptly, his stride came up short. Something snagged; he stumbled, losing his balance. To the crowd’s horror, his legs stopped and his upper body kept going, and in a tumble of bouncing blubber and pinwheeling limbs, he pitched forward, slamming into the pavement like a pachyderm felled by a tranquilizing dart.

Thinking that the inevitable had happened, two paramedics from nearby Lenox Hill Hospital darted to his body, which lay in a heap of quivering flesh whose shape and consistency was remarkably similar to that of a carnival moonwalk. But when they slipped their fingers onto his heaving neck to take his pulse, a dazed Thorson sprang to life, and with a club-like forearm, batted them aside. And seconds later, he was on his way.

To a lesser competitor, the shoelace mishap would have proved disastrous, but it only infused Mr. Thorson with more determination. Chins bloodied, knees and elbows scraped raw, he reached into the resevoir of his own iron will and pressed on, striding over the metal slats of the Willis Avenue Bridge for the course’s brief one-mile U-turn into the Bronx.

With Nyakeranta setting the pace, the lead-pack re-entered Manhattan for the push to the finish. The Iron Pony clung to the Kenyan’s heels like a wad of gum, followed by the German 10,000 meter Olympic champion Werner von Heinrich. It was a three-man race, but unknown to the leaders, Mr. Thorson was picking up speed, and by the time he entered the fifth and final borough, he’d gained a minute, running a scorching 4:47 mile twenty.

Skin salmon-pink, slathered in persperation, Thorson kept on, and as he barreled down Fifth Avenue and entered Central Park, the crowd boiled in tribute–for up ahead, only a hundred yards away, were the leaders. Finally, he was within striking distance.

At mile twenty-three, where the course leveled into a straightaway, Mr. Thorson made his move. Snorting and rolling and powering along, he drew closer and closer, gaining on von Heinrich. First, the champion heard an ominous plodding, followed by a wash of hot, garlic-tinged breath. Next a gigantic, baobob-big shadow fell over him as Thorson’s presence loomed larger and larger, until the terrified German felt the soft wet sponginess of his mammoth belly nudge into his back. von Heinrich had no choice but to veer wildly away, lest he be trampled by those churning chafing legs, and Thorson ripped by in pursuit of Ruiz.

It was a classic battle, Thorson quick, nimble on his feet, the Iron Pony springing off the cement like a jackrabbit, straining, gasping, every sinew of his taut brown body scintillating with lactic acid, and for a hundred yards the Mexican held him off. But as the two tore around a curve, Thorson closed the gap. Arms pumping in rhythmic firings, he pulled alongside Rivera with one last, desperate charge. The Mexican strained, his neck jerking wildly as he abandoned all form, but it was no use. With a turbo-charged burst Thorson pulled away, leaving the Iron Pony slack-faced and humiliated, muttering dios no, dios no! as his hefty vanquisher left him behind.

Now only one man stood between Thorson and victory: Nyakeranta, the fearsome Kenyan. But time was running out. In an ebony streak, Nyakeranta sprinted onto Central Park South for the twenty-sixth and final mile. Thorson drove on, his mouth a flat line, grim and determined, but he was five seconds behind. It didn’t look good.

But as it so often does with champions, Fate lent a helping hand, in the form of Rachel Gluck, a two hundred eighty-one pound toll booth clerk from Great Neck, Long Island. One of the thousands of corpulent fans who’d assembled to cheer him on, she’d been chain-eating assorted pastries out of a Happy Donut sack, when sensing Thorson’s imminent defeat, she unselfishly pulled her twelfth and final snack cake–a sugar-glazed bear-claw pastry–out of the bag and dangled it over the blue police barricades.

Thorson, his glasses fogged over with perspiration, failed to notice, but luckily, his olfactory sense caught a whiff of sugar and like a bee after pollen, he went for it. Miss Gluck stretched, offering, and to her delight Mr. Thorson’s pudgy hand found her pastry. And in one mighty, on-the-run gulp, he swallowed it whole.

A second later, Mr. Thorson’s spent, sweat-slick body sprang to life, galvanized by the sudden sugar rush, and he shot forward as if propelled out of a cannon. Running like a man possessed, he dashed along, his feet barely touching the pavement, his leviathan body a wizened blur, every prancing, dancing step bringing him closer and closer to the striding Kenyan. And before the Olympic champion ever knew what hit him, Thorson whipped by, comet-quick, leaving a ferocious tailwind in his wake that nearly blew the stick-thin Kenyan off his feet. As his rival chugged on, his jowls working every last molecule of glucose out of the bear-claw, all Nyakeranta could do was watch, helplessly, as the absurd turned to reality and Mr. Thorson’s Brobdingnagian stomach shattered the tape amid a whirlwind of applause and pinwheeling confetti.

 

Years later, only one question remains: how? Of course, in a situation as ludicrous as Mr. Thorson’s, there are no easy answers. The only certainty researchers have concluded is that Mr. Thorson was able to accomplish his incredible feat through some transcendence of corporeal limitations, the familiar “mind over matter” theory. But that hypothesis is manifold, and falls drastically short when etiological factors are considered. And while no conclusive theories have ever pinpointed how Mr. Thorson was able to compete that day, there are several educated, albeit farfetched guesses.

The foremost theory was attained by a panel of cardiologists, dietary experts and nutritionists from New York’s leading hospitals and private clinics. Their hypothesis, known as the ATTM theory, (Adipose Tissue Transference Model) has its opponents, but for the most part stands as the only cogent study ever conducted. In a paper delivered to the American Medical Foundation two months after the race, Johannes Loushe, Professor Emeritus of the Endocrine and Metabolic Department of Tufts University, put forth the central theorem that Mr. Thorson was somehow able to convert his prodigious reserves of bodily fat into a boundless, inexhaustible energy source. Obesity is defined as “excessive storage of energy in the form of fat,” so at first glance, the hypothesis sounds legitimate. But when viewed on a more comprehensive level it is problematic, as it opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions as to how this process took place on a cellular and/or metabolic level.

That is where most contemporary research is being conducted, and while advances have been made both domestically and abroad, no conclusive answers as to how this energy transference took place, or how the subject’s limited cardiovascular system was able to function under such intense aerobic strain have ever been discovered. For years Mr. Thorson has cooperated with researchers, submitting himself to ruthless examinations, and still there are no answers. Every day, men of science pore over the same Petri Dishes of Mr. Thorson’s flab, to no avail. Sadly, it appears the case may never be solved.

Mr. Thorson, of course, parlayed his astounding victory into a string of media appearances and endorsements, and for a brief time went on to become one of America’s “biggest” celebrities. But the relentless attention proved to be a strain for the reclusive Thorson, and eventually, he returned to his $24,000 a year position as a security guard at the Twin Oaks Mall in his native Hackensack.

No one knows why Mr. Thorson chose to race that day; it seems as if he were chosen by some higher deity to put forth some pro-fat agenda, which he did magnificently. As Thorson never raced again, the world will never know what his exact motivation was.

But millions of fat people hardly care, for that day Mr. Thorson gave them reason to stand up and cheer, to love and respect themselves for what they are. Yes, for a brief, idyllic moment, all society-imposed stigma vanished in favor of something they’d never felt before–self-respect, confidence, and an unfailing pride in themselves. Never again would they trod the Earth with doubt or fear–thanks to Kenny James Thorson, every overweight man, woman, and child can live as gluttonously as they wish, knowing that appearances, at best, are illusory.

-As featured in Empty Pinata & Other Tales of Woe