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By Linda Carroll

Twelve obese people, all strangers when they met on the internet, forged friendships while helping each other get healthy and start a running program. They’ve all lost over 100 pounds and are now running marathons.

It all started when Katie Foster of Newport, Mich. decided to start a blog about her new running program. She’d peaked at 253 pounds and was ready to do something to get healthier.

When Carly York of Dayton, Ohio, spotted the blog she recognized a kindred soul. York’s weight had spiked at 349 pounds and she knew she had to do something. Soon the two women were joined by Ada Wong of San Francisco, who weighed in at 265 pounds, and Rik Akey of Milwaukee who tipped the scales at 275 pounds.

All four had struggled with their weight for years. “When I was a kid I was getting teased at school,” Foster remembers. “My nickname was Shamu in the fourth grade. You know it really ballooned after I had my kids.”

For Foster, it all came to a head when her young son wanted to learn how to ride a two-wheel bicycle.

“I started running alongside his bike and I couldn’t keep up,” she said. “I was so out of breath. And I remember just feeling like the worst mom in the world.”

Though York had always been overweight, it was pregnancy that made things worse – and sparked her desire for change. “I knew I was overweight my entire life but I think right after my son was born, that’s when it really became a problem for me,” she said. “My final straw was seeing pictures and seeing the actual size of me because I think the perceptions in our heads is a little different than the size we truly are.”

Wong, too, wrestled with her weight right from the start. “Ever since I can remember, I was always overweight,” she said. “You see, most Asians are very petite and thin, so I pretty much stuck out like a sore thumb. I was bullied and made fun of throughout my life pretty much.

“I was always looking for the quick fix, and you know, after years of doing that you realize it doesn't work. I've been going up and down for years.”

Akey can’t remember a time when his weight didn’t get in the way. “I was always the fat kid, the classic kid picked last in gym class,” he said. "That’s all I’ve known my whole life was being the fat kid.”

But as Akey got older he started to worry about how his weight was going to impact his long term health.

“I take after my father very much and he's also a heavier person,” Akey said. “He’s diabetic and has back trouble. It just hit me one day as I was approaching 40: This is a preview of coming attractions. This is going to be me if I don’t do something.

It wasn’t an easy road. They started walking first and then jogging.

“I probably ran like 100 feet and I felt like my heart was beating out of my chest,” Wong remembers. “It was pathetic. I just started running a little bit at a time and got better and better at it.”

It didn’t happen overnight for any of them.

“My first goal was to run around my block without having to stop,” said Akey. “And it took me about six weeks to get to that point. I started seeing progress and started setting bigger and bigger goals.”

And as they ran further and further, they shed more and more pounds. “I started training for a half marathon and over the process of training and the next year I lost 100 pounds,” York said.

The experience has changed all their lives.

“I started out at 253 [pounds],” Foster said. “My goal is 133 and that's what I’m at right now. I’m happy at 133.”

Down to their ideal weights, Foster and Akey set up a new goal: they would round up other former heavy people who’d slimmed down through running and start a 12-member team to train for the Ragnar relay race. They found the rest of the team members through blogs, social media and friends of friends.

As time went on, team members became closer and closer, though never actually meeting one another in person.  Eventually they became close friends.

And just last week the 12 “virtual” friends met each other for the first time in Florida. The Ragnar race covers 200 miles from Miami to Key West and takes two days to run.

One thing they all say is that the race to better health won’t end with this marathon.

"I think everyone needs to realize that it's not going to be easy,” Foster said. “Nothing about losing 120 pounds was easy. I had to make a lot of sacrifices but I made everything work into my life.”

For those who are watching and wondering if they can do it, too, Akey has some advice.

“We're not special,” he said. “We are 12 everyday couch potatoes who just one day decided, I'm not going to do this anymore - and figured out a way to make it work.”

That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy, Akey said.

“It's a lot of hard work,” he added. “But you start with something small, get off your couch, walk around the block today and that's it. Tomorrow, walk around the next block. Build small successes and eventually, you're here, it can happen.”