Jason Cohen shuffles his near lifeless legs down Leadville’s Sixth Street in Colorado, wondering aloud whether this is really happening and how he came to be here, crossing a finish line after running 100 miles.
Eight years ago, Cohen hardly moved off the couch or away from the TV or his computer.
“I was sedentary, uncomfortable in my own skin and thought I would be trapped in the same situation for the rest of my life,” Cohen says. “Running 100 miles seemed like I would have had to jump into someone else’s life or body.”
“At that moment, I became at one with the reality of my situation,” Cohen said. “I was obese.”
Back then, at 27, Cohen blamed his weight on bad genes and a slow metabolism. “Skinnier people just won the genetic metabolism lottery,” he’d say.
“It is hard to understand how much mental energy you expend every day being uncomfortable in the body you have to live in,” Cohen says. “There’s no way to hide your weight.”
Instead, you just worry about how you fit into clothes, or how people look at you, or whether the chair you’re sitting in is going to break beneath your weight, he says.
Jason Meaux, Cohen’s friend of more than a decade, knew exactly how he felt. The two of them weighed about the same. “We looked the same. We had the same middle name. We were like brothers but not through birth,” he jokes.
“Back then Cohen would keep his hair longer, always wear hats and wear thicker-style shirts to help conceal his shape,” Meaux says, adding that now Cohen “kinda oozes confidence.”
When a friend gave him a bicycle as a gift in the spring of 2011, he went against his initial instincts that a “300-pound man on a bicycle is crazy” and began to use it every day around Lafayette, Louisiana, where he lives with his wife, Jen, and their four-month-old son, Louis.
Cohen began to appreciate his physical potential after he quickly dropped 10 pounds. “I barely got off the couch before and now, here I am with my own two legs and I’m moving on a five-mile ride.”
“I knew nothing about health. I knew nothing about weight loss. I knew nothing about exercise,” he said. He took it upon himself to have as many conversations with people as possible, peppering them with health and exercise questions.
Inspired, he upped the stakes and invited Meaux to a sixth-month weight-loss challenge that spring. “I knew nothing about health. I knew nothing about weight loss. I knew nothing about exercise,” he said. He took it upon himself to have as many conversations with people as possible, peppering them with health and exercise questions.
His attitude shifted as well. Says Jen Cohen, he went from, “‘I can’t’ to ‘I could do that.’”
At the end of six months, Cohen had begun to eat a mostly vegetarian diet and had lost 40 pounds, handily winning the competition.
“That challenge gave him the confidence,” Meaux says. “He’s become an inspiration to a lot of people, myself included.”
Bolstered by his win, Cohen then convinced Jen in 2013 to try a plant-based diet with him for a month. The two have not looked back and have maintained their diet ever since. “What was unanticipated was how much better I was going to feel after doing it,” he says. He’s now lost more than 120 pounds and has kept the weight off.
In late 2015, Cohen started running, mostly short runs around his neighborhood. A chance encounter on a family vacation in Leadville the following year led him to enter into his first-ever race, the Leadville Heavy Half, a 15.5-mile race around Leadville’s old mining roads and trails with 3,720 feet of elevation gain.
Despite having not trained or having run more than eight miles in a single run, Cohen finished the race and began to wonder just how much farther he could go.
After that, he completed the Crescent City Classic marathon in New Orleans, the Leadville Full Marathon and another Leadville Heavy Half. Then, in December 2017, Cohen registered for the Leadville 100. He didn’t let the fact that his longest run to date was only 31 miles deter him. “Honestly, I just believed it was in me,” he says.
Since the race is an out and back, runners must twice cross Hope Pass, which takes runners up a steep, rocky climb of over 3,000 feet to 12,500 feet. Mark Leblanc paced Cohen over the pass after the 50-mile turnaround. Cohen ran a negative split, finishing the second leg an hour faster.
“There were so many moments where he operated outside of what we thought possible,” LeBlanc says.
Near the end of the race, Cohen leaned on his trekking poles. Every step going up and down was painful.
“I was thrashed,” he recalls. “My body was done. My knees were done. My will was done. I had nothing left.”
Until he turned onto Sixth Street and saw his friends and crew members waiting for him and was told that his wife was just down the road. Then he surprised everyone and started running again. Cohen crossed the finish line in 29 hours 25 minutes 52 seconds.
This summer Cohen completed the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim run. In August, he crewed for his friend Jim Gray at the Leadville 100 and paced Felipe Guardia of Costa Rica, whom he met on the flight from Houston to Denver.
“The only thing that was missing from me before was that I didn’t believe in myself,” he says.