Road to fitness takes Andy Bell to the Boston Marathon

Submitted photo
Andy Bell, and his wife, Heidi, participate in a Spartan Race. The formerly overweight and out of shape teacher from Mifflintown is now training for the April 16 Boston Marathon.

LEWISBERRY — The breaking point for overweight Andy Bell came about six years ago when he hopped on a scale and saw it read 265 pounds. Here was Bell taking medication for his blood pressure, cholesterol and anxiety.

“I know I was crying,” recalled Bell, who currently teaches at Cedar Cliff High School and coaches girls track team at Red Land High School. “I couldn’t believe I was this out of shape, that I felt this miserable.”

That moment proved to be prophetic to the Mifflintown native and 1991 Juniata High School graduate. A former three-sport athlete at Juniata, Bell recalls vividly taking a detour on his way out of Red Land after girls’ basketball practice. The varsity girls coach at the time, he stopped by the school’s weight room to use the treadmill.

At the time, Bell was on the verge of turning 40, out of shape but not necessarily overweight. He was hopeful that he could make it for 10 minutes at a reasonable pace. Shockingly, he barely made it two minutes.

Today, Bell is 100 pounds physically less than the man he once was. At age 45, he weighs 175 and brags, “I think the thing that surprised me the most personally, and what many other people experience, is the emotional and spiritual changes that you can experience through fitness.”

Submitted photo
Andy Bell competes with his daughter, Megan.

Bell is in the best shape of his life, but it’s not just the physical part that changed him. Off his medications, he has become more positive and a healthy role model for his three daughters.

In late March, Dad and oldest daughter Megan ran the Philly Love Run, a half marathon. Now his family is supporting him for an even bigger challenge as he prepares to run in the 122th edition of the Boston Marathon on April 16.

“It’s the Super Bowl of running,” Bell said about the historic 26.2-mile race. “It’s a runner’s dream.”

The man, who once couldn’t run two minutes on a treadmill, plans to run Boston at a seven-and-a-half-minute clip or better.

Tennis transformation anyone?

Submitted photo
Andy Bell wears No. 19 during a race.

Bell went to the doctor for a routine check-up and received a startling diagnosis. “He mentioned that I probably could lose a little weight to be healthier, and to help slow down my path to being diabetic,” Bell said.

“I was experiencing daily headaches, back pain, high blood pressure and some pretty severe anxiety,” he said. “There were days at school where I just had to leave because the anxiety was so overwhelming. The first attack I experienced I really believed I was having a heart attack and I was taken to the hospital for observation.”

Soon after his failed treadmill attempt, his family hosted an exchange student from Denmark who played tennis. Bell dug out his old racket and started competing with the student, Cecilie, at home and in father-daughter tournaments in Lewistown and Philadelphia.

“I don’t think I had made up my mind to get in shape yet, but this was one of the many events that helped trigger the transformation,” he said.

Bell continued his training daily and ate healthier foods.

Submitted photo
Andy Bell strikes a pose along the Skyline Drive in Virginia

“When I lasted two minutes, I was soaked in sweat, out of breath, and I sat on the bench in that weight room and cried,” he said. “How could I be 39 and this out of shape and feeling this terrible? How could I be coaching athletes and be this bad of an example of a healthy person? What message was I sending to my own kids? I was tired of being tired.”

Finishing his first 5K

In the fall 2012, the next step was running his first-ever 5K with his wife, Heidi — a Turkey Trot in New Cumberland. Bell, competitive by nature, says receiving immediate results at the finish line motivated him to seek out more organized races.

“I thought to prepare I could try running after basketball open gyms and practices and try to get into some running shape,” Bell said. “I had always played team sports — basketball and football. Running was always a form of punishment. Maybe that’s why I underestimated it as a sport or as a type of leisure activity.”

Little by little, the transformation began.

Submitted photo
Andy Bell displays medals from his competitions

“The next day, the goal was two minutes,” Bell recalled. “Soon after that, it was three, then four and eventually I was able to run in that first Thanksgiving 5K.”

He finished in a little more than 24 minutes, which was slow by his standards today. Still, it wasn’t bad for someone who had become so out of shape. The experience was life changing.

“I was in awe of the amount of people who ran, the giant start and finish lines, the clock and the instant results — overall, by gender and by age group,” he said. “I found myself walking back past others who were still running and I was encouraging them to finish. When we left the race, I knew I was going to do another.”

Becoming a man

on the run

One 5K race led to another then another until a former Red Land player asked him to train for a Tough Mudder, and after completing his first obstacle race, Bell heard about Spartan Race and switched his focus to preparing for the series, which includes sprint lengths (three to five miles), supers (eight to 10 miles) and beast (more than 12 miles).

Each race includes a minimum of 20 obstacles. Bell’s favorite obstacle is the 30-foot rope climb. At an Ohio race in May 2015, Bell was in fourth place when he got to the rope climb, the last obstacle before the finish.

The athlete in third had just started on the rope when Bell approached, and his friends began warning him that Bell was right behind as they climbed up the knots along the woven rope. Bell’s robe climb effort was enough to catapult him into third and a spot on the podium.

That Ohio race marked the first time Bell finished with a medal-worthy time.

“My breakthrough race was the Philly Stadium Sprint Spartan Race,” he said. “I was running in the open division with thousands of runners and I ended up with one of the fastest times of the event. My wife said, ‘You should run elite.’

“Running elite in Spartan Races means you run with the best of the best, competing for monetary prizes, rankings and you cannot receive assistance of any kind during the race,” Bell said. “I have since run over 100 Spartan Races, finished ranked among the Top 150 men in the United States for three straight seasons. I have been on seven Spartan podiums — earning a check and a huge block award — and have qualified and competed in the Spartan Race World Championship three times. Spartan Races have taken me all over the country — from Vermont to South Carolina to California.”

Running in Boston

or bust

Three years ago, Bell set his sights on running in the Boston Marathon. He knew that qualifying for the historic event wouldn’t be easy, but he was determined. Failure was never an option.

“Boston is the most prestigious road running marathon in the world and the oldest road race in America,” Bell said. “The qualifying standards are the most challenging of any road marathon. To help prepare, I started pacing marathons and other races for a company out of Seattle, called BEAST Pacing.

“I chose the Steamtown Marathon in Scranton to be my competitive marathon and qualifier for Boston,” he said. “It took me over two years to finally run a BQ (Boston Qualifier) qualifying time and this past year, I was accepted into the Boston Marathon field.”

Bell admits his training routine has been grueling, especially since he has set very specific goals. “I have never trained specifically for one event like I have been for this one. My goals are to establish a new PR (personal record) and beat my BQ qualifying time of three hours, 16 minutes and 39 seconds.”

From teacher

to trainer

Bell became a certified personal trainer and opened his own training studio in September 2017. He converted his 900-square-foot garage into a fitness studio to house his business — Run Higher Training.

“I love that I get to help others begin their own journey,” he explained. “For many, they find the benefits of fitness go way beyond the physical but also impact us emotionally, mentally and even spiritually.”

Bell also trains those interested in obstacle course racing. He has competed in more than 100 Spartan races all over the country in the last five years and uses the studio as well as outside area for training.

There’s also a rack of racing medals hanging above a treadmill in his studio. Some are from 5Ks, others from trail races and a bulk are from Spartan Races and marathons.

“It’s been quite a journey and not always an easy one,” Bell said. “I have had three meniscus surgeries, a torn abdominal muscle surgery, and have a chronic disc issue in my lower back. But, when I run nothing hurts. While I have had some of those minor injuries, my heart, liver and kidneys are so much healthier … not to mention my mind and emotional health.

“Today, I rarely work out alone because I have found having a support group of like-minded people really helps produce some external motivation to help carry you through tough stretches,” he said. “Even now, each weekend as I prepare for Boston, I have different folks who step up to run all or some of the long runs with me. That’s a huge help. People will say I inspire them, but they have no idea how much they encourage me.”