DULUTH, Minn. — It was November 2014, and things were coming to a head for Tony Bester.
Overweight and diabetic, the Duluth man knew his longtime career as a truck driver was in jeopardy. His A1C reading — a measure of glucose in the blood — was between 10 and 12, high enough that he might soon require insulin. That would mean he could no longer drive a truck.
He was a heavy drinker and regular smoker, and he felt tired all the time.
Then, he learned one of his best friends had been diagnosed with kidney cancer.
“And I remember going home that day,” the 51-year-old recalled recently. “I went home, and I just fell on my knees. And I prayed. I asked God: Do something for me.
“After that, I started going to the gym.”
Bester, who lives in Gary-New Duluth in the winter and in his fifth-wheel camper along Spirit Lake the rest of the year, enrolled at the Anytime Fitness franchise in West Duluth. He signed a yearlong contract with the fitness center and with trainer Ashley Johnson for twice-weekly sessions.
“That way, I knew I’d never be able to quit,” said Bester, a soft-spoken man with gray hair and neatly trimmed facial hair who was wearing a silver cross around his neck during a recent interview. “I had to keep doing it. I don’t know if I would have found excuses or not, but I know in the past I had. So, it seemed like if I committed myself to do it, I would do it.”
He did more than that. Bester gave up drinking and smoking. He changed from a diet that was heavy on pasta, red meat and pizza to a diet featuring vegetables, poultry and seafood.
The results are eye-popping. At 5 feet, 9 inches tall, Bester went from 295 pounds last Nov. 24 to 203 pounds on Aug. 7 on the Anytime Fitness scales — but he lost more than 100 pounds according to the scale at his doctor’s office.
His waist size went from 50 to 33. He doesn’t need insulin — in fact, he has been able to drop the medications he was taking for diabetes. His A1C has dropped to 4.5 — a normal level for someone who doesn’t have diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In the bad old days, Bester said, “I wanted to sleep all the time. I’d eat, saunter back to the couch, and that’s where I’d sit until I woke up and went to bed at night.”
Now, Bester said, he has a hard time sitting still.
‘I’ve gotta work out’
After working a double shift the day before a recent interview, Bester had stopped at Anytime Fitness to exercise.
“If I don’t do it, I don’t sleep,” he said. “I’ve gotta work out or something. Otherwise my energy levels are so high, I don’t know what to do with myself.”
The fitness center doesn’t want him to work out more than five days a week, he said. He’s told he needs to give his body a chance to rest. So on the other two days, he “rests” by riding his bicycle — something he couldn’t have imagined a year ago.
“I wouldn’t have fit on a bike a year ago,” Bester said, laughing. “I think I would have broken it.”
How did he do it?
Bester emphasizes the spiritual side. He said he refound God, and that changed the way he saw himself.
“God showed me that there is still a good guy in there, even though I didn’t think there was,” he said. “Once I decided that, the rest of it came easy.”
Help also came from the staff at Anytime Fitness and particularly from Johnson, who goes by AJ. “I had a good trainer,” Bester said. “She motivated me.”
In a phone interview later, Johnson said she had a special bond with Bester because he was her first client. Because of the damage to his knees from a 27-year career of driving a truck, Bester experienced aches and pains while working out, but he pushed through them, Johnson said.
“As soon as he started seeing the changes physically, his confidence just soared,” Johnson said. “He felt so much better about himself. There was no going back.”
Bester had been a driver for Jeff Foster Trucking in Superior for about a decade but was driving for a different company when he reached his turning point last November. In the meantime, Jeff Foster Trucking created the new position of health and wellness advocate and hired Duluth native Miriam Hanson in August 2014.
So, Hanson wasn’t aware of the “before” when Bester returned to the company a couple of months ago. But other people in the office were.
“When they saw him, they were like, ‘WHA …?’ ” Hanson recalled. “They barely recognized him. … Watching all of those dispatchers’ reactions was priceless.”
A couple of Bester’s colleagues have been inspired to make lifestyle changes of their own, Hanson said.
Bester said he’s working his way toward a goal of weighing 180 pounds; then he’ll work on bulking up. He’s planning a 6-mile run before the end of summer and either a 50-mile or 100-mile bike ride.
And there’s more.
“Next summer, I want to do a whole Grandma’s (Marathon),” he said. “At least attempt it. And if I do it, great. If I don’t, all’s you can do is try.”
How would he have reacted to that idea the summer before?
“I would have laughed,” he said with a chuckle. “I would have told them whatever they were drinking to go back to drinking it, because it’s really good.”
He was telling his story, Bester said, because he hoped it would inspire others.
“I would like to see everyone do stuff like this, so they can feel good about themselves,” he said. “Because if you feel good about yourself, then you start liking the rest of the world. When you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s pretty hard to like other people.”