Trailnet Champion: Tom Seest
Tom Seest bares into the wind, riding tall over the frame of his Kona Sutra. He crosses the campus at SIUE on a warm Saturday, relishing the hills. When he bought the bike, he switched out the factory components in favor of mountain bike gears. Loaded panniers lay across a rack behind his seat and across the handlebars. He has toured with more than 70 pounds of gear strapped to that bike. A little extra weight on his bicycle does not bother him. In April of 2011, Tom Seest weighed more than 500 pounds.
As a young man, Tom enjoyed riding. He lived in Chicago with his wife Martha, he rode regularly. After a fall down a flight of stairs in 1998, he sustained a back injury. The pain persisted and he moved less and less. Working as a software developer, he was getting very busy at the same time. While working 80 to 90 hour weeks, he was sedentary at his desk and the weight started piling on.
“I was ‘fat-fit’,” says Tom. “When you’re getting heavy, especially when you’re busy, you don’t know what’s happening to you.”
Tom and Martha moved back to Edwardsville to start a family. He worked at Lambert Airport during its expansion in the early 2000s. His boss would pay him to stop at Krispy Kreme on the way into the office to pick up donuts. On this same commute, he regularly passed a Jenny Craig diet center. One day, out of curiosity, he stopped in. He says he didn’t want to lose any weight, but wanted to see exactly where he stood. When the meter pushed past 500, the scale registered an error.
“I knew that I was significantly heavier than other people,” Tom says. “But there were not enough physical symptoms to make me change.” He could still function working at a desk, and so he plodded on.
He began doing work for a grain storage company in Assumption, Illinois, and had to drive an hour and forty-five minutes each way. Returning home in the evening, he could not even take off his own shoes. His knees were on fire from constriction during the long commute. His children started peeling off his socks and shoes for him and he a had his wake up call.
“It was a phenomenal emotional battle to get off of the couch,” he explains.
He likens preparing to take a walk outside as a large man to covering an outdoor grill. It took 20 minutes just to get ready for a walk. His body tingled and he had all of the neuropathy associated with Type 2 diabetes. He started by walking.
“I didn’t care whether I lived or died, I just did the best I could adding steps,” he says.
He went on a Carnival Cruise with his son, determined that he was going to climb all of the steps on the ship. At every landing they took photographs and sent them back home to Martha.
“You have to give the spouse hope. There is a lot of emotional struggle and baggage because they’re taking care of you all the time. I couldn’t even do simple chores like changing a light bulb.”
By this point, Tom knew that he had to do more than just exercise. He started on the Atkins Diet. He packed a cooler full of diet shakes to take to work. The ice packs doubled as a salve, soothing his burning knees while he drove. He knew that he was making progress, but he still could not register any weight loss on a standard scale.
Just after New Year’s 2011, Tom got onto the scale and it finally registered 498 pounds. He decided that this was the year he would start riding again. He took his bike to The Cyclery and Fitness Center in Edwardsville to have it tuned up. On April 6, 2011, Tom Seest rode two miles on the Madison County Trails as a birthday gift to his wife. He told her that he would ride 20 before the end of the month. After eight attempts, Tom did just that.
“It was the love of riding that kept me going,” explains Tom.
In the first month, he blew out all of the spokes on his bike, so he upgraded to another. The spokes failed on that bike too. When the bike mechanics told him it would take a week to repair, Tom bought an identical one so he could keep riding. When it happened again, he bought a third. Tom rotated the bikes, two red and one white, through the bike shop and onto the Madison County Trails. When his rims gave out, he switched to cyclocross rims and he always carried extra seats in his bag, prepared for the next time one came loose from the post.
By the end of 2011, Tom rode 3800 miles on over 230 individual rides. He crossed the state of Washington, rode through Willamette Valley, and down the Pacific Coast Highway. He and his son cycled past a bank in Edwardsville that winter and the sign read eight degrees. He went on to complete over 6650 miles in 2012.
“I became what my kids call ‘useful daddy’, more helpful than I’d ever been in my marriage, but I was still heavy,” he says.
He explains that his diet took a bad turn. He started eating a lot of carbohydrates after listening to other riders. While maintaining 1800 calories a day, he ended up gaining 40 pounds that year. This was his first clue that something was wrong with his initial attitude about weight loss; you simply burn more calories than you take in.
“I decided that he was going to figure this nutrition thing out, ” he says. He learned about the Keto Diet while listening to podcasts on the MCT Trails. Ketosis is a metabolic process that occurs when the body does not have enough glucose. Stored fats are broken down for energy. Tom figured out that by eliminating carbohydrates, his body would start to burn existing fat.
“My body is eating the twinkies I ate 20 years ago,” Tom quips, and grabs his belly. “I have plenty of fuel.”
He started ‘fast-riding’ after hearing about other endurance athletes on the Keto diet. The last time he was in Oregon on business, he did a 21-day protein-sparing fast. He claims that he has not been hungry since 2014 and sleeps only four to five hours a night with more energy than ever.
Tom tours frequently and you can often spot him on the MCT trails. He has ridden from Santa Barbara to Mexico, from the mouth of the Mississippi to Edwardsville, and from the Mississippi River to the Florida Keys. On October 15, Tom rode on 120 miles on Trailnet’s Magnificent Missouri Bike Ride and slept in a tent. The last time Tom was in a tent, he required a weight-bearing chair to get up off of the ground. He did not eat during the ride, nor for 58 hours beforehand.
“Cyclists are not intentionally intimidating, but the culture is,” he says.
Tom is not concerned with speed. He readily admits that he would be left behind on most group rides. He insists that there is a huge demand in this culture to get people back out on the trails. He really enjoys the social aspect of riding, but admits that it can be daunting.
“My perspective of the world was a couch for the last 15 years,” Tom says. He thinks that people need someone like him there as an example. There needs to be a mentality change and he believes he is the person to show them how it can be done.
For Tom the best part of cycling is the social aspect. “That’s what is saving biking”, he says. “It’s fun and it’s fitness. People are learning of opportunities because of social media and they’re getting off of their couches and getting active.”
In January, Tom is planning to go to Florida to ride the eastern seaboard with his son. “The best bucket list item you can have is a new bucket,” Tom ventures.
He would like to ride the TransAmerica Bike Trail from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia. Meanwhile, he rides when he can. He hosts up to 50 cyclists a year as they pass through on Route 66. He offers a warm shower and lets them sleep in an airconditioned RV at his house. Martha cooks meals and Tom takes them to Ted Drewes for a frozen Concrete. An overnight at his house is now coveted by cyclists from across the country.
The results from his diet and his ride-fasting have earned him something of a following. Tom is a frequent guest on podcasts now and he has a network of people that he stays connected with through social media. New research is being conducted to see how the Keto Diet might be used to treat epilepsy and even cancer. He is taking part in some of the studies and attending conferences across the country.
Tom takes a bicycle with him on cruises and rides when the ship is in port. Recently he was in Cozumel, Mexico during a torrential downpour. Tom was the only passenger to get off of the boat. Shopkeepers watched him from storefronts and he saw an armadillo float. Both of pedals were underwater, but Tom kept on rolling.