November 22-23, 2014

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Craig Cleveland – Recipient of the 2009 Kjell Tovander Award

The Long Road to Better Health

A former couch potato chooses a better life.

To watch Craig Cleveland on a recent Saturday morning training run would reveal an athlete dedicated to his training and health, and to sharing that love with others in Tulsa.

Cleveland coordinates and coaches hundreds of local runners and walkers, working as a full-time employee of Fleet Feet Sports Tulsa with a primary goal of encouraging more active participation in the wide range of training classes Fleet Feet offers.

However, those who knew Cleveland three years ago would paint a far different picture.

Then, Cleveland weighed 265 pounds and was a dedicated couch potato. He was also a 35-year smoker and had high blood pressure — statistics that would make any doctor cringe at his prospects for a long, healthy life.

In spring 2007, his wife, Virginia, joined a walking group, and Cleveland admits that he mocked her — and anyone who exercised — for joining such a program.

Eventually, though, Cleveland figured that if his wife could make the move to improving her health, so could he, and he accompanied her on an organized walk to try it out.

After just a few blocks, he had to sit on the curb to rest and catch his breath. He says the realization that he couldn’t even walk a few blocks with his wife’s walking group made him want to give up smoking and start exercising.

“Seeing all the other walkers out trying to improve themselves made me look in the mirror and realize I needed to take a different course in life,” Cleveland says.

The next day, Cleveland committed to walking every time he felt an urge for a cigarette. That first day he walked two miles — which he repeated three times before the day’s end.

He went from couch potato to walking 10 to 12 miles a day, and he gave up cigarettes almost instantly. That summer Cleveland joined a walking program and changed his diet from eating whatever he felt like to a moderated diet, especially watching his fat intake.

Those first steps toward improving his health helped Cleveland lose 40 pounds in about six weeks. After walking that summer, he began running and fell in love with the feeling it gave him.

“It had been a long time since I had spent any time focused on myself and my health, and the feeling running gave me was one I had never had before,” Cleveland says.

He also set his sights on running a marathon and vowed to do so in less than two years.

This may seem like a lofty goal, but when considering Cleveland’s previous experiences, he certainly has developed the drive to achieve it.

Cleveland has long focused on reaching out to assist others. In the 1970s, a local nonprofit aid group with which he had been working received a letter from a Vietnamese man in a refugee camp. The man had polio and asked for assistance.

Immediately Cleveland went to Catholic Charities to inquire about sponsoring the man. While there, the organization showed him a list of 23 minors from Vietnam who needed sponsorship and said that usually only 10 percent of these children (all under age 20) would actually make it to the United States.

Cleveland explains that in order for a minor from a country such as Vietnam to be allowed entry into the United States, he or she needed a U.S. sponsor who would assume financial responsibility for the child. The 23 children in question were all related and were from the same village in Vietnam.

Moved by their plight, Cleveland and his wife prepared to care for two or three of these children. However, they did not realize that number would increase significantly.

These children were considered wards of the United States, and once someone signed a legal affidavit of support, the U.S. government expected that person to care for the children if and when they arrived through the nation’s borders.

Lo and behold all 23 children arrived in the U.S. that year and became part of the Cleveland family (the couple also has two natural children).

“We were not prepared for such a large group,” Cleveland says. “At the time we were living in east Tulsa and I was able to lease another house around the corner from our house to be able to house all these kids. I lived at one house while Virginia lived at the other house, and we made do with what we had.”

Through this experience, the Clevelands also met other sibling groups who had been separated from their parents, so their family continued to grow. At one point, 47 children were living in the Cleveland household. Just to buy groceries (a daily occurrence) and necessities for this clan required a lot of love and resources.

Cleveland says his goal with his children was to provide them a sense of normalcy.

“It was absolutely crazy at our house, but compared to what these people came from, it was a much more stable environment,” he says. “Some stayed for just a few months until other arrangements could be made, while others lived with us for many years and eventually we legally adopted many of them.”

Now, years later, Craig and Virginia have 19 grandchildren and are lovingly referred to as “grandma” and “grandpa.” Holidays are a highlight with 65 to 70 family members getting together to celebrate at the Cleveland home.

One could surmise that this environment led Cleveland to his unfit, smoke-filled lifestyle. Cleveland says no, but the fact that he put others and caring for this extended clan in front of his personal goals led to an unhealthy lifestyle. But although life may have been tough at times, he says he loved every minute of it.

So when Cleveland went from the couch to walking and then to running — he now weighs 170 pounds — he again showed his strong will to succeed.

Cleveland ran the Route 66 Marathon in November 2008 and has since completed two other marathons, including the 2009 Route 66 Marathon. In 2009 he received the Route 66 Marathon Kjell Tovander Award, which honors an inspiring example of the human spirit and will. Someone who has overcome adversity and flourished, and is now helping others to do the same through his or her example.

Cleveland’s advice to others still sitting on the sidelines is to get with a group and start getting into shape.

“The support of a group will make all the difference in your approach and attitude and you will be amazed at how much better you will feel,” he says.

Cleveland has taken this philosophy one step further with his work at Fleet Feet, where, on a daily basis, he encourages and influences a range of people toward adopting a healthier lifestyle.

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