Five years ago, Shannon Petitjean weighed more than the biggest Raven, smoked three packs of cigarettes a week and drank too much.
Petitjean, of Leonardtown, will compete in her first Baltimore Marathon on Saturday having shed 190 pounds and quit smoking and drinking.
"Half of me, literally, is gone," she said. "I have another chance at life."
The race is the second of three marathons Petitjean plans to run this month. The 36-year-old, who'd never run one before last Sunday, completed her first race in Corning, N.Y., in 5 hours, 21 minutes. In two weeks, she'll run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington.
"I do everything in excess," she said. "Only now, I'm on to healthier things."
It shows. The 5 foot 9 woman who once weighed 355 pounds is now a lean 165. Her clothes size has shrunk from a 26 to a 6. To her children, who once called her "Big Mom," she's just Mom. Friends who've seen her jogging mile upon mile through St. Mary's County have dubbed her "The Shannonator."
"She's a totally different person, from the inside out," said Mandi Kuidlan, a lifelong friend. "Shannon was always very unhappy with herself. She's gone through some dark times and always struggled with her weight. I've never seen her at [165 pounds], not even in middle school.
"I don't know what finally kicked it into gear for her, what gave her the strength to do this, but her story is amazing. If Shannon can do it, anybody can."
Hers was not an overnight success, Petitjean said. She hit bottom in 2008, after the birth of her second son.
"I remember going to the health clinic, getting on the scale and facing the other way because I was too embarrassed to see my weight," she said. It was 355 pounds.
That was her tipping point.
"It stung," she said. "I'd always been the funny one, the loud one. I figured if I was that way, people wouldn't look at my girth. At eight, I was ordering off the big menu at Burger King. When I hit middle school [in Lusby, Calvert County] I weighed over 200. All my life, I'd go to Chinese buffets and head back to the table a third and fourth time.
"I'd try fad diets for a day or two and give up. Eventually I didn't want to get out of bed, but I had two kids and a house to take care of. I didn't want to go out because I was ashamed of the way I looked and felt. My drinking was out of hand. And when I got upset with the children, I'd go out on the porch with a cigarette to calm down. That was supposed to solve my problems."
At 31, she was determined to change.
"Maybe it was having to always shop for larger clothes, or not being able to get on rides at the local fair, or being too flat-out tired to keep up with the kids," she said.
Petitjean toyed with other diets, started eating better and joined Food Addicts Anonymous, a 12-step program in which she measured her food, swore off flour and reported daily to a sponsor. By March, 2009 she'd lost 150 pounds but then dropped the program, tired of its "boot camp" routine.
Her weight crept back to 250. There she hovered for nearly two years until, in February 2011, a friend suggested she join Weight Watchers.
"That's the only thing I hadn't done," she said.
Again, the pounds began to melt. That April, her mother talked Petitjean into walking a local 5K (3.1 miles) for charity.
"At 220 pounds, I looked frumpy in a white shirt and sweat pants," she said. "One-quarter mile from the end, a woman ran past me and, out of the blue, I just wanted to run. I said, 'Mom, I have to go,' and took off.
"I chugged across the finish line, heard the cheering for everyone and thought, 'That was awesome.'"
Hungry to run, Petitjean vowed to compete in a 5K when she reached 185 pounds. Six months later, she entered a race at the historic Sotterley Plantation in nearby Hollywood.
"I remember putting on the race bib and thinking, 'This is real,'" she said. "I ran the whole thing, felt like stopping in the middle, but didn't."
A surge of 5K races followed. By Christmas 2011, she'd dropped to 169 pounds, quit smoking after 23 years and was ready to stretch her distance. First up: the Rock 'n' Roll USA half-marathon in Washington, D.C., the following March, a race she finished in two hours.
"I came home and immediately signed up to run it again the next year, for a $20 price break," Petitjean said. "I love a discount, plus doing that helped keep me grounded. I knew that if I got heavy, I wouldn't be able to run it."
Her spirited training regimen is infectious, those in her local running club said.
"I call Shannon 'Spitfire' because she's constantly on the go and looking for the next challenge," said Lara Collins, 42, of California, Md. "She could have said, 'I'm going to be the best 5K runner around,' but chose instead to hone her skills and step up to the next level."
Petitjean ran several more half-marathons, as well as Baltimore's Charles Street 12, before tackling the Wineglass Marathon in Corning this week in 86-degree heat.
"It was so hot, I felt like there were eggs boiling on my face," she said. "I hit a mental wall at mile 21, where I couldn't stop crying. But I'm relieved the first one is over so I'll be more relaxed for my first marathon in my home state."
She knows her five-year journey has carried her further than the 26.2 miles she intends to run on Saturday.
"I don't have a doomsday feeling about my future anymore," Petitjean said. "I'm stronger than I've ever been, and I can look my kids in the eye and tell them that their mother is healthy."
Moreover, both her sons — Pierre, 10, and Preston, 5 — have completed 5Ks of their own. And her husband, Jean-Pierre, has quit smoking, too.
"He's my biggest supporter," she said of her spouse. "Sometimes I talk about running so much that he gets that glazed-over look, but he knows it keeps me happy and out of the bars."
Though she gave away 50 bags of old clothes, she kept some, as well as personal photos from years past.
"That stuff is a further incentive, something to remind me that it actually happened," she said. "When I look at the pictures I'm, like, who the hell is that?
"I feel like the teenager that I always wanted to be. And I want to be an example for those who feel it's not possible to change."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun