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Powerful Women Let's Talk - 111: Elizabeth Fanco

Elizabeth Fanco

Elizabeth Fanco joins host Shelley Irwin on this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk

Elizabeth Fanco is a mother of eight who farms, coaches soccer, and runs for a cause. She joins us to share her inspiring stories of weight loss and the recovery of one of her children she almost lost. Elizabeth Fanco joins us on Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:


Narr: Produced by women, about women. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world; transforming who we are and how we live.


Shelley Irwin: This powerful woman certainly has a story to tell. Not only on how and why the loss of over 100 pounds and keeping it off. But how does she manage motherhood of 8, athletic competitions, plus a near death of a child. Welcome, Elizabeth Fanco to this edition of Powerful Women: Let's Talk. I’m not sure where to start. How much weight did you lose?

Elizabeth Fanco: About 120 pounds.

SI: We’ll get back to that. 8 kids, there's a farm involved, a husband and more. A marathoner at least. I want to go right back to that childhood, Elizabeth.

EF: All right. Well, I did not grow up in the Midwest. I'm a New Englander. I grew up in New Hampshire in the seacoast area. So I definitely still prefer the ocean to the Great Lakes. I'm sorry to everyone who prefers fresh water, but give me the ocean any day.

SI? Can’t change you.

EF: I have 4 brothers and no sisters, so I grew up heavily into watching sports, but not doing sports. My brothers all did them. And so I went along to a lot of games, but I always say I was a non-athlete, but not only a non-athlete, a never-athlete.

SI: There's a difference.

EF: Yes.

SI: Wow.

EF: But, just family really big growing up. My mom came from a farming family, spent a lot of summers on my grandparent’s farm. And my mom was a U.S. Forest Service Ranger and so really grew up loving the outdoors, loving being outdoors: walking, hiking, things like that. And just brought that passion into my adult life of being outside. And that's why we have a farm now. It took a while. My husband grew up in a subdivision on the other side of the state. Took a while to get him to the point that he loved, you know, being on a tractor just as much as he loved being in a subdivision, but definitely heavily influenced by growing up in a farming family. I was the brainiac type kid and also a theater kid. Athletes were not my people growing up and not a whole lot of self-confidence. I was kind of reflecting on it today and not a lot of social self-confidence growing up. I I knew who I was academically. I could be anyone that people told me to be when I was on stage. But I didn't really know who I was. And I think a lot of teenagers go through that, but I really carried that into my adulthood. Not really knowing who I was as a person and not having confidence in who I was as a person. And that's been an important part of my journey that I'm sure we'll touch on, is the past few years really taking that time to figure out who I was as a person.

SI: Have you figured it out?

EF: I've got a pretty good idea now. I'm much more confident in it than I was for decades.

SI: What did you study?

EF: I have a bachelor's from the University of New Hampshire. History, Justice Studies, Pre-law. I was going to go into teaching. I actually did my first semester of student teaching in middle school. I really want to teach high schoolers, but they put me in a middle school and after one semester I was like, oh gosh, I can't do middle schoolers and I didn't go back and finish my last semester student teaching. So I didn't get my teaching degree, but I did finish my bachelor's and then went from there to working in the legal field.

SI: So 8 kids. Tell me about this journey.

EF: Yes, my husband and I have 8 kids. We have 5 daughters, 3 sons. They range in age from 9 to 24. And I also have to stop myself because the birth dates go throughout the year and I’m like, shoot, what month is it?

SI: Make sure you always have a president ready, right?

EF: Yes, yeah. Well, and just age wise, one of my daughters, Felicity, is going to have a birthday in 3 days. So it's always, people ask me ages and I’m just like, shoot, where are we in the year? I have to figure out who is what age. But, ages 9 to 24. So we have one out of college, owns her own home, lives out by St. Louis. One in college. 3 in high school right now. One at the middle school. One at the intermediate school and one in elementary school. So we're kind of in every phase except baby and toddler right now. We kind of are parenting every phase.

SI: In general, what's the energy of a family of 8 kids?

EF: I tell people it's like herding cats. Our house is never quiet andI love it that way. And then the benefit of a big family is if you have one sibling and you're not getting along with each other, you've got nobody else in the house to talk to. My kids on any given day, even if they're not getting along with a few other siblings, have other people talk to other people to talk to, other people to play with. And when they're all getting along, it's great because we have a soccer field at the farm. They can all go outside and split into teams and play soccer. They love to do things together. And that's my favorite thing about their sibling bond is just the way that they love each other and that they love spending time together. So you always find them in groups places. But it definitely is like herding cats. I enjoy organizing chaos and I tell people in terms of raising 8 kids, it's not for everyone. It definitely is not for everyone, but if you enjoy making an organized system out of the mess and it's a perfect job for you and I love figuring out new ways and new systems to keep everything in order and keep everything running smoothly, so.

SI: Elizabeth, let's change gears. Back to mom. What was your maximum weight?

EF: Just over 300 pounds was when I stopped getting on the scale. So I don't know what the actual number was. I know it was over 300. My maximum clothing size was 24, 26 depending on the clothing brand. I still have a pair of size 24 jeans at home that I can now fit to kids in with me.

SI:When did you know it was time to make a change?

EF: I've wanted to make a change for decades. Nobody ever sets out to be obese. Nobody ever says this is how I want to be. And I think this time of year, especially we see everybody making New Year's resolutions and saying that this is going to be my year, this is the year I make the changes. This is the year things are going to be different. And I'm going to, you know, chart a new course for my life health wise. And I was definitely in that boat every year, OK, this is going to be I want to make this change. I want to- want to be healthy for my kids and want to set a good example for them. So there's not necessarily a year where I said this is going to be it. In fact, the change didn't happen until I didn't make that a resolution.

SI: …make that resolution upon yourself. Make that pressure on yourself, maybe?

EF: Right. Definitely. Because instead of saying I'm going to get thinner, I'm going to lose weight and get healthier. Instead, I had already started running with team World Vision. So I had a reason for running.

SI: Because that was a fundraising opportunity.

EF: Yes. Yeah. So our family runs with Team World vision. We raise money for clean drinking water around the world.

SI: You were running at a heavier weight?

EF: Yes, yeah. I was doing half-marathons at 300 pounds. Took me over four hours to do them. They were not comfortable. They were very painful. training was very painful. And at that point, I was putting in hundreds of miles a year of training and still weighed 300 pounds. So anybody that says you just need to exercise a little more to lose weight… ehhh I was exercising and I was still 300 pounds. It's more than just exercising. But, in 2021 I decided if I can't lose weight, something needs to change. I want to hate running less. So, I didn't make the resolution to get healthy. I didn't make the resolution and I was going to drop X amount of pounds. I said I just want to hate running less and that is when the change started.

SI: What came along with the change?

EF: So in January of 2021, I went to the Mary Free Bed Sports Performance Center

SI: So 2 years ago?

EF: It was 2 years ago.

SI: So it doesn't happen overnight.

EF: it does not happen overnight. That was almost exactly 2 years. Next week will be 2 years since I sat across the desk from Todd Buckingham at the performance lab and I said OK, my goal is just toi hate running less. Help me. I'm going to keep moving my feet for clean water until the global water crisis is solved. But it's a lot of miles and I'm miserable and I want to hate this less. help me fix my running. Help me do something to hate running less and that's when he introduced me to the Alter G treadmill and the Alter G treadmill is, it was developed by NASA technology. You put on these neoprene shorts with a zipper on the top and you zip yourself into a bubble from the waist down and that bubble pressurizes. It lifts you off your feet and it can take you down to as little as 20% of your body weight. All of us and I wasn't running at 300 pounds anymore. Todd asked what weight I wanted to be put at for the first time I got on the treadmill and I said, I picked a number from high school that was the lowest number. You know, my ideal weight. I said 180 pounds. I want to know what it feels like to run at 180 pounds. And he put it down to 180 pounds and he kept picking up to speed and I started running and in that moment I understood everybody who had ever run past on the trail who was smiling and talking with a friend when I had been out there on that same trail, gasping and hating every step and feeling every pound on my body jar and my joints ache. And in that moment when I was 180 pounds and running and like a 10 minute mile pace or an 8 minute mile pace numbers that I could even fathom at that point, it was like this is what people are talking about. People that say they love running aren’t lying. It's actually possible to do this and enjoy it. And for me, that was a life changing moment because it wasn't just oh, if I lose weight, I'm going to feel better and running is going to feel better. It wasn't just a hypothetical that I was aiming at, it was a concrete thing. I could feel what my body felt like to run that fast at 180 pounds and to feel that is the most incredible motivation ever because I wanted that. It gives you a hunger for that. And I started training on the Alter G treadmill with Todd 3 days a week I started going in there. He connected me with a nutritionist at Mary Free Bed. Found out I was eating too little, not too much because I kept thinking, well, surely I’ll lose weight if I, you know, just like cut my calories back and back and back. And so I learned- I learned how to fuel my body properly, which is not something I ever really paid that much attention to. I just always saw, you know, 2,000 to 2,500 calories on the bottom of the nutrition information box on the side and always tried to keep my caloric intake, you know, within that as an adult. I learned that there's a whole lot more to it than that. You know, I learned how to fuel for training and fuel for races and all the while, I was going back 3 times a week and running at 180 pounds and it was running at that weight that I wanted to get to and there's no motivation like taking those first few steps and starting to run and realizing this is it. This is what I'm working towards. This is what I want to get to. Todd's guidance and running on that treadmill provided that final push that I needed to make that change.

SI: Supporting a family. Let’s talk about that. Were they there for you?

EF: They were. So my kids actually…

SI: This was moms time.

EF: This was mom's time. My kids are actually the ones who got me into running. My kids have always been heavily into sports. And in 2018 was when 2 of my kids, my daughter, Francesca who was 11 at the time, my son Teddy was 14 at the time. They wanted to do a half marathon with world vision. I'd never run a mile. I’d never been in a 5 K and they asked me to join them and like my kids are asking and someone's going to have to drive him to group runs, soI guess. I couldn't even do the first 20 minutes of training that first day. And that was the year that took me over 4 hours to do a half marathon. But the next year, our whole family did the half-marathon and that became something that we became a family that runs together. And so they saw a change in me. They saw that I was working on myself. They saw that I was enjoying it more. And my kids especially just became my biggest cheerleaders. They thought it was so cool that mom was loving running. Now, instead of, you know, something I was just doing for someone else, it was something I was doing for me.

SI: Did you see your numbers change? They say your numbers, your cholesterol, your blood pressure is higher. Weight could be correlated with higher numbers which could lead to problems down the road. What do you think?

EF: I was, unfortunately, the numbers were never motivation for me, because every year I would go into my doctor and they do all my blood work and they’d say wow, your numbers look great for such an obese person. Like well, thanks. That doesn't give me any motivation to change my blood sugar, my cholesterol, triglycerides, everything was always great. But I was 300 pounds. And I had a doctor who said, well, maybe your body is just comfortable at this weight and that's just the way you're going to be and I said no, that's 300 pounds isn’t healthy for me. That's not healthy for my joints. That's not. I have diabetes that runs in my family, heart problems run in my family. Those aren’t things that I want. I want to be around for my kids. So those specific numbers weren't my motivator. But the long term. Wanting to be healthy, wanting to be there for my kids and set that example for my kids. I wanted it to be a normal thing that mom is out running races on weekends and that mom does triathlons. I wanted that to be their normal. Not their normal that mom sits at home and drinks wine and watches soap operas. Which I don't do either of those.

SI: And if you want to do that, do it.

EF: Yeah, more power to you if that is you. But I wanted my example to my kids to be It's totally normal to have a mom who's out there doing triathlons.

SI: But it's taken off into you did a Chicago marathon and more and you still have goals on your list. This is a lifestyle now.

EF: It is. It definitely is. About 2 years ago, I heard a quote from Mark Twain. That was, eat a live frog first thing in the morning and you guarantee that nothing in your day will be worse after that. It's a general gist of the quote. I said, OK, I'm going to- I'm going to take this training seriously. I'm going to eat my live frog first thing in the morning. And A-Z running just did a great podcast about how to be a frog eater. But I did. I completely changed my life. I started getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning and going to the pool and getting my swim and my run done before my kids were even up for the day. That was not me.

SI: Probably had too, though.

EF: Yes.

SI: Because there are responsibilities of a mom.

EF: There are. And the farm

SI: And a wife.

EF: Yes.

SI: What's the ultimate goal?

EF: I don't know if there is an ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to continue to improve. I want to be a better version of me and a better athlete than I was last week, last month, last year. I haven't set time goals for myself this year because I found that if I set a time goal for myself and I don't achieve it, even if it's a great race, I feel like I failed somehow. And so my goals for 2023 are to just get better. I want to- I want to love the process of improving as an athlete. I want to love my training and also the passion for helping other people get their first finish line. I always tell people there is a moment that will change your life. And that moment is when you go from saying I can't do something to I just did something. Whether it is your first 5 K, your 1st half marathon, your first triathlon, whatever it is when you cross that finish line and you realize something, you've told yourself your whole life that you cannot do, and you just did it. You start to reexamine everything. You start to say, what else in my life have I limited myself on? What have I told myself I'm not capable of, that I might be capable of but I've never tried because I've I've just assumed I couldn't do it? And so I have a real passion for helping people get across that finish line so they can have that moment so they can- so they can realize that they are capable of so much more than they thought they were.

SI: In addition to continuing to push yourself, I want to take one more half-step back to 2022. And have you share an inspiring story. Thank goodness It's an inspiring story. You did almost lose a child to an automobile accident.

EF: Yes.

SI: Can you share and Inspire others who are going through this now?

EF: So on June 10th of 2022, our daughter Anna was 17. She was driving our son, Timmy. They were going to pick up snacks at Walmart before they headed off to summer camp in a few days and she took an unfamiliar way home and missed a stop sign and went right out across a major state highway and was t-boned at 55 Miles an hour. T-boned right where Timmy was sitting in the car. He was, they had cans to return in the back seat. So he wasn't sitting in the back. He was sitting up front and he was not heavy enough to set off the air bag. So he took a direct hit from the car that the whole compartment of his side of the car crumpled in around him when paramedics got there, or when first responders got there before, even the ambulance got there, they assumed that he was already gone. His head was open, you know, brain exposed, both legs broken. Anna was in and out of consciousness. And she kept saying, help my brother, help my brother, help my brother and somebody finally got in and found out he still had a pulse and it was a firefighter there that worked for almost an hour to get him out of the car. They didn't think he was going to make it in the helicopter between Hastings and in the hospital. But he did. He survived. We had about 72 hours in the hospital where they couldn't tell us definitively whether or not he would live. And once they told us that it looked like he would live, they said he's probably going to be in a vegetative state. He had a grade 3 traumatic brain injury, diffuse axonal brain injury with shearing and pretty much it essential that type of brain injury involves your entire brain. He was in a coma for 2 weeks. Transferred to Mary free bed, still had just technically just out of the coma based on scoring, but still minimally responsive, staring off in the distance, not responding to people or speech.

SI: And all this time and I don’t want to dwell too much on this, Elizabeth, because it has a good ending. But your journaling in the social media style. You're keeping your followers in tune to daily happenings. Was that important to you?

EF: It was. I- I tell people when you're going through a crisis, one of the things that I've learned is you bring your inner circle really close. You figure out who's in that inner circle and you keep them close to you, but expand the outer circle as much as you can. We had thousands of people praying for Timmy and Anna. We had 2 kids in the pediatric ICU at the same time. And then 2 kids at Mary Free Bed Rehab hospital at the same time.

SI: Because of Anna’s injuries?

EF: Because of Anna’s injuries, yeah. They were both med-flighted from the scene and both had a long recovery and they are still recovering. But it was important to me that people see the honesty of what was going on. The honesty of the situation. I think, social media, we have a tendency to just post our highlight reel. Nobody learns from the highlight reel. Nobody can identify with the highlight reel. And I had already been very upfront in terms of my athletic journey saying I want to be honest about the highs and the lows so that if somebody comes behind me and is trying this for the first time, I want them to know that not everything is sunshine and roses. So the first day they have a miserable run. The first day they have a race where everything just falls apart and the wheels come off, they don't feel like they failed and they’re the first person to experience that. I want them to know that we've all been there.

SI: I bet that even Todd Buckingham still has some tough races. Again, the journey has so much more to offer. But Anna and Timmy are healing.

EF: They are. Yes. So Timmy is at about 98% back to where he was before the accident. His pediatric neurologist said, looking at his most recent CT scan has the brain of a normal 12 year-old you don't. You don't see the traumatic injuries and the bleeding in the bruising and everything that he had after the accident anymore. He still has rods in both of his femurs, but he has come back like Gangbusters says grades are back up. He is- he's a normal little 12 year-old boy and he ran the Grand Rapids half marathon with our family back in October, which was a huge goal for him. But, you know, a kid that we were told we would probably bring home around Christmas time in a vegetative state. Instead, cross the finish line of 13.1 miles, his 5th half-marathon that he's done. And Anna, just watching her go through her senior year, knowing she had 11 broken bones and a skull fracture and a brain bleed. And so watching her thrive in her senior year has just been wonderful. Knowing that each day with those kids is a huge blessing.

SI: Well, thank you for sharing and everyday improvement to them. But I've got to get to the fun facts. Life is full of bottoms, but let's get you back to the top. What is this musical theater that you did?

EF: I was heavily involved in community musical theater growing up. We had a community theater. We actually had a Gilbert Sullivan Society there that we’d Gilbert Sullivan shows every year and depending on the show, some of them are up to 30 performances that we would do. And I lived at the theater and in middle school and high school, high school I actually wrote a musical with my best friend and we directed at the middle school and I lived on stage. I loved being on stage. I think as I said, I wasn't confident in who I was, but you could give me a character and I could be that character to, you know, 100% effort, I could be that character and I loved being on stage. Unfortunately, since moving to West Michigan a couple decades ago, I have not really been back on stage. I did- I did a show. I'm trying to think I was pregnant with Jesse. So 2005, it was the last time I was on stage. I'd love to get back into it some day. Right now my kids are just treated to me, belting out songs in the house and in the car and everywhere else. And during COVID we went through all the musical's I could think of one per week while the kids were stuck at home for school and I taught them all the classic musicals and they love to sing together. So, I’m at least reviving musical theater in my house.

SI: Using your talent. But you are- you’re talented. But I see you're a licensed soccer coach and certified referee. Is this- where's this in your life?

EF: So, we have kids who played soccer for 17 years, almost 18 years. And my husband started coaching. We realized if we were coaching then we could control our schedules. And when you're trying to control the schedules for 7 or 8 kids on different soccer teams at the same time, it makes more sense to coach your own kid so you can control the schedule. So I started coaching. And then 4 years ago, I was asked to become a travel coach. And so I was coaching just local soccer before that. And then I started coaching a travel team, for ASO United and went through the process to become a licensed coach. And I'm not coaching this year, but I have absolutely loved the opportunity to coach kids in soccer. A sport I never enjoyed playing when I was little, but I love helping other kids enjoy it.

SI: All right. One last thing, when it comes to a fun fact and you're farming duties. Farm goat, formal dress. What happened in between this story?

EF: It was last January. We were getting ready to go out to a formal dinner for Jeff's work. He works at Meijer Corporate. And getting ready to go out, I had formal dress on hair, makeup, everything done and I don't do my hair and makeup often. I'm a no maintenance person. And the kids went out to check on the goats and we had a goat in labor and it was stalled in labor and I was like I can't leave with a goat in stalled labor and we don't have a heated Barn. So, they brought the goat into the bathroom. We have one bathroom at our farmhouse. So it's normal for goats to deliver in there, but I'm already dressed up, my hair and makeup are already done and I'm yelling at this goat as I am trying to turn a breached kid in the goat like you had better not get blood in placenta on my dress because I have not changing.

SI: Tell me there's a good ending.

EF: There is a good ending. The baby was born. Baby was healthy and we were a little bit late to dinner. But it's probably, my husband got a kick out of telling everyone sorry we’re late, my wife had to go deliver a baby goat.

SI: Yeah, that's a talking point. Elizabeth, as we say, our goodbyes, you know where I'm going to go. What do you tell that person who needs to lose weight, needs to learn to change a lifestyle, needs to change something in her life that's going to take a challenge?

EF: The first thing I do is I warn people that losing weight will not fix your self esteem. And so before you do anything, you can have great self esteem or awful self esteem whether you're 300 pounds or 150 pounds. Your self esteem will not magically fix itself just because you lose weight. And that was a huge surprise to me. I lost weight and I still had no confidence in who I was. And so I tell people before you start working on losing weight, start working on you. Start working on being confident in who you are as a person, knowing who you are as a person, building up that self esteem and then attack that journey. And once you attack that journey, get help. Because not only is there no shame in asking for help, but there's support in asking for help. There are so many people who are on the same road that know so much more than you do. And I didn't see real life change until I got help from Todd, from Wendy, the nutrition that I work with, from so many people. But I had to ask for help. So work on you first. Work on your self esteem first because know that nothing is going to fix that magically, but then ask for help and then get support along the way. The athlete community as whole is the most encouraging group of people you'll ever meet in your life. And I know you do races. So you know that, too. Whether you're having the best race toward the worst race you've ever had, people will be out there smiling and encouraging you. Whether you're the first one across the finish line or the last. And I think if you grew up as a non athlete, you think athletes are not my people like I don't fit in with them. Everybody fits in with athletes, everybody. No matter your skill level, you fit in with them and don't be afraid of them and build up a group of people around you. Take some friends and go to a group run, take some friends and sign up for a race together. Take some friends and say, hey, we're going to tackle this triathlon together for the first time this year. That group support is so important and there's nothing like experiencing that finish line with friends.

SI: What’s that quote about the frog?

EF: Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and they'll be nothing worse that will happen to you the rest of your day.

SI: And you’ve had your frog for the morning?

EF: I have, I've already got my run with friends this morning. So the Frog has been eaten.

SI: Elizabeth Fanco, thank you for this edition of Powerful Women: Let's Talk. You’re inspiring.

EF: Thank you so much.


Narr: Produced by women, about women, these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are, and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women: Let’s Talk? Get additional interviews at wgvu.org or wherever you get your podcast. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.


Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The Shelley Irwin Show, a news magazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast at 9 a.m., features a wide variety of local and national news makers, plus special features.
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