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ALKOL, W.Va. -- In the chilly dark, Karen, Annie, Melisa, Michele and Shannon are striding down the middle of a twisting country road, a half-hour from any four-lane. Overhead, Lincoln County stars shine bright. They're laughing and teasing with their friends, telling stories. They feel good.
They have lost an average of 71 pounds a person since June.
A hound barks. Karen Harris points out a constellation. By 8:30 a.m. they'll walk four miles on the little-traveled road.
Reflective stripes on their Mud River Volunteer Fire Department jackets glow, bobbing in the dark as they walk up the hill. "People see stripes floating, they know it's us," Melisa Ferrell says.
"Car coming!" Shannon Hager hollers. Everyone moves to the right, careful not to fall into the ditch.
The driver waves. "Keep it up!" he yells, giving a thumbs-up.
"People out here know what we're doing," Annie Toney said.
These are tough, tender women, EMTs and firefighters. They go into burning buildings and rescue people who have heart attacks up hollows. They cook chicken dinners for the community when the power goes off. They raise kids. When the Fire Department floods, they clean it up.
They have no YWCA, no track, no sidewalks, no gyms. They do have doctors who told them they had high risk of diabetes and heart attacks.
They've been walking isolated Bulgar Road five mornings a week since June, whoever shows up.
Annie's swinging her arms as she walks. She has dropped 90 pounds, from 333 to 243 pounds. "Got a ways to go, but I'm getting there. My 10-year-old's thrilled. He says, 'I can get my arms all the way around my mommy now!'"
In the evenings, five days a week, at 5 p.m., they're back at the fire hall, pounding donated exercise machines beside the fire engines, dancing in front of the big-screen TV to Richard Simmons and country music DVDs they got on eBay. They're serious.
"We got tired of being sick and tired," Melisa Ferrell says. "And we got tired of being fat. The fire chief said we could set up in the fire hall, so that's what we did. We told people what we were doing, and they gave us exercise machines they weren't using."
She walks quietly in the dark, then says, "Last winter, my doc said I'd be diabetic within a year if I didn't get my cholesterol under control. He said it was up to me. So I thought, OK, buddy, this weight is coming off."
She's lost 112 pounds so far, down from 368. Her cholesterol is normal now.
"I don't want to be skinny skinny," she says. "I don't want to be fat fat. I just want to be healthy."
A woman in a passing car stops to tell the women they inspire her. "I lost two pounds this week, working out at home," she says. "If I didn't have such a long drive to work, I'd be out here with you."
Karen Harris and Annie Toney already finished work for the day. They work night shift security at the big Hobet mine. They got off at 4 a.m. Single mothers, they both support their kids.
They walk on in silence. Their four miles will take them past crowing roosters and barking dogs and bleating goats and people stirring in their houses and trailers. They'll laugh most of the way.
"This is the best part of my day," somebody says.
'My blood sugar's normal now'
As they walk, they tell stories. Annie tells about the time the fire chief drove the truck up a steep, narrow dirt road to reach a fire. "I was looking out the window at that drop-off, and I was praying, 'Dear Lord, do not let us fall off this mountain!'"
The hoses froze up once they got up to the fire, she said, and "I had icicles hanging in my hair." Everyone laughs. They've been there.
"Now that I lost weight, they've started shoving me through windows again," Michele Egnor says. She's the only firefighter who can fit through some openings. "For a while there, I got too big. Now I fit again."
Once she squeezed through the window of an overturned car to reach a woman trapped inside, she says. "I kept her calm till the Jaws of Life got there," she said.
She has two kids at home. "I've got the energy to play with them now," she said. "My son loves to wrastle. He's my little wild man."
She has lost 52 pounds since June. "I don't have sugar anymore," she says. "My blood sugar's normal now. The doctors took me off my medicine. They were amazed.
"Stress did it to me. I gained all that weight when my ex-husband was on life support. I turned to food for comfort. It put me in a diabetic state."
Michele walks awhile, then says, "I don't know why people think you can't beat diabetes. You can."
'It's not just the weight; I'm in better shape'
Most of them smoke. "We know that's not good, but one thing at a time," they say.