RIPLEY, W.Va. -- Sixteen-year-old Benji Willis got up at 5:55 a.m., ate a breakfast bar, then unfolded a huge treadmill in the middle of the small living room. He switched on the Outdoor Channel and started running.
He ran three miles while he watched a guy in India catch giant snakes. "I focus on the TV and don't think about running," he said. "I let my body do its thing."
"This is what I do every day," he said.
Benji lost 102 pounds in six months that way. He burnt up his first treadmill. "It started smoking when I turned it on one day. We had to get another one."
Just as important, since April 2011, he has kept it off. He is fit. He weighs around 170 now.
"People always ask, 'How do you get yourself to do it?' Well, I just got myself into a habit of it. It just comes natural now. I get out of bed, get on the treadmill and run."
Last year, he dropped from 270 pounds to 168. This year, he kept it off. "I want to stay in shape, so, when I got down to the weight I wanted to be, I didn't quit running," he said. "I just ate more, and kept it right around 170."
He usually runs at about 6 mph for 30 to 40 minutes. He dials the speed up higher in the last couple of minutes.
He's run more than 2,000 miles in his living room, he figures.
Six in 10 Americans gain back the weight they lose. Benji's not one of them. "This is lifestyle change. I'm staying in shape," he said.
By the time his mom and dad get up, most days, the treadmill's back against the wall, and Benji's getting ready for another day at Ripley High School. "After I get home, I'll run another three to five miles," he said. "I run between six and 10 miles a day."
Why is this guy running?
One night in 2010, when Benji was 15, he and his dad went raccoon hunting with some men from their church. "They were all marching through the woods, up and down hills with no problem," he said. "They were 20, 40 years older than me, but I was falling way behind, getting tired. It was embarrassing. I was huffing and puffing, trying to carry all my weight uphill."
He weighed 270 pounds then.
Up ahead, the dog treed a coon. "I could hear them going up the hill, but I was so out of breath, I couldn't keep up. I felt pathetic. Right there, I knew I had to do something."
"I've wanted to be a firefighter all my life, and it hit me that I'd never be able to fight fires if I couldn't even climb a hill," he said. When he was a toddler, his Charleston firefighter dad, James Willis, took him to the station and let him play inside the fire engine.
After the hunt, Benji thought every day about losing weight. "But I figured, what's the use? My family's obese, so I'm going to be too."
"I was so sick of people calling me fat. They'd do it jokingly, not to be mean, but still, I was tired of being made fun of and feeling lousy about myself."
He thought he was stuck with it for the rest of his life. He started watching "The Biggest Loser" on TV. "No matter what you might think of that show, it inspired me. I saw all these big people losing weight. They enjoy food, and if they eat too much, they exercise it off."
He quit drinking pop and started walking the dog. To his surprise, he dropped about 10 pounds. He started to think, "Maybe I can do this."
What kept Benji going?
Benji had tried to lose weight before. "It was different this time because I was thinking about the fire department," he said. "It wasn't just losing weight. I knew I couldn't be a good firefighter if I wasn't fit."
"Motivation is everything," said Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, director of Healthy Kids, Charleston Area Medical Center's child weight loss program. There's internal motivation and external motivation, she said.
A stranger watching Benji run on his treadmill might think he did it all alone, but "our church, the guys at the volunteer fire department, his teachers and friends at school, everybody's been cheering Benji on, once it became clear that he was serious," his mom said. He could easily have gotten discouraged and quit if he hadn't had such a strong cheerleading squad.