CANTON, Mich. — Two years ago, it was a laborious task for Brian Flemming to walk up a flight of stairs. He weighed 625 pounds and suffered from depression and alcoholism.
On Sunday, the now sober, 390-pound lighter Flemming plans on running 13.1 miles at the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon to celebrate a journey that has taken him from the bottom of a daily fifth of booze to back on top of his life.
He never imagined that a random Draw Something match — a Pictionary-type game app — with a British woman who lives thousands of miles "across the pond" would help kick-start his ambitious weight loss journey that led him to lose close to 400 pounds in 18 months.
Flemming, 32, weighs 235 pounds now.
To honor his friendship with Jackie Eastham and to thank her for saving his life, Flemming will be participating with more than 16,000 other runners in the Detroit Chevy Dealers International Half Marathon.
"I think she was the right person, at the right time and she said the right things," Flemming said. "I was so far gone. I was in a really bad space and I had completely given up on my life. What are the chances that you can meet someone from around the world and that person saves your life?"
Eastham, 51, has myotonic muscular dystrophy and Flemming is using the run to raise money to fund research into the disease.
"There are tons of people out there dealing with things I am dealing with," Flemming said of his own troubled past. "If I tell my story, I might be able to give people hope that there's always light at end of the tunnel. It's easy to lose hope, but who knows where fate or chance will take you. In my case, I think I won the lottery."
The weight-loss journey
Flemming, a Plymouth-Canton Schools music teacher, said he was an overweight child, but his weight spiraled out of control after he graduated from high school. He enrolled at Eastern Michigan University, but eventually dropped out and fell deeper into depression and became a chronic alcoholic at the age of 21.
He recalls a typical meal consisted of a double cheeseburger, a large pop and large fries. It usually wasn't enough to curb his hunger, so he would add a side of chicken nuggets.
He ate fast food every day and would consume more than 7,500 calories per day — 2,000 of which were calories from alcohol alone. He coupled that with drinking binges and playing video games for several hours a day.
"I was in a really bad place," he said. "I was a shut-in, except when I went out to buy alcohol."
In August 2012, he began playing Draw Something on his tablet computer and picked a random match with Eastham, who lived in London. They quickly developed a friendship while communicating through short conversations on the game app.
Flemming said they got along really well, despite his depression and frequent mood changes due to his alcoholism. He never told her the severity of his weight issues or that he was an alcoholic until things "bottomed out" for him.
In October 2012, his mother had to have her leg partially amputated below the knee. She had infections in her legs that never healed properly because of poor blood flow. Flemming said he used this as an excuse to drink more and sink deeper in his depression.
"I reached out and decided to spill my guts," he said. "I was looking for sympathy but didn't get that from her. She said, 'You're pissing your life up the wall.' "
It was at that point that he discovered she has myotonic muscular dystrophy, which causes weakness of the voluntary muscles. Eastham must stay healthy in order to keep her symptoms in check.
She seemed to be losing patience with him and he was afraid he would lose her friendship. Flemming decided it was time to change his life.
"I quit drinking that night," he said. "I quit cold turkey. I don't recommend that people do that without consulting a doctor. I had withdrawal symptoms of cold sweats, shaking hands and I couldn't sleep at night."
He began to eat healthier and started to watch his calorie intake. He began exercising by walking in place for five minutes every morning and incrementally worked his way up to an hour.
"I did it little by little," Flemming said. "I started walking outside and could barely make it around the block and I added to that little by little. Eventually I walked my first mile."
He would exercise with the encouragement of Eastham on the phone.
"She would be cheering me on and it was up to the point that I was walking 5 miles every single morning," he said.
Flemming slowly increased his exercise regimen and began to lose weight quickly.
"I dropped 100 pounds over three months," he said. "It came off really fast. I was over 350 pounds still when I started running in little increments at a time."
Flemming said changing his lifestyle helped him appreciate his life more. When he visited Eastham last December in London, they traveled to Paris and climbed the Eiffel Tower together.
"In 18 months, I went from being able to barely climb stairs to climbing the Eiffel Tower," he said.
Flemming ran his first half-marathon on July 28, 2013, and Eastham cheered him on via Skype and talked him through the difficult parts. He began cycling and eventually incorporated cycling every Friday 44 miles to his job and back home. Flemming has run nine 5Ks, four 10Ks and hopes to run a full marathon and a triathlon in the future.
To help others with their weight-loss journey, Flemming actively tells his story to others. He and Eastham began a Facebook group, Team 383, that has more than 6,600 members from all over the world who confide in each other about their health and losing weight.
Eastham flew to Michigan and helped Flemming host an event with group members in Ann Arbor in September and he said he's planning another meeting in the UK on Dec. 13.
Eastham won't be able to fly to Michigan to cheer Flemming on during Sunday's marathon, but she'll be cheering from afar, he said.
"I think meeting Jackie online saved my life," Flemming said. "I honestly don't know if I would be around if I hadn't met her. I'm hoping with this Facebook group, people can meet their own Jackie and their own support structure."