It started with a shirt.
Larry Knight, the principal at N. B. Cook Elementary School of the Arts, was featured this year in Runner’s World magazine for getting back in shape by walking and distance running. The article ran with a rather blunt headline: “This principal’s co-worker asked if he needed a 3XL shirt, so he ran off 55 pounds.”
“That kind of stung,” recalled Knight. “I knew I’d gotten a little big and had plans in the back of my mind to get started with things.”
The story was in the magazine’s weekly column of readers’ testimonies about how running has changed their lives. In Knight’s words, he showed up for his first day of work at N.B. Cook in 2017 and was offered a school t-shirt that became an unintentional indictment. After a nearly three-year regimen of diet and exercise, Knight went public about his experience by sending his account to Runner’s World.
“I saw that post on his Instagram,” said Tammy Prell, a fourth-grade teacher at N.B. Cook. “It was a whole lifestyle change. It wasn’t like he ran out on a crash diet and lost a bunch of weight.”
The story gained even more traction when it was reposted on the school’s Facebook page.
“Everybody was just floored,” Prell continued. “He’s been such an inspiration. He got me running again.”
Knight and Prell have a friendly competition through their Apple watches.
“I’ll see what he runs, and I’ll go out to catch up with him,” she said. “Then he’ll do a midnight run and pass me and I won’t see it until the next morning.”
Knight started his transformation that summer with casual walks with his wife, Sharon, in their Cantonment neighborhood. They slowly increased their distance, sometimes up to 10-12 miles.
“When August rolled around and school was starting, I realized I probably wouldn’t have time to do this,” Knight recalled. “On average, we walked for about an hour a day, so I thought if I could run for 30 minutes then that may equal an hour of walking.”
He took this concentrated approach by running after school.
“At the beginning I could only run maybe half a mile at a time,” said Knight. “I’m very much a goal-oriented type of person so my goal was to run one mile without stopping.”
By the end of September, Knight accomplished it and continued on to two miles. Then an upcoming 5K race caught his eye.
“I needed something to keep my mind focused because I knew that if I went back to normal, I would let work get in the midst of this,” he said.
The race was the 5K portion of the Veteran’s Day Half Marathon. He finished the course and placed third in his age group.
“I was very surprised by that and it kind of fueled me,” he said. “A friend of mine was there who was running the half and said, ‘Larry, if you can do three miles you can do 13.’ I said, ‘Anything more than a 5K is just stupid. I have a car.’”
But later, after checking his running app, he started wondering about a 10K. With perseverance, he completed the distance on his own just two weeks after the 5K race.
“I thought I was going to die that day,” Knight said. “I ran into the house and just threw myself on the floor and my son was home that day and he thought something was wrong with me.”
But of course, that didn’t stop him. Knight was hooked.
“I just wanted to keep going,” he said. “The more that I ran the more I wanted to see what I could do.”
He perfected his 10k so he could finish it more comfortably. In March 2018 there was a 10-mile race out at the beach, and he added it to his mantle. At the same time, he was polishing up his running performance.
“Whenever I train for a race, I don’t want to go out there and look like an idiot,” Knight said. “No one is going to know, but I know. That keeps me training and on track.”
By that time Knight had lost his marquee weight, down to a svelte 185 pounds.
“Once I lost the weight, I wanted to help other people with it,” he explained. “But I was still too new at it. I wanted to see if I could keep it off and actually maintain this long term.”
Knight grew up in Pensacola in a single-parent household in the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood. He was one of the oldest kids in the neighborhood and saw himself as a natural role model. After graduating from Pensacola High School in 1987, he joined the Marines Corp for a four-year enlistment and enrolled at UWF on the G.I Bill. He didn’t know what he wanted to do until a part-time job as a tutor pointed him toward education. He taught primary grades in Escambia County and wound his way to administration in 2005 as the Principal of several elementary schools including N.B. Cook. The accumulating years of fathering five children and a more sedentary professional lifestyle came with the collateral damage of weight gain.
“I was not going to do anything that I was not willing to commit to for the rest of my life,” said Knight. “I had to be realistic. That was the bottom line.”
Knight made dietary tweaks like switching to 2% milk, lower calorie bread, and less sugary drinks. He noticed that running encouraged better nutrition and created an award scheme that allowed guilty pleasures like Whataburger. Now, with grandchildren, he tends to take the long view.
“Watching my grandkids and thinking about them growing up, I need to be healthy enough to be able to participate in their lives,” said Knight.
Knight’s focus continues from that pivotal 5K in 2017. A year later he tackled a half-marathon, despite being a car owner, and a few months ago he conquered the running world’s holy grail at the New Orleans Rock N’ Roll Marathon.
“The last eight miles were pretty excruciating, but I finished it,” he said. “It was fantastic.”
COVID-19 has erased competitive racing but Knight stays faithful to his goals. To commemorate his 24th wedding anniversary in May, he did a 5K in 24 minutes and for his 51st birthday in June he ran a personal best in the 10K. He also received a t-shirt. It reads “Not a 3X.”