LEXINGTON, Va. – A Rockbridge County cancer survivor is hoping his mind-over-matter fitness journey inspires others to set and reach goals in life.
John Harb, 71, retired from his career as an assistant dean for scientific operations and director of the office of biotechnology.
His life was going well, enjoying life with his wife, dogs and large garden until the fall of 2020.
At age 68, he received the news no one wants to hear.
“It was the luck of the draw,” he smiled. “The tough part is getting the scan and the doctor calls and says, ‘You have a mass in your throat that is spreading to your lymph nodes and neck.’ She said don’t Google it,” he laughed.
Harb was diagnosed with throat cancer, but he had hope.
“It was humorous because I walked in, and he turns on the screen and he says, ‘You have a carcinoma,’ and he says, ‘Don’t worry. You are going to be cured but it is going to be a tough go.’ When he said that, I was euphoric because I thought, ‘Ok, I can deal with this.’”
Harb said it was a tough time going through weeks of chemotherapy, fatigue and having to be put on a feeding tube.
Christmas Eve of 2020, he had his last treatment and was able to ring the bell for completion in the hospital.
Sadly, the treatments took a toll on his body.
“At that point, I had already lost 40 pounds,” Harb said. “Whatever muscles I had were gone. My skin was just hanging off me. I had no strength or stamina just walking from my car to my house.”
Fast-forward to March of 2021, Harb decided to get a personal trainer. That is when Rockbridge Barbell came into his life.
“He was a guy who I can tell was very determined and was willing to work for it,” said Red Dowdell, his trainer and the owner of the gym. “He was a guy I knew I didn’t have to push, but one I had to pull back sometimes because he was going to go 100 mph so it was impressive.”
Slowly but surely, Harb and Dowdell worked together on the mission to get Harb back to his healthy self. With every rep, and every push, Harb started regaining his strength again which sparked another goal for him.
“I said, at first I want to get fit,” Harb said. “And then after a couple of months, I am thinking, ‘What is fit?’”
That is when he started thinking of his son who is in the Marine Corps.
“They have the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test,” he said. “I know the standards they set and the emphasis on it and the stress and pressure that goes on all marines to perform well on this test, so I thought, ‘That is the definition of fit!’”
He brought this new idea to Dowdell.
“I told Red one day, I said, ‘I want to pass the Marine Corps PFT Test.’ He looked at me like I was delusional,” he laughed.
Pull-up after pull-up and plank after plank, Harb worked to get a passing score for the age 51+ age group which he would have to score at least 150 points to pass.
For a second-class score, he would have to pass with 200-234 points and for a first-class score, he would have to pass with 235-300 points.
“And then after several months, I came back, and I said passing the test doesn’t cut it,” Harb said. “I said I have to get a first-class score and he gave me that delusional look again but he said let’s go for it.”
Dowdell worked with Harb so well that on his bad day, Harb could score a first-class rating.
That is when he knew he was ready.
May 4, 2023, was the big day.
“We lined up a retired Marine Corps Col to oversee the test,” Harb said. “If I don’t have a Marine to oversee the test…is it really credible? I had the pre-game jitters but eventually, I knew I was ready.”
Harb not only passed the Marine PFT, but he scored a first-class score of 244.
“When I completed the test, the first feeling was relief like, ‘Wooo, I did it.’ The next feeling was like, ‘Yeah! I did it!’ Then finally I was like, man I should have gotten a 250,” he laughed. I got a 244. But I was like ah man I should have gotten a 250!”
“It WAS spectacular,” Dowdell said. “I am getting goosebumps just thinking about it. To this day, I still go back to the video and think, ‘Wow that was a cool thing we did!’ He is like night and day from the time he first started. He could do a pullup at first and now he has a personal record of 13 pullups which is very impressive! “I just look at John and say he is the example I can follow to accomplish whatever goal whether it is to pass a fitness test or just to take a pound off and be a little healthier.”
Harb said he credits this accomplishment and where he is at in life physically to the medical staff who helped him through his cancer treatments, the gym, and his wife.
“As much as I set the goal, I realize I could have gotten there on my own without the support system that I had,” Harb said. “It is not so much of, ‘Look what I have done,’ but, ‘Look at what you can do!’ So many of us go through setbacks in life. For me it was cancer. Everyone has their own challenges but at the end of the day, if there are goals you can set and work towards, there is a lot of benefit to that, and you will find yourself in a better place.”