OTTAWA - With his Prairie farming background and less-than-active lifestyle, Randy Hoback never had much interest in the rigour and physical discipline of a career in the Canadian military.
But the formerly beefy Conservative member of Parliament for Prince Albert, Sask., nonetheless finds himself boarding a flight today to join thousands of soldiers in Holland for the annual four-day, 160-kilometre rite of passage known as the Nijmegen march.
For Hoback, who's already 80 pounds lighter than he was a year ago, the march is the culmination of a year-long effort to put his lifestyle on a healthier trajectory.
Last summer, after returning from a trip to South America with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Hoback was tipping the scales at 265 pounds, often in need of a nap and saddled with the realization he was struggling just to get through the day.
"When you're 44 years old and you're going on high blood pressure medication and your weight is going up 10, 15 pounds a year, you've got to realize sooner or later this isn't sustainable and either you change something or you end up in the hospital," Hoback said.
"I didn't want to go to the hospital."
He went to a doctor and began a plan to shed the pounds, but Hoback decided it wasn't enough.
"I also needed something to keep me active and to keep me on target for where I wanted to go."
Enter fellow Conservative MP Laurie Hawn, a three-time veteran of the Nijmegen march.
The event, started in 1909 to promote the physical fitness of Dutch soldiers, was later broadened to include soldiers and civilians from around the world. Participants walk in full combat gear, carrying a rucksack with a minimum load of 10 kilograms.
They cover 40 kilometres a day for four straight days.
Hawn, a former soldier, said it's a particularly special event for Canadians because of their deep ties with Holland. The march takes place in a region liberated by Canadian soldiers during the Second World War.
"Those last five kilometres, it's just packed (with spectators) and they are all cheering, 'We love you, Canada' — it's pretty powerful stuff," Hawn said.
"Every ache and pain you thought you had — it just disappears."
Hawn couldn't march this year because the dates conflicted with his son's wedding, so he asked around the Tory caucus table for a replacement. Hoback tentatively showed some interest and Hawn put his name forward.
When the thank-you letter arrived from the military, Hoback was understandably reticent. He also knew he couldn't back out.
"The march scared the crap out of me: 40 days, 40 kilometres. If you think about that, that's a fairly heavy commitment," he said. "So I wanted to make sure I was prepared and ready for it."
With an iPod loaded with everything from hip hop to jazz, he began getting up each morning at 5 a.m. to work out.
At the same time, he started using social media to post details of his runs and walks, which he said helped keep him motivated.
"I was tweeting what I was playing for music and stuff like that, and I would have people in the riding phone me up and say they hated my music or liked my music," he said.
"Those type of interactions, it's all in joking fun, but kind of keeps you honest."
Hawn accompanied him on some of the training walks, as did U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson, who is also part of the team.
While working out, Hoback abandoned his dependence on junk food in favour of lean protein.
"I'm not crazy, I don't go extreme one way or the other," he said. "I'll still have an ice cream cone, but I also keep in mind I'll have to burn those calories off."
Better eating and regular exercise brought him down to a svelte 185 pounds. And along the way, he's picked up a thing or two about the way the military works.
He said he's been struck by the stories soldiers tell about the fights overseas and also by their discipline and commitment — both to the military and to each other.
Hoback recalled one incident during which he embarked on a training run, but soon realized he'd forgotten to bring his hat, a violation of protocol that another soldier warned would get him in trouble with the senior officer.
Mindful of irritating the upper ranks, Hoback snuck off the course, jogged back to his apartment and retrieved the missing cap.
"That's another thing that brings a little anxiety, going over there and being with the military the whole time, making sure I don't do anything wrong," he joked.
The march begins July 17.
On the third day, there is a stop at a Canadian war cemetery in Groesbeek, where more than 2,300 soldiers and airmen are buried.
There will also be a ceremony at Vimy Ridge.
"I'm going there with my eyes wide open, that's for sure," Hoback said.
When he returns, he'll continue training, with an eye on taking part in a race in his riding later this year and perhaps the march again in 2013.
"I'll do some things like that, something to shoot for, so there's always targets sitting in front of me," he said.
"That's my goal and my plan in order to keep going."