On the first day of Coss Marte’s seven-year prison sentence in Ulster County Corrections, he learned that he had five years to live. Seventy pounds overweight with high cholesterol. “You do the math,” he says, “I knew I didn’t want to die in prison.”
Marte had to make up for the choices he’d made in his past—personal, criminal, dietary. But the one thing he couldn’t make anymore was excuses. A montage right now would be helpful. It would certainly make him look a lot cooler to skip straight to the part where he lost 71 pounds in less than six months. None of that with weights or a Bowflex or protein shakes. Just his own overweight body in a 9×6 cell.
“I just didn’t stop,” he says. It was humbling at first. Handling millions in drug deals, Marte had so much money on the outside that he would drive down the block to the store, double-park and pay the ticket just to get a bottle of soda, rather than simply walk.
You know those Weight Watchers success photos of a guy who can’t fit into his giant pants anymore? When Marte stepped back into civilian life, he had dropped from a waistline of 40 to 32.
But with only one hour a day in the yard, amongst the whoops and hollers of his fellow inmates, Marte made himself jog. Three minutes straight, then walking for 30 seconds, at first. For upper-body training, he and a bunkmate would deal out cards from a deck, each one corresponding with a different exercise. A 3 of Diamonds meant three diamond push-ups, for example. The whole deck added up to 1,200 pushups total.
He then built up a plan and started leading a group of 20 inmates looking to turn their lives around on the inside, and together they lost over 1,000 pounds.
Marte now presides over the popular Lower East Side gym ConBody (slogan: “Do the time.”), where clients make a no-frills, high-energy, get-in-get-out commitment to improving their bodies. The workouts are so intense, some take just half an hour. So far Marte has worked with more 3,500 people and employs six, five of whom have been incarcerated.
A born leader, Marte has an infectious enthusiasm and reliability that would make you think he grew up in a military household. Upon agreeing to each of our three interviews, Marte followed up seconds later with a Google Invite listing the agreed-upon time and the telephone number of the office where I would find him then, both of which synced to my calendars in case of conflict.
The biggest excuse Marte didn’t put up with was how hard it would be to turn his life around. The neighborhood was changing around him when he originally got out of Riker’s in 1999 (age: 14), and he went from slinging crack to chasing the new money that moved into the Lower East Side. Taking rich kids’ parents money from them in big cocaine deals.* To a certain kind of eye that looks like criminal behavior, and indeed, Marte served his time before leaving the drug trade.
But to another kind of person that hustle looks like market savvy and hard work. The joke now among Lower East Siders is that the people you partied with until 6 a.m. in your twenties, you now see at your 6 a.m. yoga class in your thirties. Knowing this, Marte teamed up with Defy Ventures—a nonprofit that sees the hustle as a key to rehabilitation—to formulate his business plan and get his space off the ground. He is now engaged in a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign to build out a new storefront location.
The truly amazing event for Marte, though, happened shortly after his release. Although he handled millions in drug money and had his associates dress in fine suits to keep up appearances, Marte left prison without a suit he could wear to job interviews. You know those Weight Watchers success photos of a guy who can’t fit into his giant pants anymore? When Marte stepped back into civilian life, he had dropped from a waistline of 40 to 32.
Seriously. Try going to a job interview and telling them you’ve left the gang life when your pants are eight sizes too big. Because they are often cut off from the traditional job market, this is the critical juncture where a lot of cons return to their old ways. Thankfully for Marte, he met up with some people who could help.
“I went through a small internship program, and they referred me to Career Gear,” Marte recalls. “They said they’ll get me a suit for my first job interview, so I went to CG and I was asking for clothes.”
If you’re imagining Morgan Freeman leaving Shawshank, forget it. “They gave me a Theory Suit,” he raves. “They go for eight-hundred to two-thousand dollars, and the guy that was suiting me up told me that if I wanted another suit to come back to the program. I came back and got a Brooks Brothers suit, and I got one from DKNY.”
Marte got the suit, which helped him land him a full-time job, and he started going to workshops. Email workshops. Health workshops. How to dress. How to sell yourself. How to speak correctly. “I attended a lot of those,” Marte says. “But the first reason I went over there was because I needed a suit.”
And perhaps fittingly—no pun intended—what keeps Marte so focused on this new track is the other side of the Career Gear equation. “I mentor another gentleman called Charles. He did 25 years, still going through troubles finding a job. He’s a little bit older. He’s actually working on becoming a personal trainer. Career Gear asked me if I wanted to mentor him. To me this whole world of networking and social media: It’s like The Flintstones meet The Jetsons. I’m still playing catch-up. Him, it’s another world. I coach him how to write an email, start up his Facebook page. He’s still using a tape cassette player.”
Just as in prison—where coaching other inmates on weight loss prevented Marte from giving up—coaching Charles through his transition into society keeps Marte motivated through his own difficult course of rehabilitation.
“I’ve been getting mail and phone calls everyday from corrections facilities,” he reveals. “People saying they have five years left, but when they get out they wanna train with me. I’ve been given an opportunity to give light to these people and give them hope for a second chance. Most of them never had a first chance. So for me it feels really good, and I feel blessed to have that opportunity to give back.”
And that is something every top-level athlete knows. You’re a hero to many, but you’re the only who can pick yourself up when you get knocked down. For Marte to change course—even to just get a corporate job and close the gym—would be like giving up on the whole team of Career Gear guys and ex cons who want to turn their lives around.
“I don’t think it makes it easier,” Marte says of that pressure. “But it feels like I can’t stop now. There are days I wake up and I don’t want to get up. Every time I get that note from a client or a call from somebody upstate doing hard time saying that ‘You inspire me and I can’t wait to come home and do something right,’ that helps me to keep going. It inspires me that I’m inspiring them.”
Changing your life is no different from toning your body. It takes dedication and commitment, family and community support. It means leaving parties early, getting up before dawn. But the transformation is so stark and beautiful that you can’t help getting a little misty-eyed when you see the look on someone’s face. Whether it’s a better mile time, a slimmer waist or just being able to lift your own toddler without getting winded, there is no achievement quite like getting fit and saying, maybe for the first time, “I did that!” Check out Marte’s Kickstarter page here.
*Several of Marte’s former foot soldiers featured in my book about the Lower East Side. When I asked them today about him, they all smiled and were genuinely glad he got out of the game. Most of them hoped he could help them get in shape.
Join thousands of men and women who are dressing up for a good cause. Go formal with Made Man and Career Gear on Friday, October 9th to help empower men in need with resources, training and suits they can use to rejoin the workforce. Because for every photo posted to Instagram or Twitter and tagged #FormalFriday, we’ll donate a dollar to Career Gear. Learn more at mademan.com/formal-friday.