MARIETTA, GA. -- Please take a gander at my body, spandex-coated and melancholy at the very beginning of my health remake about five years ago. I could have won the Giant Mutant Ham Hock contest hands-down.

Now, as I prepare to change gears and end Fit Over Forty with this column, I'm looking and feeling better, excited about the future, too.

But do you know what? I'm going to miss this column because of the unusual opportunity it's given me to both know and be helped by you. Most writers never have contact with their readers unless they do or say something wrong.

That has not been the case with Fit Over Forty. During the last years we have shared something wonderful, I think: the belief that it's okay to be less than a jock, and it's okay to sidle up to the trough of sin and sloth as long as you don't fall in and drown. It's okay, as long as you try to be at least semi-sensible in most of life.

Because we shared that belief, we started talking to each other. Do you remember how the first Bahamas Conchathon started? I jokingly agreed to cook dinner for any of you who would train for a year (starting with that 15-minute walk) and compete with me in a triathlon. Within a couple of weeks, 2,100 non-jocks had written me. In November 1988, 480 of you actually had dinner with me on Grand Bahama Island.

Since then, 2,300 more of you have written. Not long ago, a man from prison wrote to tell me of his own remake.

A wonderful Conch Out, fighting cancer, sent me a Christmas card brimming with hope and tales of races finished and to be run.

Quite frankly, all your stories and your kind words have brought joy to me, kept my own feet a little closer to the straight and narrow, and changed my life for the better.

How can you help but feel grateful to your readers when you get letters like these? Letters that express so well what this experience has meant to so many of us.

"The most important lesson we've learned from the whole Conch experience," says Peggy Houlihan, "is that our expectations have changed."

From Fairfax, Peggy's an original Conch Out from that 1988 event in the Bahamas. Peggy has an Irish smile that would melt a nuclear reactor. Along with Herndon residents Cheryl and Jim Nylun, she sports a car tag that says "Conk Out."

"Three years ago," Peggy continues, "if I did two laps in the pool, it was a big deal." Then she trained for a year and swam a mile (about 50 laps) in the wide-open Bahamian ocean during our first Conchathon. "It was really rough, and I'd never been in the ocean, and there were the sharks, I thought. But I did it," Peggy states with a tone that, two years after the event, still rings with the unsaid phrase "and I can't believe it."

Now when she lapses -- deserts the pool or the jogging paths for weeks or months -- "I start back by swimming a quarter-mile or running two or three miles." Who cares if Peggy's slipped a little? How long has it been since you ran three miles or swam a quarter-mile?

"Our collective spare tires are returning, our once-firm muscles are turning to flab and somehow those one-mile runs seem impossible," jokes another group of Conch Outs. They're complaining and exaggerating because they've visited that trough of sloth too often this winter. But so what if they've been bad? This fall, the whole gang ran in a marathon and/or raced in a 20-mile biking event. Their expectations are higher now, as is their number of friends, the best benefit of Conchdom.

For many people, including myself, a busy life can be lonely. But since all potential Conch Outs knew in their gut that misery, spelled e-x-e-r-c-i-s-e, really does love company, we all made new friends quickly.

Peggy Houlihan met Pat Shimp of Breckenridge, Va. as both trained for the Bahamas. "I'd never run, never swam, never biked," says Pat, "but I said, 'Yeah, I can do this.' " And she did: She swam a mile, biked 10 and ran 4. Pat and Peggy now head up a group of 80 Conch Outs who meet and talk and gripe about exercise and healthful living but work for both regularly anyway.

In that group are rebellious Conch Outs Pat and A.G. Robbins from Alexandria. The Robbinses on their own started a highly unauthorized "Couch Out" newsletter. While the Conch mascot is an out-of-breath but earnestly exercising Conch shell, the Couch Outs worship a more sedentary and desolute figure. My type of shell.

What these folks were doing with their newsletter, of course, is another reason so many people gave Conchdom a try: They were passing on the baton; sharing the exhilaration of achievement.

D.C. resident Jane Schnell, now 60, passed the baton in an even more exotic way. Jane found retirement from the CIA less than challenging. Though she'd only biked to work or on the weekends, she decided to do something a little longer and biked 12,000 miles around the perimeter of America. Jane was the first woman to do that.

She now shares that beautiful, exciting experience in a book appropriately titled, "Changing Gears: Bicycling America's Perimeter." Can you conceive of biking that far? How about writing a book?

Gloria and Ronald Allen, the first couple to complete the 1988 Washington Post Conchathon, are passing on the Conch spirit in a more direct way. "This year," Ron says, "Gloria and I will sponsor a fun biathlon in D.C," their hometown.

The Allens' goal is an event aimed at people who "lack adequate health insurance, have low income, poor nutrition and/or lack access to medical care." What a great idea.

"We want people to accept the challenge, train, start, finish the race healthy and happy, and celebrate a personal accomplishment," says Ron.

What a great metaphor for life: Accept the challenge. Train, start, finish the race healthy and happy. Celebrate a personal accomplishment.

And what a great battle cry as we face this new year, gears shifting for us all, Conch Outs or not. "This whole experience has enriched our lives," my friend Peggy says as we reminisce about successes and failures on the exercise and health and self-esteem trail. "We're ordinary people who've done extraordinary things."

And how much I thank you all for letting me be a part of that extraordinary magic.

Your Fitness Future Want to keep Conching on? Or try on a conch shell for size? Peggy Houlihan now is Supreme Director of the new and improved Conch Out Club. They're going to cause a ruckus in the D.C. area, train for local events together, turn their backs on tofu and the like. If you want to join this elite cadre of chiseled (kind of) bodies, send Peggy a stamped, self-addressed envelope and she'll send you a newsletter. Write the club at Box 220191, Chantilly, Va. 22022.