Black Girls Run Helps an Unlikely Runner Find Her Stride
After being on this earth 40 plus years, I was born again in April 2012.
It was an accident, like all born again stories are. I didn’t set out to become a new person, but when I experienced the “come to Jesus” moment out on the Chicago lakefront one cold and brisk morning, there was no turning back.
For the two-plus miles from North Avenue to almost Navy Pier, my heart felt as though it was going to jump out of my chest. I really thought I was going to die; no, actually, I felt like I was dying. My breathing was labored and intense. I gasped for air and my face flushed hotter with each step. I kept a smile on the outside but in my head, I was screaming for my life.
My cousin, Dorian, was right beside me looking all normal, like she didn’t have a care in the world. I, on the other hand, was near death! I watched all the other black women running past and I wanted to be where they were. Only one slight problem: I had never done this before so clearly I wasn’t prepared.
I don’t remember exactly when I looked at the Black Girls Run (BGR) Facebook page. Maybe I saw a status update in Dorian’s newsfeed. But the next thing I knew, she was inviting me to the BGR anniversary run. A simple 5k, she explained. Even asking me was a stretch. I mean, come on, yes I had been on Weight Watchers since July 2011 and lost a lot of weight – but a runner? Was she kidding me? Still, this Black Girls Run intrigued me. Black Girls Run is a national running group created in 2009 by Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks to encourage African-American women to live a healthy and active lifestyle. The organization has grown to include more than 60 running groups across the nation with more than 52,000 members. There are chapters in nearly every city. Within each city are neighborhood groups lead by women like me who want to change their lives for the better.
What I didn’t realize is how important BGR would become in my life. I have found a sense of belonging running with women who look like me: body shapes, sizes and all. We have our ups and downs but we encourage one another, never leave anyone behind, and stay positive. BGR is a place and space where women of color can focus on their health in a team spirit. We train together, run races together, and form friendships. It has saved my life.
“I’m not a runner,” I told Dorian. Like the love of any family member who happens to be a runner, she said she would run when I ran and walk when I walked. Funny thing happened on my way to life: I didn’t really feel hesitant after that, and simply agreed. I was at a point where I was living life out loud and trying new things. Who knew what to expect, but I went into the experience with an open heart and mind. I will do this with her and that will be it, I thought.
In order to fully appreciate this experience, you must know my story. I began my life as a chunky baby, child and teen. I was never small, even in my smallest days. I wasn’t obese, but I was a little Gordita. My thighs rubbed together, my stomach bellowed out of my clothes and I constantly heard, “you have such a cute face.” Was it my fault that my maternal family ate soul food and churned out sweet baked cakes and pies like we owned a bakery? It was nothing for my mother to make big pans of rice pudding just because. My grandma and great aunt didn’t make it much better. From sweet potato pies to bread pudding to pound cakes, I was always in heaven. My paternal familia ate the typical Mexican fare. From beans and rice and tamales, you name it, we ate it. Mi abuelo even hid cookies in his closet that he would give to us if we wouldn’t tell our Big Ma. When I say fat was in my genes, I mean that literally. It seemed as though all of us were destined for fatness.
Then, the unthinkable happened, rocking the rest of my childhood and high school years to the core: my father was killed by a drunk driver only days before Christmas. My emotional eating began around this time. Now, let me tell you up front–we weren’t some big happy family. My parents had a dysfunctional love affair that started when my mom was 9 years old and my father was 13. On my mother’s prom night she became pregnant with me. On top of all this, my dad ran off and married someone else. I don’t remember my mom ever being truly happy, and a lot of that depression rubbed off on me. I was quiet in school and lonely outside of it. I went through high school depressed and angry, all the time: angry at my dead father and angry at my always-sad mother.
Fast forward light years into the future and you have me on diets, weight yo-yoing up and down, birthing babies, having abortions, surviving domestic violence and trying to survive in a world that was cruel to fat women of color–and don’t you be poor and fat. Boy what a combination! But instead of spiraling into an abyss of shame, guilt and sadness, I started swimming, even though I deathly afraid of water. Working with therapists, I began the slow climb to the top. Even when my weight got to 300lbs, I wasn’t ready to give up on me. I wanted to break the family chain of unhappy. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to live life.
Then BGR came along and I haven’t been the same since. I have become that crazy person I used to gawk at, running on the lake in any kind of weather. I never dreamed that I would become a person that missed running when I couldn’t run. Or that I would be running races, traveling to other states in the quest for medals or training for my first half marathon in February 2013. Who knew? My life is no longer about pacifying myself with emotional eating. Now when I’m stressed, I run or do some other physical activity that perfects my running experience—I hate weight training but yeah you guessed it, I’m doing it. My new normal is trying to PR (personal best record) and beat my time from the previous race. My new normal is running with the Morgan Park Moon Crew (we named ourselves because we run at 5am when the moon is still often out).
My new normal is sticking to my Weight Watchers program so that I can be lighter, thus adding swiftness to my running. I decided I needed accountability with weekly check-ins. I needed to connect with others that shared my struggle. With every bit of encouragement I feel stronger and stronger. It wasn’t always like this; I’ve had my ups and downs in my fitness battle, but I refuse to give up. The more sure I am of this journey and my place in this world as a woman, activist and feminist, the easier it has become. I have run many miles since April 2012, and amassed many medals and many runner injuries. But I feel good. I feel powerful and I feel in control. This is my new normal. This is my rebirth. This is why I run.