After more than 11 years woking on growing up and making a family and a home, it is easy to get lost in routines that involve others and your new projects. Late in 2014, someone made me realize I was getting lost in those projects and I was smiling less, and less. Stress was getting the best of me.
I decided to change it, claim myself back from the routine and the work that had no sign to slow down. I had to run. Run hard and long. And New York City, the place where I had learned and felt the freedom that only running has been able to give me, was the best place to do it. On New Year’s Eve, I scheduled The New York City Marathon in my 2015 agenda.
I had no idea how to register for the race and I was definitely out of shape for a marathon. But I was determined. So I called Lesleigh Hogg, my College coach, former boss and good friend. He is the person who believed I could run and put so much time into my running during my years at Lehman in the Bronx.
Lesleigh would wake up super early even during those cold winter mornings in New York to commute for at least an hour to meet me at the track at 6:00 am, just as I finished my 5:00 am swimming practice. In the evenings twice a week, we were at the Armory Track with the team, at the weight room at Lehman, or running the hills at VanCortlandt Park from 6:00 pm until sometimes way past 8:00 at night.
Lesleigh not only put up with my schedule, but he made miracles multitasking so that he could be present during most of my trainings, even if that meant to do over-time that was never compensated monetarily speaking. He didn’t care for that. He genuinely cared for his athletes, each and everyone of us.
So I called him sometime in January 2015 and as expected, he was happy to hear I had the intention to run the marathon. He pointed me at the website where I could register for the draw and explained everything he knew about the registration process, so I followed his advice immediately.
My name was not chosen during the March marathon lottery drawing day. So I asked around to some known runners in Santo Domingo about other possibilities. Finally, my friend Mario Ibarra, who also decided to run the marathon pointed me to Santo Domingo Corre marathon tour packages. After reviewing the packages they offered and talking to my loving husband, who happily agreed and supported my decision, my spot was reserved on March 16, 2015.
Then, the real journey begun. I started planning my training. You know what they say, “it is all about the journey.” And training for the NYC Marathon was quite the journey.
Though I was used to running from 20 to 45 minutes a few days per week, ever since I moved to Dominican Republic in 2009, I admit that I did it with little discipline, with no real goals, and simply to enjoy my only free time alone in the mornings when I had it.
After receiving my bachelors degree, I had swore I would make sure running became a fun habit. But soon enough, graduate school got in the way and I forgot the promise to myself.
For two entire years, the Columbia Journalism program challenged me in many ways, but specially finding time to meet all their demanding deadlines. I had a full time job as well and my poor grammar skills in English didn’t help much either.
Aside from running away from some thugs when I was trying to report and gather material for my articles in the South Bronx a couple of times, running was really not part of my routine anymore. I was eating only fast-food and I was averaging three hours of sleep daily during those two years. Sometimes, I would go an entire week with no sleep at all. I pulled so many all-nighters that until today, I have a hard time sleeping for more than 4 hours straight.
After graduating the journalism program, not only had I gained some weight, but the pressure to finding a “real job” became excruciating. People around me had such high expectations, that I convinced myself I could not be an Ivy League University graduate to become a disappointment to the Alma Matter.
That sort of pressure was real and sad for many of us, who had to choose between a start at “the dream media job,” which usually is offered with very little monetary compensation, or none, or opting for paying the student loans, rent, the car, etc., etc., etc. I chose to keep a secure position with health insurance, pension plan, and a way higher pay than the ones offered by Univision, Channel 2, ESPN, or many other reputable publications in their entry level positions.
Reporting and writing had to be done on the side and only when I could afford to do so. It was a hard time for decision making.
At the end, I think I did become a disappointment to the Alma Matter. I gave up reporting and any ambition in the media business a long time ago. But I must say that I am happy I did and I have no regrets as to the decisions I made.
See: Just as I was lining up the “real jobs,” and learning the not so pretty side of telling a story or getting published, or not getting published, I met “the one.” And I faced the challenge of choosing between a career or a real relationship.
That was a crucial moment for me. Most of my previous romantic relationships, including a marriage of five years, were unsuccessful because either I was under-appreciated, or because of my lack of time and commitment to actually making it work (and this last one was mostly the case).
From the date of my divorce in 2001, until I met “the one,” I had set my priorities to be more geared toward the professional area. Not that I didn’t have any fun. I actually had tons of it. But when it came to romantic relationships, well, let’s just say my instincts were off in that department. Besides, I was just too confused about the entire meaning of love and I was just too focused in my goals. I didn’t have the time to show men my real appreciation. I couldn’t really be spontaneous or do anything special for them because of my lack of time and my exhaustion when I had some free time.
But when I met him, Henry. Things were different. By then, I was done with my schooling. I no longer had classes scheduled, home works or daily deadlines. I no longer did sports. I only had work to think about and though it was intense as well, I wanted to give a real chance to love and real companionship for a change. So I chose him.
However, making a relationship work with him, included leaving the US. The transition to start a new life and a family, changing my entire lifestyle and learning to be a mother even before giving birth was quite the challenge. There were many times when I was simply about to walk away and go back to my old lonely ways in New York City. Loving somebody unconditionally involves a lot of compromising and patience, specially when most people around us didn’t believe in the relationship and they made it known. That was exhausting. At the end, love proved to be stronger than anything else. That is for sure.
When I got pregnant, I knew, my commitment was even stronger. New York couldn’t be anymore. Henry hates big cities. Commuting between Canada and New York had to stop, my belly was getting just too big.
Giving birth, raising Maya as a green baby in a green home and the most remote places you can think of was not easy. Just as it wasn’t a simple thing to get married for the second time and actually compromising and doing whatever it took to keep a happy marriage. That included cooking two or three healthy meals seven days a week and I had to make it my priority.
I was still teaching online for a couple of Universities and doing other small things as a freelance writer and reporter, but my family became my priority and everything else slowly had to disappear. Just like that, 11 years flew by.
Through out those years, I tried to stay running whenever I could. It didn’t happen often, but it was my alone time.
When I settled in Dominican Republic in late 2009 with my husband and 1-year-old daughter, I started getting up earlier than usual to do my morning runs. Sometimes, some young children joined in.
It made me happy to see the little neighbors, specially those amazing children who used to run with me barefoot, and full of happiness and joy. Their conversations were always so innocent, funny, sincere and pure. Some of those children were disciplined and inspiring enough to make me believe they deserved more of my time and other resources so that they continue to be inspired and educated little athletes.
Since I had started teaching English and other things with my sister already at home, we started to develop a sports program for those interested in the area. This adds responsibilities every year and it takes every year more and more time, patience and love to continue.
As a runner, I suffered the consequences of having to be there for the group of runners that continuously grew. My alone time, was no more.
I even had to hire another coach to help me, as the group grew. But things didn’t quite work out. We simply had different work ethics and we were located just too remote. As soon as the coach could afford to do so, he stopped coming.
I had to try to be there for the group, even after the interest for running started to wear out for many. Most started to show up late. The natural leaders of the group started to show up only to make excuses of why they could only do half the workout, and everyone else would follow. I was there even when they simply didn’t show up at all, and I ended up losing interest to continue.
I didn’t want to continue using my only free time to wait for them or to convince them about why it was important for them to be responsible. I felt they were taking the opportunity I was giving them for granted.
Slowly, the young athletes demanded more and more from me, including equipment that they lost often and occasionally even money. The worse part was that those who demanded the most, trained the least. And they didn’t even gave a bit in return by helping to keep the spaces we used for training clean, which was and will always be my one and only demand.
Most of the time, I ended up cleaning after them. At the same time, my work at the school and Rancho Magante, was also becoming more and more demanding. While Rancho Magante was getting ready to build a chocolate factory, expand its produce gardens, establish a horse-tour operation and several other things, the school had become recognized by the Ministry of Education. We had students from kindergarden to 7th grade. Our programs included so much more than just sports or homework assistance. Our structures had to be increased, and many other things had to be organized.
My time was limited and I couldn’t be physically present as often. But I gave what I could. Every little free time I had, I dedicated to the athletes, even my family time. During work hours, while driving, or during work meetings, I was hiding my phone under the desk or meeting tables, and writing workouts for them on whatsapp. Sometimes, when I had to be looking after my daughter and showing patience for her, I was instead rushing her so I could be looking after the athletes’ needs, their registrations to competitions, arranging for their transportation, etc., etc., etc.
When I decided to set a goal for myself, I knew things had to change if I really wanted to achieve such goal. I wanted to go back to being smiley me. Re-arrange my priorities. I wanted to run a full marathon at a descent pace for me, no one else, just for me.
I had to set some boundaries and conditions for my group of young athletes and I had to stick to my decision. Limiting them and setting those boundaries brought tons of drama that I won’t get into here. But it was heartbreaking in many levels for all of us.
Yet, I knew that for my family’s sake, and to better my moods, I had to rescue myself first. I knew with all the cells in my body that only running could do that for me. So I had to run, even from some of them.
Running only five to ten kilometers per week was not an option anymore. My goal was to run 42 kilometers in less than 3 hours and 30 minutes and I only had 7 months to make it happen. I had to increase my millage. Every chance I got, I went for a run. Those mountains I am so lucky to have as a backyard, my dog Bella, and my star athlete Yaritza were my best companion.
Starting in April 2015 I started running at least five kilometers per practice and I made sure to squeeze in at least four practices per week for the first month.
During the second month, I increased my distance to 7 kilometers per practice and I added one more day of practice. I also started looking for long distance and ultra trail races to prepare for enduring the 42 kilometers. Speed would come later.
I registered for the 100 Km. del Caribe along with two amazing friends (Ali and Fausto). They kept me going and helped me complete the challenge with inspiring results in early June 2015. I was the fourth female overall.
This race was not easy and aside from helping me gain incredible physical strength, it tested my mighty mental and athletic determination like nothing else had before. It also turned me officially on.
Picture this: I showed up with no special gear, and I wondered why would the runners want to carry all that stuff… “they are silly,” I thought.
On the first day: The organizers didn’t demand to see your requested gear. It was the shortest stage and they had enough hydration points.
The 10K run was on the beach and with full-on wind that bathed us on sand, pushed us back and forced us to keep looking down or close or cover our eyes at times. The ocean breeze hit us so hard it actually hurt, and the trail that we had to follow, gave us at least 25 minutes of super risky steps while running, or at least trying to run. The sharp cliff rock formations that would certainly slice our skin deeply by just mere touch were quite intimidating. But “the cliff, ” the one we had to jump to get to the other side… that one made me question myself for the first time: what in the world, did I just get myself into? Why didn’t I read enough about the race before registering?
People could actually die or break their legs crossing that spot. When I crossed the finish line, I was surprised to know I had been the second female to do so. The one right after the favorite, top ultra-trail runner from Italy. I couldn’t believe it. That feeling was amazing! My switched was turned on.
The next day, the organizers actually checked if the participants had at least one liter of water with them, an isothermal blanket, a whistle and they asked us if we had shoes or sucks that we wanted to have waiting for us at any given hydration point… I still thought they were silly. I only carried a bottle of water because they checked, not because I thought it was necessary. I was wearing fashionable sketchers. They were really cute navy blue snickers with really bright pink laces, and they had memory foam inside. So I thought they would be comfortable to go uphill. Besides and most importantly, those were the shoes I easily found when I left home earlier that morning. My actual running shoes were wet from the 10 K on the beach the evening before.
The challenge included a 17.5 K run uphill, and and when I say uphill, I mean uphill 1, 352 meters of altitude to climb, rivers to cross, rocks to jump, mud to get by, labyrinths to decipher. That was the most challenging physical test of the entire race and my entire life as a runner. By the middle of the race, I knew exactly why the organizers had insisted we had all that gear and water. I no longer thought people looked or were silly for being equipped, and I had learned that there is a reason for designing running shoes for trails and for the road and for everything else.
That hill, La Isabela, was about to break me hard once or twice. I cramped, I lost two toe nails, I got blisters from crossing rivers and running with wet sucks, I bled, I tripped on grass, lose rocks and roots, I covered my legs on cow shit, pig shit and everything that took a shit on that spot we had to cross. I twisted my ankle running on super uneven and wild mountain trails on my fashionable Sketchers. And just when I thought I was about to make it, the last three kilometers on perfectly paved road gave me a few lessons: Those 3K showed me just how weak my quads were, how unprepared and even arrogant I had been, not to read about the race. Yet, above all, those three kilometers showed me how stubborn and strong I can be.
During the first half of the race I was the lead female. But by kilometer 13, I had dropped to second. By kilometer 14, I gave up and my lead of probably almost 1/2 a kilometer was easily reached by those who had actually trained for the challenge. One of those girls, passed me by wearing perfect lipstick and with a totally amazing, cool and positive attitude. I think she was the first woman to reach the top. I am still hoping to find her so I can ask her for the brand of the lipstick she used. It was perfect red and she looked so glamorous. I was the fifth female to reach the top during that day’s challenge. At the end of the race, I felt stupid for not listening and got well equipped. I swore I would not do it again. It hurt too much and I wanted to throw my Sketchers out of the cable cart that took us back down to sea-level. Funny how now… I am looking into registering again and I intend on wearing lipstick too.
On the third day, we continued with an 18K run. After everything we endured the day before, this was an easy run. Even with the pain I had from the blisters, the hurt toenails, and the injured ankle from going up La Isabela, I managed to maintain my 5th place and to finish the challenge. I did not drop out as I thought I would do by kilometer 12. I had never before run such distances in such challenging terrain for three straight days. So I was feeling pretty sore by then. I got lost somewhere in the race, not for long, but I just never thought we had to actually jump over a fence. But we did once or twice and my muscles didn’t like that at all. I needed Ice and I wanted it all to stop.
When I was close to the end that day, I saw one of the top male athletes full of mud and blood all over his legs. He had fallen on sharp coral rock formations somewhere on the trail. He was walking and he was determined to finish. So I couldn’t quit. I kept on going. Seeing the finish line and hearing that pretty girl’s voice, the one on the mic also with perfect girly lipstick, was an amazing relief. Bonus for the day: a beautiful and cold lake conveniently located at the end of the race helped us ease the pain of all those muscles we had not realized we had. Then, I drove back home. I had lots of work before taking off for the weekend to complete the race.
On the fourth day of the race, I was pretty nervous. We had to run 44.5 kilometers and I had never before run that distance. Plus, I was already pretty sore and bit up from the days before. My hips were almost locked and my legs felt heavy. My feet were pretty gross with exploded blisters and purple toe nails too.
During the race, I simply kept telling myself that one more step meant one less step. When I hurt the most, I tried picturing my daughter’s smile and my husband’s eyes. I tried to block everything else out. I kept only looking at the beautiful scenery at times. But the pain kept on striking and I started to simply concentrate on my steps. I didn’t want to fall. Soon, I found myself alone.
I couldn’t see anyone in front of me, nor behind me. Then, when I started doubting my strength to finish, and the way to go, I saw her, Sabrina Tarditi. Sabrina is one of the top runners in the country. She was resting on a river overlooking a beautiful waterfall, El Limon, and feeling the cool water. I sat in the water and I couldn’t help the urge to pee. I enjoyed that very much.
Sabrina and I stayed together, kept encouraging each other to cross the rivers, jump the obstacles, carefully step over slippery stones, find our way and push each other. Until I fell to the ground and almost dislocated my ring finger on the right hand. I started crying, the pain was severe and it was swelling fast and turning purple. Just as I was about to start panicking, Sabrina turned around and asked me to give her my hand. She pulled my finger right back in its place without hesitation. She stayed with me for a minute or two and told me what to do to lower the swelling, but I was slowing down and the swelling was scaring me more and more by the minute. We had to cross a kilometer or two of mangroves and I fell over and over again on that muddy, dark water that hid sharp rocks. I was getting new cuts and bruises every minute. After a while I could only see Sabrina’s silhouette about a kilometer ahead. But many other runners were catching up to me, so I didn’t feel alone.
By the time I got out of the mangrove areas, I just wanted to get to the finish line and have a doctor check my finger. I was fearing it would end up deformed or something like that. I tend to think the negative first. I started running faster and faster. I figured it couldn’t be much longer, we were already on the beach.
When I finally saw someone from the hydration team, I asked how much longer I was from the finish line…. I heard him say 3 something… I assumed it was 300 meters around the curve ahead of me, because it felt as if I had been running for an eternity already, and I started running even faster. I tried to keep up the pace but I didn’t see the finish line. I only kept seeing curves and more curves. After 10 minutes of running like that, I realized he had said it was 3 kilometers away not 300 meters. I couldn’t stop anymore. I was afraid that if I stopped I would not be able to continue. My legs were numb and I felt my heart pumping on my purple, swollen finger.
When I crossed the line, I run immediately to the ambulance and they checked my finger, gave me pain medications and anti-inflammatories. A few minutes later, Sabrina showed up at the finish line. I was happy to see her and receive her at the “meta” but I had no idea how or when I passed her. I guess my pain only let me see ahead in hopes of an ambulance. Now I know it was adrenaline and fear for my finger. Because I know, Sabrina is a stronger runner than me.
The next day was the final day and a 12K run that still had lots of elevations and challenges on a mix of road and trails with uphills, downhills and sand. I was truly exhausted and I just wanted it to end. When I crossed the finish line and I saw my daughter and husband, I felt invincible for them, full and inspired.
The people I met during those days were heroes to me, muses and gods and goddesses. Each and everyone of them earned my respect and admiration. I wanted to hug them all. I cried. That moment, I realized that running had become for me a need more than just a hobby or a habit.
After the 100 K del Caribbe, I took a couple of weeks off. And then, I run a race called 50K en la Olla de Presion. The intense heat, the rivers we crossed and the mud we had to battle were part of making this an incredible experience.
Running that 50K got me closer to some runners I met during the 100 K del caribe and brought me other new friends. It taught me that when you get lost, it is only to find yourself or to find a reason to continue.
During that race, that happened to me. I got lost for about 20 minutes in the middle of nowhere. I was about to start panicking because I couldn’t find the marks for the trail I should be on and then Rowin Canals run into me. He had also lost his way and had been looking for the right way for a while. We had no idea where we were. We stayed together looking for our trail for another 15 minutes, running each trail we found, until we decided to drop out of the race. We had lost already a good half an hour and we were getting too tired.
As we were heading back toward the point where we last saw someone on the race and retrieve, we saw Thais Herrera and she just wouldn’t have it. She could have encouraged me to drop out. After all, I was her closest rival. Instead, she said we had already run for more than half, so we couldn’t quit. She kept us going and just like that, we were back on the race.
Almost at the end of the race, I learned about drinking coca-cola in ultra marathons. I also conquered my fear of dark, close spaces, as we crossed a dark tunnel, and I was the first female to cross the 50K challenge. Too bad I don’t have a picture of the awards moment. But the race gave me the confidence I needed to know I could complete a marathon distance and now, I had to start working on speed.
After a few days off to recover, I started focusing on speed workouts. Running intervals of 400s and 800s with long runs of 20 to 30 k once a week, became my main workouts. After a few weeks of those routines, I felt ready for my NY challenge.
Even when many times, I had to cancel my workouts because of my other responsibilities, I felt confident about my running again, and I was feeling free. When I received my official invitation to the marathon and registered, I jumped like a child. I wanted to hug everyone coming into my office. I was electrified. I realized, my smile was back.
Though the months of August, September and October limited my time even more because of the school’s new academic year and I had to hire teachers, train teachers, organize schedules, school calendars and on and on and on, for Mensen Academy, I tried to make sure I run an average of 50-60K per week. That meant I had to start my days at 5:00 am, 6 days a week.
I also did fun physical activity whenever possible. During a trip to Nevis, I squeezed in a climb to Nevis Peak. That was fun. My upper body felt it the most and Henry and I got to bond even more.
Finally, my last training effort was a 5K run during the Annual event TRIPOP, in Puerto Plata. I had a wonderful time and I finished the race in less than 22 minutes.
Registering for the New York City marathon was the best thing I did for myself in a very long time. Now, when I hear the “fight song,” I remember the journey to get to New York, I remember running the big apple streets and the amazing feeling I felt while doing it. The 2015 NYC Marathon was my fight song.
I dedicated the race to my daughter and husband. They were there for me since the day I told them I would run it. They put up with my new schedule and we made things work together. That is why the NYC Marathon and all the journey I walked or run to get to it, is dedicated to them. They deserve a happier Maria.
I will write about each kilometer of the race next.
Thanks for reading and let’s keep on singing our fight song. Find your inspiration, we all have one. We are worth the fight!