On January 18, 2015, I completed my first full marathon in Phoenix. It wasn’t easy because statistics told me Natives have the shortest life span after HIV infection.
Back in 2002 when I was diagnosed with HIV and Hepatitis C in Phoenix, my health was at a border between HIV and AIDS. I was immediately taken to a Native AIDS support group. To this day, I am the only one from that group who is still alive.
Born and raised on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona, I never thought a tribal would get AIDS. Education was extremely limited about the virus. Rumors were rampant when the virus was discovered, and I remember looking for red or purple spots on my body thinking it was Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a disease AIDS patients got in the early days.
Eventually, I graduated from Arizona State University, made good money, and experimented with crystal meth. Making a bad choice put me at high risk of contracting HIV. In 2002, I began developing symptoms, which I suspected would be the virus. Nothing prepared me for hearing the news that I was infected with the most stigmatized virus in history. Nothing. Because of the stigma, I lived on the streets of Phoenix for fear of people back home finding out. I disappeared and was, in a sense, “born again.” I had to start from scratch, sleeping in alleys, eating at soup kitchens, working day labor. After two years of waiting for housing, I decided it was time to share my story on TV. My life changed for the better, I had found my life’s mission.
I’ve been sharing my story since 2004, traveling throughout the country and bringing AIDS education to my tribe, something that was extremely difficult because leaders at the time were very ignorant. It was a battle, but I cared about my people too much to do nothing. My tribe also passed a new confidentiality code for people with HIV.
I was the height of my educational and advocacy “career.” However, one thing I could not do, or had no control over, was eating. I tipped the scales at 210-pounds, my HIV turned to AIDS, and my Hepatitis C numbers were not good. I knew I had to do something, but what? Every January there is a marathon and half marathon in Phoenix. I knew I couldn’t do it. “People with AIDS can’t run” was my motto. [But], Little by little, I started walking, jogging, and then running.
In 2010, I completed my first half marathon, followed by four more. My HIV numbers greatly improved, my body “cured” itself of Hepatitis C, and the thought of running a full marathon came to mind. Could I?
I started looking for other HIV positive Natives who ran, but to no avail. I’m sure there are others who completed a marathon, but none who were “public” like I am. In June 2014, I decided to train for my first full marathon of twenty-six point two miles. I knew it would be difficult.
I got out my shoes I bought at Goodwill, which got me through the past five half marathons and started leg work by hiking. In June, I tripped pretty hard at Piestewa Peak in Phoenix, which resulted with a broken toe. My doctor said “no running for four weeks.” With only a few months before the run, I began having second thoughts of running my first marathon, but immediately it was healed I started up again.
Training was going smoothly until I started having coughing spells, and I had difficulty breathing, which I thought was a cold. I knew it was pneumonia, something very common among people with HIV/AIDS. Should I take a chance by still running? Once I regained the strength, I was once again running around Tempe Town Lake and climbing Camelback Mountain. I never listened to music when I trained; I had my thoughts on friends living with this virus and those who passed on. I also prayed to myself, which gave me strength each day to keep going. There was no stopping me now.
Two days before the marathon, I picked up my race packet and that’s when it hit me. I was too nervous, but went for a long walk “taking it all in.” Yes my legs were sore and I tried my best not to run, but just to rest and drink plenty of water. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I tossed and turned, waking up every hour wondering “is it time? “
The race started at 8 a.m. in downtown Phoenix, and I was ready to go at 3a.m. I put on my “AIDS Survivor” shirt, which I wore at my first half marathon. My stomach churning as I nervously got to the start of the run, where I started hydrating, stretching, and waiting in those extremely long port-a-john lines. I went to my corral, looked up to the sky, and said “God, I’m yours.” I was off to run my first marathon. I was in disbelief!
I stopped at every water table to hydrate, keeping my pace and not concerned about my time. I ran by the areas I used to live while homeless on the streets, particularly a spot where I lived in a cardboard box. I kept running, I have no idea where the strength came from, but I was already in Scottsdale.
It wasn’t until mile 18 that I was getting tired, and at mile 20, I was feeling nauseous. I stopped for a minute to return texts from family who were worried about me, I texted that I had 6 more miles and was still alive. I jogged the last few miles with nothing but thoughts of my life, how I grew up, my diagnosis, and remembering friends who are no longer alive. I was very tired at this point, and when I saw the Mile-26 sign, I was overcome with energy unlike any other time throughout my months of training. I had my fist in the air as I crossed the finish line. The feeling was indescribable. This was the most difficult task I ever experienced in my life. My mom and sister were in tears. There were no words. I was in shock that I ran 26.2 miles.
This year marks 15 years that I’ve been HIV positive. I had no Native HIV positive “models” to look to when I decided to train for this marathon. I learned by trial and error.
There was a time when I thought people with AIDS couldn’t get out of bed. This marathon shatters that stereotype of people with AIDS. We CAN run marathons too. January 29 is my 48th birthday; this is a birthday gift I decided to give to myself. This is only my first full marathon. Next January will be my second, until I can run no more. If I can do this, anyone can.
San Carlos Apache