Aaron DeWinter Williams went to a registration event last spring at Wild Pug for the National AIDS Marathon Training Program and was loaded with questions.
He was apprehensive about the time commitment, about the fundraising requirement, and, well, just about everything associated with the potential 26.2-mile journey that would culminate in October at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
Then he spotted a gentleman in his mid-50s who, Williams later learned, had been living with AIDS for nearly 20 years and also had beaten cancer. And he was registering for his fourth marathon.
"After hearing his story, I realized I had no excuses and signed up immediately," said Williams, 43, an Uptown resident who has lived in the Chicago area for 11 years.
Williams, an operations services and support administrator for a financial services firm in the Loop, ultimately finished the 2009 Chicago Marathon in 5:12.19.
"I started running about 12 years ago. My first 5K was for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, in honor of my mother, who succumbed to the disease after a brave battle," Williams said. "I'd always wanted to run a marathon, as I wasn't at all athletic in school. I needed a challenge outside of work and college. Aside from any personal glory, I also wanted to help those living with HIV/AIDS who don't have the benefit of employment and/or access to health insurance. This was my way of giving back.
"Running the Chicago Marathon was one of the most challenging and yet rewarding experiences of my life. I've met some truly remarkable people who gave so much of themselves to help fight this disease, including fellow runners, coaches, donors and volunteers. I've formed new friendships that I hope will last a lifetime.
"I also proved to myself that I can do anything if I'm willing to work hard and stay focused. It got tough for me after mile 18 and it was a chilly October morning. But it was all worth it, crossing that finish line and having that medal placed around my neck. It was wonderful having so many friends and co-workers present to cheer me on at various points and [ at ] the finish line. I will never forget that day."
Williams, who is gay, ran in 2009 to support the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) on a truly personal level. In 2002, he learned that his long-term partner at the time "had been repeatedly unfaithful" and was using drugs, he said: "I got tested and received the devastating news."
Now single, Williams is healthy and motivated. He now wants to inspire other. Thus, he already has registered with AFC's new endurance training program, Team To End AIDS ( T2 ) , and will be training this spring and summer for a triathlon.
"Besides crossing the finish line and receiving the medal, the most memorable part of the 2009 training season was, I'd have to say, the Saturday morning training runs along the lakefront with my pace group," Williams said. "I never thought anyone would make me want to get out of bed at 5 a.m. on Saturday mornings and run for miles. But 'The Ingrids,' our [ training ] team name, were a riot and just fantastic, intelligent people. They inspired me to dig deeper when my legs were aching and didn't want to take another step. I truly love those guys and girls
"Seeing the hundreds of runners supporting AFC clearly shows that there are more selfless, generous, caring people in the world than I sometimes remember to acknowledge. It's hard sacrificing personal time, re-arranging schedules, etc., to train four to six days a week for five and a half months. Having to also solicit donations, especially in a tight economy, is the epitome of commitment."
Williams' uplifting and inspirational outlook is a long was from his attitude of just a few years ago.
"I was in shock [ when I learned I was HIV-positive ] ," he said. "I never thought someone I'd been with for so long and loved and trusted would put me in harms way. I refused to accept it at first and insisted on another test. When the results were the same, I was alternately terrified and furious; at my partner, at the world and at myself, for trusting someone so much. I truly thought my life was going to be over soon and I began rapidly descending into depression, anxiety and panic attacks. It was a horrifying period for me.
There are some definite challenges [ being positive ] . It is still somewhat awkward revealing my status, particularly when it is to someone who is interested in me, romantically. But it must be done. Most people have been understanding, supportive and accepting. I also have to be diligent about taking my [ medications ] with me when traveling and regular checkups with my doctor are a necessity. Having good insurance is a major plus. Therefore, changing careers, particularly those that don't offer comprehensive health plans is extremely risky. On the bright side, I've been fortunate not to have experienced any HIV-related illness since being diagnosed. I don't take my health for granted and therefore I make a concerted effort at maintaining a proper diet and exercise regimen. I also know that I have an incredible support system of family and friends for which I'm very grateful."
They, no doubt, will be there supporting Williams on his 2010 triathlon journey for T2.
"I wasn't sure if I wanted to run another marathon [ in 2010 ] and given that I was planning on returning to school, I thought maybe a half-marathon would be better. However, I've done a full marathon and wanted to challenge myself [ even ] further. Therefore, I registered for the T2 triathlon," he said. "I'm confident in my ability to complete the biking and running portions. I am not a very good swimmer, though. I'm really nervous about it so this will be the main challenge and training focus."
More about Aaron DeWinter Williams:
High school: Mifflin High School in Columbus, Ohio, Class of 1984
College: Currently attending Truman Community College in Chicago
Dating: "Not at this time, but I'm certainly open to it."
Coming out: "I came out when I was about 21. I was attending Ohio State University and dating. I decided I could no longer hide in the closet. I wanted my family to know and love me for who I was and I prepared myself for disapproval or outright rejection. I started by telling my sister. As I was struggling to find the words, she looked at me directly and said, 'Are you trying to tell me you're gay?' I said to her quizzically, 'you knew?' She replied, 'Honey, everybody knows. We were just waiting on you to tell us.' I was floored! When I asked, 'Even mom knows?' she said, 'mom was the one who told us, when you were 11 or 12.' I took my mom to lunch shortly afterwards to talk about it. She said, 'Honey, all I want is for my kids to be happy. And if you're happy, then I'm happy for you!' I had to fight back tears."
Center on Halsted display: "A friend of mine, David Joseph, posted a Facebook request late last year for volunteers to take part in a photo exhibit about those living with HIV. I responded and he put me in touch with John Cotter, the photographer for the exhibit. John photographed me and I submitted an accompanying exposition." The exhibit ran from December 11, 2009 through January 13, 2010. "The exhibit was cathartic in that it allowed me to publicly open up about living with HIV. A great deal of fear, misinformation and judgment about HIV-positive people still exists, even within the LGBTQ community and this was my way of, hopefully, clearing up some of those misconceptions."
Fundraising for AFC: "I set a goal of $1,600 in 2009. I raised $2,290.00. My 2010 goal is $1,800."
Hobbies: They include reading, running, dancing, movies and socializing with close friends. "I wish I had more time to travel. Writing is also a hobby in which I rarely have time to focus. I started a novel several years ago. I hope to get around to working on it soon."
Favorite sport ( besides running ) : Beach volleyball. "Sun, sand and hot, athletic guys; what's not to like?"
Favorite pro athlete: Currently, Scott Fujita, linebacker for the New Orleans Saints. " [ He's ] a straight pro-gay athlete who is willing to publicly support gay rights, including marriage equality, and a woman's right to choose is rare."
Favorite TV show: Brothers and Sisters
Favorite movie: Kill Bill, Vol. 1
Favorite singer: Beyonce
Pets: "My beloved 'diva cat,' CoCo"