I'm a runner. I'm a marathon runner. I'm a marathon runner living with HIV.
Several years ago, I found myself emotionally stuck. I knew there was something more out there in the world for me, but finding it was leaving me feeling empty.
So, I began to run. No, I started to walkthree miles every day on a treadmill. It cleared my head and kept me focused.
As the time progressed, I found myself picking up speed and eventually having the courage to run outside with my fellow runners on the Lakeshore Trail. I started running five miles, then six, then eightand then it hit me. My stomach was an absolute wreck, and I knew exactly what was happening. My medications cause severe diarrhea and stomach cramps. There I was, mile seven and it happened. Where do I go? What do I do? Am I going to be OK? Thank goodness for the bathrooms at Buckingham Fountain! I sat there in that bathroom crying for all the wrong reasons… How did you let this happen? Why are you pushing yourself so hard? Why would anyone even care?
Needless to say, I walked out of that public bathroom, faced a whole bunch of tourists with tears running down my face and knew that it was time to make a change. That change came when I found out about the AIDS Run/Walk with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC). I signed up for my first 10K race. I joined 500+ runners and I finished in the mid 100s. Not too bad, but more importantly, I saw a crowd of runners wearing matching red shirts. I got close enough to one of them to see "T2 Team to End AIDS." My heart started racing and I got goosebumps. Am I ready to put myself out there? Nope.
I spent the next year going through a slew of medications and trying to get acclimated. I dealt with migraines, internal bleeding, more diarrhea and jaundice, and even had a bone growth on my skull that required doctors to surgically amputate it. Medications be cursedor was it just me?
That year passed and I kept running. I also became very familiar with the public bathrooms along the lakeshore path and my neighborhood. It was time to sign up for the AIDS Run/Walk again. My nerves started getting to me and I feared that I wasn't going to make it through the whole 6.2 miles incident free, but then I ran by my mom and my partner. They were cheering and yelling like I had never seen/heard before. My mom was so excited that all she could yell was "THAT'S MY SON!!" That pushed me over the edgeand I was only at mile two. The runner in me kicked in and I finished the race of 500+ runners in 11th place. What?!?! How did I get so fast? I had seen the T2 team walking around and stretching beforehand. A few of them smiled and me and I smiled back. I could feel their energy. Maybe it was time to finally put myself out there. Maybe.
I went home and looked up Team To End AIDS (T2ea.com ) and checked out the AIDS Foundation of Chicago's website. I signed with the team.
Ready to become a part of a team was a struggle, but when I walked into my very first T2 meeting, all those fears went out the window. I was sitting in a theater with over 200 people with the same mentality: We're going to run until we end AIDS. I sat in my seat watching videos of the past marathons and events T2 participated in. I listened to people speak about missing loved ones, family, partners, etc. All I could do was cry. Thank goodness for dark theaters. The lights went up and it was time to find my training group. I met runners who talked about their goals and why they joined T2. Suddenly, being HIV-positive meant nothing more than a small obstacle in my path to finishing a marathon.
After a season of training and one major marathon done, I walked around all day with that marathon medal around my neck. I shed more tears of joy and sadness than ever before in 24 hours. I was relieved. I was overcome with joy. I missed the friends I have lost to this disease.
Since that day, I have run another AIDS Run/Walk, the Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon, the Chicago Spring Half Marathon, the Shamrock Shuffle and the Soldier Field 10 Mile. With each race, I became a more secure runner and athlete. With each race came a new running shirt, but I only run with my T2 singlet. I look down at my running singlet before hearing that horn blow to cross the starting line. I take the time to remember all the friends and loved ones that have passed. My tears are now at the beginning of each race. I am proud of the progress I have made and am even prouder of the team I represent.
I'm training for the Chicago Marathon with my T2 teammates again this year and am thrilled to channel my passion professionally as the new T2 co-manager supporting AFC's triathlon and half Ironman athletes. Team To End AIDS has changed my life. It can change yours too, whether you are HIV-positive or HIV-negative, one small step at a time.
Pulford is a co-manager for AFC's Team to End AIDS (T2) program, which is still accepting registrations for the otherwise sold-out LifeTime Chicago Tri on Sunday, Aug. 25, and the 17th Annual Chicago Half Marathon on Sunday, Sept. 8. Visit t2ea.com for more information.