Runners training for the Fitbit Miami Marathon and Half Marathon  on January 28 share their motivations for running. Here are some of their stories in the first installment of this year’s marathon profiles (the second batch of stories will be published next week.) Baptist Health is a sponsor of and the official medical provider for the event.
Luis Vargas: “You’ve already won when you take the first step.”
Someone had the brilliant idea to hold a few, good-natured contests at the 30th reunion of Luis Vargas’ Air Force buddies. Much to his dismay, Mr. Vargas discovered he was the not-so-proud winner of the biggest belly title.
“Biggest belly! I was heavy, overweight,” said Mr. Vargas, who spent nine years in the military. “I thought, ‘Oh, man, I have to do something.’ ”
While he may have been embarrassed in that moment, today he is proud of the transformation it inspired (image, at left, shows Mr. Vargas before his weight-loss and after). Two years later, he’s more than 30 pounds lighter, fit and happy. On Jan. 28, he will participate for the second time in the Miami Marathon’s half-marathon course. It’s part of his training for the Tokyo Marathon in February.
Mr. Vargas, of Weston, doesn’t pretend that getting started was easy. “For me, at that point, running even a mile was a long distance,” he said. But he was determined he would not be 50 and fat. “I knew I wanted to get some exercise going.”
Mr. Vargas sought the advice of Marcela Todd, a certified Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) running coach and program director of Friends In Training , a community partner of Baptist Health. She encouraged him to work on his endurance so he could complete a three- to five-mile run and then join the club’s marathon training program. He did, dropped the weight and has not looked back.
“Running has taught me consistency, persistence, to always focus on your goals and to give everything you have in order to overcome your obstacles,” Mr. Vargas said.
As the father of three teenagers, Mr. Vargas does not underestimate the importance of staying healthy. The aviation consultant now pays close attention to what he eats, how much he rests, how his body feels. He said he actually craves exercise when he misses a training session. “I need to do it,” said Mr. Vargas, 52. “I feel like I am not getting enough oxygen if I don’t run.”
As he continues to improve his speed, he views running as a metaphor for life. “One of the things I love about running is you are always moving forward,” he said.
To those who might feel discouraged because they are out of shape or overweight, he offers understanding and this advice: “Start. Just start. Have small goals. You’ve already won when you take the first step.”
Ayenza Matthews: “It has to do with trying to achieve what you think is impossible.”
Ayenza Matthews spent her childhood on the sidelines, watching the other kids run and play.
Born with one leg shorter than the other, she had balance issues and fell a lot. “I wore orthopedic shoes throughout my childhood,” Ms. Matthews said. “I sat on benches when the other children played sports. I couldn’t do anything.”
Ms. Matthews could not have imagined running in marathons in those days. Now, as she approaches her 50th birthday, she can’t imagine her life without them.
“It has to do with trying to achieve what you think is impossible,” she explained.
A Panamanian-born international business executive who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Ms. Matthews was searching for ways to give back to the community when she stumbled upon an opportunity to train for a fundraising run. It seemed almost crazy, given her physical challenges. But she figured she had nothing to lose and everything to gain by joining the program. She started with small goals and, as she got stronger, kept challenging herself.
That was about six years ago. Now she is well on her way to completing the six-race World Major series, which includes the marathons in New York City, Chicago, Boston, Berlin, London and Tokyo. In December, she ran a 31-mile ultra marathon in Panama, and she has set her sights on running a marathon in Antarctica in 2021.
“Getting to the finish line, knowing you were able to control your mind and dictate to your body what you need to do, is an amazing feeling,” Ms. Matthews said.
Ms. Matthews, who goes by the running nickname of La Potranca, or the “young filly,” is signed up for the Miami Half-Marathon on Jan. 28 as part of her training for Tokyo with Friends In Training .
Although a back injury following an accident three years ago threatened to derail her running, true to form, she refused to give up. Running can be difficult — she wears an orthotic in her shoe to even out the length of her legs, and she experiences back pain from scoliosis, for which she wore a brace for almost three years as a teen. But, she said, “I just pick up all my pieces and I keep going.”
More than anything, running marathons is a mind game, she said. “But that’s true of anything in life.”
Rebeck Marcelino: “I know my children are watching me.”
In her mind, Rebeck Marcelino could picture herself completing a marathon, arms raised in victory as she crossed the finish line. She just needed a little help to make it happen.
“I always had a dream of running a marathon,” she said. “I would see the Miami Marathon on the news, and I would think, ‘I want to do that.’ I just didn’t know how.”
Ms. Marcelino, a homeschooling mother of two from Weston, began trying to train on her own. But it was the guidance, support and structure of a running club that helped bring her dream to reality, she said. Later this month, she’ll be running the full Miami Marathon for the second time.
“I’m so excited to go back and get a better time,” said Ms. Marcelino. “I’m competitive. I like to do better all the time.”
Running makes her feel strong, energized and connected to a larger community, she said. “The friends I have gained are so amazing,” she said. “I have found accountability, friendship, inspiration. It’s just beautiful.”
In addition to homeschooling her two children, ages 10 and 14, Ms. Marcelino recently joined the U.S. Navy Reserve, fulfilling a desire to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, a World War II veteran. She serves on the Navy honor guard in addition to attending classes at Broward College to earn an associate’s degree in biology. Her goal is to eventually go to medical school and become a doctor.
“I have very big dreams,” said the 36-year-old Brazilian, who’s grateful for the support of her husband in everything she does. “People laughed at me and said I’d never join the military, that I’d never run a marathon. But they never died, these dreams. They just grew.”
By challenging herself, she hopes to set a good example. “I know my children are watching me,” she said. The message she hopes to embody: “Never underestimate the power of persistence or your ability to achieve anything you really want. Invest in yourself, invest in your health and invest in your dreams. Don’t settle for less.”
Adriana and Max Umarov: “Running as a family is something you have to experience.”
The thought of taking up running was always in the back of Adriana Umarov’s mind. An athlete in her youth, she had been reading a runners’ magazine for a year, but never got around to lacing up her shoes.
“When you start a family, you think you don’t have the time or the opportunity for activities,” she explained.
But when her husband, Max, was diagnosed with elevated cholesterol, she felt a sense of urgency. Getting healthier became a family priority. “I was concerned,” Ms. Umarov said.
About 18 months ago, Ms. Umarov saw a presentation at work about the Miami Marathon and Half-Marathon, and that clinched things. “For me, the marathon had always been a huge goal,” she said. “I figured if I didn’t do it at that point, then when? It was kind of like fate.”
Mr. Umarov, an engineer, agreed to join his wife even though he initially thought running would be boring. By signing up for a running club, however, they were each able to train at their own level, and Mr. Umarov came to enjoy the challenge.
The Weston couple is excited to tackle the full course of the Miami Marathon for the first time this year. His cholesterol is down to a healthy 180, she is experiencing fewer migraines, and they have a new social circle. In fact, they have adopted a whole new lifestyle.
“The overall thing is not just running, but all the things that go with it,” said Ms. Umarov, a product manager at Motorola. “How should we be eating? How should we be cooking? How much rest should we be getting? We want to run faster, we want to do better, but we want to feel good.”
Their new focus on health appears to be inspiring their 12-year-old son, Daniel, who has taken up running 5Ks and cross country with Dad’s encouragement.
“Running as a family is something you have to experience,” Mr. Umarov said. “Any activity where you get to spend time with the family is priceless. People just don’t get enough of that. Getting healthier and having more energy doesn’t hurt, either.”