Life

Why They Run (Part II): Marathoners Share Their Inspirations

In the second of our two-part series,  four more participants training for the Miami Marathon and Half Marathon on January 29 share their inspiring stories.

Jennifer Ashley Lopez, 30: “I just keep taking it one day at a time.”

jennifer-lopez-final-1500Jennifer Ashley Lopez runs because she can. It is that simple — and yet, it isn’t.

Growing up in Miami, running was the furthest thing from her mind. Lopez spent her youth twirling on her toes, training in ballet from the time she was a toddler until she was a teen.

And then, at age 27, her life took an unexpected turn. While on vacation in Italy, she was in a train accident and gravely injured her right foot. She returned home and sought help at Doctors Hospital from orthopedic surgeon Christopher Hodgkins, M.D., but the damage was too severe. Despite multiple surgeries, including one that lasted 16 hours, her lower leg and foot had to be amputated.

That was a little more than two years ago, and the road hasn’t always been easy. She took up running, she said, because “I could not let the accident define who I am.” She plans to be among the 25,000 people who line up for the Miami Marathon and Half Marathon this month. Although she has completed a number of 5K races since she lost her leg, “It will be my first half-marathon,” she declared proudly.

Lopez had tried to run a half-marathon last year, but dropped out due to a bone spur on her injured leg. True to her sunny nature, she sees it as success rather than a failure. “I may not have finished, but I ran five miles,” she said. “I view it as a great achievement.”

Lopez has been training since August with Team FDC and is feeling strong for the Miami event. “I’m a little bit nervous — I won’t lie,” she said. “But I just keep taking it one day at a time.”

The mental demands of running are far more challenging than the physical strains, she noted, although running with a prosthesis has led to everything from back pain to inflamed hip flexors. “I thought at one point that this might defeat me. I wondered if I would be able to do it, to finish. I wondered if I could withstand it,” she said.

But she dug deep and found a new resolve. “I said to myself, why can’t I? Why shouldn’t I? There are plenty of people who would gladly change places with me — people with cancer and terminal illnesses. I’m just missing a foot.”

Now she has built a new community of friends at Team FDC, and she has discovered a passion. “This is the best way that I can prove to myself that I can get through anything,” Lopez said. “For me, it has been really liberating… I’m healthy, I’m alive, and I am full of life.”

 

Alexis Garcia, 55: “Running is something I will do for the rest of my life.”

alexis-finalAlexis Garcia never seems to tire of running — which makes sense, since he’s a veteran of more than 40 marathons, 60 half-marathons and an incredible month-long trek of more than 1,000 miles.

“I am passionate about running,” he said. “Every time I cross that finish line, I have a sense of accomplishment. It gives me tremendous satisfaction.” (Alexis is pictured at left with his wife, Marlene.)

Still, this year’s 15th Miami Marathon is special. “This is going to be a big one for me,” he said. “I am one of the few people who can say he has run every single Miami Marathon since the beginning. I never thought it would get as huge as it is now.”

Garcia started running marathons after he arrived in the U.S. in 1992. He escaped from Cuba in a kayak and spent 55 harrowing hours in the Florida Straits before being rescued by the Coast Guard. It was a bad time on the island, with food and medicine shortages due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He didn’t know if he would ever return.

Garcia built a life here, but never abandoned his childhood dream of running from one end of Cuba to the other. He and his wife, Marlene Guerra Garcia, made the trip in 2015 with an ambitious itinerary: running more than 30 miles a day, a total of more than 1,000 miles from the eastern tip of Cuba to the furthest western point. They made a documentary of the journey, which they hope to get into film festivals this year. Along the way, Garcia reconnected with his homeland and gave away donated sneakers to children.

As a physical education teacher at Miami Lakes K-8 Center, Garcia puts a premium on influencing the next generation. His school participates in the Kids Run Miami, which encourages students to run 1.5 miles weekly at their schools. After they have logged 25 miles, the students run the final 1.2 miles at the Miami Marathon course on race day.

Garcia plans to finish his marathon run, then go back to cross the finish line again with children from his school. “The kids love the idea that I will be running with them, and we are creating the base for them to keep moving in the future,” Garcia said, adding he has received much support from his school’s staff to participate in the program for the past 10 years. “They know it’s a good program… All the time we have kids who come back to thank us for inspiring them.”

Will Garcia ever feel like he has logged enough miles? Probably not. “My whole life is all about running,” he said. “It’s something I will do for the rest of my life.”

 

Mercy Sori, 46: “You have to stay young by doing fun things.”

mercy-sori-finalMercy Sori was leaving the InterContinental Hotel in downtown Miami some years back when she unexpectedly came across a stream of runners making their way to the Miami Marathon finish line. She was mesmerized by their courage, grit and determination.

“I saw people of all ages, of all weights, of all races and backgrounds. People with disabilities. You see all these people running, challenging themselves, and I can’t put it into words. It was very moving, very inspirational. I thought if they could do it, maybe I could, too.”

And so began her running career.

“I had never run in my life,” said the fifth grade teacher at St. Theresa Catholic School in Coral Gables. “The last time I had run was in elementary school for P.E.”

Mrs. Sori trained for three years with TeamFootWorks, and then joined Team FDC. She enjoyed the camaraderie, support, and guidance of both programs as she competed in a number of races, including five half-marathons.

Last year, she changed her regimen. She and her husband, Henry, decided to train and run the Miami half-marathon together to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. “It was like our gift to each other. It was both a happy experience and a rough ride, but we made it — together.” They crossed the finish line holdings hands.

This year’s Miami event is Mrs. Sori’s seventh half-marathon. Her husband has decided to up his game by running the full marathon. The couple will split up during the course and meet at the finish line.

The Soris continue to train together on weekends — she said it has been good for their marriage. “You have something in common. You are doing something together to stay healthy,” she said. Plus, she added, “It’s good for the kids to see us doing things together.”

Mrs. Sori’s dream is to someday run the New York Marathon. But for now, she is not quite ready to graduate to the full course. She enjoys the challenge of it all. “As you get older, you have to stay young by doing fun things.”

So she’ll keep training, sometimes with her husband, sometimes with her friends, and sometimes alone. She loves what running has done for her stamina. But even more, she loves what it has done for her soul.

“For me, it’s therapeutic. I think, I pray, sometimes I talk to myself,” she said. “Running is my time for me.”

 

Henry Sori, 50: “It’s one of the things that has been on my bucket list.”

henry-sori-finalHenry Sori has a long history with the Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, yet he has never run the full course. That changes this year.

Mr. Sori was working for Miami-Dade County when planning began for the first race more than 15 years ago. “I was there from the inception. It’s something I believe in on a civic level as well as a personal level,” he said. A 25-year veteran of County Hall, he said he helped coordinate street closings, police coverage and other logistics with the cities of Miami and Miami Beach. He left county government in 2015.

Although a huge supporter of the Miami event, Mr. Sori was almost always on the sidelines. He ran the half marathon only once, early on, he said. Then he injured his knee while training for the full marathon, and gave it up. “I always thought in the back of my mind that it would be something cool to come back to,” he said. “It’s one of the things that has been on my bucket list.”

Last year, Mr. Sori ran the half-marathon with his wife, Mercy, to commemorate their 20th wedding anniversary. She was already an avid runner, and he had some catching up to do. “At first, I didn’t think I would be able to run even two miles. But then two miles turned into three, and three turned into four, and so on.”

He encourages others to give running a try, even if they have doubts about their abilities. “It can be a life-altering experience,” he said.

Since last year’s race, he has stepped up his training with a goal of completing the full marathon to celebrate his 50th birthday. “They say it’s mind over matter — it’s all of that and more.”

As much as he enjoys running, Mr. Sori, who now works as a government liaison for Waste Management, won’t consider yet if he will run another marathon after this one. “I’m taking it one challenge at a time.”

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