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One man's first marathon

Before contracting HIV, John ran his first marathon; and he has kept running

(This story was published in 2007).

By: John Patrick Rowe

I would consider myself an ordinary guy, though I wasn’t that big on sports in high school. I came from a small town and unless you were a farmer’s boy you really didn’t have the size or strength for the high school teams.

That changed in 2002. I was working at a well-known record label, and the office mail team was passing out flyers for The National AIDS Marathon Training Program; training for a marathon in Hawaii that December. I was cocky at the time and sent an email out to everyone in the office saying I would do it “for the team” if I received at least one thousand dollars in donations by the day’s end. By the time I left later that evening, I had almost two thousand already committed. I was going to do a marathon, and I had never run even a mile before, much less 26.2 miles.

That Saturday I met my running coach and other runners on my soon-to-be training team in Santa Monica. For first-time runners, I can’t recommend a supportive, knowledgeable training team highly enough. The first weekend I was timed on a 3-mile run, the thought of which was very scary. I’d never run that far. But when I was running on the beach and saw the other runners, surrounded by the beautiful scenery, I didn’t think about the mileage; I just ran. When I finished the run, they took my time, divided it by three, added a minute, and settled me into a training group that matched my speed. For the next six months, they would be my lifeline to my impending marathon. I started at three miles and added a mile each week until, to my surprise, I was running eight and 10 miles at a time.

Like most runners, I found that I didn’t warm up or start to feel like running until I hit five miles. Once I hit that mile-marker, my body warmed up, the endorphins kicked in, and I began to really enjoy running. I ran along the beach and up the roads to Westwood. It was wonderful experience training in Santa Monica.

December came before I knew it. I had already done a practice marathon in November and had already reached marathon distance in my training. I also had the pleasure of running a few 5k and 10k runs amidst the training. I was now off to Hawaii. This was to be a big-time event for the locals; it was the 30th anniversary of the marathon in Waikiki, and running groups and tourists were everywhere.

At 5 a.m., in the pitch dark, over 30,000 people gathered at the starting line. We enjoyed about 15 minutes of fireworks before the run began. The more experienced athletes and runners were in the front line, the training groups toward the end. It was exhilarating running with that many people. I was so close to everyone that it felt the crowd was a wave being pushed across the starting line.

It took about 15 minutes after crossing the starting line before I actually found my pace. It was still dark out and I passed through neighborhoods covered in Christmas decorations. Waikiki has one major hill to encounter, Diamond Head. I reached it at mile eight; I’d be returning to it on the course 20 miles later.

After running for three hours, the heat set in as the sun rose. I took advantage of the wet towels and water that were given out along the course. Thankfully, Hawaii’s winter provides some rain showers, and that day we were not disappointed.

When I hit mile 23 and hit the big hill for the second and final time. The size of the hill no longer mattered because I knew I was almost home. On the hill I realized I had injured my foot, but that was not going to stop me. I just used the pain as energy and joyfully crossed the finish line with two of my training partners.

That marathon to me was not about my race time, which was about 5:30; it was about finishing the race and raising over $5,000 for a cause I cared about. I was amazed to see that one of our older and much out of shape runners cross the line later that day. It may have taken her over 10 hours, but she completed it, contributing the donations she had raised to the cause.

I hobbled around the island for the next few days in pain. I saw a doctor when I got back home and I had a small fracture on my left foot. I didn’t care. I just had it wrapped and walked on crutches for a few weeks. I had thought that would be my first and last marathon. But the intoxicating feeling of tackling 26.2 miles and surviving with a fracture in my foot was too alluring. It wasn’t long until I was back training for my next one.

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Rowe is openly gay and presently 37 years old. In 2003 while training for his second marathon he became violently ill and found out that he was HIV-positive. He has completed three marathons and continues to run despite his medical condition. He is originally from New York and has lived in Los Angeles for about 15 years.