Monday, June 17, 2024

Why I’m Joining a Latina-Led Running Group This Summer

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Zack Tobias

My health and fitness journey has always felt like an uphill battle. Raised watching Latine TV network shows where thin, hourglass-shaped bodies were the standard of beauty, I saw exercise as a means to an end, and an unachievable one at that. However, my perspective has changed recently after Latina role models in the running community inspired me to embrace running. I’ve always been terrified of joining a running club; I’ve never considered myself a runner, let alone one good enough to join a dedicated group. But this summer, I’m joining a Latina-led running group to help me progress in my physical and mental health, one mile at a time.

When Julia Azcona started running 10 years ago, she had no support system. She encountered people who commented on her weight and said she didn’t look like a runner. But Azacona’s purpose for running was much more important. Her childhood in the Dominican Republic’s countryside was filled with adventure; her parents encouraged leading an active lifestyle by maintaining their farm, animals, plants, and the house on their land. When her father passed away in 2010, she honored his life through running. She pushed past feelings of self-doubt and trained for her first marathon. Now, Azacona is committed to welcoming runners from all walks of life with her Queens running club, Ridgewood Runners.

“I wanted to build a community in my neighborhood where it was safe for people of all levels to feel welcomed and seen, especially for women,” Azacona says. “I wanted a space where we can just come together and run, mainly for the fun aspect of it, while we’re also working on staying active.”

I first heard about the group through the Queens-based yoga studio Everyone Yoga. While finishing up my multi-level vinyasa classes, I would hear the runners chatting as they awaited their “restorative yoga for runners” class to start. While I admired Azcona’s journey of overcoming self-doubt to become a runner and ultimately create an entire running community, I didn’t think I had what it took to join. I wasn’t a runner, at least not yet. So, I sought new opportunities to practice.

Last summer, I joined my first-ever group run led by Nike running coach Sashah Handal. A Latina professional marathoner and personal trainer, Handal devised an inclusive running plan for non-runners and casual runners alike. I warned Handal about my asthma, plantar fasciitis, and knee pains—the root causes of my disdain for running, which have sent me straight to physical therapy in years past.

Rather than overlooking my concerns, Handal offered invaluable advice on warm-ups, picking well-fitting sneakers, post-run stretches, and maintaining a positive mindset. Together, she led our group on a three-mile run—with some walking breaks thrown in—marking a new personal milestone for me. Since then, I’ve continued listening to Handal’s guided runs on the Nike Run Club app, and I remain inspired by her marathon feats.

As if I needed a further nudge to start running, I also noticed my favorite makeup influencer, Karen Sarahi Gonzalez — known as “iluvsarahii” to her 8 million social media followers — preparing to run her first marathon. Although I, like most people, follow her for her viral lip combos and easy beauty tutorials, Gonzalez shared glimpses into her training journey ahead of this year’s Los Angeles Marathon. I wasn’t the only one suddenly inspired to lace up my running shoes: Gonzalez reposted stories from several followers who tagged her as their inspiration after completing local 5Ks and 10Ks.

I saw all of this as a sign that it was my turn to give a long run a try. After running on and off since last summer, this May, I worked up the courage to join one of the Ridgewood Runners outings. Though I was nervous, Azacona assured me via Instagram direct message that beginners are more than welcome to join. On a gorgeous spring evening, I joined a circle of about 60 people, with Azacona in the center leading us through dynamic stretches. She then welcomed everyone to split into groups based on our average paces. I quickly learned what a “sexy pace” group is; in the running community, it’s an endearing term for slow running, and I eventually joined the ranks.

Though I was not surprised to be the slowest person in the group, I was taken aback when a stranger chose to hang back at my pace to ensure I wasn’t alone. On the return back, two more women joined us. When we finally looped back to the starting point, a long line of runners awaited us with hands held up for high fives. I held back tears of pride and joy as I ran through the human tunnel. I couldn’t believe I ran 3.8 miles.

Now, I’m ready to keep running with Azacona and the Ridgewood Runners during their weekly community runs this summer, thanks to inspiration and training tips from Handal and Gonzalez. As a new runner, I can’t overstate the power of having Latina role models cheer me on. Since I’m planning my own wedding for the summer of next year, I am taking advantage of warmer weather and joining regularly scheduled outdoor group runs to help me stay accountable for my goals of improving my physical and mental health. Running helps me clear my mind and reminds me that I am strong and capable of taking on new challenges.

Zameena Mejia is a Dominican American freelance writer born and raised in New York City. She is passionate about storytelling and uplifting diverse voices in beauty, wellness, and Latinx lifestyle. Zameena holds a BA in journalism and Latin American studies from the State University of New York at New Paltz and an MA in business reporting from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

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