Pets: dog, Benjamin (1); cat, Franklin (4)
Occupation: Researcher at the World Trade Center Health Program, Stony Brook University
I want to wish a happy and healthy New Year to the Selden Hills Warriors. A big thank-you to Lou LaFleur for selecting me as Warrior of the Week.
It’s not easy to put yourself out there – it’s actually one of my phobias — but I welcome the challenge because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Warriors, it’s to embrace the things that scare you. Like the first time you run the hills on Adirondack Drive. It looks like the asphalt goes into the sky and you think you’ll die midway, only to roll down that awful hill. You think there’s no way you could ever run up that. And then you do it.
I’ve been running since high school. Growing up, it seemed like I spent a lot of time protecting my brother, who is autistic, from the kids who made fun of him. As we grew older, those cruel kids became cruel teenagers and adults. School was a sanctuary for me. I was studious, spending my time reading and taking honors classes. While my peers were reading “The Babysitter’s Book Club” I was lost in Stephen King’s “Misery” and “Hearts in Atlantis.” My nerd flag flew proudly: bifocals, cat sweaters, saddle shoes from Payless, and stirrup pants. Once I started high school I ditched the glasses and got contacts, but then there was acne. I was red meat for bullies. The mean girls homed in on the bad skin, the cat sweaters; I wore too much makeup, not enough makeup, the wrong kind of clothes. One girl once gave me $1 and told me to buy some new clothes. Since I liked to run — and was desperate to fit in somewhere — I joined the track and cross country teams. I’d like to tell you that I had an instant sense of belonging and excelled at every event or distance, but that’s not what happened. I was a back-of- the-pack runner who got constant criticism from coaches and teammates. I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I was never going to be the best or the fastest. Track did teach me that I enjoyed personal competition and pushing myself, but being part of a team focused on winning wasn’t for me.
By 17, I developed anxiety, which became severe and debilitating. In college I took premed classes, a toxic combination for someone with anxiety. I remember studying for hours and then suffering with crippling anxiety before every exam. The pressure for perfection was constant. Running wasn’t just something I did to stay in shape, it became my therapy. Whenever something stressful was happening, I’d go for a run. It was a way to clear my head, sort things out. It’s amazing how different things look after a run: problems that seemed so overwhelming had elegant solutions by the time I took off my running shoes. On the days I ran, I slept better and didn’t feel so stressed.
For most of my running life, I was a solo runner, until I noticed my brother going out on long runs. Running helped calm his ever-wandering mind. It brought him peace, he said. Pretty soon I found myself trailing behind him on long runs. I don’t get to experience his world very often, although I wish I did. In his world, everyone means what they say. He lives in the here and now. He doesn’t worry about the future or what might or could happen. Running with him became a way to connect with myself and a way to connect with him. Even if we aren’t talking, we’d be in the moment together. I remember the elation we both felt once as we challenged ourselves to go for the half marathon distance on a neighborhood run. My mom called us Forest Gump because when she asked us what compelled us to run so far, we’d say, “we just felt like running.”
Last year I had foot surgery and had to quit running for about five months. Once I was cleared, I was eager to get back to the gym and to running. That’s when I decided to hire a personal trainer and met June Luciano. June has played a tremendous role in taking my running and training to the next level. This past fall I did my first 10K AND my first half marathon! June also introduced me to the hills and the Warriors. June told me – and made me see – that I was a lot stronger than I thought. At the gym, June would select a heavier weight than my usual and encourage me to “just give it a try.” I remember starting with 10 pounds never thinking I could do 20 pounds. I routinely do 20 pound flies now. Whenever I feel as if I can’t do a race or lift a certain weight June encourages me to “give it a try.” Thanks to her, I push myself out of my comfort zone.
In the book “Into The Wild,” Chris McCandless, a young man who took off alone into the Alaskan wilderness, said, “I once read somewhere how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once.” June’s helped me not only get strong , but feel strong. And that lesson transcends to the gym, running and life. Whenever I’m faced with a new or problematic situation, whenever I start to feel anxious, I think about the first time I ran the hills or picked up a 20 pound weight. I think about how far I came, and with the right preparation, how much farther I can go.
Maritza Santos showed me the benefits of running with a friend. She’s been the reasonable, encouraging voice for some of my hardest runs. Whenever I want to give up or feel as though I can’t run a certain distance, Maritza will say, “you’ve got this.” And I believe her.
As part of my job along with clinical interviewing for various projects, I record the stories of September 11th first responders as part of Dr. Benjamin Luft’s “Remembering 9/11 Oral History Project” for the Library of Congress. This job is truly an honor and I’m grateful to have it, but it’s also very difficult. Each day I hear stories of unimaginable bravery by police, fire, EMS, sanitation, volunteers, construction and iron workers. I also hear stories of incredible pain and sadness. These are people reliving the worst days of their lives. They lost friends, co-workers and saw unimaginable horror. Some of the taped sessions can go over two hours in length. After work, I go for a run and think about those responders. To get through that day and so many days after, they had to focus on the job at hand. They had to just keep going one foot in front of the other.
The Selden Hills Warriors is a very special group. You’re accepting and positive. You’re great teachers, great motivators. You’ve helped me dig deep and measure myself. With your experience, motivation and collective wisdom, you’ve helped me feel strong. I’m very grateful to be part of this group.