David: Do you want to do the honor of starting?
Robert: By all means. When I was diagnosed with HIV, in 1985, it was very scary—back then, every week, you’d hear about someone who was dying or in the hospital. After funerals, we’d go out and party, as a way of transitioning it from just the service to a celebration of the person’s life, and of course we’d get intoxicated to no end. It got to the point where I was doing this nonstop. One morning, I woke up not knowing how I got home the night before, with no wallet or watch. For some reason, I decided to go run. After two blocks, I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t breathe. But that just made it more of a challenge for me because I wanted to go further.
David: Wow. Had you run at all before that?
Robert: Never. I was your [typical] skinny, little introverted kid who flunked gym class in high school. After I ran that first day, I went home and rested up for the next day; then I went running again, and this time I did three blocks. Each day, I wanted to run more, to take in the air and just feel alive. I think what inspired me was my own desire to live, having seen so much death from AIDS.
David: I’d always been very active. When I was a teenager, in Mexico, I used to wake up at 6 or 7 in the morning to go run. But that changed. Around the time I was diagnosed with HIV, I was active in a different way—I was going out, drinking and partying all the time. When I tested positive, in 2001, I knew I needed to make some adjustments and try to be healthy again. I signed up for my first marathon, the San Francisco Marathon, in 2005. For me, running is the easiest way to regain control over my body. Deep inside, I feel if I stop running I will lose this battle against HIV. After my first marathon, I realized that I could focus on anything I want. I even decided to go back to school. I look at each semester as a mile.
Robert: I ran a marathon in Honolulu, and that was challenging because it was hot and I had side effects from my medications. I suffered from diarrhea for four years straight every day back then, and being able to control that was very difficult when you wanted to go out for a run. But I learned to juggle all of that. Sometimes, I’d take something else to counter that side effect. I finished the program and then had an invitation to come on board as a coach for the National AIDS Marathon Training Program. Now I am the director of the program in San Francisco.
David: For a while, I was taking Sustiva at night and starting marathon training at 5:30 in the morning, which meant that I would start feeling dizzy and weird while running. But I just kept on going. I think I’ve actually been lucky not to have had many side effects. Now, when I’m tired, I think maybe I just need to rest, or maybe I need water.
Robert: You’re right; it’s hard to pinpoint why we are tired or stressed. Is it because we’re overexerting ourselves or because of HIV? One thing that keeps me going is being able to have a support system. I try to encourage that in the marathon runners, and get them to open up about why they’re running, whether they know somebody who is living with HIV or are positive themselves.
David: I know what you mean about support. When I told my boyfriend I was going to run in San Francisco, he decided to do it too—and I knew that was his way of supporting me. Right now I’m getting ready to sign up for my next marathon, in Chicago, this October.
Robert: I’m running the Chicago marathon too! Usually I work the events, but not that one. I’ve been trying to run it for a long time. Here’s your challenge—let’s do it together!
Visit the National AIDS Marathon Training Program online at www.aidsmarathon.com.