POZ TV : Run This Town - by LaToya Johnson

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November 18, 2009

Run This Town

by LaToya Johnson

Harlem United’s Team Apollo pounds the pavement in the ING New York City Marathon.

She celebrated her 50th birthday on November 13, but Maria Davis fulfilled a birthday wish days before she blew out the candles on her cake. She completed the ING New York City Marathon on November 1.

AIDS activist Maria Davis
At more than 26 miles, the marathon is no walk in the park (although it does finish in Manhattan’s world-famous Central Park). But Davis is no stranger to overcoming seemingly daunting obstacles: She was diagnosed with HIV in 1995. Nearly 15 years later, Davis remains a champion in the HIV/AIDS community, founding a nonprofit HIV empowerment group called Can’t Be Silenced.

“It’s named Can’t Be Silenced because I will not shut up until HIV is gone. Period,” said Davis, the self-proclaimed “thug” of the HIV world. “I’m always running up on people. People don’t address the epidemic the way they should in the messages that are sent out to our young people, and nobody wants to take responsibility for it.”

A hip-hop promoter by trade, Davis’s voice was featured prominently on rap superstar (and fellow New Yorker) Jay-Z’s breakthrough 1996 album, Reasonable Doubt.

In a way, the marathon brought the activist’s experiences with HIV full circle because she completed it with Team Apollo, a group of runners representing Harlem United—Davis’s former AIDS service organization (ASO). Established in 1988, Harlem United emerged as the only place positive Harlem residents could access care. Today, it serves as many as 10,000 clients each year from East Harlem to the Bronx. Davis was first introduced to Harlem United in 1999.

Following her HIV diagnosis, Davis acquired peripheral neuropathy, a nerve condition usually caused either by HIV itself or medication side effects. Since this makes running painful for her, she opted to walk the length of the marathon, enlisting techniques from her New York Road Runners walking class, her MP3 player stocked with Smokie Norful and BeBe Winans—and more than a few prayers for guiding her through the physical challenge.

“I didn’t think ahead and overwhelm myself with the thought of it,” Davis told POZ. “I took one step at a time. One bridge at a time. And every time I got over a bridge I said, ‘Thank you God for helping me get over this bridge.’”

As Davis paced herself during the five-borough trek, her teammate, HIV researcher David Pantalone, PhD, took in the sights. “It was amazing the way each neighborhood had such a different personality. But that’s definitely New York,” said Pantalone, who entered the HIV arena through an undergraduate project at Brown University and took on the marathon to commemorate 10 years in the field. “When we entered Bay Ridge, everyone was Italian. Then we ran a little further, and everyone was Latino. We ran a little further, and we were in Park Slope where everyone was white and wore funky glasses. We went a little further, and everyone was African American, then everyone was a Hasidic Jew.”

Somewhere else along the marathon route was Veronica Webb, a supermodel, actress, journalist, activist and fellow Team Apollo runner. “Doing the marathon was amazing,” she said. “It’s up there with having a baby or seeing Paris for the first time or hearing the music when you’re about to walk down the aisle and get married. It’s like a struggle and a dream that comes true all at once.”

Webb, who has been involved in AIDS activism since the late 1980s, said it was Harlem United’s holistic approach to HIV/AIDS support that drew her to the team.

“They get people into housing who are HIV positive or living with AIDS so that their recommended treatment becomes more successful,” Webb said. “It’s one the of smartest things I’ve ever seen any AIDS organization do. They also go block by block, apartment building by apartment building [doing] door-to-door [HIV] testing. And they also have a good relationship with the clergy.”

When POZ spoke with Harlem United executive director Patrick McGovern, he said that Davis, Pantalone, Webb and their teammates had raised nearly $82,000 and counting. The money will provide mental health counseling and support for Helping Our Men Evolve (HOME), a program aimed at African-American men who have sex with men (MSM), as well as an HIV prevention program for African immigrants. 

“I think more importantly than the money,” McGovern said, “is the connection that we’ve made with people like Veronica Webb and prominent leaders within the Harlem community who joined our team, and their commitment to getting the word out about HIV/AIDS prevention and care.”

McGovern ran the marathon as well. But, for him, the most inspirational part of the experience was watching Maria Davis cross the finish line.

“I’m not afraid to tell people that I’m living with AIDS,” Davis said. Her hope is that people will think, ‘If this chick is crazy enough to walk knowing she has peripheral neuropathy in her feet, then I need to be doing my part. Then maybe I should get tested.’”

Watch our video interview with Team Apollo member Veronica Webb: 

Search: Harlem United, Maria Davis, New York City Marathon, ING, Central Park, New York City, Team Apollo, Jay-Z, Can't Be Silenced, Bronx, Harlem, David Pantalone, Brown University, Veronica Webb, Patrick McGovern, Helping Our Men Evolve, immigrants

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