The Women at Rikers Island Won't Let Me Quit

3 disc bulges in my lower back. Piriformis Syndrome in both glutes. Sciatic nerve pain in my right leg. Wrist sprain. Nerve pain in my neck. 8 months of physical therapy. All of the aforementioned happened to me shortly after signing up for last year's NYC Marathon.

After running casually for 20+ years, I’d never run a marathon in my life, so I made the decision last year that upon turning 40 years old, I’d mark this milestone by completing a marathon. Though I wanted to go into race day healthy, I still found myself Piriformis and glute pain right up until the marathon ... along with pretty gnarly knee pain that I somehow developed along the way.

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I also knew that due to my injuries, I was grossly undertrained - I knew it and I felt it, but my reality has always been for my spirit to not let me quit, no matter the circumstances. It’s not so much my own fighting warrior spirit that has stubbornly kept me going to the gym, running on Monday nights with HR, and completing races along the way ... Much of my fighter’s energy has come from my clients at work, who have not let a single day pass where they haven’t mentioned how excited they are to see me continue my running journey, despite any setbacks or challenges.

Who are my clients? They are incarcerated women at Rikers Island’s all-female Jail, Rose M Singer Center, lovingly referred to as “Rosie’s”. As a a social worker at RMSC, I am tasked with running therapeutic groups with the women throughout the day. Given my life-long love of running, I’ve managed to incorporate running and discussions about physical activity into all my work. Most of the time, the women think I’m nuts for loving running so much. But more so than not, I get a lot of positive responses and genuine curious questions about how this passion of mine for running began.

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After hearing a few months before my marathon from my physical therapist that I should essentially cancel any idea of running, I started talking about running less and less with the women, ultimately silencing all talk of the marathon as it hurt too much to even discuss. However, my attentive ladies started noticing that I stopped talking about running and started calling me out on it! They began asking, "What’s happened Ms. G? What’s happened to all your running ramblings?"

Trying to ignore, deflect, and side track their questions was IMPOSSIBLE as these are some of the most persistent and determined women you will ever meet. To do so would not only be offensive, but it would go against my practice in transparency and genuineness. Finally, seeing I couldn’t get around their questions, I shared my prognosis and injuries and that I ultimately wouldn’t be able to run this year.

I expected the women to be disappointed upon hearing this but instead I got: "No Ms. G, get outta here ... Even if you walk, YOU GOT THIS", "Don’t give up! You’re the strongest and most dopest person we know ... rock that shit out!", "We’re cheering for you Ms. G!", and so on. This went on for months.

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Hearing this day in and out started sinking in and where I, for months, dealt with the despair of not being able to run my first marathon, I now started thinking it was possible. The encouragement continued constantly from not just the inmates but from our uninformed personnel alike - all ranks. It became so that I could no longer NOT make an attempt to run. 

 I ultimately made the decision to run my first marathon. Physically, I was not ready, but mentally, I was able to dip into that fighter's spirit to tackle scary thoughts and feelings. On race day, my heart was FULL knowing that I had the backing of 700+ women and 400+ uniformed personnel, who were all tracking and rooting me on along my way through 26.2 miles of unknown challenges.

Had it not been for the ladies of Rosie's, this would've never been impossible. My form of gratitude to them was truly in completing. Seeing that their voices are not often heard, listened to or cared for by societal judgment, I ran so that their voices could, and continue to ROAR. Thank you to my ladies for helping me renew & find my spirit!

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- Vanessa

Amir FigueroaComment