December 12 2017
Meet Rhonda-Marie and Steven Parke, two ultrarunners who discovered their love for each other through running.
Rhea Johnson knew she wanted to get back in shape, but she didn’t know where to start. A former All-American sprinter and middle-distance runner from Amherst College, Johnson still loved running. However she hadn’t done it consistently in quite some time. As a psychiatrist and a mother in Katona, N.Y., her days were jam-packed and overwhelming.
“I needed prompting, enabling, accountability, inspiration,” says Johnson. She found it on Facebook, in the form of a 60,000-strong forum called the Physician Mom Group. Within that group is a dedicated subgroup of about 800 runners. Though most were distance runners, Rhea put out a line for the fast-twitch crowd: Would anyone want to put together a relay team for a masters track meet?
“I nearly fell off my chair between patients when I got a reply,” Johnson laughs when she recalls seeing a message from Aixa Alvarez, a physiatrist from San Antonio, Texas. It was quickly followed by another message from Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, a physiatrist from Houston. She recruited her friend Ana Lisa Ramirez-Chapman, an anesthesiologist and former sprinter for Rice University.
“It all came together so quickly,” recalls Johnson. “They basically told me to find a meet. I realized this might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance, getting three other busy working mothers to take on the major task of putting this on their life (and medical call) calendar.”
Prompting, enabling, accountability and inspiration: check, check, check and check.
In the months leading up to the USATF National Masters Championship, where they had entered their “dream team,” the four runners exchanged hundreds of messages via Facebook. “We shared workouts, ideas, encouragement, ‘swelfies,’ feedback on form, complaints and jokes,” says Verduzco-Gutierrez. “Instantly, it was like we were lifelong friends, despite having never met.”
When they finally did meet, their comfort with each other was instant, fostered by so many months of virtual friendship. “These women get me on so many different levels,” says Alvarez. “We are all mothers who want to show our daughters how to feel empowered by the strength of our own bodies. We are all doctors who know the benefits of exercise and practice what we preach. We’re all Latina and share similar upbringings and family traditions. And we were all high school track athletes, eager to dust off our spikes and see what we still had in us.”
The answer: a lot of speed. The group took first place in both the 4×400 and 4×800 relays, despite only having met each other for the first time the night before.
Johnson now runs regularly, inspired in large part by the daily messages still exchanged between her virtual—and now real—running buddies. “They’ve taught me so much,” Johnson reflects. “How to have courage. Commit to the unknown adventure. Make memories. Inspire and be inspired.”