Zoila Gomez on Comebacks, Belonging, and the Power of Running

t_DSC0284“I remember a year and a half ago … I noticed I’d started gaining weight,” she laughs.

Salty laughs too. “Sorry,” she giggles, “but a lot of people can relate to that!”

Zoila Gomez smiles good-naturedly before she continues, pausing and fumbling a moment for the right words before she finds them. “I love myself. Being overweight or being bigger doesn’t bother me. But what I noticed was my change in mood, and I didn’t like that. I’m normally a very positive person, but I started feeling more pessimistic than optimistic, and I didn’t like that.”

“Just knowing you now, it’s hard to imagine you ever being like that,” Salty says, incredulous. It’s only been about twenty minutes since we met Zoila, but I can’t help feeling the same way. Zoila is a woman who bubbles over with happiness and positivity. Being near her is like finding a sunny patch on a chilly day; you turn your face toward the warmth and can’t help smiling.

She goes on to talk about having to size up in clothing. “I said ‘no thank you.’ I needed to start moving because … I needed to go and teach children about fitness and nutrition.” These are things you don’t expect to hear from a woman who was the 2008 USA Olympic Marathon Team Alternate. And we marvel at Zoila’s matter-of-fact smile in disbelief that someone so elite can be so very like us.

t_DSC0206 But if you look at Zoila’s history, it makes sense. In 2012, after finishing a disappointing 33rd in the Olympic Trials Marathon and suffering for years with side stitches so painful, they prevented her from running, Zoila decided she was through. With doctors unable to diagnose the problem, Zoila stopped competing and stopped running altogether for almost three years.

“Michelle Obama had the Let’s Move initiative, and I’m part of In the Arena, where we encourage kids, so I said, ‘You know what? Let’s Move!’ So I started moving. There was a sequence of advice and events that led me to start moving again.”

“But it sounds like you weren’t doing it to get back into shape to compete,” Salty prods, “so you were doing it just to run and to help your well-being and your mood…”

Zoila nods. “This was for health. Health and nutrition, yes, and to be able to stay in a platform where I’m talking to kids and feel like I’m doing the same thing. I’m going through the same process. I’m doing it for my mental and emotional health. I’m not just doing it because I want to be in the Olympics.

It is a rare moment to find Zoila not smiling.
It is a rare moment to find Zoila not smiling.

“So that was very nice, because I got to start all over again. And actually my friend from Poland … asked if I wanted to work with her coach. And I said, you know what, I’m not doing this as a professional athlete, just help me out and give me a program. I do very well if I have a program. So he sent me one and that’s where I started.”

It was not much more than a year after Zoila restarted her running career, and here she was in Jacksonville to go for her third Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier. “When did you think you might be able to get back to the Trials?” Salty asked.

“The test was January 2015; I decided that I really wanted to run a marathon so I went to Arizona, to Phoenix, and ran the Rock n’ Roll. This was just to see if I could run a marathon again. I remember the week before, going to Arizona and my coach, my now coach, gave me the most honest advice. The most honest thing he could tell me was, ‘You’re not an elite. You’re an amateur runner. Probably you’ll run 2:55 … and probably you won’t finish this marathon. Just know that you’ve been training, but that doesn’t guarantee that your issues have cleared up …’”

Salty: “But you blew his mind … You ran a two-fortyyy …?”

Zoila (smiling): “I ran a 2:46.”

Salty: “You would have qualified a couple of cycles ago!”

Zoila laughs: “Yeah! I would’ve, could’ve, but the goal that day was to complete the distance.”

Zoila hugging fellow runner Ruth Perkins (qualified at Twin Cities 2014)
Zoila hugging fellow runner Ruth Perkins (qualified at Twin Cities 2014)

Salty: “Were you shocked that you ran that fast?”

Zoila: “Yes, I was happy! I was in shock … I won the race. It was a good welcome back. It said, ‘You belong here.’”

At the Jacksonville Half her belonging was completely evident. While she missed qualifying by a heartbreaking twenty-seven seconds, but almost without missing a beat, she was congratulating those who had come in ahead of her with a huge smile. The smile soon faded into disappointment and tears, though, justified by the near miss. In spite of her setbacks, Zoila is fit, fast and back in the game, and inspiring everyone she meets along the way.

For more Zoila, check out her blog or follow her on Instagram.

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. She has 8 more minutes to knock off her marathon for a 3:40 BQ, and will get there or die trying. Her writing is an eclectic mix of finding wholeness as an average runner, news reporting, curious reactions, satirical humor and more.

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