Return to running means return to identity for Arlington woman

When Arlington’s Elizabeth Briones crosses the Frosty 5K finish line, her time is nowhere close to what she ran in college. She has a smile on her face, though. As far as the last few years are concerned, it’s a personal best by well over a minute.

What matters is that she’s out there again.

Almost 18 years ago, she was about to leave on a physical and emotional journey that just recording a number of miles wouldn’t begin to document.

Briones was destined to be a runner from a young age. She first started running at the age of 11, having been inspired by her sister, Victoria Jackson, who went on to run professionally.

Briones travelled all across the country to compete in U.S. Junior Olympics running events, often doing well in her events. 

“[I was so good] to the point where I ran a 5:15 mile when I was 12 years old,” she said.

Knowing early on that she wanted to run collegiately, Briones filled all the requirements needed in order to graduate high school early. So at 16, she started college at North Carolina State. It’s a fair bit more common for football players to graduate a semester early to be on camps for spring practices, but Briones was similarly focused.

“My sister, who was four years older than me, was at the University of North Carolina, so we were only 15 minutes apart from each other and I wanted to be near her.”

Briones said it was challenging to be a college student at such a young age, but that overall, she loved the experience at NC State. She adds that the demands of being an athlete forced her to manage her time. “Being a DI athlete, you have to have structure [your time],” she said. “You have to handle time-management really well, so I developed those skills early, which helped me later in life.”

At that time, she ran anywhere from 80 to 90 miles in a week.

“I did pretty well,” she said. “I was a walk-on, but I had scholarships through academics. I wasn’t top five, but I ran 16:45 for my 5K, so my 5Ks were fast, but my team was second in the nation when I was there, so it was very competitive to get into that top seven.”

That did not mean everything was positive though. While reflecting on her sister’s time in college, Jackson wonders if Briones’s young age coupled with the fact that she was not one of the top athletes on the team contributed to issues she faced with her emotional health later in life.

“[Reflecting on that time,] I think it’s a challenge for athletes who aren’t in starring roles or in the top seven if they care a lot about [running] and if their identity is really caught up in being a student athlete … Athletes are constantly consuming all the messaging around them that this thing is what makes them most valuable in the world,” she said.

“People who want to feel part of [the experience of being an athlete] don’t always feel part of it truly because they aren’t winning competitions … [They] might feel like they’re getting away with something or that it’s a trick. That [feeling] can kind of mess with people,” Jackson said.

Now a history professor at Arizona State University, Jackson said it is important to remind student athletes that there is more to their college career than just being an athlete.

“My sense is that [accepting that reality] might have been a challenge for Liz and that maybe her age played a role in that being a more challenging thing to navigate,” Jackson said.

But despite the ups and downs in her college career, eventually everything changed.

An unspecified medical condition caused her to gain weight and put aside her running goals. Knowing she had to refocus her attention elsewhere, she shifted her emotional focus to her academics and her teaching career.

For those first few years after the weight gain, Briones still ran, but viewed it differently from her intercollegiate career. She ran for fun, but no longer ran competitively.

“I kept having some medical problems where it made it difficult for me to run,” she said. And so, eventually it became easier to stop running entirely.

Jackson noticed that her sister’s forced break from running not only took a toll on her physical, but also mental health once again.

“It’s really hard first of all for [Briones’s] identity. Second of all, it feels really good to run every day when you’re used to running every day,” Jackson said. “That’s really really hard to manage.”

Time passed, and somewhere along the way, Briones no longer looked or felt like her old self.

“It took a toll on my self-confidence. I wasn’t able to run, which was part of my identity. So to have that taken away is very difficult,” she said.

Eventually weighing nearly 400 pounds, she knew it was time to make a difference.

“Last summer [was the wakeup call],” she said. “Last summer was when I got fed up with how I felt more so than how I looked. What I felt was just pain, both mentally and physically. To have a medical handicap to not do what I wanted to do. It was simple things as going to a restaurant and not being able to sit in a booth. It’s not only embarrassing, but really bad on my self-confidence and how I feel about myself.”

Having experienced so much emotional pain, mental health has become a cause near to Briones. She raises money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“[Mental health issues] affect pretty much every life out there. Mental health issues are so common but not talked about, and that needs to end. Just like how if you broke your leg, people would say, ‘I’m so sorry. Let me help you,’ but with mental health, people don’t have those responses.”

In January, Briones started making an active effort to reverse her weight gain. She saw a weight loss surgeon and underwent gastric sleeve surgery. The process was both mentally and physically challenging to endure. For the procedure to be effective, Briones had to work hard to watch her diet and exercise. Fortunately, exercise was just what she needed, mentally.

In the past year, Briones has lost 200 pounds and feels able to (try t0) match her increasingly energetic toddler son. And on top of the sense of accomplishment she gets from her progress in the past year, she feels much better.

Back to running again, Briones now runs a 5K or 10K about every two weeks, though she ran the Fairfax Four Miler-Reston New Year’s Day 5k double, 16 hours apart. Her current goal is to run the Chicago Marathon in her hometown in 2020. It will be her first time completing that distance. “I’ve never run a marathon, so I’m nervous, but super excited to go back home and accomplish a life-long goal, especially after all I’ve been through,” she said. Her longest run so far has been 17 miles.

“Props to her,” Jackson said. “I think it’s a great goal.”

While highly supportive of her sister’s ambitions, Jackson adds, “I really hope she knows that if she doesn’t get on the starting line, that’s okay. There’s always another marathon.”

Briones put running in the context of her life, both overall and with her recent weight loss.

“Running is about weight loss, but it’s also just what I was born to do, as weird as that might sound,” Briones. “It is something that I absolutely love and it brings me back to who I am.”

Having been a competitive DI athlete prior to her weight gain, Briones said there is a big difference in her running for health as opposed to running for competition.

“It can be a little difficult to go to a race and not be able to do so well in terms of place and time, but I have the joy and the love of it again and I am so grateful to be back doing it,” she said.

Briones tends to set achievable goals for herself so that when she ends up breaking them, she still feels a sense of accomplishment. For instance, her goal time in the MCM 10K was to complete it in two hours, but she finished 33 minutes faster for a time of 1:27. Better yet, all of her splits were negative.

“That’s the key to knowing I can do so much more,” she said, “still getting negative splits.”

When asked if she thinks she will ever be a competitive runner again in the future, she said, “I am satisfied with where I am now but I always want to improve.

“I know I’ll never be at a 16:45 [5K time] again and that’s okay, but I want to be the best version of me at this time. Even if that’s an 11-minute mile for a 5K right now, that’s excellent because I know that’s the best I can do.”

Currently, Briones said her main goal is simply to finish the Chicago Marathon. And if that goes well, she expects to catch the marathon bug, perhaps even run a 50K eventually.

“I believe in myself, which I think is one of the first things you need to do. Other people can believe in you, but until you believe in yourself, you can’t accomplish it. As soon as you believe you can, you will.”

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