Waldon Adams’ body went numb while the words poured from the physician’s mouth. As he sat aghast on a gurney in the emergency room at the Howard University Hospital, each word uttered by the doctor drove the invisible dagger deeper into his rapidly-beating heart.
To him, it just was not fair. While he admitted to routinely using freebase cocaine – cocaine dissolved by heat to be purified before use – for nearly two decades, he adamantly denied ever injecting the drug intravenously. But he said he did have an idea of how he contracted the deadly virus.
This was not really happening. Surely, it must be a mistake. The only health obstacles Adams faced up until this point in his life were infrequent bouts with asthma. Now, he listened as a stranger gave him the somber news that would ultimately alter his life. Adams had tested positive for HIV.
“When I first received the diagnosis, I was really upset. I was really devastated,” said Adams, who recently celebrated his 52nd birthday. “I cried and was admitted to the psychiatric ward. When I was released from the ward three days later, the first thing I did was get high. I figured that I was going to die anyway.”
Adams said he initially wanted to commit suicide to escape the shock and pain caused by the seemingly finality of his 2004 diagnosis.
“I was going to get a hotel room, take some pills, drink and die. That was my plan,” he said.
“I had a girl who I used to know come over to my apartment and use drugs,” Adams recalled. “I never used IV drugs, and I didn’t know that she used them either. I remember putting something in the trash one day and I felt something prick my hand. When I checked, I noticed that [the needle] drew blood. I never saw her again after that.”
A lifelong District resident, Adams grew up in the Riggs Park neighborhood of upper Northeast with two brothers he still remains close with to this day. His father worked for the United States Postal Service and mother as a beautician. Adams said although he hated running as a child because of his asthma, he enjoyed the football games against the other neighborhood children at the Lamont-Riggs Park Boys Club where he usually played running back or wide receiver because of his blazing speed.
“We used to have this game we played in elementary school where someone would throw the ball up in the air and we’d all go after the person who caught it,” Adams recalled with a laugh. “I was pretty good at it so they all recommended that I play running back for our local little league team.”
However, those days were now behind him. The innocence was gone. With his new diagnosis, life as he knew it appeared to be over. But his inspiration to live came in an unlikely form: running.
Running not only allows Adams to remain active and healthy, it also serves as his therapeutic outlet. He initially committed himself to the sport four years ago during a month-long hospital stay. “The first week I was in there I’d run for at least 40 minutes, just around the hospital bed,” he said. “I did it every morning. The hospital staff got used to me and it was like I was going out for a jog. I felt good. I felt confident and stronger. I hadn’t felt like that in years. All of sudden, I felt like a human again.”
In January, Adams competed in the Goofy Challenge during the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend in Florida – his seventh marathon coupled with a half marathon the day before- and intends to run in the Rock ‘n’ Roll U.S.A. Marathon March 16 in Washington, D.C.
That race, then the Sun Trust National Marathon when he ran it in 2010, was his first, and most memorable, marathon.
Adams receives treatment from the Whitman-Walker Health Clinic and has formed close bonds with many of the clinic’s staff members over the years. Several attended the race to show their support.
“They made such a big deal about it. I remember getting to around 22 miles and my previous long was 20. I had never broken that before. When I got mile to 22, Whitman-Walker had set up a table and [staff members] were cheering me on,” Adams said. “I said to myself that if I could just make it through mile 22 and their table, I could fall out somewhere on the grass afterwards.”
Adams finished the race in 4:48.
“When I crossed that finish line, I was in tears,” he said. “A lot of people, after running their first marathon, end up in tears.
It’s like [accomplishing] the hardest thing you’ve ever done and you can’t believe that you’ve actually done it. I was running on fumes at the end. I didn’t know how I was still running at that point, but I was determined not to stop. When I crossed the finish line, it was the best experience you could feel in your life.”
Adams’ HIV developed into AIDS in 2009, but thanks the new outlook life he discovered by running, the news did not affect him as negatively as did his HIV diagnosis five years prior.
When asked if he believes that running serves as his therapy, Adams said without hesitation: “It’s a cure all. Running gave me hope and continues to give me that feeling.”
His mood and tone, however, turned somber when he began to speak about his own mortality. He talked about the emotional pain he felt after the loss of numerous friends to HIV/AIDS related complications. And although his body remains in good enough physical condition to compete in marathons, he realizes that every morning that he is able to wake up is gift that should not be taken for granted.
“Out of the 40 members of my support group who signed the shirt I wore for my first marathon, half have passed away,” Adams said. “It’s scary. I know that I’m running and my health seems to be pretty good, but [the future] does scare me. I still have trouble dealing with it.”
Although life has not dealt him a fair hand, Adams said he harbors no ill will towards the woman he believes left behind the infected needle that changed his life. He views each day alive as a blessing and vows to make the most of his time on earth. And while his humble personality will not allow him to consider himself a role model to many, he does offer some advice to those facing adversity and in need of inspiration.
“Take your time and never give up,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to keep on moving. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and don’t give up. Don’t listen to your mind or your body when it tells you that you can’t do something. Just do it anyway.”
This story was originally published in the April/May 2013 issue of RunWashington.