Blake’s story represents a triumphant journey from fear after his initial HIV diagnosis to health and happiness found within the Team 2 End AIDS (T2) community. In 2023, T2 celebrates 20 years of training individuals ranging from first-time marathoners to experienced runners to compete in endurance races such as the Chicago Marathon and Triathlon. In the fall of 2022, Blake sat down to give an interview, reflecting on his journey and what running with T2 means to him.
How did you get involved with T2?
Blake: I was newly diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in December 2019. Not only was I shocked and scared, I also felt alone and overwhelmed; on top of that, I was told how much the medication was going to cost. My first thought was: “can’t afford that”. Luckily, I found Open Door Health Centers, (an AFC partner) and was able to get all the meds right away and learned what it means to live with HIV. Going to that appointment, I was terrified but was so glad that my mom came with me. Part of the help included mental health assistance. The therapist asked me if I knew about T2 in the city after learning that I’m a runner – I did not but reached out anyways. There was no spot but after a couple of months, the “momager” (team mom/manager), Christina, emailed me that a spot opened up to train for the marathon and I immediately accepted it.
Why do you care about the HIV community?
Blake: I care about the HIV community because it is my community. My first T2 event was where I met my now husband (chuckles), but that is a story for later. I went to this 13.1-mile run (everything was canceled b/c of the pandemic) and found “my people”; I felt the most “myself” I have ever felt in my life. I found people who understand HIV and AIDS without judgment. No one should ever have to go through what I went through when I was first diagnosed. I was given my HIV diagnosis over the phone and referred to an infectious disease doctor who, as it turned out, no longer practiced. I felt alone and scared, and no one should ever feel like that. I care so deeply that everyone, regardless of status, can be with people who understand and accept you as you are.
What makes you passionate about staying connected to the HIV community?
Blake: It all goes back to that T-Together event, where we gathered outside. I was introduced to other people who were positive and I was given a number of hugs. You tell someone you are living with HIV and the first reaction is to hug it out. It was just amazing. We all treat each other the same way. To have empathy and be caring is everything! To build the HIV community up is my passion. Just because of this condition, this virus, that doesn’t mean you can’t run. You can get the support and be shown love and passion, too.
What is your favorite thing about T2?
Blake: There are so many things, but my favorite thing is that T2 has truly become my chosen family. When I got married, I changed my views and ideals about family – it was important to Thomas, [my husband] and I, to include them in our wedding because, after all, we met and grew in T2. I proposed to my husband at the finish line of the 2021 Chicago marathon, but that anxiety during the run (the ring was in a little pocket attached to my shoe) was awful and through the last 10 km of that race, we held hands for an hour and a half while trudging along and it felt like our own personal Pride parade.
What do you think about the Getting to Zero (GTZ) Goal?
Blake: Getting to zero new HIV diagnoses by 2030 has so much to do with U=U, meaning Undetectable equals Untransmittable. Between my HIV diagnosis and being undetectable took 11 months, meaning my viral load is low enough to be untransmittable. It comes down to conversations like are your numbers being watched and are you seeing your healthcare provider regularly in order to manage the numbers. For anybody that is NOT positive, there is PrEP (pre-exposure medication, a drug that inhibits HIV transmission). My husband takes PrEP every day to stay safe and sure (we are a “Battery Couple” – one is positive the other negative). I was one of those statistics in 2019 for new HIV diagnoses; the more people getting involved advocating for AFC and the HIV coalition, the better the chances for all of us. The care and funding are here, but housing and health care is still difficult to obtain for some folks. Without food and housing, you will just not take care of your overall health, let alone your CD4 numbers.
Tell us more about your running experience with T2
BIake: I joined T2 2020 (marathon didn’t happen) and ran the marathon in 2021 in NYC and Chicago in 2022. I keep coming back because T2 is family. Running is an independent journey for everyone. Every week I line up with someone different during training runs (I can run with many pace groups). You always have someone to run with and talk to. You learn so much about everybody; it’s a safe space for everyone. When you are running, especially after an hour, there is no filter and you know that everything is kept in confidence. Everyone will make sure you’re OK. I process by talking to people. I cannot picture not running with T2.
What are your long- and short-term goals?
Blake: My biggest fear was that I wasn’t sure how open I was going to be with my HIV diagnosis [when fundraising]. For me, I needed to face it fast and deal with it. I was terrified and then 3 months later, the world shut down due to COVID. I found T2 early on in my journey and having more people on my side helps me. Talking to people helps me process my diagnoses.
Long term: I can’t picture not being involved with T2; short term: I can’t picture not being involved with T2. Of course, if I don’t keep running endurance races forever, I want to stay involved with volunteering and other opportunities with T2. I want to stay involved with organizations that are working towards getting to zero by 2030.
The running community has always been my chosen family. Friendships come and go but the people that have grown to be part of my chosen family, I can see and catch up even after years as if no time has passed. It’s truly amazing! T2 is already that for me and will only continue to grow. I have people in my life that are always going to care.
Above all, I have a life again and my entire experience that led me to T2 and the healing that I experienced in part there has been amazing! T2 has helped make me feel and believe that my days are no longer numbered. I look forward to a full, long life ahead and I can honestly say I am not constantly in fear of the costs or the results of my next Doctor appointment or blood draw anymore; and that can and should be a reality for anyone affected by HIV.
If you or someone you know is interested in training for a marathon, half marathon or triathlon, please visit the T2 website to register or learn about the program at www.t2ea.org.