‘This Is Cool. This Is Nice’: How This Army National Guard Veteran Grew to Love Running

Zaida Espinoza Latinas Run
Zaida Espinoza at the 2021 Latinas Run retreat in Estes Park, Colorado. (courtesy photo)

While I was researching my new book, "Eat Like a Pig, Run Like a Horse," about the transformative power of exercise, I talked to Zaida Espinoza, an Army National Guard veteran, about how she used running to help her transition to civilian life after her deployment -- and to keep her sane afterward. 

Here's an excerpt of what she said.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo: Why did you enlist?

Zaida Espinoza: "I joined the military as a single mom. My daughter was around 3½ or 4. I was living with my parents at the time. I'd graduated from college, and I was working full time. So I decided I'm gonna join the Army National Guard. I've never been away from my family. Never lived on my own. So that was a huge culture shock for me."

Marx de Salcedo: What was basic training like?

Espinoza: "I had to go to one of the worst basic training camps, Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. They call it Misery, Missouri. It gets really, really cold there. But I got introduced to running because it's one of the requirements. We were running at least every other day. We would do two, four miles. I'd never run that much, and I hated it."

Marx de Salcedo: Did you run when you were deployed [from 2008-2009]?

Zaida Maya Espinoza

Espinoza: "Oh yeah. I used to run a lot when I was in Iraq. One time, a military unit, a huge battalion, was leaving. They decided to celebrate it by doing a 10K run. And we were volun-told to take part. And that was my first-ever 10K, right there in 120-degree weather."

Marx de Salcedo: How about when you came back?

Espinoza: "After the deployment, we [Espinoza's husband is also a soldier] went through some war demons. It was very difficult for us to mentally transition back into the civilian world. A lot had happened while we were out there deployed. ... Coming back from it, we did a lot of drinking. Nothing hard-core -- there [were] no pills or anything like that. It's very sad how in the military, alcohol is such a huge problem. So I decided, you know what? I'm gonna cut back on the drinking, and I'm gonna go running."

Marx de Salcedo: Is that when you started running seriously?

Zaida Scarlett Espinoza

Espinoza: "No. I didn't really get into it until we moved from Texas [where she was stationed at Fort Hood], because my husband's contract was over, and went back to New York. We were living in Queens, in the same building as my sister, who is very overweight. She had just started running with a friend. And my sister's friend ended up saying, 'Hey, I have a friend that's organizing a run.' 

"I think it was the run in Washington Heights, the one that always happens in March. And I was like, 'Sure, I'll do it.' I hadn't been training. I had just given birth to my third child two months ago, so my bladder was the s**t. But I go out. And I'm running, and I see all these people clapping. And I'm like, 'This is cool! This is nice!' And that's when the running started happening for real."

Marx de Salcedo: So you ran regularly with this group in New York, and then you and your husband moved back to Texas. What happened there?

Espinoza: "I was running more, mostly doing two miles, three miles, four miles. But I noticed I was always running alone. It was lonely. I looked up if there's [a] Latinas Run group or anything like that, but there wasn't. So I reached out to Maria Solis [Belizaire] from Latinas Run. And she was like, 'Listen, why don't you help me start one?' I said, 'Sure, tell me what I got to do.' So I ended up being the first one to help her create a Latinas Run in-person run group."

Marx de Salcedo: You recently accomplished a big running milestone. Tell me about it.

Zaida James Espinoza NYC Marathon

Espinoza: "I had just started trying to build up my miles. And then Maria came up to me and said, 'Hey, do you want to do the New York City Marathon?' I was like, 'Are you crazy? I just started running. Don't people train a year for this?' And she was like, 'You can just do a 16-week program.' Living in Manhattan as a little girl, my mom used to take me to First Avenue on 94th Street -- because we lived on Second Avenue and 94th -- and I would see these people running and clapping. I'm a little kid, so I'm clapping, too, and chasing them. I didn't understand it was an American [tradition] until I got older. Running the New York City Marathon became one of those things that I really wanted to be able to do. And now I finally did it!"

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo's new book, "Eat Like a Pig, Run Like a Horse," uses animal stories to show how exercise improves the health of your cells and -- by creating medicine-like molecules -- prevents disease. Her previous book, "Combat-Ready Kitchen," was about combat rations.

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