Anita Perez quite literally runs with her heart on her sleeve.
As her feet glide across the pavement and her arms swing with the smooth cadence of an experienced marathon runner, she carries reminders of the individuals who have supported her. And while those individuals cannot physically run alongside her, Perez draws strength from their presence.
Her son and daughter's voices are heard in the lonely, quiet moments of the race when she picks up her water bottle, decorated with hand-written messages of encouragement. Her daughter is represented with a custom bracelet on her arm, braided for her in the colors of whatever marathon Perez is competing in that day. And her late mother rests on her wrist in the form of a signature tattoo, a subtle reminder of her mother's faith in every stride.
These individuals make up a team of Perez's biggest fans who support her in her hard-fought pursuit as an elite marathon runner, single mother, and special education teacher. In those moments when her legs ache and she's pushing her body to exhaustion, Perez finds motivation in her family.
“I think about my kids. I think about everything that I sacrificed, I think about the sleepless nights, I think about those 4 am wake-up calls, I think about all the work that I put in but it's just really my kids. I want to make them proud,” she told Glass Staircase.
On February 17, the San Antonio resident will toe the line of the Austin Marathon as one of the favorites to win. That distinction follows a series of recent breakthroughs in her running career. But while she improved her times, 2018 was also one of the most difficult years of her life.
During the summer, Perez notched her fastest marathon to date when she ran 2:39 at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. The performance was nearly a three-minute improvement on her previous personal best from 2015, which she ran before placing 32nd at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. At 37 years-old, Perez's breakthrough in Duluth was a significant confidence boost and well under the 2:45 standard to compete at the 2020 Trials.
In December, she ran another personal best at the Dallas Half Marathon, a third-place finish in 77:04. She accomplished the feat just a few weeks after her mother passed away.
While devastated, Perez once again channeled her mother's strength in the difficult moments of the race. She remembered her biggest fan, the woman who wore her high school medals to the grocery store, signed her letter of intent to run in college, and cheered with all of her heart through every competition Perez participated in.
“I felt her with me,” Perez said as she recalled her mother's dream to see her daughter succeed in running. In order to reach her goals in the sport she loves, Perez utilizes every minute of every day. Her alarm goes off at 3:30 am, at which point she gets ready for her workout with coach Gary Brimmer. By 4:15 am, Perez is running with her training partners who are also mothers with the goal of competing at the Olympic Trials.
The group finishes at 5:30 am when Perez drives back home to shower, eat breakfast, and get her children ready for school. By 7 am, they are out the door and Perez begins her day at the middle school where she works as a resource reading teacher in the special education department. The afternoons usually consist of athletic team practices between her 15-year-old son Marc and 12-year-old daughter Jadeyn. Depending on the homework load, Perez tries to go to bed by 10:30 pm.
“I do the best that I can with the time that I have,” she said.
Even with the tough balancing act, Perez still manages to run around 80 miles per week. While difficult at times, following her goals in running means so much more than fast times or medals.
“My kids keep me going. I want them to see that their mom is active and I want them to see that I work hard and that anything is possible,” she said. “I want them to know that there are going to be days when you're tired or stressed. Running for me is rewarding but also stressful. It's my 'me'
time to get things off my chest, and with my mother passing, it's also really helped me out.”
In a few weeks, Perez will return to the Austin Marathon with the goal of finishing in the top three. While she will toe the line alone, her team of fans will be pushing her in spirit every step of the way.