NYC Marathon runner Beverly Ramos: 'I want to be a strong soldier for the Puerto Rican people'

Puerto Rican Beverly Ramos will run the New York City Marathon with her mind on her family on the island and the desire to lift Puerto Rican spirits.

When the women's professional field starts the New York City Marathon on Sunday, keep an eye on Beverly Ramos, a 5-foot-5 American competing in her fourth marathon, who holds 12 national records in distance running for Puerto Rico. When Hurricane Irma struck her homeland in early September, she lost power for a week and kept training as planned. But 14 days later, Hurricane Maria obliterated the island and its electrical grid, leaving 3.4 million people in a federal disaster zone without power and with very little running water, gas, food and supplies.

Afterwards, Ramos could have escaped to New York to be closer to her coach, Michael Smith at West Point, or to her alma mater, Kansas State University. Instead, she decided to continue training in Trujillo Alto, about a mile from San Juan, where she lives with her mother in the house where she grew up. She talked to espnW about the hurricane and its aftermath, why she stayed in Puerto Rico, how she adjusted her diet and marathon training and what she hopes to achieve on Sunday.

Two days before Maria, we knew we would get hit directly by the hurricane. All the meteorologists' models showed it hitting the middle of Puerto Rico. So we started to get supplies because we didn't know how long we would be without power. I asked my coach if I was able to move my workout up a day because of the hurricane. He said yes. So Tuesday morning, pretty early, I did two four-mile tempo runs on a flat road at 3:30 pace per kilometer, or like 5:36 pace per mile, with five minutes rest in between, then went home to get ready for the hurricane.

At night, I was sitting, watching the news and the progression of the hurricane. At 4 or 5 in the morning, we started to really feel the real beginning of the strong winds. Oh, you can hear it. The thing with a hurricane is that it has tornadoes inside of it, so it's like a train is coming. It's noisy. And the pressure is terrifying. Everything vibrates. The windows are vibrating. Doors vibrate. The feeling is that everything's going to explode.

It's hours and hours of powerful winds hitting trees, power lines, your home, everything around it. You start hearing things that are not from your house end up in your house. We had a lot of stuff fly in our garage, or on our roof and in front of our house -- like pieces of ceilings that were probably a mile away from our home. I was with my mom, alone, and I think it lasted more than 12 hours. The scariest part is that it's just so long. I did not sleep, obviously.

Courtesy of Beverly Ramos

Beverly Ramos training after dark (though before curfew!) in the days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.

The first day, it was dangerous to even walk around. The governor, by law, asked everyone to be in their homes for three days. Only one radio station was transmitting all this information because everything else went out. So I just did what I had to do indoors. I have a stationary bike. I spent more than an hour on the bike -- sometimes double. I had a set of weights, med balls, all that stuff. I would do circuits. Then we had to figure out how we were going to cook. We tried to have things that won't require us to refrigerate. So a lot of canned food: sausages, Spam, Chef Boyardee spaghetti, soups, canned veggies, canned beans -- not really healthy.

Three days after, I went for a slow jog out and back from where I live. I was scared. I didn't know how chaotic the streets would be. It wasn't a quality run. Really, it was just trying to discover again places where I can run safely. I was running around fallen trees, over trees, trying not to touch power lines on the ground. I was thinking about my training, but the rest of the people were thinking about their families.

Then, it was on a Sunday, we drove to see my grandma. She lives about 30 minutes from my house. We wanted to make sure that she had enough for the upcoming week. I noticed my phone beeped at her house. I realized: I have signal! It was like this magical moment. You always get everything you need when you visit grandma. Then I was able to reach my coach to say, "Hey, I'm okay." I stayed home for the next two weeks. I was helping my mom and two sisters. The first week, I was really thinking about performance and thinking about myself. But then, no. This is the biggest blackout in U.S. history. I found out it wasn't the end of the world. It was possible to still train.

Still, not the ideal situation. Not the food you want to eat, not the way you want to rest. One day, I waited eight hours trying to get gas for my car. I came home empty-handed and empty; I spent the quarter tank that I had left. On the second day, you would have to try to get cash. That would take hours, and maybe the machine ran out of money. So you had to try on the third day to get money. After that, you could go grocery shopping, and you might not even find what you were looking for.

People stopped to tell me how proud they were, encouraging me to represent Puerto Rico.
Beverly Ramos

All these problems start piling up. People were so desperate. People were trying to get out, trying to run away from reality. I can't judge them or their reasons, but I thought: I can't do that. I have to face it. I want to be a strong soldier for the Puerto Rican people -- a symbol that we have to face this new reality and come together, work together, try to recover.

In the streets, some people were surprised and amazed that I was getting ready for the marathon. The thing is, people at home are scared of the marathon. They say, "You're crazy." But to do it and complete it under such horrible conditions? I think they felt it. They understood what I was doing. People stopped to tell me how proud they were, encouraging me to represent Puerto Rico. I received that a lot after the hurricane.

For water, we had a reservoir, but the winds were so powerful that it broke the connection and that storage emptied out, maybe 200 gallons. So for 10 days, we ended up without water to even take a shower. We took plastic cups and water from the rain and that's how we took a shower. For drinking, we had about 80 bottles for my mom and me, and we bought three gallons for cooking. We figured that would be enough for about two weeks or so. It lasted. It really did. I went to Costco and they were rationing supplies, and that really helped.

Food got better as soon as places started to open. Whenever I wanted to get a good-quality protein, three to four times a week, I would go out and buy it in places where they had power already. The rest of the days, I would just eat beans or canned chicken -- trying to avoid the Spam. Or peanuts; I really like peanut butter. I would play around, trying to make the best out of it.

The effect on marathon training was more emotional, I think, because you want to get it right. You become, like, obsessed when you are training. Like paranoiac. When you realize you can't get it right and the way you want to, you stress out. I told myself: Just do the best you can every day. Don't worry about November or the end of October. Just worry about the "now" and things that I can control. Worry about piece by piece instead of creating this big stress about things that you can no longer control.

Courtesy of Beverly Ramos

Beverly Ramos ran around downed power lines and trees during marathon training.

Since we didn't have power in the entire country, the governor put in effect that nobody could be on the streets between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. By 7 a.m. it was already lower 80s and a 20-mile run normally takes you about two hours. So I would finish at around 8 in the morning, and the last few miles you're really, really pushing into the headwall of hurt. My last 20-miler was three weeks back from race day, so October 15.

Now it's 42 days after the storm. I believe 80 percent of the country has running water, but only 30 percent have power. That's the main issue right now. At my home, we have running water. We don't have power or a generator.

My massage therapist has no power as well. He was goofing around with me, saying, "Wow! You're traveling to the light!" When I got to New York Tuesday night, that was the first thing that came to my mind. The light! And the weather. It's 30 degrees cooler than what I was training in. The other strange thing was sleeping. I'm normally hearing thousands of generators at night, so not hearing anything was nice. So was warm water and no lines to get food.

On Sunday, I figure with the paces I was able to hold in training, could be about a 2:36 marathon. My personal record is 2:36:31. I would love to break that. It would also be a national record so that would be a special, special day for me. I was 15th the last time I raced New York [in 2015] so I definitely want to beat that and be closer to the top-10 elite women. On the American side -- maybe top five? It's such a competitive field this year. That makes my motivation even bigger.

I have a headband with the Puerto Rican flag that I really want to wear to inspire people and remind people not to forget what's going on. One chunk of the course is through the Bronx, and that's one of the biggest communities of Puerto Ricans in New York. I think that could be emotional and exciting.

A lot of people at home are in depression because of all of this. Sports, arts, the movies -- that's the oasis for people where they can distract themselves, just for a little bit. Like the World Series -- that's the biggest entertainment we had for these past few weeks. I want them to have another happy moment.

After Sunday, I have to go back home. I'm taking a class in immunology at Inter American University in Bayamon, southwest of San Juan. It's a prerequisite to medical technology school. Probably people will ask me to bring stuff, like batteries or flashlights. The best technology right now is having a flashlight in our phones. That's been the lifesaver.

We go week by week. That's how we are living.

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