Running For Life: The Ric Munoz Story

Author's note: This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the Monterey Herald on December 1st.


In January 1987, Ric Munoz sat stoically inside a health clinic, waiting to hear news that he long expected. He was a 28-year-old marathoner who was logging increasing mileage and faster race times with each passing year. He also had very good reason to believe that he might soon be dead.

Munoz’s fears were confirmed that day: his physician informed him that he was HIV+, and that his life expectancy might be as brief as a handful of months. However, on this World AIDS Day 2011, nearly 25 years later, Munoz is not only still among the living, but remains a talented and successful runner well into his 6th decade of life. His story represents not only the tremendous advances in the medical fight against AIDS, but also the healing, life-sustaining benefits that running offers to all of us.

Along the way, he enjoyed 15 minutes of celebrity fame thanks to Nike – but by the time the company discovered him, Munoz had already been been inspiring people and defying conventional wisdom for years. He welcomed the opportunity to be interviewed – at one time, it was something he was very accustomed to – to share the long, strange, often scary but ultimately uplifting adventure his life took after being diagnosed with HIV.

His story began in the spring of 1983, when his friend Teri Tait Gabrielsen kept pestering him to run a 10K with her. Munoz trained with Teri for a few days, mainly so she’d stop nagging him, and he ultimately finished the 10K race. As it often happens with new runners, 10Ks soon turned into marathons, and Munoz discovered his love for the sport. It’s very likely that his journey would have taken a much different turn if not for his “nagging” friend, and Munoz now says that, “Everything I’ve ever accomplished is owed completely to Teri.”

Ric Munoz and Teri Tait Gabrielsen, 1984

For the next few years, Munoz was what anyone would call a strong, healthy recreational runner; he trained 40 miles per week, and entered dozens of road races from 5Ks to marathons. However, he also harbored a nagging certainty that his life was increasingly at risk with each passing day, which ultimately led to his fateful clinic visit in 1987.

Munoz was “100% certain” of what the result would be. Gay media outlets had alerted people to the looming epidemic as early as 1981, and Munoz realized that he was too deep within the circle of impact to emerge unscathed. “If testing had been available in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, I likely would have tested positive then, too, primarily because I was part of the group - sexually active gay men - that was at highest risk.” By the time the mid-1908s rolled around, Munoz had already lost several of his friends and running partners to AIDS-related illnesses.

Accordingly, he received the positive diagnosis with complete calm – in fact, he vividly remembers how stunned the person at the clinic was when Munoz heard his test results. “I’m pretty sure he expected everyone who got a positive test to break down and cry or otherwise collapse emotionally,” he recalls. When you’re 100% certain that something is going to happen, it’s tough to have a look of surprise when you find out you’re correct.

Under the surface, however, the notion of being HIV+ was terrifying. Fatality rates for HIV in the mid-1980s were in the high 90th percentile, thus making a positive diagnosis akin to a death sentence. Munoz had already seen many close friends die, usually in horrifying fashion as their bodies progressively deteriorated over a period of several months. “The fear level was indescribable,” he stated. “One guy in my neighborhood, upon learning that he definitely had AIDS, killed himself by drinking a bottle of Drano. He was convinced he had no hope to survive.” The pervading hopelessness was like almost nothing else in the history of modern public health.

Like any dedicated runner would do, Munoz used running as an outlet for his sadness, for his anxieties, for all the uncertainty and emotional thunderstorms that accompany such a dire circumstance. “I opted to accelerate my training and racing schedule immediately after the diagnosis,” he says. “I viewed it as counterproductive to wallow in worry or fear about the unknown.” His weekly mileage and training intensity sharply increased, and Munoz began running the fastest times of his life.

He also noticed that he was very slow to develop any of the tell-tale symptoms of AIDS. At the time, there wasn’t any medical consensus about the impact of exercise in HIV patients, but many feared that physical strain would accelerate the disease process. Munoz challenged his physician: “I put my doctor on the spot and asked if pursuing distance running unchecked would cause the HIV to change from its dormant state to something actively harmful. When he replied, ‘I don’t know,’ that was enough information for me to roll the dice and carry on with my running – an activity I grew to be passionate about and a world I could retreat to indefinitely.”

It wasn’t until several years later that HIV specialists came to accept that physical activity does more help than harm – and it wasn’t until a high-profile superstar athlete contracted HIV that the athletic community felt the impact of what had previously been considered simply a “gay disease”. Ironically, Magic Johnson’s surprise retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers in November 1991 also triggered Ric Munoz’s rise to public prominence as an athlete who had been successfully battling HIV for years.

Munoz is a native Los Angeleno, so when his city went into a frenzy in the wake of Magic Johnson’s announcement, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times. “I basically said people were overreacting to Johnson’s news, and that he should work to avoid the ‘death sentence mentality’ maintained by many who were HIV positive. With the right attitude, he still had a long life ahead of him,” he reports.

“Thank goodness I was right! I also pointed out all the marathons I’d run to that point (40) and how I never would have run them if I’d bought into the type of ‘it’s-just-a-matter-of-time-before-he-dies’ speculations that his fans and the media were ignorantly tossing Johnson’s way.” Munoz seemed like a lone voice in the wilderness at the time, but it was hard to argue with his own success: in June 1992, five years after being officially HIV+ and six months after Magic Johnson’s retirement, Munoz ran a lifetime-best 2:44 marathon. He was now running more than 10 marathons per year, and still not showing signs of the disease.

Columbus Marathon, 1992

Munoz’s story was compelling enough that the Times did a profile of his marathoning and living with HIV. Over the next couple of years Munoz would be profiled by other publications including the New York Times – and in November 1994, he received a phone call from an advertising agency representing Nike. The company was inspired by his story, and recruited Munoz to appear in one of its popular “Just Do It” television ads.

“I’ll never forget the phone call,” he says, “from the creative executive asking if I’d be interested in appearing in the commercial. I thought he was kidding, of course. But after repeated assurances that Nike was very serious about doing the ad, I immediately agreed.” Sure, the personal exposure would be nice, but Munoz had a higher purpose in mind. “It also occurred to me that if I turned them down, there was a strong possibility the ad might never get made.”

The resulting commercial was filmed in one day on the trails of Malibu Canyon State Park. The director was Joe Pytka, a legendary ad industry figure who was also responsible for Nike’s “Bo Knows” series as well as the Larry Bird / Michael Jordan “Nothin’ But Net” spots for McDonald’s. It’s beautiful in its simplicity: interspersed among scenes of Munoz running on scenic trails, a series of black title cards appear onscreen: Ric Munoz, Los Angeles … 80 miles every week … 10 marathons every year … HIV positive.

Nike’s landmark “HIV Runner” spot premiered on February 9, 1995 during that night’s episode of ER. It had an immediate impact on the running community, and shattered popular misconceptions about living with HIV. Director Joe Pytka later said it was one of his proudest ads, and it was ultimately named one of the 50 greatest TV commercials of all time by Entertainment Weekly magazine. Munoz spent time hobnobbing at Nike headquarters in Oregon and became friends with company founder Phil Knight. The commercial aired globally, and Nike flew Munoz to London to help promote its original airing in England on World AIDS Day 1995.

Ric Munoz and Phil Knight, 1995

Of course, fame doesn’t ensure ongoing health, and running doesn’t provide immunity from disease. Munoz had typically been reluctant to take AZT or DDI, the treatment drugs available at the time, because of their significant side effects. “My doctor respected my wishes, but also warned me that one day the HIV would be too strong for my immune system to handle,” he says. The doctor’s prediction came true in 1998, when Munoz acquired an opportunistic infection called cryptosporidiosis, and his T-cell count dropped significantly. Normal healthy individuals have a T-cell count between 500 and 1500, and a count below 200 in HIV+ individuals increases the risk of fatal infection. In mid-1998, Munoz’s T-cell count was 3; if he had deferred treatment just a bit longer, he most likely would have perished.

Fortunately for Munoz, his crisis coincided with the advance of antiretroviral medicines called protease inhibitors, and he finally relented to his doctor’s urging to try the new medications. His T-cell count began to rise, and the infection eventually was entirely cleared. The brush with death taught Munoz an important lesson: from that moment on, he reports, “I never doubted my doctor’s advice again” on the importance of a regular medication regimen.

He also never relented on his determination to push the limits of his athletic performance – and shortly after the deathly scare, Munoz turned his attention to ultramarathons. In November 1998 he completed his first 50-mile event, and for the past decade he has competed in some of the most famous ultramarathons in the world, including the Comrades 56-miler in South Africa, and the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Nowadays, however, he does so with the blessing of his medical team.

“My current doctor is a marathoner,” Munoz says. “Hearing me describe the six 100-milers I’ve completed over the past two years has gotten him thinking about trying an ultra himself; he’ll likely start by doing a 50K. He’s voiced no objection whatsoever to the ultra distances I’ve raced.” His physician monitors Munoz’s bloodwork closely and tests his T-cell count four times annually; last year, Munoz’s number was a robust 904, the highest count he’s ever recorded.

He has also enjoyed a string of good health enviable by anyone, regardless of their HIV status. “My health is really good these days, and it’s kept stable for at least the past 10 years,” he reports. “The last time I had a cold or flu was nearly two years ago. I can recall numerous times over the past few months when I’ve felt the rumblings of a cold coming on and then seen those rumblings disappear after I’ve gone out for a run.”

To date, Ric Munoz has completed 155 road marathons and 26 ultras, including six 100-mile finishes. He’s still a member of the Nike family, receiving free shoes and apparel, and he occasionally gets invited to the Nike campus to speak with employees or share his story for other promotional purposes. Sometimes he gets recognized at races, but he says, “So many years have passed since the commercial first aired, that makes it a less frequent occurrence.” As each race and each year go by, he becomes more like another face in the crowd – a notion that he wouldn’t have believed in his wildest dreams more than 20 years ago.

At the Western States 100, 2011

More importantly, his journey has instilled the same blessings of peace and insight that many cancer survivors experience: the knowledge that every day is precious, and that life needs to be savored and enjoyed, because we never know when we’ll cross our final finish line. “I never lose sight of the fact that today could easily be my last day on Earth,” Munoz says. He’s “grateful to be around to see another World AIDS Day”, and takes life one fragile day at a time.

Munoz considers his identity as a runner and that of an HIV carrier to be one and the same. He states that, “My resiliency has endured over the years; I owe a huge chunk of that resiliency to the inner strength and physical strength I’ve developed through long distance running - the 100-mile events in particular.” He is just as disciplined about his medical regimen – regular checkups, blood testing, two drugs taken every day of his life – as he is about his training, where he continues to log 70-80 miles per week. He has a list of ambitious running goals, and one very ambitious health goal: “I hope to be around to see the eradication of AIDS, as difficult as that may seem today.”

That last notion might not be as far-fetched as it initially sounds. Given how utterly bleak things looked 30 years ago, and realizing how far medicine has progressed since then, it’s not hard to imagine that another 30 years from now we might be talking about AIDS in the past tense, just as we do with polio today. And as a robust 53-year-old with healthy activity habits and a potent treatment regimen on his side, there’s no reason to think that Munoz won’t be there to enjoy it.

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Women Rule!

We were prepared to title this column “Wet and Wild,” but with the rain holding off just long enough for all but the late finishers, weather wasn’t a major factor on Sunday. Instead, the story of this year’s Big Sur Half marathon weekend was the women, who truly shined.

US Olympians Magdalena Lewy Boulet from Oakland and Blake Russell from Pacific Grove battled in an epic women’s race, with “Magda” coming out the winner. Watching them in full flight with Monterey Bay in the background is awe inspiring.

65% of our half marathon entries were women, and this is not unusual. At the fitness expo, Lisa Beckham of the Competitor Group reported that they organize 28 marathons and half marathons across the nation, all with similar demographics.

We asked some women runners at the weekend’s events why they ran and some themes were evident. Tracy Clark, a young mother from Elk Grove said,”It’s ME time, a much needed break, and it’s energizing.” Tara Clark and Avril Waddle, competitive local runners in their 40’s who often train together, commented, “It helps us stay sane, we can talk both good and bad about our husbands, and we can eat chocolate guilt-free.”

Females of every age gave impressive answers at the weekend races. Sisters Alondra (age 9) and Andrea (age 7) from Del Rey Woods Elementary said, “It’s healthy, it’s good for you, and it’s fun.” Emily Passey and Olivia Chapa, freshman runners from Aptos High School who just finished their cross-country seasons, said, “Running is relaxing, and you can think about life.” Sharron Douglas, the 73-year-old retired principal of Carmel River School, runs for health, explaining “It makes me feel good both during and after any run.”

It was hard not to notice Norina Florendo and her friends from San Francisco, celebrating loudly and happily after the 5K on Saturday. Norina just started running two years ago and has already helped 7 of her friends start running programs. They finished their first 5K at Lovers Point on Saturday and proudly displayed their medals, then headed down the coast to Nepenthe to celebrate their acheivement.

Several businesses that cater to women runners were present at the expo. Sunny Arada is a runner and recent Fresno State grad who started a business called “Endure” that sells running-themed jewelry, necklaces, and shirts for women. She says, “It takes a certain personality to run regularly.”

It also takes a certain personality to be a mother – and according to local psychologist (and mother of 4) Dr. Kathryn Hambley, “Running makes me a better mother.” There were also more than 100 members of the group Athletes for Adoption in bright red shirts at all the weekend events. November is National Adoption Month, and the group picks our race weekend as their annual fundraiser. According to Darren Denlinger, the Chairman of their Board of Directors, “It’s the best race there is anywhere in November.” We wholeheartedly agree.

Motherhood almost came early to one runner, who didn’t want her name mentioned. She is seven and a half months pregnant and felt contractions just before the mile 4 aid station of the half marathon. Although the race has outstanding organization, labor and delivery services are a tall order for most aid stations. Luckily it turned out to be false labor, and our mom-to-be cautiously dropped from the race.

It was a day for the women all around; even the local running club’s “predict your own time” contest was won by a female, Anne Goode. Anne takes home a 6-pack of Sierra Nevada for running just a few seconds off her predicted time. She wouldn’t share any with us – she must be waiting for her girlfriends.

Congratulations to everyone who ran on Sunday – even the men! We’ll see you all next time.

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Star Gazing

The Big Sur Half Marathon on Monterey Bay is Sunday and for once we almost feel like watching instead of running.

The elite coordinators, Steve Butler and Greg Mislick, have assembled one of the best fields for any race in the country. Rudy Novotny, who travels around the U.S. to announce races says, “it’s the best woman’s field I have seen in quite some time.” And we know the men’s field is full of stars as well.

We have the second (Magdalena Levy Boulet), third (Blake Russell), and fourth (Zoila Gomez) finishers from the 2008 Women’s Olympic Trials marathon in Boston.

If you are not running on Sunday we suggest you take the whole family and find yourself a great position to watch the race. We recommend standing near Lovers Point on Ocean View Boulevard. The course turns left from Ocean Avenue up Fountain into Pacific Grove, then back down to Lovers Point on 17th, then heads out to Asilomar and back. You should be able to see the elite runners go by 3 times – at 3.75 miles, 4.5 miles and 11 miles into the race.

While you are waiting for the elites to come back you can encourage the 8,000 other runners who are giving their all. Maybe they will inspire you or your kids to start running and enter the race next year.

Channel your inner Kenyan or Ethiopian: When you are watching the elites look for several things about their running form. It can make you a better runner. Look for how relaxed they run and how great their posture is. Look for quick leg tempo – try to incorporate that in your own running. Kenyan runners Fred Tumbo, Bernard Langat, Benson Cheruiyot, and Abdelaziz Atmani should be at the front of the men’s race with Ethiopian’s Ezkyas Sisay, and Gishu Dida. Sisay just finished 9th in the New York City Marathon on November 6th after leading for much of the race.

Belainesh Gebre, from Ethiopia, last year’s woman’s Half Marathon winner and course record holder at 1:09:43 recently withdrew, but according to Steve Butler, we have 15 women entered this year who are faster than last year’s second place time. And 9 of them have sub 1:15 half marathon times.

Root for the Home Team: You can admire the Kenyan’s and Ethiopians but we want you to yell loudly for our local heros who also happen to be national stars. We’ll even tell you their numbers so when you see them you can yell their names frantically. Believe us when we tell you it helps.

Blake Russell from Pacific Grove is number 38. Blake was on the U.S. Olympic team in the marathon in 2008 and the only U.S. finisher in Beijing. She has a half marathon best of 1:11:45. A few weeks back she came in 3rd in the U.S. 10 mile championship.

Brooke Wells, a Carmel High and U.C. Berkeley grad, who now lives in San Francisco is number 7. Brooke has a half marathon best of 1:15:40 set earlier this year.

Fasil Bizuneh, born in Indiana but lived on the Monterey Peninsula for 4 years when he was with the Big Sur Distance Project. Fasil is number 45. He was the winner of the very first Big Sur Half Marathon and should be right in the mix with a half marathon best of 1:02:47.

Crosby Freeman, is a Monterey Peninsulan by association, as he is Brooke Wells boyfriend. Crosby is number 24 and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has a half marathon best of 1:04.

Whether you are running or watching we know it’s going to be an exciting day on Sunday.

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You Be the Coach

Many of our running partners have sons and daughters running on local high school cross country teams this fall. It’s fun to follow the progress of the 2nd and often 3rd generation kids from running families. It is encouraging to see the kids following the healthy habits of their parents and enjoying the sport.

Running is one of the few high school and college sports that can be a lifelong participant hobby. Most people don’t realize that Cross Country is the largest participative sport in the country at the high school level. It’s easy to have a team as costs are low, you can have a competitive team with only 5 runners, you can train almost anywhere, and both girls and boys can participate.

But many kids leave the sport after their high school experience for various reasons; including time and pressure from college and family commitments. Many find the competitive grind difficult and never equate their running with fun; it becomes work and full of pressure. Many get injuries during cross country season and become frustrated.

We feel it’s the coach and the parents responsibility to emphasize to high school runners that running is not only an individual challenge but it can be a lifelong way to health and well being. Student runners should understand the link between running and health as well as reasons for the types of training they are asked to do. The coach should explain the reasons for speedwork, running hills, gradually increasing distance over the course of the season, running drills, and other workouts they are asked to do.

One issue that always comes up in our discussions is if you were a high school coach would you allow runners to miss practice for other activities? Would you allow runners to run in competition if they miss several practices? Would you allow the talented faster runner that competes in another sport during cross country season to come out and run for the team, even though you have very hard working runners that practice every day that are not as fast?

We may be idealists, but if we were coaching in high school we would let any student run and compete for the top 5 spots, that wanted to. We would want to get as many kids running as possible. An uncertain and slow Freshman or Sophmore, if coached and motivated properly, may become a Senior Star.

High school students should be encouraged to try different things. If someone wants to be in band or math club or student government or drama, and it’s the same time as cross country practice, then make arrangements for the student to run on their own.

We still feel that cross country is an INDIVDUAL sport where the team environment can be extremely motivating in having runners go faster. Training together provides motivation and spirit and improvement but it’s basically an individual sport and improvement and performance is based on internal motivation and desire.

And what about fast talented runners that do other sports or miss practices due to other activities. We say “Let Them Run” in meets if they are faster than those that are practicing every day. In scholastic classes, do teachers on tests, ever make allowances for those that aren’t “intellectually gifted” by giving them extra credit for studying more, even if they do worse on the test?

Success in life and running depends on a combination of talent and hard work. It’s an important lesson that is best learned early.

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