The co-founder of the Bra Run and pioneering women's running crew TrailblazHers opens up about losing weight in the public eye, running marathons, and empowering women of color.
The grit, the grind and the determination required to train for and run a marathon should never be understated. For many, the journey from their first 5k to the full 26.2 mile distance is an experience defined by set-backs, doubts, emotion and - eventually - elation.
The sheer scale of the challenge means that, when somebody successfully completes a marathon, it can be tempting to think that their running journey is "complete". To simply say that "they're a runner now" - fit, healthy and ready to take on whatever challenge they please.
However, many runners will recognise that this isn't necessarily the case. Maintaining fitness and health is challenging - and that early alarm, that first mile and those cold winter days don't always get any easier.
Liz Rock is a woman who is acutely aware of the challenge - or in her own words "the struggle" - of maintaining fitness and a healthy weight, even with multiple marathons under her belt. Despite those challenges, Liz has overcome her own self-doubts to become a pioneer of women's running, women's health, women’s wellbeing - and even women's rights.
It was a privilege to sit down with Liz and hear the story of how she became one of the Boston running community’s most influential figureheads.
"You know our culture…we ate what we had, we ate what was cheap"
Early on in our conversation, we get the impression that Liz isn't somebody who sugarcoats things. Nevertheless, she looks back on her upbringing with genuine warmth. Born here in America, but raised by Haitian parents, she regards her upbringing as predominantly fun, despite some obvious challenges.
"We [Liz, her two sisters, her mom and her stepdad] lived in a 2-bed apartment above a Karate and Pizza shop in Watertown," she explains. "At that time my Aunts and Uncles were coming in from Haiti and we were the household that brought everyone in - everyone moved in with us! We had something of an open door policy."
"We didn’t have money or anything, we were poor," Liz continues. "But we were that household - and it was fun."
When it came to sports, Liz played basketball throughout high school - but those high school basketball days were, for a long time, the extent of her engagement with an active lifestyle. Liz explains that weight has been an issue "my whole life", and it wasn't until her mid-twenties that she got the jolt she needed to start taking action.
"Something truly clicked when my Grandmother passed away," explains Liz. "She was a bigger woman and she had health complications since she was 30, taking medication and stuff. She'd had multiple strokes before - and then this last one took her out."
"I feel like a lot of her health complications - high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes - could have been prevented by a healthier lifestyle. But you know our culture, we didn’t grow up learning what to eat. We ate what we had, we ate what was cheap. And that meant food like rice and bread."
A routine visit to the doctors reinforced Liz's desire to take action: "They took my blood pressure and it was a hypertension type of thing. That scared the crap out of me. From there I thought… let's get serious."
"What has helped me throughout this whole journey, is that I've always had an accountability partner."
From an early stage, Liz documented her weight loss journey on social media. When it came to exercising, she started with short but achievable routines - in some videos she shared, she would simply do 5 leg lifts. For many, following her journey from the very beginning was inspiring and incredibly motivating. Today, Liz herself has mixed feelings reflecting on it.
"I feel like I try to block that time out," she explains. "I have a disconnect with that time, that Liz."
"Right now I'm having a hard time because I've gained a lot of weight back this year… I'm going to try not to cry right now!."
This time her sentence finishes with a small laugh, as opposed to tears. However it’s clear that Liz doesn't associate the start of her journey with positive feelings.
"It has a lot to do with shame. I was feeling shame at that point."
In time, her exercise routines would also include running - and part way into her journey a friend invited Liz to take part in a triathlon, which would require her to run a distance of 4 miles. To prepare herself, Liz started a "Couch-to-5K" program, where she received invaluable support from her work colleagues. The experience demonstrated the power of group running to her for the first time.
"What's helped me throughout this whole journey is that I've always had an accountability partner," says Liz. "Or a group of people who have helped me push through when I wanted to give up."
“When I did the Couch-to-5k I had the support of two co-workers who had run the Boston Marathon. They dedicated one day out of the week to run with me after work - they gave up their time to run with me.”
"When it comes to weight loss, people praised me so much but… it's a lifetime of work"
By 2017, Liz's efforts to lose weight had started to pay off. She also continued to benefit from running in a group, and could regularly be found running amongst Boston’s running crews.
In 2018, Liz's hard work culminated in her running her first half marathon and, shortly afterwards, the Boston Marathon itself - all the while continuing to share her journey with others on social media.
"Boston was good, it was hard!," Liz reflects. "I raised $5,000 for House of Possibilities, which is a cause close to me because my nephew is autistic."
"Out of all of the times I had to raise money, raising money for Boston was the easiest. People loved the story - 'the girl who loses weight and runs a marathon'."
Liz describes 2018 as her "hustle year", which in many people's eyes would be something of an understatement. Liz ran the Boston, London, New York and Chicago marathons - hitting four of the six majors in less than 12 months.
"I shouldn't have run Chicago," Liz admits. "But I did anyway - and it hurt! I hate Chicago… all I associate it with is pain."
Liz's accomplishments in 2018 were, of course, incredible - and a genuine inspiration for many. However, despite these achievements, Liz struggled with the pressure of maintaining her weight - particularly in the public eye.
"It's a mental bitch. It's exhausting," explains Liz. "People think 'stop crying, eat right, exercise, and it’ll be fine'. But there's so much more to it. Mentally, it's exhausting."
"When it comes to weight loss," Liz continues, "people have praised me so much. They say 'Oh my God you made it'... but I didn't make it. It's a lifetime worth of work."
"As somebody who shares so much of their journey on social media, I always have to be 'on'. As recently as this summer, somebody commented on a picture of me and said "have you gained weight?'."
"Imagine how many other women feel this way."
Despite the additional pressures Liz felt as a result of sharing her running journey, it didn’t stop her continuing to empower women and build communities. In fact, in subsequent years, Liz pioneered bigger, bolder and wider reaching initiatives.
In 2018, Liz and [TrailblazHers co-founder] Frances Ramirez hosted their first "Bra Run" - an event created to empower women of all shapes, colors and backgrounds, and to celebrate all bodies.
"It came about from me going off for a run," Liz explains. "It was a hot summer day. I thought to myself, 'Liz take off your shirt, you’re about to die!'"
"Did I do it? No. But when I got home I thought - how many other women feel this way?"
Three weeks later, 150 women turned out for the very first Bra Run: "A lot of women came who weren't part of the running community. It was very empowering, it was a beautiful thing."
From that first event, the Bra Run became an annual initiative in Boston - evolving into a paid charity event with an afterparty and more. Even in 2020, when the event had to pivot due to the COVID19 pandemic, the Bra Run was still achieving incredible things.
In 2020 we did a hybrid virtual and in-person event," explains Liz. "We raised money for YWCA. It was donation-based and we raised $8,000 in two weeks, which Puma matched up to $5,000. Altogether YWCA got $12,000."
Like so many of us, the pandemic has a significant impact on Liz, who herself caught COVID and pneumonia at the same time. In total she was confined to her room for one and a half months, testing positive throughout. But at a time when her usual home life was put on pause, it was events in another part of the country that inspired Liz to start a new women’s movement.
In Kentucky, on March 13th 2020, 26-year-old African-American woman Breonna Taylor was fatally shot in her apartment by three plainclothes police officers. The officers fired 32 shots on Breonna and her boyfriend. Breonna, a health worker for the University of Louisville Health, was hit by 6 bullets.
"I was angry because I felt like there was attention on the injustices to black men but not black women," explains Liz. "So I thought of the Ride for Briana Taylor."
"The first one was in July," Liz continues. "It went really well. 80 people showed up and we had some great female speakers. Then the second one was in October where we partnered up with Ride for Black Lives. We had about 300 people riding through Boston, some amazing speakers, and businesses like Fresh Food Generations were there supporting us."
"It was a protest - and a celebration of Breonna’s life."
Today, Liz is one of three co-founders of women’s running crew TrailblazHers - alongside Bra Run co-conspirators Frances Ramirez and Abeo Powder.
"It's now ‘TrailblazHers presents the Bra Run'," explains Liz.
"TrailblazHers is an all-women running crew, but we are more than just running. We think it's really important to focus on more than just the physical aspect. For example we run workshops that help enhance us as women - it could be meditation, yoga, partnering with other women of color."
"We want to provide a space for women - especially women of color - to show the world what they can do."
Liz and her team at TrailblazHers have certainly expanded their mission - and we get the sense that this is still only the beginning! Looking to the future, Liz has big plans for both the Bra Run and TrailblazHers.
"We want Bra Run to go to other cities," says Liz. "We were supposed to go to New York [before COVID] and I would love to do LA, London… I would love to see Bra Run go international!"
"As for TrailblazHers, we’ll continue to do our Self-Care Sundays, partner with other organizations, build-up the community. We do want to do weekly runs - Frances really wants to do that! I think I want to hold off on that until COVID has... but we’ll definitely start doing them!"
Liz Rock’s running journey didn't end after she ran her first marathon. Nor did it end after she ran her fourth. On the contrary, from founding a movement and protesting against injustice, to building an empowering community for female runners - Liz's running journey shows no sign whatsoever of coming to an end.
Given the incredible impact she has had - and continues to have - on the lives of female runners both in Boston and further afield… long may Liz Rock's running journey continue.
Sidney Baptista is a running coach, leader & activist who founded PIONEERS Run Crew in Boston. Liz Rock is a co-founder of the Bra Run and TrailblazHers running crew in Boston, MA.