Lupe Barraza shares how running gave her the courage, strength, and confidence to take back control of her life — and her health.

By Lupe Barraza as told to Faith Brar
April 21, 2021
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Credit: Courtesy of Lupe Barraza / Know Diabetes by Heart

Note: This article discusses abuse.

Growing up, I watched Type 2 diabetes take over the life of my family members — several even lost their lives to the disease. When my father turned 40, he was diagnosed, too. Not long after, he began needing amputations after his heart attack in May 2020: first his toes, then half of his feet, and then his left leg from the knee down. Today, he's suffering from stage four renal (kidney) failure.

Back in 2007, I thought a similar outlook was inevitable for me. I was 32, a mother of four children, and had just finished getting my CPA after my bachelor's and master's degrees in accounting. Because of my hectic schedule, I didn't have — or rather couldn't make — time for myself. I weighed more than 220 pounds (which was a lot on my 5-foot-2-inch frame), and diet and exercise were simply not priorities.

Then, two years later, that hectic lifestyle hit its peak when my appendix almost burst, and I ended up in the hospital. The doctors told me that I had nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — a condition in which fat builds in your liver — and that I was prediabetic — meaning my blood sugar levels were higher than normal but not enough to be diagnosed with diabetes yet. (Related: The 10 Diabetes Symptoms Women Need to Know About)

Given my family history, I was told I needed to completely revamp my lifestyle if I wanted to live. This lit a fire within me.

The Beginning of My Running Journey

After my diagnosis, I decided I was going to run a marathon. I didn't know anyone who had run a marathon before, and it was the most physically challenging thing I could imagine. It was a bold commitment. But didn't care how long it took, how fast I ran it, or anything else for that matter. I was just going to work toward it.

I started small by just taking multiple walks around the block. While that sounds easy enough, in reality, it was completely draining. By the time I'd get home, I'd be completely winded. Slowly but surely, however, my endurance progressed. After a month of walking, I eventually started running — and by that, I don't mean that I was logging miles. I started setting small goals, such as running to the next lamp post or mailbox. (BTW, this training plan will help running newbies get ready for half-marathons.)

My biggest roadblock was finding time to exercise. I figured out that my best window for working out was in the morning before my children woke up, which meant waking up at 4 a.m., going for a run, coming back, showering, getting dressed, and getting the kids out of bed by 6:30 a.m. I did that five to six days a week. (Related: 10 Ways to Sneak In a Workout Even When You're Crazy-Busy)

Roughly six months after my first walk, I felt strong enough to officially start following a marathon training plan. I found a virtual trainer who suggested I adopt Olympian Jeff Galloway's run-walk method, where you run for short increments and then take a walk break. Soon after, I signed up for the BMW Dallas Marathon (then known as the MetroPCS Dallas Marathon), which was set to take place six months later.

I followed the training plan without fail each week and used Sunday for my long runs. To fuel my motivation, I started a running club with my then-husband and encouraged my fellow mom friends and other members of our community to join us.

Lupe Stretching AHA
Credit: Know Diabetes by Heart

While training for the marathon, I completed 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons. Gradually, my body began to change. During this time, I also started eating more consciously. I wasn't counting calories, but I was staying away from fried and processed foods, which were a huge part of my diet before. Over the course of 10 months, I lost 70 pounds.

More importantly, though, my mental health improved with each run. And soon running became my outlet. Each time I hit the pavement, I zoned out. I was in my own world, free from stress or anxiety.

In 2010, about a year after my diagnosis, I ran my first marathon. The energy, the excitement, the camaraderie — it all made me realize that running, and running long distances, in particular, was my thing. Once I crossed that finish line and felt that medal around my neck, I knew I had caught the bug, and there was no turning back.

In the following months, I began signing up for all the races I could find that looked fun and challenging. By summer 2011, I was ready for something more: my first ultramarathon, the El Scorch El, a 30-mile race in Fort Worth, Texas that starts at midnight. Less than a year later, by March 2012, I had eight marathons and two ultramarathons under my belt.

Then, my world turned upside-down.

An Abusive Relationship Sets Me Back

When my husband and I (who were high school sweethearts) decided to part ways in 2012, I was completely lost and heartbroken. But instead of taking time to heal, I quickly fell into an unhealthy rebound relationship with a man who had substance abuse problems — something that led him to be physically violent toward me. He tried to control me, which meant that I was forced to put my newfound healthy lifestyle on the backburner. And sure enough, all the weight I'd lost during training crept back on.

My new partner would encourage unhealthy eating patterns and prepare (and often force me to eat) unhealthy, fatty meals. Soon, I quickly gained even more weight. And while he would tell me I was beautiful just the way I was, those compliments quickly shifted when he became angry. He'd often say that no one else would love me the way I was — and I believed him.

Over the next two years, the abuse got worse. In February 2016, he assaulted me so badly that he ended up in jail for three months. I wanted to leave him, but I felt like I had no one else. During this time, I'd lost touch with my friends, my running community, and my family. I couldn't muster the courage to tell anyone what happened, so I stayed in my abusive relationship even after he was released from jail.

All the while, I experienced nerve damage to my hands and feet from the abuse, my hair was falling out, and I gained 80 pounds; I weighed more than I did when I first started my running journey. When I finally went back to the doctor, I was officially diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. My blood sugar was almost 400 mg/dL (which is concerningly high), and I had high blood pressure. (FYI — The Mayo Clinic defines a healthy blood sugar as 140 mg/dL or below, while anything between 140 and 199 mg/dL signals prediabetes; more than 200 mg/dL equals Type 2 diabetes.)

That cycle of abuse and my worsening health continued for three more excruciating years.

A Wake-Up Call That Triggers Lasting Change

My life took yet another turn when, in 2019, my mother had a stroke. A few months later, my father had a heart attack. Both incidents occurred because of their battles with Type 2 diabetes — and that was a huge wake-up call for me. Since being diagnosed four years prior, I had worked hard to improve my own health, only to then revert back due to my relationship.

After seeing what my parents went through, I was terrified. I didn't want my children to experience this hospital waiting room, needing to make decisions about my limbs, my life, and wondering if I was going to make it out of the hospital alive — all because I chose to live this lifestyle.

So I went back to what I still knew best. I began walking again. Within three months, I was jogging, and with each mile, my confidence grew. I used the 30 minutes to an hour on the trail to think about where I was and where I wanted to be. And I wanted to be at peace. (Related: How Ironman Triathlons Helped This Domestic Abuse Survivor with Her Depression)

By January 2020, I had made up my mind: I was going to leave my abusive relationship. So while he was asleep one night in February, I took my children and I left. That was the last time I saw him.

How Running Saved Me (Again)

Soon after leaving my abusive relationship, I decided to run another marathon. I set my eyes on the Dallas Marathon once again, but the race was ultimately moved from December 2020 to April 2021 because of COVID-19. I know this will be my comeback marathon.

I'm no longer ashamed of or embarrassed by my past. Through Instagram and my blog, I've shared my story with other women and received an outpouring of love and support. Recently, I became an ambassador for Know Diabetes by Heart, a collaborative landmark initiative with the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association aimed at reducing cardiovascular deaths, heart attacks, and strokes in people living with type 2 diabetes through educational programs. Through my ambassadorship, I've been able to raise awareness for Type 2 diabetes and inspire others to get healthy again.

Lupe and her Father
Credit: Know Diabetes by Heart

Today, at 45, my A1C levels (essentially, my blood sugar levels) have improved, and I'm at a healthy weight. As I train for the Dallas Marathon, I've started listening to uplifting podcasts and I meditate and surround myself with people who inspire and motivate me.

If there's anything I've learned through this journey, it's that there is nothing wrong with making yourself your number one priority. We have the power to make our own choices about our health and happiness — all you have to do is take the first step.

Need help to escape domestic abuse? Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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