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Mar 6, 2024

The Path to Purpose (and Running) is often Paved with both Strength & Struggle – Part I

You never know how strong you are or how far you can go until you try. We are all motivated to run for a myriad of reasons. But the why behind Tonya Bradley’s run is a true ode to purpose, life, and living.

Having endured a life-threatening medical event in 2015, ignited by a traumatic lupus crisis and exacerbated by the stress of her mom’s passing a year prior, Tonya was thankful to just be alive. But, at the time, being alive meant an aggressive, rigorous regimen. That Lupus flare and the subsequent medication took their toll on her body. She suffered partial hearing loss and temporary blindness. She also faced a 50-pound weight gain paired with the inability to simply be able to move. But she knew she had to.

Having been initially diagnosed with lupus in 2003, Tonya ignored it. “I just didn’t want the diagnosis, I ignored it completely. The only thing I had heard of it was that I had an aunt who passed away from it. So, I just ignored that diagnosis and kept living my life.” In 2008, as the disorder progressed, she started paying more attention to it but still didn’t get the treatment she needed. When she went to see her doctor in 2015, the autoimmune disorder had taken reign and left her body deficient and depleted in so many ways.

“When I got better, I started walking. At first, it was only from tree to tree until I could walk a little farther. Then, I decided to run because a friend was hosting a virtual 5K for an annual event. I asked her if I could sign up and complete it in segments because I knew I couldn’t complete the entire 5K at one time.”

So, how did she go from barely being able to run a 5K to running the Abbott World Marathon Majors? “Once I started running, I started losing weight and feeling better. I was happier, but I was also very happy just running 5Ks. My mantra at the time was, ‘I will travel the world running 5Ks’.” But along came the Houston Hot Chocolate race. Its medal became the catalyst for her conquering her next distance. “You didn’t get a medal unless you ran the 15K. There was no bling for 5K finishers at the time. The medal had Houston on it, and I wanted it! I struggled through that 15K, but it felt so good. Everyone was like, ‘if you can do 9 miles, you could do 13’. And so, I did.”

Tonya started running half marathons but wanted the feat of a full marathon for her 50th birthday. It couldn’t just be any marathon. It had to be something and somewhere exciting. As the universe that is the run community would have it, she was told it should be a world major and that it should be New York. Challenge accepted.

But you can’t just sign up to run the New York Marathon; you have to be granted entry. She got in by doing the virtual version in 2022 for guaranteed entry for 2023. Meanwhile, she received an invitation to run the London Marathon for Lupus UK. Again, the challenge was accepted. She thought, she’d run London in April 2023 and New York in November 2023 and would be done with marathons. But then Berlin and Chicago came into play, and her thoughts soon shifted to “If I’m going to run two, I might as well do them all. I might as well just go for all six world majors.” But she didn’t just simply decide to run all six.

“Once I got into Berlin and Chicago, I realized I could probably finish these in one year, and that became the goal.” But she questioned, “Am I strong enough to do this? I didn’t think I was strong enough to run a marathon, ever. But when I finished the virtual marathon, which was very hard, I was so proud of myself. I literally cried when we were coming to the finish point because it was one of the hardest things I had done up until that point. There’s no crowd cheering, no course blocked off, no aid stations, no race support. It was just me and two friends. It was something I had to get my mind right for. I had to push my body through, and I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I’d never run that distance before, so I was really stoked about finishing.”

Completing that virtual was her biggest run accomplishment, but her biggest run success is being able to get up and run again and again.

Enjoying and respecting the journey is key. There will always be highs and lows in running, as in life. But the destination, the finish lines make it all worth it. Crossing one finish line in particular gets top billing for Tonya. “London is my favorite major, although everyone said, ‘wait until you run New York’. As a slower runner, a back-of-the-pack runner, as we say, having all of that support in London was amazing. It wasn’t just during the race but also afterward. The support on a course is one thing, but having people still cheering for you to the very end, even after they finished their races was great. It made it so much more fun.”

Having finished four of the six majors in 2023 – London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York – she will take on Tokyo in March and then on to Boston this year.

A native Chicagoan who grew up in and still resides in Houston, Tonya is the mother of three daughters and grandmother of two. She credits her grandchildren with being her run inspirations. “Both of my parents died young, in their 60s. I want to live beyond that point. Usually, whatever age your parents pass is put on you as your lifespan. But I want to defy that, to live past that. I want to be around to see my grandkids graduate from high school and to be there for them for much more. That’s what keeps me healthy mentally and physically.”

Many of us have something we contend with—be it menopause, stress, competing priorities, whatever—while trying to find balance through it all. Just as important to Tonya as figuring it out for herself is helping other women figure it out along the way.

Stay tuned for Part II as we continue the conversation on how running continues to shape and propel her toward what’s now and what’s next.

By: Joy Harrell @joyrunsrealestate

Joy Harrell is a licensed real estate agent and co-owner of The Sift Sisters bakery based in Houston, Texas. She is a native Houstonian and graduate of the University of Houston—go Coogs! When she is not helping people buy, sell or invest in real estate, she can be found hanging or traveling with her hubby, running or biking the streets and trails in and around Houston, mentoring girls, or testing new food and cocktail recipes.