I Never thought that...

I Never thought that the desire to help would convert me into what I am today, an Ultra Marathoner


By Ayenza Matthews  “La Potranca”


In 2012 I felt the desire to help someone - anyone. I had already completed my studies and thought: “Let me find an organization to which I can volunteer my time.”


I discovered the American Cancer Society. I was attracted by their web page where in big letters it said: “DETERMINATION.”


The post was about fundraising for research to find the cure for cancer. I thought it would be a great thing to do but the DETERMINATION part was to be able to run the Miami Half Marathon or Miami Marathon of 2013. 


I thought, “How am I going to run?” I had tried running in the past and failed miserably in several attempts, so I said, “No way is this possible”. I was still interested to help, and I remained intrigued about running, so I picked up the phone and called them. The American Cancer Society told me that they would assign a coach for my training and felt that I would be able to accomplish the run and be a part of the team.


I had little to no involvement in sports during my childhood. I had problems walking and was constantly falling. Doctors thought it could be a neurological problem, but I was complaining of knee pain which doctors put down to so-called “growing pains”. I am thankful to my mother who was set on getting to the bottom of this as most of the time I was with her when I was falling, or I would come home from school with scraped knees.


More studies were done, and it was discovered that I had one leg longer than the other. My left leg is shorter, and I had scoliosis, a sideways curve to the spine. I had to use orthopedic shoes and add an insert to level my leg length discrepancy. Memories of my childhood were mostly of visiting the Orthopedic Hospital and to the Orthopedic shoemaker.

I was getting X-rays every 3 to 6 months and at age 15 I was placed in a Milwaukee Brace, a hard-plastic corset to keep my spine from shifting even more as my Scoliosis was progressing.

I had to keep the corset on every day, and was only allowed to take it off for 15 minutes to shower.


I am from Panama and the heat there is extreme so I developed blisters, calluses and cuts on my body from wearing the corset. It would crush my organs to a point that caused me difficulty breathing, and it is possible that my current lung malfunction (only 58% capacity) could be due to this restriction.  

I was in this predicament for 3 years. In my last year of high school I thought “Enough, No More of this”, and never wore it again or set foot in the doctor’s office.


During my childhood the doctors prohibited me from doing any sport. I had to sit on the bench during gym classes and watch my classmates play sports or exercise. I passed this class by writing reports on sports and taking handwritten tests on sport subjects.


You now can understand why I thought it was impossible to run but I accepted the American Cancer Society’s challenge anyway. I participated in their training program and completed the Miami Half Marathon in 2013.


Crossing that finish line and doing something I thought was impossible was the most amazing experience; from that moment I was hooked on running

The following year I helped with fundraising for the Michael J. Fox Organization, which does research for the cure of Parkinson’s Disease, and I ran the Miami Half Marathon again.


The rest is a story that I continue to write. I wanted to do more than just run Half Marathons and decided to run the Chicago Marathon in 2015. From there I focused on conquering the World Marathon Majors: Chicago, Berlin, London, Boston, Tokyo and New York.


I completed the Majors in 2019 in Tokyo.  I took up the challenge of running two marathons only a week apart: Tokyo Marathon and Nagoya Women’s Marathon. I had the pleasure of bringing home my bling-bling for my efforts: the World Majors Medal and the Tiffany necklace that is given at Nagoya Marathon. With this I became only the third woman and fifth person from the country of Panama to have accomplished the World Majors.


I had focused mostly on long distance running with the goal to finish the races and to always help to get someone else to the finish line if I saw them struggling. I am not a very fast runner and never will be - that much is clear.  Considering my low lung capacity I am still running a lot of long distance races. I also ran a 50km Ultra Marathon in Panama.


My journey is not only about running but making it known to others that have the same conditions as me: things can be accomplished in life if we put our fears aside and strive for success.


With my work promoting running, healthy fun living, traveling the world for running and touring has given me exposure to other runners around the world.  I was appointed as a Running Ambassador for Panama by the Panama Runners Association, and was invited by the Director of the Institute of Sports in Mexico City to carry the Olympic torch in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the 1968 Olympic Games held in the City.


I run not just because I like it, or because I am changing people’s lives, but also for the opportunity to show the world my culture, traditions and create exposure to Panama in the Marathon world so that we are recognised as a country that runs - I want the whole world to know it.


The journey has not been easy but it was do-able and it has been the greatest thing that I have done in my life. I have traveled the world for running and people ask me, “Why do you run so much?”  My answer is always: “Because I can” 


This year I set myself to do the challenge of running 3 Marathons, 3 Countries, 2 Continents and all in the same week. The races were the Tata Mumbai Marathon in India, then Standard Chartered Marathon in Dubai and finally the International Marathon of Marrakech in Morocco.


Coming from having problems walking and not being permitted to do any sports to accomplish great things as I have done could not end right there. I wanted more challenges and bigger accomplishments so I joined the Association of Athletics Masters of Panama and became a competitive athlete to represent my country Panama.


There is a misconception about the Masters. Many think it is for older people, but it is for any athlete over 30 wanting to fulfil their dreams of competing in athletics including long distance running. It keeps them active and following a healthy life regardless of how old the person gets to be.

Through joining the Association I am now competing in championships and hope this year to be able to attend and compete in a World Masters Championship.


I am not only a competitor but also have been appointed as an advisor to the Board of Directors and the international representative of the organization. 


This is a proud moment in my life because it will open doors to continue to preach louder things can be done if we set our minds and souls to it. Regardless of our age we can make more people be a part of a great sport: Running. Yes, we can!

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