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Faith, family, fearlessness

Some might say Erica Lopez is running from her problems, but they would be wrong.

Lopez is not only running for the love of the sport and mental well-being, she’s taking her passion up one more notch as she completes the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, as well as the Marine Corps Marathon, this October. 

It is a well-known fact among the running world that less than one percent of the world’s population has completed the 26.2-mile distance — once. For Lopez, Chicago on Oct. 13 and Marine Corps on Oct. 27 in Washington D.C. will mark marathons number five and six for the Oakdale runner. 

But these two races are not about a bucket list, a dare or even a challenge to test her optimum fitness. Lopez will be running to honor the memory of her husband, U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer, Master at Arms Ernie Lopez.

Lopez lost her husband to a rare form of Lymphoma on May 3, 2018. He was 47 years old. 

“I started running for physical looks,” Lopez said of her early relationship with the sport, “but then when we got married, we moved 3,000 miles away. I didn’t have anybody and a week after moving to Virginia he got deployed. To keep my sanity and not cry from missing my family and my new husband, I started running.”

As the married couple’s relationship blossomed, so too did their commitment to fitness and an active lifestyle.

“He was like a maniac in the gym,” the runner shared, beaming with pride. “He’d go daily. He’d run marathons without training. He’d just go out and do it. His health was awesome.”

In May 2017, however, that all began to change.

“In September (of 2017) we were told he didn’t have cancer from his first biopsy,” Lopez said of an increase in concerning symptoms. “So, we lived a whole month as though he had lupus. That’s what they diagnosed him with. From the date of (the cancer) diagnosis to his passing away was exactly seven months.”

Now the mom to a toddler and living in Oklahoma, Lopez was supported by her mother who traveled from the 209 to spend extended periods of time helping the couple out. As her husband’s condition worsened, Lopez once again found solace in her sneakers.

“In order for me to really not lose my mind, I had to run,” she shared. “It cleared my mind, gave me time to pray and not really meditate but meditate. I cried a lot. I didn’t want him to see me. It helped me get that out.”

As the couple clung to their faith, as well as their belief that he would win his battle, the cancer became more aggressive. Shortly following Ernie’s passing, Lopez returned to the 209 with daughter Carsyn, a toddler, and came home to the support of both families. The mother/daughter duo was able to secure a home, as well as establish a routine, thanks largely in part to the support of friends and family.

Now a Navy widow, Lopez began receiving notifications from resources regarding events, support and opportunities. Inspired to honor the memory of her husband, as well as raise awareness as a military spouse survivor, Lopez decided to apply for the two marathons.

Much to her surprise, as well as excitement, she was selected to run both through two different sources.

“For 19 years I was part of a community. There was a core group of us and I was part of them and now I’m not,” Lopez stated candidly of her military community.

Now a member of the TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) Chicago Marathon Team, as well as a Marine Corps Marathon training group, she feels connected again.

“It helps me stay connected to my military family,” she said of the race training support.

But while the support might be nice, even helpful, logging over 400 miles to prepare the body for a 26.2-mile journey isn’t easy in the most perfect of circumstances, not to mention as a single mom.

“Training for two marathons at once has been more of a challenge than I thought,” she confessed. “I figured while I trained for the first one, I would just be training for the second one. Fortunately, I was provided a training coach with the Marine Corps Marathon. Knowing that I had someone to guide me through has really helped me stay focused and not run blindly though the training.” 

The runner admitted that training during a 209 summer brings with it its own challenges. That, coupled with many of her miles being on her treadmill with Carsyn close by, equates to not ideal. Yet, she’s doing it.

“Oh goodness it has been a challenge,” she said of working her training while parenting a four-year-old. “I had massive ‘mom’ guilt because I was focusing on my running goals, instead of having playing time. However, I would make it about her too. She knows that once I am done with the treadmill, she has her ‘run’ time. She loves doing yoga with me or ‘Joe ga’ as she calls it. They say it takes a village to raise a child; well, my village has really pulled through for me.”

Taking on the challenge of two full marathons for Lopez, however, is more about Ernie and less about what she might have set her sights on in the past. There is little concern of finish time, personal best or even running the entire distance. While her coaching and nutrition has properly prepared her for each of these areas, Lopez shows little concern for either.

She shared she looks forward to running through the city of Chicago with family members awaiting her at the finish line. In addition, she looks forward to mile 12 of the Marine Corps Marathon, deemed the “Blue Mile.”

“As for the MCM, I am excited that I’ll be back where it all started,” she said, noting that in 2004 it was this very course where she ran her first half-marathon.

“Knowing that his face (even in a picture),” she shared of the “Blue Mile” lined with photos of fallen soldiers, “is waiting for me will give me enough encouragement to get me through the next half of the race. Carsyn will also be at his picture holding a flag and watching me finish what I set out to do.”

Lopez said talking about Ernie with Carsyn helps keep his memory alive.

“But I don’t think she understands that when I run, I run because Ernie cannot,” Lopez added. “She sees me not giving up when I want to. I know Ernie’s greatest wish was for her to be courageous and strong in her own right. I hope that I am instilling that into her when she sees me run.”

Lopez attributes much of her strength to Ernie and forging forward in his honor. She shared he was always good for a pep talk before, during or after any race. While that void may now be very real, she leans on her family and her faith to bring her through each and every challenge as well as victory.

“I think if I didn’t have my faith, I’d be a useless human being and I wouldn’t have the confidence that I have,” she stated. “I have someone to talk to and that’s God. There’s always an answer. Even if I hate that answer, there’s an answer. Even if I think I’m alone, I’m so not.”

And as for Ernie and what Lopez hopes others learn and are inspired by, she simply stated, “Ernie is awesome. There’s no other way to put it. I think he would be proud of all we’ve accomplished.”