Joel Diaz began running as a means to regain his fitness. “I weighed close to 300 pounds when I got out of college,” Joel Diaz says. “I had gained weight due to stress. Running was a way for me to be more active. As soon as I started running, the weight started coming off.” Joel’s mother was from the Dominican Republic, where baseball is far and above the most popular sport. “All we knew was baseball in our Dominican family,” Joel explains. “Running was just not a popular sport.” When Joel began running, however, he fell in love with the sport. While his mother had trouble understanding why he would want to run for so long, it became a life goal of Joel’s to run the New York City Marathon. He desperately wanted to show his mom what running was all about. He wanted to show her why he loved running and he wanted her to see his hard work and dedication pay off. Joel tried for years to get into the New York City Marathon via the lottery. Sadly, he did not make it in. This year, Joel is running the NYCM with Project Purple. Joel had wanted his mother to be cheering him on at the finish line. Instead he will be running to honor her battle with pancreatic cancer.
Joel’s mother, Mera Hinirio, was originally from the Dominican Republic. Joel was born and raised to the age of ten in Puerto Rico. At that point, Mera moved her family to New Jersey. “She was very religious and very giving. She spent a lot of time volunteering in church,” Joel says, describing his mom. “She had a hard life. She raised 5 kids on her own after divorcing our father. She made do with what she had. She was very old school. She was strong and not afraid to discipline us. She had to be strong to raise five boys. I owe her a lot for being tough on us.” Mera worked hard to care her five children. She was a seamstress in New York City and did odd jobs to make ends meet. The kids also did what they could to contribute financially to their household. Nothing was more important to Mera than her family. “She cared so much about her family,” Joel says. “She made sure that we knew our family growing up. We went back to the Dominican Republic every summer. She always dressed us nicely even though we had so little.”
Joel was the first one in his family to graduate from college. He saw how hard life was for his mother, and it became his goal in life to make his mom proud. “One of the things I wanted to do was move out on my own. In my mom’s eyes, graduating from college and living on my own was like saying that all of her hard work had paid off. Being on my own would be the ultimate proud moment for her.” Joel worked hard and graduated from college specifically to make his mother proud. She had completed only a basic elementary school education and had sacrificed so much to raise her children. Joel wanted nothing more than to become successful in his mother’s eyes.
After graduating from college, Joel took a job in Florida at the Disney Resort. He packed up and moved south from his home in New Jersey. It broke his heart to be so far away from his mother, but going out on his own was a necessary part of his life’s goal to prove himself to his mom. He decorated a room in his new place so that she would always have a place to stay when she visited him.
In 2008, Joel ran his first race at the Susan Komen 5k. He soon found that running made him feel better and helped him to lose the weight that he had put on in college. He joined the local running club in Florida shortly after he started running. “At the time, they did not have a beginners group at our club. I would get left behind, but I did not get discouraged. I went home and ran after work. I used to do a walk/run combination but now I am a fairly good runner. I usually finish among the top 20% of my club.”
Joel fell in love with running and racing. He began entering running races and triathlons as his fitness improved. At one point in time, running a marathon seemed impossible, but Joel soon began contemplating running one. He entered and ran the Disney Marathon in 2011. “I was so excited! I told my mom about it and she was happy for me but she could not comprehend what it takes to run 26.2 miles.” Joel’s mom was proud of his accomplishments, but he wanted her to actually see him finish a marathon. He wanted her to understand the work and passion behind his running accomplishments. His heart was set on running the New York City Marathon because that way she could come watch him run and see him finish. Joel says, “She didn’t really understand so I wanted to show her what it was all about. I thought that if I could get into the New York City Marathon, and be there in the flesh, she would understand the work that I put into my new lifestyle.”
Joe applied three years in a row via the lottery. Three years in a row, he was not selected to run the marathon. During this time, Mera became ill. She was in and out of the hospital trying to find out the cause of her stomach pain. Joel remembers receiving a phone call one day from a friend who worked at the hospital. “It doesn’t look good, Joel,” his friend told him. “It is pancreatic cancer. It is usually too late for the doctors to do anything.” In fact, the doctors said that Mera had only six months to live.
Joel was devastated by the news of his mother’s illness. He flew to New Jersey and spent the next two weeks by her side. Mera’s final wish was to go to the Dominican Republic to be with her family. Joel and his family flew her to the Dominican Republic. Just six weeks after her initial diagnosis, Mera passed away from her pancreatic cancer. Joel recalls that day, “I woke up in the morning and saw that I had 20 missed phone calls. I knew immediately it was because my mom had passed away. She was with her mom and sisters in the Dominican Republic. She left the world in peace. It was her final wish for her to see her family.” Even though he helped his mom to fulfill her final wish, Joel is still haunted by thoughts of what he could have done differently. “If I could go back in time, I would take a leave of absence from work. I just did not realize how little time we had left.”
Joel’s mother cannot come see him finish the New York City Marathon. However, Joel will be running it this year in her honor as part of the Project Purple team. The race is meaningful to him because he is raising money and awareness for the disease which took his mother. “I just want people to know that if you find out a loved one is sick, spend as much time as possible with them.” The life lessons his mother taught him have stayed with Joel. “I think I live a good life. Everything that I do, I think of her and say to myself, ‘Will this make my mom proud?’ I miss her every day.”
On Sunday, November 1st, Joel will run the New York City Marathon to honor his mom. At the parade prior to the marathon, Joel has been selected to carry the Dominican Republic flag, a touching and fitting tribute to the woman who raised and shaped the man he is today.
Please support Joel’s Project Purple fundraiser by making a tax deductible donation at the link below: