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Originally published December 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 1, 2008 at 1:19 AM

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2 homeless women back on their feet for Seattle Marathon

Elizabeth Bray and Kimberly Swartz ran in part to distance themselves from pasts marked by alcoholism, violence, depression and more than a few regrets. The two women, who for the past year have lived at Seattle's Union Gospel Mission, ran because the miles added up to a down payment on a different future.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Out of the thousands of racers who finished the Seattle half-marathon Sunday, only two were homeless women, "recovery buddies" running for redemption.

Elizabeth Bray and Kimberly Swartz ran in part to distance themselves from pasts marked by alcoholism, violence, depression and more than a few regrets. The two women, who for the past year have lived at Seattle's Union Gospel Mission, ran because the miles added up to a down payment on a different future.

"I was facing death or life," said Bray, 57, who only recently faced up to her decades-long alcoholism. "I want the rest of my life to mean something."

So yesterday, Bray and Swartz crossed the finish line in the arms of the stranger who first inspired them to lace their sneakers.

A Seattle attorney, Rachel Reynolds was mourning the premature death of her father last year. Then she read about a Philadelphia program called "Back on My Feet," a nonprofit group that gets homeless men and women running as a way to push their lives forward.

Reynolds wanted to replicate the idea in Seattle and called the only homeless shelter she'd heard of. Initially, seven adults from the Union Gospel Mission's women and children's shelter in the Chinatown International District heeded Reynolds's call for runners, including Bray and Swartz.

"I had the urge to really run," explained Swartz, 36.

The group that formed in the spring shrank to four committed runners, then to just Bray and Swartz for the half-marathon. The two women have been following a half-marathon training schedule, sometimes running with volunteers who are friends of Reynolds'. Reynolds herself is a triathlete but hasn't been running much because of an injury.

"We are the two dumbest ones," cracked Bray, who nonetheless has lost 20 pounds through the training.

Bray had ended up at the shelter after she was evicted from her apartment on Queen Anne; her alcoholic haze had led her to neglect upkeep on the place. A onetime regional-theater actor who has performed plays by Anton Chekhov and Eugene O'Neill, Bray had fooled herself — and others, she thought — to think that she could manage her drinking.

An articulate woman who is given to thoughtful pauses before speaking, Bray had become a mentor and friend to Swartz and her 4-year-old daughter, Alex.

Swartz moved into the shelter with Alex last November after finishing a nine-month prison sentence for domestic assault. A rangy blonde with the fidgety manners of a smoker constantly craving a cigarette (she's trying to quit), Swartz is working toward her high-school-equivalency diploma.

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Swartz says she enjoys running because it gets her out of her cramped private room at the shelter, where she sleeps in a bunk bed beneath Alex. Pushing Alex in a jogging stroller past the residents and shoppers in the Chinatown International District and along the waterfront clears Swartz's mind and alleviates her depression.

"The neat thing about running is that there are not any boundaries," Reynolds said. "Anybody can do it."

Running has given Bray a sense of accomplishment. It has even rekindled her dream of returning to acting.

"No matter what you put in front of us, we're going to grab on to it," Bray said. "It makes life more alive."

So on Sunday, Bray and Swartz crossed the finish line together, accompanied by Reynolds and two other supporters. Bray's face was flushed and she bent from the waist from exhaustion. She knew that the others had sacrificed faster times to stay at her side.

"I couldn't have done it without these guys," Bray said.

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or ksong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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