Muñoz Leaps To The Finish Line
For Meds, Youth, And Fundraising
by Dann Dulin
Lone man moves steadily along the trails of Malibu
Canyon State Park clad in the running attire of a marathoner. The
only sounds: his feet pounding the peaceful trail and his audible
breathing. This man runs eighty miles a week, ten marathons
a year, and...is HIV-positive.
This was Nike's 1995 hallmark commercial featuring
runner, Ric Muñoz, the company's only HIV-positive athlete. In
1997, Entertainment Weekly voted this one of the fifty greatest
commercials in television history.
"The response we received from the commercial
was extremely positive, probably one of the most inspirational ads
we have ever created," notes Nike spokesperson Scott Reames. "To
many, Ric's ad was one of the most pure 'Just Do It' messages we've
delivered. Quite frankly, it was not a difficult decision for
Nike to create the ad or to sponsor Ric. I wish I could say,
though, that we didn't receive any negative comments and that everyone
who saw it was inspired, but sadly we did hear from a small number
of people who were not happy about it." He adds, "Then
again, that's true of just about any ad we do.
The ad was not designed to be a social statement or to make
any general commentary other than to say that if a runner can get
out and conquer marathons while living with HIV, the rest of us can
at least get off the couch and jog around the block."
The fame engendered by the Nike campaign hasn't
changed this forty-three-year-old Mexican-American.
Ric lives in a modest apartment, maintains a thirteen-year
legal secretary position with an insurance company, and remains healthy,
having been HIV-positive for nearyly fifteen years. Ric sits
on the edge of a sofa in his living room, dressed in a Nike running
suit—sky-blue windbreaker over a white T-shirt with black cotton
stretch pants. (Nike supplies Ric with a new outfit and shoes
every year.) Seth Eskigian, Ric's six-month love interest,
whom he met on the Internet, is conducting business in the next room. Ric
admits that this is his first serious relationship and the spark
in his eyes denotes that he is smitten. Ric and Seth recently
moved together into this little foliage-enveloped haven in West Hollywood. The
small living room is furnished with books, DVDs, and a large entertainment
center, and is accented with poinsettias and fresh roses. On
the coffee table lies a half-finished crossword, which Ric was working
on before I arrived to interview him about that other, more serious,
challenge in his life: HIV.
tested positive in 1987, and my well-meaning friends advised me against
running marathons," he points out as he stirs his coffee.
Ric didn't heed their advice. He had learned to be independent
at an early age. He never knew his father, who left Ric's mother
before his son's birth in El Paso, Texas. At age six, mother
and son moved to Los Angeles's Koreatown. There Ric grew up
in a household of silence—his mother never showed him affection
and so books became his friends and companions. His first job
was at the age of nine, delivering newspapers. Because of his
high grades and financial need he received a scholarship to USC,
from which he earned a journalism degree. Ric has survived
molestation, poverty, bigotry, physical and emotional abuse, and
sexual compulsiveness. He always considered life an obstacle
course, so what was HIV but another hurdle? And why should
he cease running? He found inner peace and comfort in it. Running
was a loyal friend.
To date, Muñoz has participated in one hundred
thirty-four marathons, plus six ultra marathons (a distance that
is over the usual twenty-six miles). In 1998, he won his first
marathon, The Christmas Marathon, in Olympia, Washington. His
winning time was two hours, fifty-three minutes, twenty seconds.
Ric has also run marathons in Canada, England, Italy, and South
Africa. This athlete still runs fifty miles a week through
the streets of Los Angeles, and plans on participating in ten marathons
Presumably, such a strenuous exercise regimen could
tax an already impaired immune system. On the contrary, recent
studies indicate that strenuous exercise may actually enhance the
immune system in quantifiable ways. A UCLA study has shown
that moderate to heavy exercise can substantially improve immune
indices in HIVers. The Copenhagen Muscle Research Center investigated
the capability of strenuous exercise to induce elevated plasma concentrations
of chemokines. High concentrations of chemokines have been
shown to protect against the progession of HIV disease toward death. The
blood of eight runners in the 1997 Copenhagen Marathon was sampled
before the run, immediately after the run, and every thirty minutes
during a four-hour recovery period. Chemokine concentrations
peaked thirty minutes after the run, increasing 6.7-fold, 3.5-fold,
and 4.1-fold after each successive thirty-minute period. "Further
investigation is certainly necessary," according to Dr. Michael
Scolaro, a Los Angeles-based physician with a large HIV practice, "but
it is important to remember that anyone who is considering competing
in a marathon should have a thorough consultation with his or her
doctor to rule out any cardiac, pulmonary, or skeletal muscle conditions."
After Muñoz received his positive test results
he began taking AZT, switched to ddl, and then in 1994, he decided
to take a holiday from the drugs because he felt uncomfortable with
ddl because it was closely related to AZT. "I had a very
bad reaction to AZT and wanted nothing further to do with it once
my doctor told me to discontinue using it. My doctor also had
to strongly campaign for ddl and after much agonizing I finally opted
to take it from early 1992 until mid-1994. My body reacted
a lot better to ddl than it did to AZT, but I was still leery of
it. More importantly, I was still in what I felt was robust
health. Combined with the excellent results I was enjoying
from my marathon races, I was left feeling that by taking a break
from all antivirals, it would give my body a respite from the side
effects of the ddl." Ric was off meds for two and half
years, but eventually contracted cryptosporidiosis, a severe form
of diarrhea. "Had I still taken that stand of, 'No, I
don't want to take the drugs,' it would have ended very badly. I
was down to fifty-two T cells, and the viral load was at four hundred
thousand." Ric began cocktail therapy and the crypto diminished
in two days.
He continues to take them to this day. "In retrospect,
my doctor agrees with me that when it did come around to my resuming
treatment in February 1997, my body not only responded well, but
the threat of my body not responding well was greatly reduced
due to the fact that it was not harmed by the side effects of the
ddl. Therefore, it made my body—at least to my mind—stronger
and better able to resume the rigors of the antiviral therapy.
drugs are phenomenal in the sense that they not only keep so many
alive," he stops a moment and clarifies, "I didn't really
understand the drug therapy at first, and had no idea that after
I began the cocktails that my T cells would elevate so quickly. They
are nearly 800 now."
He is pleased. By the time the protease inhibitors were
in full force, Ric's doctor had discussed them at length with him
and assured him at that time (the summer of 1997) that they offered
the most optimistic promise. "My doctor frst had me on
the NNRTI regimen for eight or so months and I benefited from that
regimen. My immune system responded in a revitalized way—my
viral load became undetectable. However, by late 1997, my doctor
became concerned by the return of the viral load. One thousand
or so copies showed up in my blood work. That was enough for
him to adjust my existing nevirapine/d4T/ddc regimen so as to incorporate
the saquinavir/ritonavir. I've been on that five-drug regimen
ever since." He briefly fumbles with his pencil. "Interestingly,
none of the side effects from the PIs have alarmed me nearly as much
as the side effects of the AZT and ddl did back in the mid-'90s. They
are quite manageable. I have regulated my increased cholesterol
level by taking megadoses of niacin and have thus avoided having
to take any of the prescription cholesterol drugs such as Lipitor,
etc. I've also avoided, for the most part, the side effect
that causes one's face to become more gaunt-looking. Until
my current regimen begins to not be effective, I assume I'll continue
on it untl the doctor tells me it's time to move on to something
What does Muñoz think about the future of
the meds? "Once people begin to show signs of resistance,
there needs to be an array of replacements. The researchers
keep hunting for alternatives to the protease inhibitors. And
each year choices seem to increase. We need to keep looking
for drugs that are easier on people's systems." For the
record, Ric adheres to conventional antiviral treatment and does
not use any alternative therapies, nor does he take vitamins. He
doesn't feel closed-minded about alternative remedies; it's just
that his existing regimen is working so well that he doesn't feel
the need to incorporate anytihng else, at least for now.
Like many of us, Ric has lost friends to AIDS and,
in 1989, he lost his only relative, his mother, to cancer.
Muñoz deals with their deaths, or any adversity for
that matter, by remaining anchored in reality.
He philosophizes about the inevitable: "I think about
death a lot but not in a fearful way, and I do believe in an afterlife. I
must believe in an afterlife because I often say I believe in one!"
Ric is expressive and uses his hands continuously to illuminate
a point. He is affable, though it takes him a second or two
to get to the matter at hand. Once there, he is forthright
Muñoz's main concern these days is the vulnerability
of the youth populatoin to the threat of HIV.
He maintains that AIDS prevention campaigns should focus on
them. "The message we need to be sending to them is that
if they let their guard down that that is one of the quickest ways
to become infected.
But if you're not even aware of the fact that you have
to have some sort of guard, then we will go back to the way we were. And
that really scares me," he says with his hands cupped between
his knees like a kid. "The young people feel they are
invincible and they won't get HIV. If they get HIV, they will
be in the same boat I'm in right now and all of us who are infected. Their
whole lives will be so compromised that who knows if they'll have
the emotional strength to deal with it," he pleads.
"When I and my contemporaries were faced with HIV we saw
plenty of us who managed to carry on because we had that built-in
maturity. We were people in our thirties and forties. And
we had a fighting attitude.
But to ask a teen or early twenties person to really restructure
their whole lives, that's tough."
Ric edges back into the sofa a bit and continues: "My
advice to them is to not kid themselves into thinking that HIV is
going to pass them by. You will not be spared. It's so
easy to get infected.
They need to know this. He takes a sip of coffee and
briefly gazes out the window onto a typically sunny December day. His
face is flushed with thoughts as he emphasizes, "Taking the
meds is a whole process that requires vigilance, and they do cause
side effects. You're not taking vitamins or an aspirin, so
you can't screw around with the dosages either. It's a whole
What propels Muñoz to stay with the regimen
is the painful memory of his bout with crypto.
"Though my doctor and I have tossed around the idea of
my taking a supervised break from the regimen—due to the fact
that my numbers have come back so impressively during the course
of my four visits to him in 2001 (once every twelve weeks)—we
both have agreed that, for now, it would be best to continue as I
have, primarily because my body has responded so well to the combination."
What would Ric say to someone who has just been
diagnosed with HIV? "I would tell them to just draw on
their experiences, to look at their inner strengths, and to begin
taking the meds as soon as possible.
Even if you are good at dealing with problems on your own I'd
advise to embrace your family if you are close to them. Don't
shut them out. If you keep the secret it will only add more
stress, which your system doesn't need. Get your battle team
in place. Support groups and therapy are fine but you can't
get those everyday. You need to find support. If there
is absence of family, then get your network of friends together. You
will need their comfort," he says. "To go it alone
is just too daunting. I managed to do it but that was by choice. I
didn't get upset when I found out I was HIV-positive. For me
it was a freak thing. I lucked out." Suddenly, as
if passing a co-marathoner, Ric sprints to the topic of money and
conveys alarm over the decrease in fundraising.
"Without the funds, there will be no prevention campaigns
to warn these kids. And if the money is not there the social
service agencies that provide outreach and treatment will just dry
up." Horror veils his face.
Seth enters the room, and heads to the kitchen
to pour some herbal tea. A moment later, Seth returns. I
ask him, "Can you provide some insight into the Roadrunner?" He
ponders for a moment and then the information gushes.
"Well, his world does not only revolve around running,
although he is a sports fanatic. Our second bedroom
is lined from wall to wall with books, and he's read most of them. Ric
is one of the smartest people I know. He's just a 'knowledge
junkie!'" he chuckles. "Ric is always trying to improve
himself and this is what I admire about him the most. Beyond
being 'Mister Smarty Pants' he has an incredible sense of humor and
loves people. He really is a people-person, and I'm just glad
that I was the person he chose to be with!"
Seth departs, and Rick elaborates on thier bond. In
2001, Muñoz ran fewer marathons to take more time to build
his relationship with Seth. This union is merely another challenge–a
very familiar word to Muñoz.
From hardship beginnings to HIV, he has triumphed and is an
inspiration. "Ric has been a great HIV role model,"
says fellow HIV-positive marathoner Steve Dunn. "His candor
has been hugely educational to the public and his spirit has lit
a kindly competitive spirit in his fellow HIV-positive runners." Ric
Muñoz certainly has gone the distance.