Racing to Remember: Native Houstonian Honors Classmates through Running
Almost exactly three years ago, native Houstonian Kristen Santiago was on a college mission trip to Honduras, when she witnessed the horrific and tragic loss of three fellow Columbia University classmates. Kristen, then 20 years old and a sophomore at Columbia, was on a bus to Tegucigalpa airport along with 27 other students, preparing to return home after having spent winter break helping provide medical care to Honduran communities in need. All of a sudden, the bus stalled on a steep hill and went rolling down the incline. As the bus plunged towards a ravine, Kristen was ejected from a shattered window and landed in a grassy area near the top of the slope. She remembers scanning her surroundings: on her right, she saw a girl bleeding heavily and shrieking in pain, behind her she saw two of her male friends pulling an unrecognizable female body out of the toppled bus.
“They started doing CPR, and then one of the doctors came over to them and looked to see if she still had a heartbeat,” Kristen recalled. “The doctor told them to stop and put a sweatshirt over the girl’s face, and that was the moment where everything sunk in, and I understood how grave the situation was.”
Kristen considers herself lucky to have come out of the accident without major injuries—she was hospitalized in Honduras after suffering deep cuts on her torso and elbow, but was otherwise okay physically. But she came home to Houston with three fewer classmates.
The morning of the accident, Kristen was having breakfast with one of the victims, Abigail Flanagan — a nurse practitioner at Columbia University Medical Center who had been taking classes at Columbia’s School of General Studies and whose son Patrick was also on the trip and in Kristen’s class.
The topic of conversation at breakfast that morning was running, Kristen said, something that Abigail loved. After learning that Kristen had run half-marathons in New York, Abigail told her “you have to run the New York marathon.”
“She said it was her favorite race,” Kristen said. “[Abigail] grew up running and told me that she always squeezed in at least 20 minutes of running every day.”
Although Kristen had never run a marathon before, she too was a runner. She had run track and cross country in high school at St. John’s School, and she had started running half marathons in New York after becoming friends with a marathon runner on her floor during her freshman year of college.
When Kristen returned to Columbia’s campus only days after the accident, she decided to enter the lottery for the New York marathon, the largest marathon in the world and one of the most difficult to enter. Thousands of people apply for the lottery each year, and, for the past several years, less than a quarter of the applicants were selected.
While sitting in the Columbia library one day in February, Kristen received an email notifying her that she was among the 17 percent of lottery entrants who earned a spot in the race.
“I was so nervous,” Kristen said. “I wanted to back out, but I just said okay, I guess this is it.”
Over the next several months, Kristen managed an intense training regimen between her busy class schedule and ultimately completed the race in honor of Abigail Flanagan.
“Training gave me a way to honor her, and the time that was required to do my long runs every week also gave me time to decompress and work through everything that had happened,” Kristen said. “It was therapeutic but also something I really enjoyed.”
Now, after recovering from two marathon-induced stress fractures in both tibias, Kristen, 22, continues running and remembering the classmates she lost. In November 2018, Kristen ran the New York marathon for a second time. At that time, Kristen, an aspiring doctor, had recently graduated from Columbia and was working in New York City conducting research in the physiatry department at the Hospital for Special Surgery. Kristen decided to run that race for the Daniella Moffson Foundation, an organization established to honor the values of Daniella Moffson, one of the three who tragically died in the Jan. 13, 2016 bus accident.
Kristen said she struggled to complete the race and that she, at several points during the marathon, considered slowing down or giving up. Towards the end of the race, Kristen says she received a text message from her older sister, Gabrielle: “I know you must be beat right now,” it read, “but keep going for Daniella.”
“That gave me more energy and motivated me to keep going,” Kristen said.
Even though she struggled to complete the race, Kristen managed to perform among the top in her age group. Kristen’s time in the 2018 marathon, under three and a half hours (i.e. eight-minute miles), qualifies her to run four of the six major marathons in the world: Chicago, Tokyo, Boston and London. She plans to run the Chicago marathon this October and then run both Boston and Tokyo in 2020.
Before gearing up to run these races, though, Kristen will be flying home to Houston this Friday to run the Chevron Houston marathon for the first time. Because she is not trying to beat her personal record in this race, Kristen is most looking forward to enjoying the opportunity to run in her hometown.
“One of the things I really appreciate about running is that you get to see the city in a different way,” Kristen said. “I’m excited to experience Houston from this new perspective.”
Attendees can cheer on Kristen and thousands of other runners this Sunday at one of the 14 viewing locations around Houston.
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