It’s impossible to talk about Tracey Martinez without a lot of references to her best friend, Mike Haberkorn.
Imagine Chip without Dale, Bert sans Ernie, or Rocky minus Bullwinkle.
One just isn’t really complete without the other.
Which is why when Tracey decided she wanted to walk a half marathon, Mikey didn’t hesitate to sign up too.
It didn’t matter to him that he was nearly 400 pounds and was contemplating lap band surgery. He was unflappable in his support of Tracey, and the doubters, well, they just motivated him.
But to understand how these two could find themselves in marathons and last weekend’s Ragnar Relay in Las Vegas, we have to start at the beginning – when Minnie met Mickey.
Theirs is a love story, just not the mushy-gushy kind. Whether it’s navigating life’s tough times or a ragnarly hill, they do it – together.
The two met June 4, 1994. It was friendship at first sight. She was already married, he was not. He would see her through a divorce, and she was his right-hand-woman as he found love, married and had a daughter.
Some of their bond comes from working in law enforcement. They, and most of the members of their Ragnar teams, always named S.W.A.T.T. (Sprinters, Walkers and Trash Talkers) work with them in the Santa Barbara Jail.
“We’re locked inside four walls with 1000 inmates for 24 hours at a time,” said Mikey. “We get, as a group, to feel like family.”
They joke about spending more holidays together than they do with their respective families.
“We’re a giant family,” said Tracy. “We all love each other; we all hate each other…When it comes down to it, you’re going to stick together.”
Working inside a jail has some drawbacks – that is, besides working with society’s castoffs.
“We’re a lot more, round,” said Tracy with a laugh.
Big is a benefit when it comes to dealing with people who challenge authority on a daily basis. And while Mike has always been overweight, he made his way to severely obese without a lot of effort.
“I’ve fought with (weight) my whole life,” said Mikey, who had knee surgery in junior high and was told by doctors to avoid sports. So he avoided any activity at all. Unfortunately his personal physician helped lull him into a false sense of security.
“My doctor said ‘You’re the healthiest fat man I’ve ever known,'” Haberkorn said. But even with normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels, his family – and best friend – were pressuring him rein in his ever-expanding waistline.
He went to the Gastric bypass orientation meeting in 2005 and “chickened out.”
He went back in 2008 and decided to opt for lap band surgery. The obesity doctor spoke bluntly, and Mikey got the message. He’d developed Diabetes, but not the symptoms. He was also told he had severe obstructive sleep apnea. He was getting about 30 seconds of sleep at a time before he awoke gasping for air.
Doctors told him to even be eligible for the surgery he had to lose 10 percent of his body weight.
He attempted to change his diet, but he didn’t consider exercise until his weight loss stalled. In May, Tracey told him she was going to walk the Disneyland Half Marathon in August. He decided he wanted to do it with her.
He began by walking to and from the post office near his house – one mile round trip. It took him 22 minutes.
“I kept stretching distances and increasing the speed,” he said.
His wife, Katy, and daughter, Harley, watched as he finished his first 5K in June.
“I was the absolute last person to finish (more than 50 minutes),” Haberkorn said. “I was ecstatic. I was amazed. I already knew I wasn’t a runner and I wasn’t going to be. But it felt great to be out there with them.”
Tracey began walking for her mother. She lost Barbara in 1992 to Breast Cancer and participated in what were then called the Avon 3-day awareness walks.
“I’ve never really been athletically inclined,” she said. “I was chubby.”
So the two of them walked in that first half marathon. Tracey stood at the finish line with a t-shirt she’d had made for her best friend.
“It said, ‘There will be days I don’t know if I can finish a half marathon. There will be a lifetime knowing that I have.”
Mikey was so dehydrated, he couldn’t read the words.
As the two recovered in a medical tent, they planned their next races. After two more half marathons, he signed up for a full marathon – Disney World, of course. They took him off the course at mile 24 because he wouldn’t make the cutoff time.
“I was devastated,” he said after finishing his fifth Ragnar Relay Saturday night in 37 hours. “I was also physically done.”
Tracey, meanwhile, was sidelined with a blood clot. So while Mikey walked, she searched for other races they could do together. That’s when she found the Ragnar Relay series -which was rolling out a race in Southern California.
“It sounded right up our alley,” said Mikey. “I said let’s do it. We had the time of our lives. It was an absolute blast.”
Once again, they found themselves near the back of the pack. In fact, they feared they would be asked to drive to the finish line when a Ragnar crew member began dismantling the course while they were still on the road.
“It was a guy named Adam,” said Mikey. “He said do your pace. I will pick it up behind you. I will not close it down. You need to finish this.”
After feeling the humiliation and disappointment of being removed from the course, Mikey was moved that race organizers cared as much about S.W.A.T.T.’s goal of finishing as they did about the elite runners who could navigate the 200-mile courses in a little over 23 hours.
“The mentality was just different,” he said.
At the marathons they enjoyed the energy and camaraderie that accompanies those events, but they did so with the knowledge that many people thought they didn’t belong there.
“We don’t fit into this group,” said Tracey of endurance runners, “but we still feel welcome in Rangars.”
That’s because competition for Tracey and Mikey is more about never quitting than it is about beating other people. They said repeatedly this weekend that the last place medal looked just as beautiful as the first place medals.
“We might be last but at least we’re not sitting at home on the couch,” said Tracey, who will undergo a complicated brain surgery next month. She should have had the operation earlier, but she refused to miss out on the Las Vegas Ragnar.
Mikey said the last six months has tested his resolve. His mother became extremely ill and had to move in with he and his wife. His wife, who also works in the jail, was taken hostage by an inmate, assaulted and is still suffering from the psychological effects of the attack. And then Tracey found out her brain was slipping in a way that affected her ability to basic things like walk or talk.
He’s gained back 20 of the 180 pounds he lost.
“The three women who were most important to me…It’s like the man upstairs decided to (and then he makes a motion like someone is pulling a rug out from under him)…But food is obviously my drug. I need to make long-term changes. I need to find a better way to deal with stress because it’s always going to be there.”
During Tracey’s second leg, he waited on the side of the road to give her water. He was concerned that she might push herself too hard. Worried that she might not “take it easy” as she’d promised her doctors.
She walked right past him and said she was fine. She looked like she could walk all the way to Disneyland.
A smile spread across his face.
“Not bad for a woman who needed a walker a few months ago.”
Mikey and Tracey after both finish their first legs of the Las Vegas Ragnar Relay