When South Jersey Magazine named Miriam Díaz-Gilbert a 2020 Super Woman, she was honored and thrilled. The dedicated ultrarunner, author, and fundraiser for cancer caregivers knows what it means to go the extra mile for a great cause.
But when Díaz-Gilbert RC’81, GSE’84 enters an “ultra,” as extended marathons are often called, her mind isn’t on accolades. It isn’t even on the finish line, necessarily. It’s on the courageous act of running itself.
“In an ultra, I’m not competing with anyone,” says Díaz-Gilbert, a resident of Voorhees, New Jersey. “I’m competing with myself, finding out what I’m capable of.”
Ultramarathons are brutal footraces that test the limits of what a body can endure. Often set in rough terrain, sometimes covering 100 miles or more, they can last a few hours or stretch harrowingly across multiple days and nights.
Some might ask, why put yourself through that? “You learn something new every time,” says Díaz-Gilbert. “And when it’s done, I’m on a natural high for two weeks.”
Born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut, Díaz-Gilbert grew up playing sports but wanted to focus on academics at Rutgers. She began running to channel her emotions after a difficult breakup. When she met Jon Gilbert RC’82 during an urban history course, she found a running partner—and a life partner. They married in 1985.
Díaz-Gilbert signed up for her first ultra in 2005: the JFK 50 Mile, originating in Boonsboro, Maryland. By that time, she was a veteran of 9 marathons and numerous half-marathons and 5Ks. Even so, some questioned her ability to complete a prolonged race over rocky portions of the Appalachian Trail. She put those doubts to rest, finishing in 12 hours and 24 minutes, well under the 14-hour limit.
Díaz-Gilbert started piling up ultrarunning triumphs one after another. She shaved more than an hour off her JFK 50 finish time in the Old Dominion 50, despite pitiless heat and humidity outside Woodstock, Virginia. In 2011, she doubled her ambition with the Philadelphia 100 Miler, placing second female at just over 28:33. Later that year she ran the 100-mile Beast of Burden in upstate New York, beating her Philadelphia time by 80 minutes.
Díaz-Gilbert was on fire—but in 2012, she hit a roadblock. Three days after placing third female in Around-the-Lake, a 24-hour endurance race circling Lake Quannapowitt in Massachusetts, she underwent a scheduled hysterectomy. Surgical errors during the procedure led to severe trauma. For seven weeks a urine bag was strapped to her leg, and she was on medical leave for six months. Running fell by the wayside.
Determined to race again, Díaz-Gilbert began going for walks. Then mini runs. By early 2013, despite a new diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, she was training again, and that summer she came full circle, placing sixth female in Around-the-Lake.
She would soon draw an even stronger connection between running and healing. In 2018, Jon was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastasized rectal cancer. He underwent aggressive chemo and radiation treatment and doctors removed a tumor from his right lung. Díaz-Gilbert began attending to him fulltime, joining a caregiving community that much of the world underappreciates or ignores.
“No one asks the caregiver, ‘How are you doing?’” says Díaz-Gilbert. “But there are a lot who are overwhelmed. Cancer caregivers are very good at keeping it together while falling apart.”
Deeply aware of the pressures placed on caregivers, especially friends and family members of cancer patients, Díaz-Gilbert decided to support them with her most precious resource—her running. She created Ultra Care for Cancer Caregivers, a GoFundMe that has enabled her to raise thousands of dollars for the cause, one high-powered mile at a time.
“I want to give joy and respite to the caregivers—to let them know they’re not forgotten,” says Díaz-Gilbert. So far, her fundraising project has helped nine recipients find ways to recharge their batteries, treating them to a weekend at the shore or some other form of relaxation. Díaz-Gilbert hopes to build a nonprofit that will benefit caregivers on a large scale.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of public races, Díaz-Gilbert did what any determined athlete does: she adapted. Now she chases down finish lines virtually, completing the Tip-to-Tip Great Florida Traverse in November of 2020 and, more recently, the Across-the-Globe 10-day virtual ultra.
The best victory yet: in May of 2020, Jon was officially declared in remission. A thankful Díaz-Gilbert points to her two children, two grandchildren, and her Christian faith as sources of inspiration throughout her and Jon’s shared journey.
Uniting them all is the beauty of running—a living metaphor. “I just put one foot in front of the other,” says Díaz-Gilbert, “and enjoy the ride.”