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West Florida distance runner’s path to college and beyond addiction was inspired by the birth of her son

Renee Cox has turned her life around, enrolling at West Florida and becoming a top runner. Cox, her son, Michael, and his adoptive family reunite for a yearly road race, which she won twice. Submitted by Renee Cox.

The first glimmer of hope emerged on a 400-meter track in the dead of night.

Renee Cox had just finished her shift at the bar where she worked, slipped into the closest thing she had to proper running shoes, and left behind her co-workers who would continue to party for hours. She was no runner — not yet, at least — but she needed a distraction. She was desperate for anything that could quiet the incessant voice coaxing her to reach for yet another drink.

She broke into a run, with no sense of how fast she was going or how long she’d last — on that night or any other. This new route around her addiction was uncharted. The road ahead would involve rehab and relapses but also college, competition and accomplishment.

But in that moment, the Florida breeze kissed her skin. The patter of her feet formed a soothing rhythm. The thumping of her heart grew faster. For Cox, the blend of sensations was intoxicating. There on the track, she felt alive.

***

Growing up, Cox’s sole foray into sports occurred when she was 14. She joined a track team, ran in one meet and quit after two weeks.

The drinking started a few years later. After high school, Cox enrolled in Tallahassee Community College, but at the age of 20, as alcoholism began to take its hold, she dropped out and turned to bartending. She snuck liquor into her drinks on the job and woke in the mornings with withdrawal symptoms. She popped Adderall and experimented with other substances. Instead of working through her insecurities and social anxiety, she tried drowning them. 

In a moment of clarity, Cox grew scared at the life she was living. The 21-year-old checked herself into a detox program and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Her late-night runs at the nearby Florida State track began soon after that.

Cox didn’t know she was fast. She ran without a watch and without a real training plan. It wasn’t until around a year later, at the Tallahassee Half Marathon, that Cox’s talent appeared in full light. In her first race, Cox placed ninth among women and second in her age group with a time of 1:38:35. “My whole world just lit up,” she recalls.  

But the high proved temporary. Convinced that the race was a fluke, that she could never repeat that success, Cox fell into a downward spiral and returned to drinking heavily. Then, after one night of drinking, Cox discovered she was pregnant. Child-rearing seemed impossible with the turmoil around her. She struggled to get her own life on track; how could she care for another’s? 

A couple of days before she was scheduled to have an abortion, Cox visited a pregnancy clinic on a whim. She received an ultrasound and saw her baby’s heartbeat. The image of the tiny life beating inside her tugged at Cox’s heart — and her mind. She canceled the abortion, rescheduled it, then canceled it again.

Instead, Cox met with an adoption counselor. She learned about the open adoption process and looked through photo albums of smiling families who longed to bring home a child of their own. One family, in particular, stood out to Cox. That was when she knew: She would give birth to her baby, and she would give him a safe and stable home with Jennifer and Tim Mastromonico.

The couple had been trying for a second child for years when Jennifer was diagnosed with secondary infertility. The prospect of adoption gave them new hope. Upon meeting Cox in March 2012, two months before the baby was due, the three adults immediately clicked. “I was just amazed by her openness and graciousness and her beautiful spirit from the first time we met her,” Jennifer says. It would be the beginning of a relationship none of the three could have predicted.

Cox gave birth two days after Mother’s Day. She spent three days in the hospital with her baby boy before the time came to deliver the ultimate gift. When Jennifer and Tim entered the room, Cox gently handed the newborn to Jennifer. “Happy Mother’s Day,” she told her.

***

The baby gave Cox new life. She couldn’t bear to return to her old lifestyle of binge drinking and blurry nights. “Something just changed in me,” she says.

Cox remained sober for a year and a half before a devastating relapse after a breakup one night in 2013. The next week, she ran a race in Tallahassee and finished second in her age group. She cried in happiness and relief. She had never tasted success at anything. Alcohol commanded the only identity she knew. Yet here was something she was good at, something that made her feel good in return. I don’t want to go back to drinking, she thought.

Cox entered races nearly every weekend for a year, replacing hangovers on Saturday mornings with endorphin-laden runner’s highs. She formed new friends in the running community — people who had demons of their own but helped each other cope in healthier ways. One relationship in particular would evolve into something greater: a second chance.

Cox met Caleb Carmichael, the cross country coach at West Florida, at a 5K race they both won. Cox, still a novice runner, approached Carmichael with a question about running shoes: Should she wear her bulkier but worn-in trainers for the race or her new racing flats? Carmichael commonly doled out advice to fellow runners, and the two stayed in touch. Eventually, another question from Cox sparked an idea: “Does UWF have a nursing program?”

Cox had been considering leaving Tallahassee, starting fresh somewhere. She still was bartending but carried a new dream of becoming a nurse and eventually helping others with substance abuse issues. 

Cox also held onto a deep regret for not pursuing sports earlier. With her newfound running talent, she couldn’t help but wonder what could have been. But she always assumed it was a missed opportunity — until Carmichael asked about her athletic eligibility.

West Florida had a school of nursing, the coach explained. And, perhaps, Cox could not only come earn her degree in Pensacola, but she may also be able to run for the Argonauts at the same time.

“I thought, ‘Wait, what? Aren’t I way too old for that?’” Cox recalls. She was 27 at the time. “It was almost surreal that he was telling me that.”

The night she found out she was eligible, Cox searched YouTube for videos of the cross country team and watched through tears as the girls ran on the beach, barefoot, their blue uniforms complementing the sheen of the rolling waves. “It was like my long-lost dream was actually coming true,” she says.

Three years later, Cox is heading into her final cross country season as the top runner for the Argonauts, with a bachelor’s degree in nursing completed and a master’s well underway. Last fall, she capped her junior season with academic and athletic distinctions, earning U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Division II All-Academic and All-South Region honors. She has her sights set on the school record.

“I think everything she’s overcome has made her into a better runner,” Carmichael says. “Yeah, she’s talented, no doubt about it. She’s also working hard. And that’s the next step if you’re good to become great.

“I think she cherishes this moment a lot more.”

But before she slips back into that West Florida uniform for one more college season, Cox had another important race to tend to this spring. Every year for a Memorial Day road race, she teams up with a special group of runners: her son and his adoptive family.

Since Michael’s birth, the Mastromonicos have maintained regular contact with Cox, sending texts and photos of the growing boy and inviting Cox to get together with them over the holidays. Michael, now 6, understands that “Nay Nay,” as he calls her, is his “birth mommy.” Tim and Jennifer explain that they were picked to be his parents, and they couldn’t be more grateful. 

Jennifer says the relationship with Cox naturally progressed from the moment they met her. “A child can never have too many people who love him,” Jennifer says. “And she loves him with all her heart.” Running, as it turned out, was another love they shared, making the Memorial Day race the perfect setting for a reunion. This year’s race was canceled due to weather, but that didn’t stop Cox and Michael from running on.

The two still laced up their shoes and toed an imaginary line outside Cox’s house. Side by side, they set off in their own “race.” And for this one, Cox was happy to finish second.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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