The new year is often the time to make resolutions and work toward self-improvement. That’s a familiar journey for Kristina Nungaray, who has been honing her athletic abilities for years. As a demonstration of that, she’ll kick off 2022 by taking part in the 50th annual Chevron Houston Marathon this month.
Nungaray grew up with fitness as a part of her lifestyle, but she admittedly faced challenges keeping that dedication as she matured.
“I swam and played water polo from a pretty young age. Then in college, I rode the struggle bus of working many jobs and trying to survive. Any aspect of fitness or team sports fell by the wayside,” she says.
After growing up in the Houston area and graduating from Sam Houston State University, Nungaray started eying other places to live. She moved to New York City in 2014, which inspired her to come out as lesbian and start finding the people who supported her lifestyle—both in terms of sexuality and fitness. That was the start of a rebirth in her adult life.
“My journeys with fitness and building communities specifically from an LGBTQ perspective go hand in hand,” she emphasizes. “The bar scene wasn’t necessarily for me. There were different avenues where I would try to meet friends, and I was striking out left and right. I was homesick for Southern hospitality. I considered moving back home a couple of times. And then I started looking at LGBTQ-inclusive sports teams.”
That’s where she found her groove.
“Somebody suggested that I go back to my roots, which was swimming and water polo. That’s when I found Team New York Aquatics, a large LGBT master swim team,” she says.
Nungaray hadn’t been involved in competitive activity for a while, but the team’s synchronized-swimming program ultimately proved too attractive to pass up. Before long, she had dipped her toe in the proverbial waters and started making her own waves.
“I met the best humans on the planet. That idea of community and chosen family hit fast and hard. I’m really grateful to be on a team of people with whom I’m freakishly close,” she says. “Whenever you have a good group of people, that makes it easy to succeed. It also makes it easier for you to try new things without fear of failure because they’re there to catch you, no matter what.”
Because of that support, she decided to look for other physical challenges where she could push her limits. Running seemed like the next logical place to turn her attention.
“I did a couple of races and realized that I enjoyed it. But it was hard, and I had a lot of fabulous missteps. I never ran with a running belt, and I would shove my phone in my bra. One time during a race, my boobs dialed 911,” she laughs.
Nungaray’s newfound stamina—as well as for her newfound family—inspired her to enter her first marathon. Due to COVID-19, the traditional TCS New York City Marathon was canceled, but contestants still ran a few makeshift routes.
“About a week after I signed up for the marathon, I received a text message from my brother late at night. Our father had been taken from his house via ambulance because he was positive for COVID-19. It was an emotional several weeks,” she says.
COVID-19 robbed her of far more than the full TCS New York City Marathon experience. Her father did not survive his COVID-19 illness, and after his passing she dedicated the makeshift marathon run to his memory.
“Fitness is so much more than a physical journey. The athletes I work with always talk about how fitness brings mental toughness. I was able to find mental peace and sanity while my father was sick in the hospital,” she adds.
That mental fortitude is what has sustained her in her athletic pursuits as well as in coming to terms with her sexuality. “I’ve always shoehorned myself into spaces where I didn’t think I belonged or fit in,” she explains. “Being a member of the LGBTQ community juxtaposes with sports, in the sense that I am a runner with a larger body. I’ve always tried to compete, even though I [didn’t always get the message] that I belonged. Sometimes people speak to you a little bit differently when you have a larger body.”
Still, Nungaray has persisted over the years, and she now has a race scheduled every month during 2022.
Always ready to add another conquest to her growing list, Nungaray’s return to Houston for her second marathon is fitting. She’s even been training her roommate, Jules Bursee, who will compete in the half marathon on the same day. The two have big ideas about how they’re going to inspire others.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the highly competitive Chevron Houston Marathon doubles as a philanthropic endeavor. Nungaray and Bursee are using this opportunity to raise money for the Montrose Center.
“I want to use movement as a vehicle to build community and to give a voice to marginalized populations,” Nungaray says. “Everything is community-based, in my mind. I am so pumped to return to Houston and raise funds for the Montrose Center. I have friends who have utilized their services and are now living great lives because of assistance they received from the Center.”
While it feels nice to give back, it will feel even better to cross the finish line on January 15. As someone who discovered how to thrive with a chosen family in LGBTQ-inclusive sports teams, Nungaray is already a champion at using athletics as a springboard for community-building.
This article appears in the January 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.