This month we were very lucky to interview longtime Hyland’s Ambassador and member of their 2018 Boston Marathon Teacher Team, John Ladesic, who was recently featured in a Runner’s World article on LGBTQ+ runners who turned to the sport for support when they couldn’t find it elsewhere. Ladesic dealt with his share of bullying as a child and in our interview, shares how he got into running, his running career-high moment, and some words of encouragement for those who face struggles similar to those he experienced in his youth.
We always like to kick off our interview with a little astrological fun, so come clean with it and tell us your birth sign?
I am a Leo.
Besides being an incredible runner, tell us what you do as your full-time occupation.
I am an ESOL Teacher at the Elementary level.
How old were you when you first got into running?
I started playing soccer when I was probably 8 years old. At the end of each practice, we would do sprints on the field. I would often beat the coach and actually ask to run more. Sometimes I would even intentionally get into trouble so I would have to run laps around the perimeter of the fields. I learned at this early age that I had a natural talent for running. My parents looked into running clubs and I joined the track team in 3rd grade, starting out as a 400m runner, and instantly found success.
By sixth grade, I was recruited to run with the elite local team coached by a former U.S. Olympic sprinter. This team had several national champions and took my training to another level. Through the guidance of this coaching staff, my performances greatly improved, and by eighth grade, I was the AAU State Champion in the 800m. I traveled the United States running in all of the big AAU and USATF national events and remember running my first 5K with my dad when I was 9 years old. I went out way too fast, but was still one of the first overall runners. Collecting ribbons, medals, and trophies became a hobby and I was hooked on road races.
Can you share a bit about where running has taken you over the years?
I traveled a lot for youth track and cross country, and can remember my parents driving three kids in the back of a station wagon from Maryland to Georgia for me to run a 400m race. Another exciting race that stands out was racing at altitude in Nevada for the Junior Olympic Cross Country meet when I was in middle school. By high school, I was a five-time top six finisher in the MD State Indoor and Outdoor track meets. We often traveled to competitive meets along the East Coast and I even had a brief stint in the NCAA Div. I was running before I focused my attention on student teaching during my Junior year of college. It was a great experience competing against top runners in the United States and getting to travel for meets. Now, as a marathoner, I enjoy making my vacation plans around marathon events and seeing the world by foot.
Road or trail?
I love the road and am someone who likes to run straight out the front door. Usually, I’ll choose my runs/routes to mimic what I’ll be racing on (surface and elevation) and when given the opportunity, I love being able to train on a track.
What’s your proudest moment from your career as a runner?
There are so many to choose from. Recently, during the pandemic, I set out to try and win my last two marathons and I finished a close second each time. For me, it was a moment of pride to reflect on the body of work that it took to get to the winner’s circle during both of those events. I also learned a lot from both of those races and feel that I will be a better runner because of the sting of a close defeat. To get to this level at 39 years old and to still maintain the drive and passion that I have for the sport is something I take great pride in.
Also related to running, I was able to lead a school-wide campaign about anti-bullying in 2018. Using my personal experiences of overcoming bullying through running, I was able to create a program and assembly for my school. It allowed me to work closely with students and staff to have groundbreaking dialogue as a school community. Both students and staff were able to define key components of bullying in a town hall type of forum, and staff members shared personal experiences of being bullied (and its effects) when they were children for our students to relate to. The campaign enabled us to draft a plan for a bully-free school and students pledged to stand up to bullying either as victims or as bystanders.
Many of our students shared heartfelt reflections on their own battles with bullying and trying to fit in with peers. Through this experience, I was able to truly come full circle from being a victim of bullying and discrimination to an advocate.
As someone who struggled for many years to embrace your identity, could you share some encouragement and/or words of wisdom with young people who may be facing these same struggles with LGBTQ+ identity, particularly when it comes to competitive sports?
My advice to others would be to heal yourself by facing your fears head on.
I was bullied and excluded for being gay starting at the age of six. There are a lot of specific instances that I remember, such as not being able to have “my gay hands” sign a teacher’s birthday card, to having to hold my bladder all day because I was harassed in the boys’ bathroom. As early as fifth grade, I remember graphic chants being shouted at me while in school. I didn’t know who I was at this early age, but I knew that what I was perceived to be was something that was not tolerated or welcome in the school environment.
Middle school was more challenging — I remember having to change classes because I was unable to function in the classrooms where I was being targeted. I was simply not available for learning in such a hostile environment. The bullying turned violent in nature and I was afraid to go to school. I had no friends and spent most of the day in isolation trying to block out the hateful comments and insults that were being hurled at me all day long — from the time I got on the bus to go to school until the time I literally ran home off of the bus in the afternoon. I never spoke in school unless I was spoken to by a teacher. I lived with great fear and paranoia as a result of the harassment in school.
Having an apology or even an understanding three decades later has proved to be immensely powerful. It’s never too late to make amends for one’s actions or lack of understanding.
In high school, I continued to experience discrimination but this time it was from my very own teachers in addition to my peers. I was called a ‘social ill’ in front of the classroom by one teacher and was told I could have an “A” if I came out as gay to the class or a “B” if I admitted I was bisexual. I remember feeling so small, as I had no support from so-called “trusted adults” and there were a few instances when I fainted in class because of the abuse.
Being surrounded by the Catholic faith as a child, there were also many instances of exclusion or feeling that religion had the ability to change one’s sexuality. Being different from one’s family in regards to sexuality is very challenging — being “the first” can often present an unknown situation to even one’s closest allies. I felt like for most of my childhood that I was living a lie. I was being bullied for being perceived as gay, but I knew that if I didn’t deny who I was that the abuse and consequences would be far greater. This was a no-win situation as I was getting the brunt of people’s hate and anger either way. I had always felt that I had what I call “the “switch,” where I was able to be my authentic self around a handful of people with whom I felt comfortable, but then had to pretend to be someone else in other social situations. Trying to change yourself to fit the mold of what society wants you to be is exhausting and the repression of my true self did immense damage and is something that has taken over 30 years to undo.
Instead of running away from my negative experience in school, I chose to become an educator. I am one person, but I have the power to change what is in front of me.
It quickly became a satisfying relief to know that no child in front of me would ever be bullied in my classroom. No child’s feelings would ever go unnoticed. No child would be left without a voice. Knowing that no one has to suffer like I did in a classroom at the hands of bullying and intolerance brings me joy.
I would also say that letting a negative experience fuel your drive in a positive outlet has been key to my coping. In some ways, these negative experiences made me more determined than I otherwise would have been. I always wanted to prove society wrong about myself and the LGTBQ+ community. As a kid, I literally ran away from my bullies — I pretended bullies were trees and lampposts and that I had to run faster to get away from them. The anger and sorrow that I felt each day were what encouraged me to succeed on the track. And being successful in running allowed my tormentors to see how wrong their preconceived notions of me and those like me were. Some of them have even reached out as adults to apologize and these successes have provided opportunities for productive dialogue. Having an apology or even an understanding three decades later has proved to be immensely powerful. It’s never too late to make amends for one’s actions or lack of understanding.
You run on an ambassador team for one of our clients, Hyland’s Powered – can you tell us about the experience of being on the Boston 2018 Teachers Team?
Summer 2017 was a particularly low point in my life due to some anti-gay experiences that triggered unresolved trauma. As with other low points, I turned to running to help me cope. I signed up for a local marathon and ended up coming in third overall. This gave me a newfound sense of confidence and led me to apply for the Hyland’s Boston 2018 Teachers Team. This experience was a major turning point in my life. I had always been an introvert and was forced to conceal various aspects of my life. Being on the Hyland’s team and working with the PR crew gave me a new outlook on my story and the need for it to be told. Ironically, the very aspects of me that I was trying to keep a secret were embraced by the public and were the very same things that set me free.
This was the first time I had truly connected with peers. I met new friends with common interests in teaching and running and was able to tell my story while hearing others’ stories of overcoming adversities through running. The program created lasting friendships and bonds that continue to this day. The camaraderie of our team is unparalleled.
Ironically, the very aspects of me that I was trying to keep a secret were embraced by the public and were the very same things that set me free.
The Hyland’s experience was amazing. It allowed VIP and behind-the-scenes access to the Boston Marathon. The experience was one-of-a-kind and something that I would cherish forever. It provided us with a platform to share our stories with the worldwide running community, and my hope is that my story inspired someone like me. Through this experience, I also learned about various after-school running programs through the other teachers. One of these programs, Let Me Run –- which was designed to help boys discuss social and emotional issues, build healthy relationships, and work as a team toward a 5k — really stuck with me and I was able to bring a chapter to my local school.
Walking away from the Boston 2018 experience, I felt that I could finally exhale. I was holding my breath for so many years out of fear. The ability to finally move forward and step out from the hand that I was dealt was surreal at an older age. I left with friends, newfound confidence, and felt the sky was the limit for what I wanted to do in running and LGTBQ+ advocacy.
What’s your next big goal for running?
I will be turning 40 in a few months, so I am excited to finally be a part of the Master’s running circuit. A sub-2:40 marathon at age 40 is my primary goal. Right now, I’m having a lot of fun racing 5Ks every weekend during my downtime between marathons. And, I’m challenging myself to try to keep my winning streak alive in local races. I’m hoping that by working on my speed that it will carry over into longer distances — in about a month, I’ll be gearing up for Boston and NYC.
On a different note, let’s say it’s a sunny, 75-degree day in the Maryland/DC area, where would we find you?
If I’m not running, I would probably be doing yardwork.
What song/artist is on replay for you right now?
I’m totally hooked on the new Taylor Swift albums. I tend to get lost in lyrics — overanalyzing them and trying to connect them to my own journey.
If we were coming to visit you, what restaurant would you take us to in the Maryland/DC area to get a taste of that area?
I just moved, so I am still trying out a lot of local places. One that I’m really enjoying here in Olney is Sisters Sandwiches & Such. They have amazingly fresh, homemade food and are housed in a historical building built in the 1820s.
Are you into podcasts? If so, what podcast should we check out that you’ve been into recently?
I just moved into a new home that was built in 1969. I stumbled across a lot of artifacts belonging to the original owner. In doing some research, I found that the family created a series of podcasts honoring their mother who has Alzheimer’s so, I have been learning about the history of my home through the series as memories from the children/family are shared. It’s been entertaining because I can picture how things were over 50 years ago.
Rest days don’t get the credit they should, what does a good rest day look like for you?
I only run six days a week. Some of those days may consist of double runs, and I will visit the gym for strength training three days a week as well. On my rest day from running, I am definitely strength training. I also tend to get caught up on errands or schoolwork since the other six days are so busy. A good Normatec session is usually on tap as well. My rest day is always between my two hard sessions and my body usually senses it needs a break.
If you could meet anyone from the past, present, or future, who would it be and why?
I would love to meet Sally Ride. She is my school’s namesake and many do not know this, but Sally came out in her obituary. I would enjoy finding out the struggles associated with her identity and I’m also interested in hearing about her adventures in space.
What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I have a tattoo. It is a kanji meaning “compassion.” I wanted to always remember my past and to show empathy for others. We never know what battles others may be facing. Some are hoping someone will allow a safe space to talk. I was branded and labeled so much as a child that I wanted to brand myself with a word that represents me.
Anything else you’d like to share that we didn’t ask today?
Thank you for the opportunity to share my story. I’m constantly inspired by others who have overcome obstacles and have beaten the odds. I hope to provide that same inspiration to others. I encourage everyone to show kindness and reach out to others who may not fit in. Sometimes one simple act of inclusivity can change someone’s life.
You can follow along with John’s training on Instagram: @jlad1981
As a PR and digital marketing agency in Asheville, NC, Darby Communications has had the pleasure of building and working with the Hyland’s Boston team for many years. Our team participates in the team selection, in-booth activations at the Boston Marathon expo, and maximizing the experience for the athletes. You can learn more about our Event Marketing services HERE and our Athlete and Ambassador Management services HERE.