The Inquirer is presenting one profile a day of participants in Sunday's Blue Cross Broad Street Run. See full coverage at www.philly.com/broadstreetrun.

By Michael Vitez

INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Sarah Matthews and Layla Gray went to grade school together in Ambler and were both overweight children. They lost contact after they switched schools.

Sarah in her 20s reached 290 pounds. Walking up stairs would ruin her. Six years ago, she committed an act of rebellion. She took a walk. That led a year later to a jog, then a 5K. "That was monumental to me," Sarah said. And as years went by, weight came off — 130 pounds.

Layla hit 340. Her mother talked to her about getting bariatric surgery, but she fought the idea. She was active. She was fine. Until two years ago, when she got cellulitis in her leg. And the infection took forever to heal because she was obese.

So she had surgery. Lost 130 pounds.

About two years ago, they ran into each other in the lobby of Independence Blue Cross, where both women, now 34, happen to work.

"The funny thing is, before I even saw her in the lobby, I always wondered about her through the years," Layla said. "I specifically remember her curly brown hair, warm smile, and the peach-and-brown Catholic school uniform we wore as we stood by the wall during recess. It's funny the things one remembers, but I knew we were kindred spirits."

They started doing things together — working out, corporate volunteering.

"Sarah is a rare gem in my world," Layla said. "She truly understands the metamorphosis physically, mentally and emotionally of what it is like to lose 130 pounds regardless of how it came off. She understands the fears and hopes and struggles that I face each day. We talk a lot about what 'old' Layla or 'old' Sarah would do. We talk about the fight we have to keep off all of this weight."

Sarah also appreciates having somebody who understands her, who supports her.

"People think you have surgery or lose weight and then suddenly you have a new, wonderful life," Sarah said. "We both realize that while our outsides look different, we're the same people on the inside. We have to be conscious of habits and behaviors that led us to become obese in the first place. Hence — lots and lots of running!"

Each has run the Broad Street Run before — a triumphant act for both — but this year they plan to run together, to support each other.

Sarah has run many races and discovered that she loves running, both for the fitness and for the serenity, the peace. She especially loves running Broad Street, past all the cheering people, through the heart of the city.

She's no longer worried about finishing. She's worried about starting. Many subways run nonstop ferrying riders from the stadium complex up to the start in North Philadelphia, but she tries to catch one at City Hall.

"Getting on a subway up Broad Street in time for the race," she said. "That's the toughest part."

Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @michael vitez.