Running Man

From Mexico to America, Rolando Cruz found passion and purpose in a pair of running shoes.

Morning dew coats the trails of the Kettle Moraine Forest as the challenge to push my body, mind, and spirit to the breaking point and beyond begins. It’s six in the morning and 218 runners toe the starting line, not knowing what to expect or how the next 36 hours will test their mental and physical endurance. One hundred miles of nonstop trail running, by most standards, usually causes one to question one’s sanity.

I would beg to differ.

In the next 25 hours of my journey I will see the sun rise and set and rise again. I will push the boundaries of what is humanly possible and bare my soul and emotions to the wind. I will hold on to my adventurous spirit and remind myself to stay humble and reach deep within.

I will start from the beginning: As a child, I relied on my imagination and dreams to take me to the edge of the world and venture into the unexplored. I grew up in a remote mountainous village on the Pacific Southwest coast of Mexico. Enormous pine-covered mountains surrounded me, but once I was able to run, they were unable to cage my immense desire to discover the worlds that lay beyond.

My relationship with nature began when I was very young. Growing up in a traditional Roman Catholic home, church on Sunday was, for many, a way to cleanse their souls of whatever sins they might have committed throughout the week. For me it wasn’t. I was there to try to link the god I saw manifested along my runs in the water and leaves, clouds and wind, to the god I had come to know from Bible studies. My mother used to take me with her on her long evening walks along the flower-painted prairies and through the picturesque cobblestone streets of our town as she reminisced about the events of the day as if they were legends from the past.

These walks eventually turned into runs as I got older. I remember, at age six, “running” errands for my mother and finding motivation in reducing the time necessary to complete these tasks, much to the approval and surprise of my mother. Her smile became the fuel needed for my determination and her happiness my love for the sport. As the years passed, my parents became my biggest fans. In time, my skills improved, and I won state three years in a row for the 100-meter dash and finished my Telesecundaria (high school) career undefeated.

At the age of 16, I came to this country for educational opportunities, only to find myself once again faced with what would become my greatest challenge; not mountains this time, but something greater: coming to terms with my sexuality. In addition, I was challenged by my limited ability to communicate in English and the daunting test of integrating into a new culture. Without the support and guidance of my biggest fans and heroes, my parents, I felt lost and on my own. It was then that I knew, though it seemed like I had nothing, I had everything: my feet, my health, and a head full of dreams. I had to foster my passion for running even more. The simple act of movement linked me to home. It gave me roots and purpose in a foreign environment, and provided—without judgment—a much-needed release.

I decided to go out for track with the hope that somewhere on that rubber surface I would find my place not only as a runner, but also as a member of a team and ultimately of society. My participation in track and cross-country earned me many awards, including Most Valuable Player, overall first and second finishes, a varsity letter, and eventually a scholarship. All this landed me in the pages of the local newspaper, which provided me with much-needed social interaction with my peers. This allowed me to break through my personal obstacles and eventually helped me achieve my dreams of graduating and getting my high school diploma.

After my graduation, I found myself at a crossroads. In August of 1999, I made the decision to move to Madison. I didn’t know anyone here, but I knew the move couldn’t be harder than the one I had made when I had first come to this country. At least by then I knew my way around the language and had learned the rules of my place within American society. And so, my new chapter in life began in a new city and without a place to live. But that didn’t matter. I had myself and a new pair of running shoes, what else could I possibly need?

The first week in Madison wasn’t easy. The feeling of isolation came knocking on a door I did not have; I was homeless. Luckily I had a job, working the morning shift at Highland Transitional Care. My afternoons were spent running through the city, looking for a place to live, and getting to know my new surroundings. After a week I got an apartment. I enrolled in photography classes at MATC and worked various jobs. I eventually quit one job and decided to dedicate more time to my other passions: art and photography. This paid off. I was featured on different TV stations for volunteering to help the orderlies at St. Mary’s Care Center feel better about themselves with a photography project I called “Bella.”

This city I call home and hold dear has not only nurtured me as an individual, artist, and athlete, but it also has embraced me as one of its own.

It is Madison where I found my first love and I ran my first marathon. It is Madison where I trained to run the Boston Marathon and played with the idea of running my first 50-mile race, and then accomplished both. It is here that I have celebrated with friends and our community many of my accomplishments in my running career. Many of the streets and trails of this city have witnessed my dreams come true and have been the inspiration for many more to come. My most recent dream was to complete the Kettle 100-mile trail race. This was truly a monumental task, but moreover, the most rewarding running event I have experienced to date.

The road has not been easy, but if I had the chance I would do it all over again. Life for me will always be my most important race and my best ultra marathon. It would never be about how long it takes me to get to the finish line, but instead about the experiences, the friendships, and the lessons I learned along the way.

These days you’ll find me working as the manager of Berkeley Running Company on University Avenue, passing out knowledge about running, shoes, apparel, health, and the lessons this primal urge for running has taught me about life.

So lace ’em up and don’t think twice about it.