The atmosphere was electric. Loud music pumped through speakers and people snapped selfies just outside of Southwest University Park in downtown El Paso. It was 6 a.m. on Feb. 19, and a race would soon take place.
The Sun City hosted “Springfoot,” its annual marathon, half-marathon and 5K race, where the turnout was a large gathering of running enthusiasts. Minutes before the race started, two young men greeted one another. They were Ricardo De Santiago and Marco Perez, NMSU cross country teammates who were ready to impress.
A man spoke on an intercom for runners to make their way to the starting line. Perez finished with his final stretches as De Santiago scarfed down an orange as he fueled for the race.
The duo stood in the front of the other runners as they waited for the gun to be fired. All the participants had numbers on their chests, representing their identification. De Santiago did not have one. He wasn’t registered.
“I just wanted to make a statement to my coach even though I wasn’t registered for the race,” De Santiago said. “It was almost two months that I didn’t take running seriously and that’s why I didn’t register.”
The firearm popped. A stampede of short shorts and spandex raced up the street indicating the half-marathon race was right on schedule. It was 7 a.m. The enormous group of competitors would be on its way through downtown and central El Paso for the 13.1-mile course.
“During warm-ups, I was just trying to be at ease and get myself excited for the race,” Perez said. “Once the timer started, I just did my thing.”
Very early in the race, a group of about six competitors formed a pack that would stand out in the lead: Perez, De Santiago, three others from the NMSU cross country team and a man from Mexico. Within the first mile the small group easily separated itself from the rest of the participants.
As the runners cruised through the shadows of El Paso’s tallest buildings, a nice breeze benefited Perez with his ideal race conditions. The pace picked up as one member of the cross-country team lost ground as he battled the blisters on his feet.
“After the third mile, we got to the point of the people where they are cheering. It’s truly nice,” De Santiago said. “Let’s start dropping the pace, we started in the 5:40’s and we’re aiming for an average of 5:30.”
The “warm-up miles” were in the bag and a sense of comfort appeared on the faces of Perez and De Santiago. Words of encouragement rattled from De Santiago’s mouth, influencing the two as they dropped another competitor.
The group of elites had quickly turned into the final four as they approached the sixth mile. All signs indicated the duo’s opportunity to make another move.
“The sixth (mile is where) we dropped the guy from Mexico and it was Marco, Eli (teammate) and me,” De Santiago said.
The three NMSU cross-country runners reached the halfway point as teammates, but left the seventh mile with one less member. Eli Kosgei faded out of the picture as Perez and De Santiago surged ahead, side by side.
“Whenever you get the chance to pull away from a group you have to take it,” Perez said. “You start to own the race at that point and I felt even more encouraged running with Ricardo.”
The fear of losing the race no longer concerned Perez. After he passed the eighth mile, he and De Santiago were all alone with no one in sight. The two friends, who had competed together in junior college and NMSU, neared the latter part of the competition in tandem.
Though neither runner dealt with any injury, Perez mentioned how a cold he had battled earlier in the week affected his charge up the final hill. Lucky for him, De Santiago’s motivated him to dig down deep.
“I’m not going to lie about it. There was a point in the race where I could have dropped Marco and gone for the 70,” said De Santiago. “It wasn’t about me, it was about helping a teammate. That race was more important to him than for me.”
Only a few minutes after the first hour of the race, Perez and De Santiago made the last turn. Both men sprinted down the stretch with their arms pumping back and forth.
De Santiago pulled back on the reigns and shouted, “Vamos!” Perez had become the outright leader. Perez entered Southwest University Park by himself. The moment was his.
The crowd erupted with cheers and the announcer made it official, Perez was the 2017 half-marathon winner. Outside of the stadium, De Santiago walked back up the street to cheer on his fellow competitor.
“When I crossed that finish line, I think about all the sacrifices I made and how I put myself on such a rigorous schedule,” Perez said. “All for this one moment and I’m completely satisfied with it.”