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Monday, October 24, 2016

To Feel the Burn



 Dateline: Boulder, CO

"Success is not a place at which one arrives but rather the spirit with which one undertakes and continues the journey. “
Alex Noble

Guy Alton
An athlete will die twice, the second being the most definitive; but the first often the most painful.

They are everywhere in this mountain town, these elite endurance athletes. Cycling and running; gaunt in frame with hollow deep set eyes, adorn in high tech and skin tight workout gear, drawn to Boulder, CO like moths to a candle flame. This is Mecca for those who push themselves to the brink of human endurance performance. The light air at 6500 feet of elevation, by limiting oxygen intake, spawns a training advantage by squeezing every last fiber of fitness possible for the maximum exertion and exhaustion of the human body.

However, the real reason they are here is not high altitude training, that being a mere guise to mollify their “normal” friends and family who worry for they do not understand. No, they come to immerse themselves in a culture that generates an informal but effective support system that brings comfort to their obsessive need, to buffer the biting inevitable failure as they battle the most invincible of all foes; time.

 Nell Rojas
Their stories run the gauntlet of the leader board of their sport - the up and coming, to the here and now, the once been and the never have beens - some with legitimate Olympic dreams; others simply hanging on, hoping against hope that somehow the magic will return. Do not question their resolve. It is such a short shelf life, a small window of opportunity, as they attempt to cram in more workouts than Ringling Brothers crammed clowns into a Volkswagen. Then it is over.

Dreams (and stubbornness) fuel their inexorable migration to the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, timelessly suspending them in an athletic induced Peter Pan lifestyle, believing that long sought big breakthrough performance is just beyond the next workout. Their lives revolve around beating (or at least tricking) the stop watch (and the calendar), hell bent to shave just a few more precious seconds (and years); before the gun sounds for the last unwinnable race with the setting sun of their youth.

They labor at day jobs; waiting tables in the sidewalk cafes, unloading freight at the docks, babysitting as substitute teachers; selling shoes, mopping floors and stocking shelves. Many, if not most, are college grads possessing diplomas from some of the most illustrious universities in the land. But they have postponed capitalist careers, turning their backs on financial stability, for this life of the tramp athlete. They will take most any work to maintain a minimum of self-sufficiency, to keep the dream alive. They sleep where they may, often on an old couch in a shared rental house with other athletic vagabonds. They will bum meals with no shame. The unaware general public views their panhandling behavior as wasteful and irresponsible. Amongst themselves, the quest is held as noble.

How many times have we heard, “It’s not about the money?” A professional athlete is offended by the mere offer of millions for which in return he must throw a football or hit a baseball or shoot a basketball better than 99.99% of us. But due to this disrespect of an offer of paltry millions for remuneration to play a child’s game, he refuses to participate- to thrill us in person or enthrall us on television- until the pot is sweetened by several more million dollars, the salve needed to repair a fragile offended ego. It is not about the money? Do any of us really believe him? When it comes to our modern athletic super stars, we are a cynical populace living in a cynical time; and for good reason.

I wanted to know what it was like to be a high skilled athlete better than 99.9% of us in a particular athletic challenge, but so desperate to catch the 0.01% ahead that it can become an unhealthy obsession. To be one of the best athletes in the world but unknown and unrewarded.

I met Guy Alton and Nell Rojas as they worked the retail floor at the Boulder Running Company. On a rainy fall afternoon both were hustling to meet the busy demands of a store full of clients. I had stopped by the store on a whim. I asked store manager Trent Briney if he employed any athletes a step below the elite level; Olympic caliber, who were desperately fighting both the competition and the calendar, stubbornly refusing to let go of their athletic dreams? “That’s my whole staff,” Briney said with a laugh. “How many do you want to talk to?”


Everyone in Boulder, so it seems to an outsider, is physically fit and dressed on their perpetual way to another workout. Boulder is a close knit running community – Rojas tells me she knows 75% of the people who walk through the BRC’s front door – and a mere rainy day does not slow down the store’s traffic. Rojas squats amongst open shoe boxes in front of a middle aged, but fit, women, quizzing her as to the snugness of the new trainer she has laced onto her right foot. Alton makes numerous trips back into an unseen stock room, searching for just the right shoe fit for his older client who is more concerned with comfort than performance. In Boulder, I am later told, proper fit of workout gear is so essential, especially high dollar foot wear, the status of an athletic shoe salesman is often elevated to the same level as the family doctor.

Rojas is a Pro Triathlete, a relatively new and still evolving sport that combines running, cycling and swimming. She is on the fringes of the nation’s elite. Alton is a track athlete who views the 1500 meter run (the metric mile) as his top track event. He runs road races to supplement his track workouts. Rojas will also, at times, enter road races.

Rojas is 26 years old, Alton is 30. Rojas has aspirations of steady improvement in a sport she only has recently immersed herself in, transitioning from an award winning college cross country and track career. She hopes to soon win enough purse money on the United States Triathlon Association pro circuit to support her career’s lifestyle. Rojas knows – if her commitment remains solid - she has at least another decade to improve her standing, before an aging body will limit her triathlon pursuits.  Alton’s goals are more narrow and immediate; he wants to break the magical 4-minute barrier in the mile run. He knows his body clock is ticking, making time in the pursuit of his goal, of the essence. He needs to lower his time by five seconds, a quantum leap increment in a sport that measures success in mere fractions of a second. Alton feels he has one year, maybe two, before his body begins to betray him and thus his dream.   

Both Rojas and Alton have taken divergent but also in some ways similar paths to land at their athletic zenith on the show room floor of a mountain town shoe store. Both are college educated, toiling now at a slightly above minimum wage job - one which, however, both express appreciation to store management for providing. Both are friendly, personable and intelligent; comfortable when articulating about themselves. Both are strikingly fit; well dressed with the confidence expressed in the body language that only those in the high elite state of physical fitness can espouse, creating silent envy amongst the rest of us. Both are living a simple lifestyle in pursuit of a noble goal that would make the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha proud.

But that is where the similarities end.


Life is not a race
Do take it slower.
Hear the music
Before the song is over.”
Unknown

Nell Rojas has a body most women would die for. She has not always seen it that way. “I have been bulimic since I was 13 years old,” she shares with me. 

Like most adolescents, Rojas found her junior high years awkward. “I matured early,” she states. “All through junior high I was always the tallest in my class. In the sixth grade, a boy jokingly called me ‘Big Mamma.’ I was going through that stage where everything is changing and I am trying to process it all. I was, as most 13-year-old girls, hyper-sensitive to my looks and my body. When I was called that name, I didn’t handle it like an adult would; just shake it off. I handled it like a 13-year-old. He was a friend and I am sure he didn’t say it to hurt me. But to this day, I still remember it and it still hurts.”

Body image for adolescent girls in this country has been under attack for years. Unrealistic images of what the media bombards impressionable young girls with is dangerous, the experts all agree, encouraging both unhealthy, and in many cases, unsustainable if not unreachable levels of thinness.

Bulimia is a relatively recent form of a recognized mental health eating disorder. It was not officially recognized by the medical world until 1979, coinciding, interestingly, with the onslaught of the Title IX induced explosion of women’s athletics. Bulimia affects an estimate 10% of female adolescents and will often carry over into the adult years. The disease is associated with obsessive/compulsive behaviors, with those inflicted going through binging and then immediate purging eating behaviors.

“I hid it, the bulimia, I thought pretty well,” says Rojas, “But my parents knew right away. My mom is a nurse and my dad is a track and running coach, so yeah, they knew right away when I hit puberty, I had a problem. It became a constant struggle for me between wanting to lose weight and stay thin and the overwhelming compulsion to binge eat. I would eat a whole carton of ice cream and then go to the bathroom and throw up; then come back and eat another whole carton, then back to the bathroom. I would feel guilty and ashamed afterwards—but it was a compulsion I could not control.”

Adding complexity to the equation was Rojas’ desire to compete at the highest level as a distance runner, making the harnessing of her disorder even more daunting. “I am so competitive,” admits Rojas, “and I am proud of that part of my character, but I have also learned that if my competitiveness is left unchecked, it makes my eating compulsion worse. If I thought I had lost a race to a girl because she was thinner than me, then the panic would set in. I would go to extremes to punish myself: crash diets and (overdone) workouts. I was never into the laxatives and such like some girls I know were doing when they purged; my problem was with body image. To get to a weight that I was happy with, both with how I looked and how I ran; I had to do unrealistic things. What I wanted to weigh was not a weight (that) I could maintain with healthy eating habits.”

Rojas comes with a gold standard blood line for distance runners. Her father is Ric Rojas, former national elite distance runner and today one of the leading track and field coaches in the nation. He owns and conducts Rojas Running out of Boulder, CO. I found it interesting – and refreshing-  that his daughter related that she did not feel pressure to succeed from her well known and successful dad, who coached her as a runner through her high school years. “My dad was good about that,” says Rojas. “He never pushed me any harder than I wanted to be pushed. Actually, I was more into basketball when I was younger, and my dad was ok with that, he even encouraged it.” So, don’t blame an overbearing parent, living vicariously through his daughter’s track career for her ensuing eating disorder? “Correct,” Rojas states. “My dad has been plenty successful on his own. He never drove me beyond what I could handle.”

After a solid, but not well decorated career at Boulder, CO High School, Rojas agreed after her 2006 high school graduation to walk on to the cross country and track teams at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ. “I was a good high school runner, but there were many in the area better than me,” she readily admits. “But you have to also remember that I was not a runner who had been over trained, like so many highly successful high school runners have been. I played basketball, I had other activates. I had a lot of room for improvement with my running, but I was also not worn out from over training. When I got to Flagstaff, my freshman year, I made the varsity cross country travel squad. I was the 7th or 8th runner that year and we finished 7th in the nation, so it was a very strong team and I was able to crack the top 7.” Not bad for a walk-on, I interject. “Absolutely.”

Over the course of her four-year career at NAU, Rojas showed steady improvement. By the time she graduated in 2010 she was a two-time Big Sky Conference Track and Field champion in the steeple chase. She was also put on partial athletic scholarship, a reward to a former walk-on for her loyalty and hard work.

While in high school, Rojas’ parents’ marriage fell apart, eventually ending in divorce. Rojas described as “hard,” the breakup’s effect upon her - but not damaging- and is emphatic that it did not contribute to her eating disorder. “I spent a lot of time with my dad growing up because he was always coaching me, but I have always lived with my mom. She is from Deerfield, IL and has a Swedish heritage. My mom and dad met in Boulder, when my dad was working on his MBA at CU. Dad is from New Mexico and graduated from Harvard. My parents are both very intelligent and very educated. They always stressed academics when I was growing up. Even after the divorce, my parents both were good about letting me know I was still important to them and their problems would not affect how they together would work for what was best for me. I had every opportunity for a good childhood. I was lucky, but still, with all the good parenting I had, I still developed an eating disorder. It can happen to anyone, no matter how solid your home life is. Parents should not be ashamed of a child who develops an eating disorder. It is not the fault of the parent. What would be the fault of the parent is if they did not give the support the child needs to deal with the eating disorder.”

Still, her destructive eating habits did create at times tension in the Rojas household. “You can’t stop a bulimic who does not want to stop,” observed Rojas, “and that was me. Sometimes my parents would get frustrated with me and that would lead to them getting angry with me, but they couldn’t stop me. I mean, come on, you going to check on someone every time they go to the bathroom? They did what they could, they got me into therapy in junior high, but that did no good because I was not honest about my problem with anyone; my parents, my therapist and most importantly, myself. I was on medication for a long time. I don’t know if it did any good or not; but I hated taking it and during my junior year in college, after 8 years on it; I just quit. That is not the advice I would give to young girls, just quitting a medication on your own, but being honest; that is what I did.”

As an Exercise Science Major in college, Rojas knew the dangers of her compulsive behavior, aware that bulimia could weaken the heart muscle, erode tooth enamel, damage the esophagus, foster stomach ulcers and burst blood vessels in the eyes. Still, she could not control the binges.

Purging never helped Rojas lose weight. She realizes now that her compulsion was more about ridding herself of feelings of inadequacy than losing unwanted pounds. “I never had the huge weight swings,” says Rojas, “My weight was never below 125 and never above 145, pretty normal for someone of my height and frame. So it was hard to see that I had a problem. But I did, and it took a heavy toll on my enjoying life."

"It is hard for me to be happy," she continued. "I always feel I can do better. That is my personality. But, as I have matured as a person, I think I now have a more realistic image of who I am and what is important in life. That has helped a lot with keeping my bulimia in check. But I have to admit, I still would like to be thinner.”

I asked if she had ever been pressured by a coach to lose weight to become a faster runner. “Directly, no,” she answered. “When I signed to go to Northern Arizona out of high school, my dad had a talk with my coach there and explained to him my problem (with bulimia). So they knew. We did have an assistant coach, if we were in line to eat on a trip; she would hold up her pinky finger and shake it, a sign that meant ‘stay thin.’”

I asked Rojas for a good faith estimate of the elite female endurance athletes she knows who have an eating disorder? She estimated the number to be between 60% -70%; epidemic levels. “It’s strange, but we never talked about it amongst ourselves. No one wanted to admit they had a problem they could not control. It would be a sign of weakness. Many had it worse than me. I had one teammate (in college) who was anorexic; she went from a healthy, broad shouldered 145 pounds as a freshman down to a skeleton in just a few years. It was obvious she had a problem, but no one wanted to address it.”

 Is she “cured,” I ask? “Yes,” is Rojas’ one-word immediate answer.

An awkward silence ensues. “And,” I probe?

“My junior year in college,” Rojas begins and then tails off for another stretch of silence. Her darting eyes tell me it is not easy, discussing such personal matters with a stranger. Another pregnant pause ensues.

“The first semester (of my junior year in college) was really bad. I was always a good student, A’s and B’s. (Rojas, despite the one bad semester, graduated on schedule, in 8 semesters from NAU, with a degree in Exercise Science, not an easy task). But that semester it was D’s and F’s. I just hit the wall. A female training for Division 1 level Cross Country in the high altitude, on top of being bulimic, I just hit the wall. I stayed in bed all the time, missed classes. I was just so tired all the time. Looking back, probably anemia played a role. My purging was keeping my body from getting the nutrients it needed.  I think then my survival instincts just kicked in. ‘This has got to stop,’ I told myself. I got off the medicine, stopped the purging and started eating proper. Sounds so simple, but it was very hard. I gained some weight but I also that Spring, when I was healthy for the first time in a long time, had my best college season. I qualified for the Division 1 National Outdoor Meet in the Steeplechase. That was something I am very proud of, it is so symbolic of my personal journey. I fought this problem for so long, but by finally confronting it, I won. The sense of empowerment, to finally feel I had control over my eating habits, was just wonderful.”

Rojas points out that no eating disorder can be conquered without help. “Much of my recovery has been both helped and hindered by what and how my support system reacted to my problem. My binging and purging was hard on those who know and care about me, who love me. You can’t force a person with an eating disorder to change and you can’t do all the hard (introspective) searching I had to do for them, either. My family and my friends who showed compassion, encouraging me through the whole recovery process, well, they made a big difference and it is important to me that they know that.” 

Rojas would like to become a role model for younger girls and she would be a good one. What young junior high girl could observe the talented, articulate, intelligent, likeable and attractive Rojas and not think, “I want to be just like her?” Body Image is so important, Rojas states, and emphasizes that peer pressure can be so distractive (and destructive) to a person dealing with an eating disorder. “When I ran cross country, it was harder; because elite cross country runners are so skinny. Now doing triathlons, it is easier because the women tend to be bigger because strength is so important in our sport. My competition now looks more like me. Becoming stick thin is not going to help in a triathlon.”

What wisdom can the self-assured 26-year-old, looking back now on herself as an insecure 13-year-old give those just starting the transitional journey to adult hood? “Growing up is never easy, no one gets a free pass through those tough years. Everyone struggles. First, help others who need it. If you suspect that your friend has bulimia, talk to the person about your concerns. They may deny bingeing and purging, but there’s a chance they will welcome the opportunity to talk about it, to open up. If you suspect you have a problem - and if you think you may, you probably do- get help. NOW. It is out there. Bulimia should never be ignored. God only gave you one body. Don’t abuse it. Realize how important this is, your physical and emotional health is at stake.”

Rojas truly believed her athletic career was over with the completion of the NAU 2010 Outdoor track season and her subsequent college graduation. “I won the Big Sky in the steeplechase that year and qualified for the Regional Meet. I thought I was satisfied,” she states, her running career in the rear view mirror. “I was done. I had agreed to teach English at a school in Spain for the upcoming school year. I came home to Boulder for the summer and was helping my dad coach his club team when he suggested I try the triathlon. From the start, I loved the event. It reinvigorated me, but I kept my commitment and went to Spain in the fall.”

The life style and culture in Spain was not conducive to training for an up and coming triathlete. “It is near impossible to stay in shape in Spain,” says Rojas. “You eat all the time, the dinner meal is often as late as midnight and everyone takes a nap in the afternoon, which had always been my workout time. I got way out of shape,” Rojas relates to me, with no hint of humor, I note.

The summer of 2011 found Rojas back in Boulder and under her dad’s training wing. “That summer I bought in,” she says in describing her commitment to her new love. “The triathlon was something I wanted to pursue and I wanted to be good. It was now ‘all in’ and we got serious with my training. It took a big financial commitment to train and compete, but I got myself back in shape and could see I was getting better. I went back to Spain for the 2011-12 school year, but this time I joined a track club and stayed in shape. When I got back to Boulder in the summer of 2012, the triathlon was now my life. I trained hard and in 2013 I earned my Pro Card, which was a big step. It meant now I could compete in the elite meets without paying an entry fee and I was eligible to compete for the purse (prize money).”

The fall of 2014 finds Rojas at a career cross roads. She does not doubt her talent, but finances have given her a sense of urgency in hitting the fast forward button on the launching of her career. “I want to make a living as a triathlete, but it is so expensive. At first my dad paid for everything. My bike costs over $5,000. Then there is the travel. It costs almost as much to fly my bike to a meet as it does to fly me there. Training is almost in itself a full time job, but I still work full time at the store, and I still can’t make it,” she says while shaking her head in frustration.

Financial stress has strained relationships on her personal consanguineous level; with her father. “I was working for my dad and his track club. But my dad was also my coach and he was paying all my expenses. That had to change. My dad shouldn’t have to support me. And having my dad involved in so many roles in my life blurred the boundaries. I mean, was he speaking to me as my coach, my boss, my business partner or my dad? Then, the issue of how I now live with my mom; which is ok and I appreciate her support of me; my dreams and goals, but still, come on, I am 26 years old. I have no money. For a while I even lost my phone. If I forget me lunch at home, then I can’t eat because I don’t have any money. Money is right now a major stress in my life.”

While winning $5,000 on last summer’s pro circuit, Rojas estimates she incurred $30,000 worth of training expenses.

Rojas sees no immediate solution for her unbalanced ledger sheet, until she claws her way into the top echelon on the pro circuit. “I need help with my swimming. I do fine in the pool, but it does not transition over into my performance in meets. I need some intense high level coaching with my swimming.”  But, she laments, that type of expert coaching comes with a hefty price tag, $75 an hour. “The top 20 women in the world can make a good living on the pro circuit. That is my goal, to get into the top 20; but I have to figure out how to pay the bills until I get there.”

Interviewing the charismatic Rojas, resplendent with a passion for her sport that resonates so well in person, I feel challenged in my attempt to transfer and replicate the three dimensional live version to the two-dimension flatness and limitations of the written word. She is a complex individual.

Life only happens when alive. Nell Rojas is living a life many envy, pursuing against the odds her dreams. I tell her that someday she will look back with fondness on this segment of her journey - a grand and noble adventure. With her current vision obstructed by the daily grind of living in the present, I don’t know if she sees it that way. 


“Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, 'I've never seen anyone run like that before.' It's more than just a race, it's a style. It's doing something better than anyone else. It's being creative.”
Steve Prefontaine

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
 e.e. cummings

A 30th birthday: a rite of passage transitioning from the folly of youthful dreams to the world of adult realities and responsibilities, a demarcation line that when crossed shouts, “Grow Up.” Most have prepared though the decade of their 20’s, gradually and grudgingly, for this day, knowing of its impending arrival. Now, time to march maturely into the “rest of your life.”

Guy Alton has balked as such wisdom, choosing to postpone - for the time being at least- the “rest of your life.” Call it only a sabbatical from normal, for Alton has every intention of someday returning to the conventional 9 to 5 world; “to settle down and raise a family,” he promises, but only after one last all-out assault, “to exhaust my gift. I have got to know I gave it my best shot. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering, ‘what if?’”

In 2014, the calendar year that would see Alton reach the milestone age of 30, the native of Richmond, VA abandoned the only home he had ever known, pulled up stakes and moved 2000 miles west to Boulder, CO; a town where he knew no one. A soft spoken and polite young man, Alton has given up the comfort and security of building a middle class life to make a fully focused charge at accomplishing what was once, before 1954, considered humanly impossible. Alton is waging war on the stop watch; with hopes of doing what fewer than 1000 men in the recorded history of the world have; run a mile on a flat four laps to the mile track faster than it takes 240 seconds to tick off of a stop watch.

Alton knows there will be no monetary reward for his efforts, no pot of gold at the finish line. His motivation is purely intrinsic, noble with self-efficacy beliefs beyond reproach. And that makes his story compelling, pulling a complete stranger like myself into the Guy Alton rooting section.

In 1954, Englishman Roger Bannister became the first man to break the four-minute barrier for the mile run, surpassing a physical test some had labeled impossible, beyond the limits of human speed. There were even those in the medical field who considered such an attempt to be dangerous, perhaps even deadly. "How did he know he would not die?" a French Doctor was said to have asked when he heard the news.

On a rainy May 3, 1953, Bannister ate a lunch consisting only of a glass of orange juice mixed with glucose. He was prepared, as he related after his record setting run, "to release every ounce of mental and physical energy I possessed over four minutes."

When the slender and scholarly Bannister, a medical student and future respected doctor, ran four laps around an Oxford, England 440-yard track in 3:59.4 seconds; the world was astounded. Bannister’s feat was to the running world what Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight a generation prior was to the world of aviation. With the barrier finally breached, the flood gates were opened. Sub four minute miles became common place. New Zealand star John Walker ran sub 4 an amazing 135 times in his long career, spanning the 1970’s and 80’s. In 2014, a full half century after Bannister’s triumph, a sub four-minute mile is considered a marginal accomplishment on the world's athletic stage and will most likely register nary a mention on the back page of American newspapers.

Today, the mile record stands at 3:43.13 set in 1999 on an Oslo, Norway track by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj. No woman has yet to run a four-minute mile. The current women's world record is held by Russian Svetlana Masterkova, who in 1996 ran 4:12.56. In 1997, Daniel Komen of Kenya ran two miles in less than eight minutes, doubling up on Bannister's accomplishment

Despite losing its unreachable standard, running the mile under four minutes is still an elite goal for track athletes who focus on middle distance events. Running the mile has always held a certain mathematical allure. As Bannister once explained, the figure "seemed so perfectly round--four laps, four quarter-miles, four-point-oh-oh minutes--that it seemed God himself had established it as man's limit."

The mile has historically in the English speaking world been the flag ship event of a track and field meet. Writer John Underwood gave this summation of the makeup of the inner workings of those who challenge the upper end of human performance against this mythical distance: “A mile runner does not run a mile; he bombards it with logic. He plots it, schemes it, calculates, bisects, barbecues and bakes it. He plots not only against the men who run against him but against the distance itself, because in the end, to be successful at his lonely project, he must be prepared to cross the finish line—to break the tape, if his itinerary is right and God is willing—at the moment his lungs turn to brimstone and his legs to apple butter.”

It is not the distance of the mile itself that is so imposing.  Most any slightly fit person can run a mile. It is how a runner approaches the challenge that makes the mile the glamor event it has always been. According to Underwood, “it takes thought and maturity to be a miler. But most of all it takes passion, and a man cannot reason his passion any more than he can hold his heart in his hand or see love in a glass. What he can do is live with his passion or live it down (often the wise alternative) or put it to use in the form that it takes.”

A major problem facing Alton in his quest to join this elite fraternity is finding the proper opportunities to break the mark. In international track and field, the mile run is today not even a championship event, falling victim to the metric conversion. With the rest of the world locked into the metric system, 40 years ago the United States ended its hold out and switched to metric measurements for its championship track and field meets. In international track and field, the 1500 is now considered the “metric mile.” But a 1500-meter race is only 93.2% of a mile. High schools in the USA today run a 1600-meter race, which is much closer to a mile than 1500 meters, but still 9.34 meters longer. There is a conversion table for converting a 1600 meter run to a mile time, and vice versa, but for a mile run to be considered for the sub-4-minute club, Alton informed me, it must be run as a true mile, on a four lap track and timed electronically.

In America, distance running has become a staple of the suburban and rural high schools. Despite the recent total domination on the world stage of the African nations, in particular Kenya and Ethiopia, the current state of distance running in the inner cities of the United States is woeful. Go to a state high school track meet anywhere in the US and the sprints and jumping events will be dominated by the inner city schools with their rosters of black athletes. However, when it comes time for the 1600 and the 3200 meter runs – the metric mile and the two mile – the field at the starting line will be almost exclusively composed of white athletes. This demographic dynamic dominated Alton’s development as a distance runner.

Guy Alton has followed a winding road to Boulder, CO. By the time he reached high school; his Richmond, VA neighborhood, over a 10-year period, had transitioned from primarily white to primarily black residents. “I was raised living with my dad and my younger brother,” states Alton, “Our neighborhood was a tough one. I always focused on sports, first soccer and then running and I kept a low profile, stayed mostly to myself,” is his explanation of how he avoided the pitfalls of the inner city streets. His younger brother, by one year, Jesse, was not as fortunate, nor as wise.

To survive as a minority in a violent environment, Guy Alton learned to fine hone his survival skills, choosing disengagement over distemper. "I learned to lay low, be quiet and not draw attention to myself," Alton says. His younger brother chose a different approach. "He liked the feeling of belonging that the street drug culture brought him. I had my running; he had his drug buddies and street criminal friends. “Jesse always liked to be the center of attention; he was always a cut up,” explains Alton. “Where I used sports to fit in, he didn’t have that type of a positive outlet. He started getting into trouble, running with the wrong crowd. It finally caught up to him. In 2003 he went to prison. It was for repeated arrests for theft. But like most from the old neighborhood that ended up in prison, his real problem was drugs. He stole to meet his drug addiction needs."

A Varina, VA High School PE teacher with a keen eye discovered Alton’s running ability by accident. “Being a primarily black school, the distance running program was practically non-existent,” says Alton. “My Freshman class PE teacher was also the track coach and he encouraged me to go out for cross country, thought I had some talent after seeing how fast I ran the mile in a class fitness test.” It turned out to be a suggestion that redirected Alton’s life. “From the first day, I loved running.”
 
“I ran for Varina my sophomore year and went to state in both cross country and track,” recalls Alton. “It was perfect timing for my self-image and esteem. I saw myself now as an athlete. I couldn’t afford or have the time to get into trouble. But the situation with my little brother Jesse was getting really bad; he was getting deeper and deeper into trouble. In 2000, the decision was made by our parents that Jesse and I would leave Richmond and move in with my mom, who lived in a small town outside of Richmond called New Kent.”

With the change in scenery came a change in status for Alton’s new found passion for running distance. “At New Kent the distance running had a much better program and the new environment really helped me, motivated me in ways that would have never happened had I stayed in the city. At Varina, in Richmond, I was considered a freak for wanting to run all the miles I did. At New Kent I fit right in with others who had the same commitment to running that I did. The fact that I was successful made the transition to a new school and a totally new environment, much easier. I really thrived at New Kent, not only as an athlete, but just all around. After the move I had status and I now had plans for a future. It was a very good time in my life.”

The move for Jesse was not as fulfilling. “He wouldn’t accept the change and ignored the chance for new beginning. Soon he was back living with dad in Richmond, back running the streets with his old friends.” It would in a short time prove to be a fatal decision.

Running for New Kent his junior track season in 2001, Alton won the state championship in the 1600, with a then personal record time of 4:17.

Graduating from high school in 2002, Alton accepted a running scholarship to High Point College, a Division I program in North Carolina. “I was all set to go,” he recalls, “then we found out that summer that my dad had terminal liver cancer. He had no one to take care of him. It was a bad time. I just couldn’t leave. I moved back to Richmond to live with my dad, took some classes at a community college and helped coach back at my old high school. Dad lived about 18 months after the original diagnosis and died late in 2003, the same year my brother Jesse went to prison.”

Despite the series of setbacks, things would soon get worse. “When Jesse got out of prison in 2004, he went right back to the streets, right back to the neighborhood. He said the year he spent in prison had changed him; that he had learned how to stay out of trouble. Turns out many of his new friends on the street, were guys he met in prison.”

On November 6, 2005, Jesse Alton was shot dead in his old Richmond neighborhood, on the same streets he could never quite pull himself away from. “It is still a little sketchy as to exactly what happened,” says Guy. “Jesse had gotten into some sort of argument with a group on the street and then had left. For some reason, and we never have figured out exactly why, thirty minutes later, he came back. That is when he was shot in the back. He died on the spot. An 18-year-old and a 15-year-old were convicted for the murder and given (each) 35 years in prison. I don’t know if I have to this day come to grips with what happened to my brother. It still seems very surreal. We were in some ways very different, but still very close. I miss him every day.”

Since leaving the safe world of his new rural high school three years’ prior, Alton’s life had pin balled from one extreme negative emotional event to another. “My running career had been so promising when I graduated from high school in 2002 and three and half years later, my dad and brother are both dead and I am just wandering along, day to day, in a fog. I had wasted three years that for most, the first three out of high school, are productive years building an education or a career. Now I am 22 years old and I had nothing to show for any of those years. At Christmas of 2005, I did a lot of soul searching and said, ‘ok, it is time to get back on track.’ I went across town to the Virginia Commonwealth University and talked to the track coaches. They remembered me from high school, but it had been almost four years since I had seriously trained. I don’t think they were real impressed, but they agreed to let me walk on for the spring track season and hopefully I could work myself back into shape.”

It took a full year to wear off the rust, both athletically and academically, but Alton was determined to make up for lost time, to not submit to the temptation of self-pity. “I had some rough years, but I still felt a burden for both Jesse and Dad, to carry on for them, to show that maybe they didn’t make it, but I could and they were a part of me. By 2007 outdoor track, I was starting to reach times I always felt I could run. That spring I ran a 1:53 800 and a 3:49 1500, which converts to a 4:07 mile.” Not great times in relevance to the national leaders, but marked improvement for a young man who over the four years since his high school graduation had been off the track and jaded by one life misfortune after another.

Having graduated from high school in 2002, by 2007 Alton’s NCAA eligibility was running out. Despite not having gone immediately after high school to college to run track, his enrolling part time in a community college in the fall of 2002 had by NCAA rules - but unbeknown at the time to Alton - started his five-year eligibility clock ticking. VCU applied on Alton’s behalf for a hardship 6th year of eligibility, which was granted. But, the 2007-2008 school year, despite only his third year of collegiate running, would be his last. He needed to hit it big, but bad luck continued to be his constant companion.

“It was frustrating last year of my college career. I got sick during Cross Country season that fall and never took the time off of training to heal properly. I knew this was my last year of eligibility and I just tried to gut it out. Early in the cross country season I ran a 25:10 8K, which was a personal best. I thought, ‘finally it is all coming together for me’ and I had a shot in the spring at sub 4 in the mile. But I never got 100% well and I ran worse times in the spring track season than I had the year before.” By the end of the outdoor season, due to over training, Alton was hobbled with a stress fracture, his college career ending with a thud.

Despite earning his degree in Exercise Physiology that spring, Alton felt unfulfilled, not yet ready to give up on his running career. “Deep down inside of me, I have always known that I have a sub four-minute mile in me. I just needed to figure out how to bring it out. I was not ready to quit, but with no more college eligibility, getting the coaching and training I needed to continue to improve was going to now take a lot more creative means.”

With student loans to pay back, the 24-year-old Alton went to work in a Richmond athletic shoe store. Injuries continued to hamper his training, but slowly his body healed and his times began to drop. Alton found he could pick up some pocket change by running road races in the area. “Every dime helped,’ he says with a laugh, “and it is still true today.”

By the fall of 2010, Alton found himself in the best shape of his life and his performances in road races confirmed his self-evaluation, running personal record times in the 5K (14:56), the 8K (24:15) and the 10K (31:17). “For the first time, I was healthy enough to get my mileage in the fall up where I wanted it, close to 100 miles a week. I went to Boston to open the indoor season and ran a 4:05 mile. I was thrilled. But then I got the flu. I skipped the rest of indoor season in 2011 to continue to work on my base, lots of miles. But in the outdoor season, I hit the wall. I ran faster indoor than I did outdoor, and that shouldn’t happen. For the first time I considered giving up competitive running. I was very low that fall. Maybe it was time.”

Alton concentrated on his sales job in 2012 and 2013, moving up to a manager’s position at the shoe store. He ran a few road races for fun, but did little training.  In the fall of 2013, he traveled to Boulder for a short vacation; and feel in love with the local running community. “If you are a runner, you will fit in immediately. The camaraderie of the runners here just relit my passion for running. I just had to give it one more shot. I will never make the Olympic team, I know that. But I think I can break 14 minutes in the 5,000 meter run. And then the mile. Four minutes. It is such a big goal, so definitive of a runner’s career.”

Upon arriving in Boulder last January, bags in hand, and not much else, Alton found housing with two other local runners, both with legitimate Olympic aspirations as Marathoners. Andy Wacker is a former All-American at the University of Colorado and a legend in the local running culture. Matt Hensley was a championship level runner at the University of Florida, now training in Boulder’s high altitude. Both are good enough to make decent money on the pro road racing circuit; freeing up more time for training. Alton does not have that luxury, with no other source of reliable income; he works 40 hours a week in the shoe store.

Alton is training in Boulder under the tutelage of local coach Brad Hudson. “He has really helped me,” says Alton. “Brad was a very successful runner in his own right and now a very well thought of coach. I am fortunate to have his knowledge at this point in my career. He has upped my mileage and the high altitude I have adjusted to, and I am just so excited to see what I can do on the track this spring. Having a knowledgeable coach oversee my workouts has allowed me to handle the increased workload without injuring myself. Coaching myself, I always had problems with injuries.”

When I spoke with Alton in September of 2014, he was preparing for a half marathon to be run the following week in San Jose, CA. He continued to gush optimistically. “I am so excited and positive right now about my running,” he said. “It’s my running friends, the support of the running community here in Boulder. Moving here was a great move. I am very happy. I really thought two years ago that my running career was done. To get a second chance, in this setting, I feel blessed and I am determined to enjoy the process. But four minutes, that number is never far from my thoughts.”

Alton understands he is now in 2014 racing both the stop watch and his aging body. In his 30’s, he knows that this upcoming outdoor season may well be his last best chance to reach his lofty personal running goals. He will admit that at times, on nights he cannot sleep, the challenges seem overwhelming. He has endured with his running dreams for 12 long years, while suffering numerous setbacks, both on and off the track. At times he has seriously considered surrendering, throwing in the towel. He will openly admit to questioning himself. Maybe that four-minute mile is not, after all, embedded in the fiber of his well-trained body? Quit now and refocus on what mainstream and conventional social thought tell us is important? Late at night, his reflections focus on the many years he has committed, having sacrificed so much for a goal most do not understand. It happens to all dreamers: self-doubt creeps in; leeches onto the heart and soul as despair begins to take over. Is running really worth all of this? But when the sun rises on a new day, so does his resolve. “It is in me, I know it,” and he vows to continue the quest.

I ask Alton, “If you don’t meet your running goals, was this move to Boulder and all you have had to sacrifice to chase this dream been worth it?” Alton is a young man who smiles a lot, but my leading question elicits a sparkle in his eyes and an even wider grin, “absolutely.”


 “If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”  
 Lao Tzu

Nell Rojas took a deep breath, steeling her resolve before launching feet first into the outdoor pool at Rally Sports Center in Boulder CO. It was the middle of January and the steam rising from the water was a visual barometer of the illogical reasoning of her actions. No normal person would submit to such discomfort in the middle of a frigid Rocky Mountain winter, especially when a heated indoor pool lay just on the other side of an adjoining window. For the gritty Rojas it was a symbolic statement; her determination had returned, she was now all in with both feet, back on task in her quest to break into the upper echelon of the world’s elite rankings of women’s triathletes.

For several months the cerebral Rojas had been brooding; not a sign of good karma coming from the introspective and self-professed perfectionist. She acknowledged her career as a triathlete was at a cross road. “I had to give this, my commitment to training fulltime, a real personal evaluation,” she admitted to me over an in-between workouts meal at a local Mexican restaurant. “Can I make this work? Is it worth it? It has been so hard; I have just gone back and forth. Should I continue to pour everything I have into my training, or should I get on with the rest of my life? For me to train as a serious elite level triathlete, I have to put everything else in my life on hold. Am I just being narcissistic? Am I being selfish? There are just a lot of variables in my life right now, more people than just (me) are effected by my training and lifestyle that I needed to make an honest appraisal of what I want out of both the sport and my life.”

It had been a rollercoaster couple of winter off season months for Rojas and her support team, as she vacillated daily on her future.  She alluded to a “new guy.” She continued to bemoan the financial stress her career was under. Her lack of progress in the swimming portion of her sport continued to frustrate her. Was it time to move on to the real world of the retired athlete? But when she was honest with herself, she told me after the swim portion of her work out on an unseasonable warm January day, she had to stay the course, not yet ready to walk away and shutter her dream. Rojas said she listened to her heart, postponing surrender. She did, however, qualify her commitment; “I have got to see progress this season, or its time to move on.” What did she define as progress I inquired? “Make enough money to move out of my mom’s house,” the now 27-year-old said with a laugh.

Heavily influencing her continued commitment to the demanding sport was her recent hiring of a new coach. For the past two weeks she had been under the tutelage of veteran triathlete Mike Alvado, who had just recently retired from the sport himself, now a full time coach. “Michael has given me hope that I do have it in me to make a living in this sport. I really needed that as I was for sure beginning to question if I was good enough,” Rojas said.

The intensely self-critical Rojas admits she needs constant reinforcement. Alvado’s coaching style, she said, fit that need. “I feel Michael is more willing to work with the ‘on the fringe’ athletes like myself, the ones who have not yet broken through to national elite. My old coach had so many athletes already on the national elite level I didn’t always feel I was a high priority. With Michael, I feel more of a detailed approach in his coaching style. He is coaching the total person and I need that. He has really restored my confidence and in doing so, my motivation to be a world class triathlete.”

Alvado, as a coach, has developed within the Boulder triathlete community a no-nonsense and no spin reputation. He had no hesitation in endorsing to me Rojas future. “For sure,” he told me as we spoke in his driveway outside of his attached garage turned training facility, Rojas had the potential to develop into a world elite competitor in the grueling sport. “I can help her swimming,” he said, “and right now that is holding her progress back.”

The Coach gave upfront notice to the biggest hurdle in Rojas’ way, economics. “This is an expensive sport,” he admitted. “Triathlon is a sport that is very ‘gear’ driven. From bikes to performance attire, at the elite level, cutting edge technology is a must. If it is new and it is better, then you have to have it,” says Alvado, “or you lose ground to those who do have it.”

“What you find in Boulder (are) two types of triathlete’s; one, the kind who has family money, has trust funds to draw from and (they) don’t have to worry about finances or paying (their) bills,” Alvado observed. “Then there are athletes like Nell who are trying to make the finances work and it is a real hurdle. That was me when I was Nell’s age. I can relate to what she is going through. To train at the level Nell needs to in order to compete on the elite level is a full time job within itself, not only in terms of time but in terms of energy. When an athlete does the high level intense workouts Nell is doing, your body breaks down, it takes a toll, and you are simply tired all the time. Then, if you have to work full time on top of that, it is a wear and tear not only on the body but also on the mind. It is very normal to question if you want to go on. Right now, that is where Nell is.”

Alvado commented on the current evolution of improved performance in what is still a relatively new and little known sport, thus raising the standards for those in Rojas’ generation. “We are just now starting to see athletes enter the higher ranks of our sport who have specialized in the sport from the beginning. Until now, the athletes who would take up the triathlon were transitioning from other sports, most commonly track and field. Now, we are seeing athletes who from the start – 5 or 6 years old - have been nothing but triathletes. That is going to be a big boost to the sport, both in terms of performance and generating interest in the sport.”

Currently, Alvado informed me, the NCAA is taking under consideration, for Title IX equity concerns, the sanctioning of women’s triathlon as an NCAA sport. “That would be huge,” in bringing the sport more into the mainstream of the nation’s sporting landscape, the coach said. “It would really help young athletes to be able to train in a college supported facility and on scholarship, to help with the financial strain.” 

Rojas’ mother, Mary, had joined us for a late lunch/early dinner at a popular Boulder Mexican cantina. Mary is solidly behind her daughter’s quest to make her athletic dreams come true. Interestingly, the mother herself had recently caught the triathlon bug, at age 67, finishing two recent events. “Nell is my coach,” her mother related, “and she only charges me fifty dollars per coaching session,” she said with a laugh. (The going rate in the Boulder market for triathlon coaching is $400 per month or $75 per hour.) “She finished first in her race in November,” the daughter/coach proudly claims. “Yeah, but there were only two of us in the race,” Mary says with a laugh, “so that made me next to last, as well.”

“Nell has always been such a kind hearted person,” her mother said. “I have never known her to be mean to anyone. She has always been willing to help anyone who needs help. We are a close family and she knows she has the family’s backing no matter what path she chooses. I know living with me is not something Nell likes,” the mother relates, “but I really don’t mind if it is a way for Nell to continue to follow her dreams. Her sport is so expensive.”

“Well, mom, I mind,” Rojas interjects from across the table. “Living with my mom at my age, come on.”

The middle of January, 2015 finds Guy Alton anchored on much more level ground than his friend Rojas. “I know Nell has gone through a lot lately, but me, I am moving steadily ahead,” shared the soft spoken and slightly built runner

“I came down with the flu right after Christmas,” Alton said, “and that set me back some, but I am feeling much better now. I am looking for a good week now of workouts to get me back where I need to be. The fall training was good; outstanding, really. When I ran a 10K (a 6.2-mile road race) out in Richmond (VA) in October, I could tell that the high altitude training was really working. I went out too slow, ran negative splits (faster on the last part of the race than the first) and had way too much left at the end of the race. But - and this is really encouraging - I still ran my second fastest 10K road race time, ever. That really motivated me and set my winter training off to a confident start. It is hard to run as fast at high altitude as it is at sea level, but the high altitude training makes you so much stronger. I underestimated in the (Richmond) race how strong I was and didn’t go out hard enough. The theory is to train at high altitude and to race at low altitude. I can see now from my Virginia experience how it is working and that really gives me a lot of confidence for the upcoming Track season.”

Alton’s running goals might be shifting. “I would like to break the 14-minute mark for 5000 meters (3.1 miles). And the sub four in the mile, I inquire? “Maybe,” is the one-word response I receive back.

He has not hedged on his personal enforced deadline. “This is it, this season,” Alton confirmed. “I either get it done or I accept that I gave it my all but it just wasn’t meant to be and I move on. I am 30 years old. My body hurts now after a hard workout like it never has before. Even if I wanted to continue after this year, I don’t think my body will ever respond to running fast like it will right now. So I am being honest with myself. It is now or never. Historically, the longer distance runners peak in their late 30’s, but for middle distance like the mile, past 30 years of age, the body is going to start to slow down.”

How confident are you, I asked? “More so than ever,” responded Alton. “My coach has me running more high mileage than what I ever have before, even when I was focusing on the longer races. I feel very strong right now. We will soon start more speed work. That is when I should really take off.”

One year ago Alton put his entire life on hold to move to an area where he knew no one with the intent of using the high elevation of Boulder to fuel his running dreams.

I asked the same question I had when we had shaken hands good bye in September, “Has it been worth it,” I inquired? “Without a doubt, no question,” Alton said. He had met a girl within a month of moving to the area and that relationship, he stated, had grown. “I could not be happier than I am right now. Sure money is tight, but I have been able to live out my dream. I love Boulder; maybe this is where I will settle, I don’t know about that yet. This would be a great place to settle down. But long term is not my current focus, I am looking short term. I am really excited about the upcoming season.”

I prodded, as I sensed his running goals were shifting from the mile to a more to “be determined later” performance standard. No, Alton told me, “If I can stay healthy, if I can hit good weather for training this spring, if everything comes together like my coach and I have planned, then I can do this. I have known since I ran 4:05 indoors back four years ago, that sub 4 is in me. I know it. I feel it. I get more confident after each workout. It is in me. I just know it.”

“If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas,” I once heard Don Meredith muse. By Guy Alton’s own admission, a lot of stars must align at just the right time; weather, health, the right level of competition, to name a few, knowing that paramount to the pursuit of any high standard, luck would be a much needed but uncontrollable ingredient. “For sure,” laughed Alton.

Pace in the mile run is paramount to producing maximum performance. “I need to find a race that has a bunch of 3:57 to 3:59 runners in it and let them pull me along,” Alton said. “And weather might be the most critical factor I cannot control; not windy, not cold, but also not too hot. A calm sunny 65 degree setting at dusk would be perfect. And I have got to stay healthy between now and then. Injuries are a big part of running. You have to push your body as hard as you can without breaking down. That is where my coach comes in. It is so important to have a coach you can not only talk to but also one who listens to you. You have to trust your coach.”

Determined to concern with only what he could control, Guy Alton pushes confidently but with fingers crossed into the most critical stage of his training, fully aware that lady luck can be a harsh and fickle mistress.

It has been one year since my chance running shoe store encounter with Guy Alton and Nell Rojas. In October, 2015, I return to Boulder for my 4th and final update upon the progress on each’s quest.

Both have lived on the economic margins long enough, they say, surviving on macaroni and cheese and tuna most every day, living at home with mom at 27 years of age or sleeping on at friend’s couch at 30. Both have put off relationships long enough, of not having the time to devote to a significant other, tired of their running shoes riding shotgun.

I have followed the paths of Nell Rojas and Guy Alton for one year because I wanted to know what it is like to be so near the best, better than 99.9%, but still so far from the top. You work as hard, maybe harder than the champions do, but your payback is miniscule when compared to the rewards heaped upon the champion.

In America we love numbers, we love to rank. The Fortune 500, the Final Four; we relentlessly chart the numbers, compare and then re-rank. And with the case of Nell and Guy, most of the world is behind but the few that matter, where their competitive focus lies, are the few who are still ahead. Trying to catch the elite few is a frustrating chore. Do you try a new diet, a new coach, a new technique? Or do you reach a point where you settle to, where you accept your rank and move on with your life?

In terms of the quest, both have now called it quits – kind of - and outside of a few friends and workout buddies, nobody takes notice. No announcement on Sports Center, no news conference, not even a friends’ only get together to drink away the old and toast in the new. Nothing, and as maybe it should be because it fits with the process both know so well: growth, dreams, reality, struggle and then finally; the truth.

I find true inspiration in those tilting at life’s windmills. If we are honest with ourselves, as we age, we look back at the dream that got away and anguish that if only we could turn back time and find the intestinal fortitude of those who do not surrender the aspirations of their youth so easily, the "what if" haunting us as the years roll by. What more contentment can the truly committed, like Guy Alton and Nell Rojas, seek? This is their struggle - to do. Never achieving, perhaps? But they are the blessed, they got to struggle, they have felt the burn.

It is the great paradox - should we hold out hope against hope, chasing a noble dream?  Or should we find victory in acceptance of our human body’s fallible state? When does hope transcend to foolhardiness, and when does acceptance become negativity?

As an off and on heavy weight champion of the world, from the early 1960’s through the mid 1970’s, Muhammad Ali mesmerized the world with his lighting fast fists and his curt and off beat wit. He should have quit in 1974 after the “Rumble in the Jungle” and “Thrilla in Manilla,” his reputation as the greatest fighter in the history of the ring, long ago cemented. Instead, “The Greatest” became a traveling sideshow carnival act, once sparring with a martial arts fighter in Japan, another time a rigged bout with a professional wrestler. Ali carried on such sham exhibitions for ten years, prostituting his legend while claiming he needed the money. In 1980, his hands showing noticeable trembles, Ali fought Larry Holmes, the reigning heavy weight champ. The Greatest was destroyed by a fighter who could not have served as a sparring partner for an in prime Ali. A ring side observer described the mismatched bout as, “like watching an autopsy performed on a life person.” Sadly, after the Holmes debacle, dementia and Parkinson’s disease finally forced Ali out of the ring and the public eye. Today, the once glib champion is relegated to a cloudy world of a punch drunk has been.

Aging basketball super star Kobe Bryant was recently told by Los Angeles Lakers’ Hall of Famer Jerry West, "Don't play beyond your time," which led to Bryant’s logical follow-up question: "How do you know when it's your time? How do you know?" Bryant then put the same question to the recently retired soccer super star David Beckham. "You just know," Beckham replied.

Nell Rojas always knew she had to someday step out of the pool, off of the track and park her bike. That day has come. “I have given up on the triathlon,” she tells me in October, 2015. “I was just tired of always been tired, tired of always being broke and tired of the pressure to push even harder. I am still running and don’t ever see that changing. I have run a few road races since quitting the Tri and have done pretty well. There is a big part of me that says to keep on running, just not on as intense level as I was, I love the competition, I love the support you get here from the running community. I will never give that up.”

Rojas has still not settled completely upon a career path, but will soon begin EMT training with the goal of within a year getting accepted into Physician’s Assistant school. “I still want to make an impact on people, especially young people,” she says. “My undergrad with physical performance fits well with this. I think I can do well.”

While Rojas claims to have crossed over into the post running years, Guy Alton has hedged on his earlier promise to move on after the recently completed summer track season. “I am going to keep with it,” he informed me as we shared a meal. But what of your one-year self-imposed limit on pursuit of the four-minute mile, I ask? “I didn’t make it. I broke down this past spring and I just didn’t have the juice I needed during the summer racing season. But it’s all good. I am (now) running the highest mileage I ever have, over 100 miles a week,” he reports with obvious pride.

“I ran the Rock and Roll half marathon last week in Denver in 70:50 and finished 7th. My fitness is way beyond anything it has ever been. The high altitude training has done its thing. But my legs, oh man, they are dead. The idea is to train at altitude and then race at sea level. I am anxious to see how I will do when I get that chance. I still think I can break 4:00 in the mile and 14 in the 5K. Those would be great accomplishments and I am not giving up. Actually, just the opposite, I am super optimistic right now.”

So you are delaying any permanent focus on career I asked? Are you still content to work odd hours in a shoe store and crash on the couch of friends? “Once again just the opposite,” Alton says. “I have a second interview in Portland coming up with Adidas for a job in their sales department. They like the fact that I am still a high level competitive runner. As a product rep, dealing directly with coaches, it gives me real credence and immediate acceptance. I hope by January, the new year, to be on a more direct route to my future. Combining my training with a high level performance company like Adidas would be a dream life come true.”

“I have loved my time in Boulder, Alton says. “It was the right decision for me to move out here. It has really gotten my life on the track I want it to be on. The future looks very good and my love of running will continue to drive what I do.”

What are the odds of you ever running a 4-minute mile or a sub 14 5K, I ask? “Probably not good,” Alton says with no hint of discontent. “By it sure has been fun to try.”

I sensed when first meeting Nell and Guy on a raining Boulder, CO fall day a year ago hence, that both were of a special breed, bathing in the struggle, running marvelously where only the truly brave dare to go. Their running may now slow but their respective life’s journeys’ will continue to take both through light and dark places, mountain tops and deep valleys. I hope both will continue to push their boundaries.

For both, that fore looming and imminent day every athlete dreads has arrived. Their goals to join the elite of the athletic elite will not be met, and deep inside themselves, both Nell and Guy know it - even if Alton still hedges. I hope they reflect back on their athletic journey with pride, not a critical eye. Both have fought the good fight. When the dreams of our youth roll from sight it need not imply that our quest has failed, only that the path has now bent. Now, time to move on, move forward. With the God given talents both possess their futures are boundless.

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