Miles of Memories

By Carlos Santos Jr.

For Stony Brook. For the boys.

If this was my last race, I wanted to run it for them.

For the guys who’ve helped me realize that it’s not about how you start the race, but how you finish it. For my teammates and coaches who’ve celebrated each title and supported me through each obstacle.

Refocus.

It’s the quarterfinals at the University of Kentucky.

I needed to place within the top six fastest times to qualify for the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Oregon.

No male track and field athlete had accomplished that feat in Stony Brook history yet.

This was going to be a dog fight.

The sound of the gun clicked my mind into race mode.

Each race is a series of decisions – I just needed to follow my strategy.

I knew the final 800 meters was gonna hurt, and it did.

I finished fifth in my heat, which meant I had to anxiously wait through the next few heats to see if my time was fast enough to make the cut

But when the final heat was over, the times on the scoreboard gave me the miracle I needed.

I jumped off the fence and onto Coach Jason’s back in excitement.

We were screaming in celebration. 

As runners, we pour our heart, bodies, and minds into training for a moment we rarely reach.

The training is worth it either way, but qualifying for the championship made each mile more meaningful.

I kept thinkingmaybe this race was the reason I was meant to stay with Stony Brook for six years. 

It could’ve been any other athlete, but maybe it was meant to be me. 

I went on to compete at the NCAA Championships, where I finished 18th in the 3,000m steeplechase and earned All-American honors.

It was an incredible experience — one I’m still having a hard time describing today.

And it all almost never happened because I loathed running as a kid.

A Change of Pace

If you told me when I was a kid that I’d set program records in college, that running would transform me into somewhat of a role model and also a cool older brother, I probably would’ve laughed.

I was always the smallest and skinniest kid in my group of friends, and I hated losing races.

Plus soccer was in my blood. 

My dad played semi-pro soccer.

My parents are from El Salvador, and soccer is the most important sport there, so even though I grew up on Long Island, running still took a backseat.

In middle school, I ran the mile for soccer practice, and I passed a lot of the other guys.

My friends noticed and encouraged me to join track. 

Hell no, I thought. 

But the universe just kept sending me signs.

I set the school record in the pacer test in gym class. (Okay, I’ve gotta admit, I’m still a little proud of this flex. To anyone who remembers the infamous pacer test and may be curious: I ended with 99, but, to this day, I’m convinced that if the bell hadn’t rang I could’ve reached 100.)

Eventually, my gym teacher signed me up against my will, but I’m grateful in hindsight.

I soon craved the competition and welcomed the camaraderie. 

Before my freshman year, since I felt fast and perhaps a little too confident, I went to my high school coach, Steve Cole, and told him I could run a sub-5 minute mile.

He told me I hadn’t run one on his track yet. 

Then I did. 

We soon became so close I’d call him, “Dad.” 

“What are you doing after school Santos?”

“Oh, I’m going to practice with Dad.”

“Dad” and my teammates lit a fire underneath my spikes.

My teammates and I constantly tried to one-up each other’s PRs.

I ran everything between 400 meters and 2.5 miles, chasing down the next record or competitor.

My “Dad” asked my soccer coach to cut me from the team so I could run longer distances in cross country.

I strode into cross country practice my senior year and told my coach we were going to win the division title.

Oh, and I was going to make him Coach of the Year.

He laughed and told me I was crazy.

We smile about the story now because both of those things came true, and he is still one of my most loyal supporters today.

I’ve run many miles since high school.

I laced up for six years at Stony Brook, both in cross country and track, and represented El Salvador at several international meets. 

The hatred I once felt for track turned into an unconditional and unprecedented love, fueling each step I take today.

Representing El Salvador

One of the most profound moments in my running career, and honestly in my life, came in the summer of 2023 when I competed in the Central American & Caribbean Games for El Salvador. 

My first three races with the national team hadn’t gone so well.

I hit a steeplechase barrier as a rookie at the Central American U23 Championships.

That rattled me.

I questioned whether or not I deserved to wear the El Salvador uniform.
 
Growing up in the States put a natural distance between myself and the El Salvador running community. 

Many people didn’t know who I was.

They didn’t see the hours I devoted to training. 

But my Stony Brook team and coaches calmed my doubts. 

They knew who I was. 

They knew I was ready for this moment. 

With their encouragement, I raced without fear, and won bronze.

Most importantly, I brought joy to the people of El Salvador.

My medal stood for something larger than myself.

It showed the world that El Salvador could compete on an international level, against track giants like Mexico and the United States.

As a little boy, I dreamt of representing El Salvador on the soccer field.

As I stood on the podium with my little brother, I soaked in the joy of fulfilling a different dream on the track instead.

That race will always hold a place in my heart, alongside the many memories of training with the boys at Stony Brook.

They encouraged me every step of my journey. 

We won many track and cross country titles together and also learned some lessons about life.

As a little boy, I dreamt of representing El Salvador on the soccer field. As I stood on the podium with my little brother, I soaked in the joy of fulfilling a different dream on the track instead.

Looking Forward

I want to be clear I’m not done running yet.

I’ve always thought 35 seems like a good age to retire from my running career, and, seeing as how I have many years and miles left before then, I want to continue to compete.

I am currently in the process of finding a running club to join. I also want to secure sponsorships to support myself in the professional running sphere.

I am hopeful that I can find the right fit that will help me continue to grow and improve as an athlete.

As I prepare for my future, I constantly reflect with gratitude on my past.

My high school and college coaches have guided me through every step.

My teammates have encouraged me across every hurdle, on and off the track.

My family has loved me unconditionally as I’ve learned to love running.

For my countries. For my family. For my future.

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