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Posted On July 1, 2009 By In Interviews And 1037 Views

Jose Lopez: Of Running and Balance

He looks like he’s working so hard, with his jaw clenched tight as if he’s grinding down his teeth, and his head with a slight roll. JOSE LOPEZ, 24, is preparing for the San Francisco Marathon, July 26. His feet, wearing Brooks T3 (Brooks Adrenaline for races), pound the track mercilessly. He’s leading 30 souls around the track at a Tuesday Night Track session where the heat is almost intolerable. Sweat flies off his jet black hair. But, because he’s going so fast, it lands 8-10’ behind him. The others following are trying to hold on to his arduous pace without catching a shower.

The sweet-looking kid from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, is hoping to better his first marathon time, San Antonio’s 2:58 in November 2006. Although he admits he didn’t know how to train or run a marathon then (his longest run was only 90 minutes), he was in 8th place overall, next to leader LISA GALVAN, for the first 20 miles. “Then it took me 58 minutes to do the last 10K,” he laughes. “I wentfrom 8th place to 21st.  I was contemplating dropping out, but just finished.” His official time of was 2:58:47 (a 6:50 average pace per mile), placed him second in his division. “My first marathon was shortly after my undergrad,” he says. “I didn’t really know what to do after college so I figured I would do a marathon.” He was 21 years old.

At the upcoming July race, he also wants to show the Brooks shoe company that sponsors him, he is worthy to be on their team. Brooks recently brought him to their Seattle area offices. “I found out about Brooks through my Southwestern [University] coach, [former Dallas resident, and five-time Olympian] Francie Larreau-Smith, and applied.” Brooks brought him on board after looking at his college times and his commitment to the sport and running community. He has enjoyed the association since then.

Before his parents came to Dallas, both were esteemed teachers in Mexico. After moving, his dad, Juan, worked construction, while Jose’s mom, Irma, became a house keeper before becoming a degreed teacher here. Jose talks at a smooth, evenly paced tempo, much like he runs. And he is as eager to talk as he is to run.

“I was always the person that tried to please everyone. Of my family, I would say I was pretty social. It is an understood rule in my culture to be well mannered and respectful.”

Born April 4, 1985, Jose was two years old, and his brother, Juan, four, when they arrived with the parents in Dallas in 1987.

“We lived in what is now Uptown before gentrification occurred. After that, we moved to Pleasant Grove for a couple of years. Then we moved to Richardson and that is where I attended Berkner High School, about two miles from my home. Both my parents worked and I stayed after school because of athletics. I clearly remember walking up and down those streets to get home every day.” Jose lives in the same house today, while his parents moved to Rockwall after their kids graduated high school.

Basketball played a large part of his life growing up; playing the game, collecting basketball cards, and following his favorite team. “I still remember following the Bulls and all the titles they won with Jordan, Kukoc, Pipen, Rodman, etc.”

He also enjoyed the normal activities such as playing sports, including tennis and running.

“At the time my brother was an accomplished runner entering his senior year of high school [Juan Lopez, 4:29, 1600m], and a cousin who ran 4:11. [Pablo Solares is the Mexican record holder in the mile, 3:53.] It seemed fitting that I would be involved in it as well. I still remember the first day Coach Estell told us to run around he neighborhood, about two miles, and I was the last person, behind the Junior Varsity Girls.” But he improved quite a bit , finishing the season with a low 17 minute 5K. Still compared to his brother and cousin, he says, “I wasn’t very good. Compared to them I was very mediocre. I think my best mile in high school was a 4:44, which didn’t get in the top five at the District meet.” But he did make the All City team for Richardson, no simple feat. “I just kept at it and slowly started improving.”

Jose has two favorite moments. One was placing 12th overall at a championship college cross country meet, and earning the All-Conference title at the age of 19. The other was the first time he broke 5:00 for the mile while in high school. He ran 4:59.

His brother Juan was one of his biggest influences, Jose says, and he has always admired him. He excelled in school and sports. “He graduated 4th in his class, went on to Princeton, and has accomplished much more. I always tried to break his 1600m record.” Juan is now attending law school in Houston. “I always looked up to my family members.” Jose has over 20 uncles and 50 cousins.

“My dad, who would work over 12 hour days, in horrible conditions to put food on the table, and my mom, who would also work some degrading jobs, always made sure my brother and I never needed anything.” Jose’s mom was a runner in San Luis, Mexico, before having children. She also was a member of the national woman’s basketball championship team. After her parents passed away, Jose’s mom raised nine kids by herself on a small military pension that was given to her. “I heard some great stories from my older uncles and aunts about her. Sports run in my family,” he smiles. He has another cousin who plays professional basketball in Mexico and has represented the country in that sport.

“We didn’t have much money,” he says about growing up. “So I didn’t participate in any little league soccer or anything like that.” But then he began playing the violin for six years before moving to the bass, “Since I was the one with the biggest hands. It came pretty natural to me.” He played through high school and college, earning a scholarship. Today, he still plays the violin and double bass, occasionally with the acclaimed Mesquite Symphony Orchestra. “One of the hardest pieces that I played was ‘Requiem.’ It’s mainly played by professional symphonies. I was the only bassist, so if I screwed up everyone knew.”

But there was also the value of hard work Jose would learn from watching his parents struggle to meet the needs of a family of four. Not having enough money was his biggest fear. “Sometimes we wouldn’t have enough money to get groceries. I started working when I was 13, over the summer and winter break, painting rich people’s houses. I vividly remember being on my knees inside a huge closet, hundred degree temperatures, sanding the base boards so that they could be painted. I felt like I was suffocating in there. I will never forget that feeling. I learned early the value of money and hard work.”

After high school in 2003, Jose earned an academic scholarship to Southwestern University in Georgetown. He graduated a year early at 21. “I would have loved to have stayed for four years. But I still had to pay for room and board. It is a private school. The price was similar to that of SMU [$30,000 per year]. I was traumatized with the money situation. Even though most of my classmates didn’t worry about that, it was always on the back of my mind.”

Jose majored in psychology, with a thesis on neuro-psychology (published in the Science of Neuroscience), and minored in religious studies. He earned his Master’s degree at 23, at Texas Women’s University in August of 2008, in teaching bilingual education. He is currently earning a second Master’s degree as a school counselor from Texas A&M-Commerce/Mesquite campus. He currently works as a second grade bilingual teacher for Dallas ISD (Walnut Hill Elementary, located at Walnut Hill Lane and Midway Road), and occasionally takes photos for CHARLES CLINES’ web site, www.clinesrunningcorner.com.

Tonight’s workout at the track is 12 x 400 meters with a two to three minute rest. Jose is beat from the miles he is putting in his legs for the upcoming marathon. But, he says, he knows this is all part of training, that it will make him stronger, better able to withstand the pace he plans to run to gain a personal best.

Still, there others he admires, “From individuals working every day to educate the next generation, to individuals working in the community in order to serve others, and serve God. I admire those that look beyond the material possessions of the world and try to be happy by making other people happy.” He lives up to that standard by volunteering, teaching adult literacy classes for the LIFT (Literacy Instruction For Texas) program.

According to its website, www.lift-texas.org, LIFT has grown into one of the largest and most widely respected adult literacy education programs in the United States. Growth in number of participants is phenomenal. Between 2004 and 2007, the number of adult learners participating in LIFT programs increased by 292% from 2,103 to 6,141. In the past year alone, LIFT has served more than 8,000 adult learners.

“I started volunteering last fall. The classes are free and the majority are low income Latinos that want to learn English. I volunteered because they were in need of teachers and most of the teachers that they have are not educators as a profession. Also, my mom started learning English in this program. So it’s great to help other people that want to learn.”

Jose also volunteers with the Dallas Running Club. Last spring, he was a pacer for their training program. This fall, he will be a coach for the program.

Later, after the night’s workout, breathing comfortably once again, he talks with everyone, mixing naturally. Some laugh with him about the show of strength and athleticism he just displayed, leading every interval. On Sundays, he attends The Cathedral Catholic Church, downtown Dallas, to ask forgiveness for beating the other runners so badly, no doubt.

His favorite race is The Dallas Turkey Trot. “Always fun. A big race in the middle of downtown, and afterward, you get to eat with family and friends. Can’t ask for more.” He appreciates that the money from the race has a direct impact in the community. “I would much rather see this money going to such nonprofits than to Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban.” Some of his other favorite races include: The Butterfly Boogie, Heartbeat 5K, The Congress Avenue Mile in Austin, and The Richardson High School Run.

Given Jose’s training and dedication to his goal, he seems assured of his PR. But, as every athlete knows, there are no guarantees come race day. Anything can happen, and it sometimes does. “The San Francisco race will be my biggest this year.” He hopes to also do The Turkey Trot, and the Dallas White Rock Marathon Half.

Living in Dallas now and having gone to college in Austin has allowed him to see a difference between the two running communities. But, in general, he’s happy to be competing in Dallas. “A handful of good runners compete around here and races are always available to choose from. I’m very happy that I live in the area and have a chance to run against some great runners. The competition is good in Dallas.  Of course I competed in Austin as well, but Dallas has some great runners that run fast times and it’s always great to have that.”

His black cat Bizcocho (sweat bread in Spanish), keeps him company while reading books such as Once A Runner (“Great book!”), This Voice In My Heart (“Story of Gilbert Tuhabonye, the Austin based runner who received 3rd degree burns all over his body in a genocide attempt. Also a good one!”), The Gospel Of Food, or listening to his favorite bands (Intocable, Panteon Rococo, Elefante, Rage Against The Machine, Tupac).
For nutrition, he says he follows the traditional Mexican diet of beans, rice, and tortillas his mom taught him. “Even though I don’t claim to be the best, I think I’m a pretty decent cook for a guy.” But he also enjoys eating out. “I like local, mom-and-pop shops such as Charcoal Burgers, and Pho Hui in Richardson’s Chinatown.” Jose offers the advice of, “Get to know the owners and help small businesses.”

Jose doesn’t consider himself very fashion aware. “Fashion conscious? I hate shopping! I mainly get clothes from relatives and friends on Christmas, and birthdays. I just put on some Brooks shorts, a top, and some shoes. I have weighed about the same since Junior High. I still use clothes I’ve had since then. I guess fashion gurus would say I have no taste. I would tell them they are too materialistic and plastic. Either way, it’s all good.” His social life is still open. Jose says he’s single and still looking.

As opposed to his first marathon, Jose has increased to 70 miles per week. “I have never been a high mileage guy. In college my highest was probably 60. I always concentrated on consistency instead. If I could get consistent runs, day in and day out, then I knew I was getting in shape and increasing my fitness.”

Being very lucky, or smart, he has never had any injuries, just the normal soreness from running. “Some sore ankles, but no real problems,” he says. “I think for me the biggest setback has been getting sick. But I’m trying my best to prevent that and stay healthy as much as I can.”

 Jose’s Training Week

Typical two week schedule:
Monday – tight miles
Tuesday – hills or intervals
Wednesday – eight miles
Thursday – eight miles
Friday – 8miles or rest/cross train (bike)
Saturday – long run 13-20 miles
Sunday – rest or cross train (soccer, bike)

When racing, Jose says he breaks the race down into sections, or “chunks.” He focuses and tries to stay positive through the race, concentrating on relaxing and performing his best. But when training, he clears his mind, trying not to think of the things he has to do, and gets in touch with nature and spiritual matters.
Running is a lifestyle for Jose, inspired by other runners. It’s part of who he is, naturally. “I create a schedule so running becomes like eating. Something [that] just comes naturally. I look at it as something that complements me as a person and is a part of me.” He also likes the health benefits. “I realize how lucky I am as an individual to be living in a great nation and having many opportunities.”

Although he trains mostly by himself due to his schedule, “KYLE WILLIS is a great guy and I love running with him, when we get a chance.”

But even he has trouble sometimes getting out the door to take his first step to begin a run. “One thing I learned is if I just start out, I will start feeling better. I think of all the people that have run faster [than me] and realize that if I want to run with those individuals, then I need to get out there. On the other hand, I’ve learned not to be stupid.  If it’s lightning or real bad then I just need to adjust my schedule. Yeah, sometimes it’s hard to get out there, especially when you are tired and the weather isn’t cooperating.”
He has made some astute observations about the environment we live in. “One thing I have observed is that our society is a very bipolar society. You have individuals that focus a great deal on a particular aerobic sport and advocate for that sport. Outsiders would probably call these people ‘athletic freaks.’ Others have probably considered me that.”

“On the other hand you have what the active people would consider ‘couch potatoes.’  These people tend to be overweight, fairly inactive, and can have some negativity towards the athletic freaks.

“This creates conflict between both groups, in general, because they have vastly different lifestyles and ways of seeing things. I would consider neither party to be exclusively correct on everything. Yet, if we are going to take Dallas and Forth Worth off the map of the fattest cities in America, I think each group should definitely start talking to one another. I think both groups can learn a lot from one another so that all can benefit. I think once this is achieved, and I’m speaking in a utopian way, people would consider DFW one of the best places to live much like Austin is now. I know I’m generalizing and I don’t like to make generalizations of individuals or groups of individuals but I just use this as an example.

 JL’s PRs

16:02 5K – “Want to break 16 this year.”
(He ran 15:55 in June.)

27:20 8K
(College Cross Country)

1:15 half marathon – “I would like to lower that one as well.”

“I went to a lecture [where] a sport psychologist was speaking about exercise and the difference between the two groups and his argument was that at first novice individuals who start off have a lot more negatives. It is only after a certain period of time that these negatives begin to dwindle off and more positives start appearing. So if both groups can work together, I think that would benefit all.”

The punishing heat at the track has let up. Jose does his cool down, and stands with the other runners to chat about running and his Brooks shoes. Jose’s running future is bright. He wants to, “Keep going strong and enjoying every second of it. Run for as long as God will give me the power to do so.”

(P.S. On July 26, Jose ran 2:51:34, a PR by over 6 minutes, in the San Francisco Marathon to place 31st overall.) 

Chris Phelan has written, laid out, photographed, and published The Phast Times News since 2001. He’s crisscrossed Texas on his bike three times, swam 5 miles across Lake Ray Hubbard three times, completed three Ironman triathlons, and has represented the US in completion three times, and run with the Olympic Torch. He maintained All-American status for five years and has also biked across the country, 3600 miles in 30 days. The running/triathlon coach has PR’s of 2:27 marathon, 15:40 5K, 3:55 at the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred, and 10:00:52 Ironman. Chris is the only person to have won overall and Master’s at Dallas’ Crosson Dannis road racing series, DRC road racing series, and the USAT/SMW duathlon series. In 1988 he began Dallas’ oldest track workout, 1998 started north Texas’ first treadmill class, and 2003 he founded the world-wide Ride Of Silence. He’s been twice nominated Master’s Road Runner of the Year, highlighted in a variety of magazines and is frequently asked to speak at camps and organizations about fitness. Outside of swimming, biking, and running, Chris has summited several mountains including Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro.