As I stood in the midst of organized chaos that is cross country, with its team camps spread out everywhere, groups of runners jogging over the terrain, moving as one like a school of fish, announcers on the bullhorn, I felt alone. Or maybe just the need to be alone.
That wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, so I found the spot where our last conversation in Moses Lake took place. The year before I needed a quote from a Royal kid at the Moses Lake Invite, so I asked a group of Royal guys standing around, who had the best finish? Rudy Flores stepped forward, but Silver Beltran kind of hovered nearby. Rudy had finished 10th in the race and Silver was just a second behind him in 11th. I knew the guys a little bit, so I poked a little fun at Silver.
“Since Rudy kicked your butt, I just need to talk to him,” I said, knowing darn good and well they both competed well enough to talk to.
Silver gave me one of those stoic scowls where his eyebrows meshed into one hairy form of intimidation over both eyes, but stood by as I interviewed his running mate. When I was done, Silver and I had a nice conversation.
I told him of the guy that instilled the love of the game in me and the small-school running dynasty Dr. Joseph Vigil created at then Adams State College. Adams State had won 12 NAIA national championships, but there was still talk that a program from a 2,600 enrollment school didn’t belong at the NCAA Division II level. I smiled as my mind’s eye formulated the picture of Coach. Didn’t belong aye?
They showed up at the D-II National Championship in Slippery Rock, Penn., in 1992 and took their place at the line with the big kids, a lot like the Knights racing against the 4A schools. That’s what I love about the game, once it’s the gun goes off it’s all about who has most heart that wins.
There’s a side story to that race I wanted Silver to know. Phil Castillo was a Pueblo Indian from Acoma, N.M., and his grandmother was terminally sick the week before nationals. Castillo drove back home to the reservation to be with his family. When his nanna crossed over, he had no intentions of going back. No more school. No more running. No more.
His grandfather pulled him aside and convinced him his grandmother would want him to carry on the Pueblo tradition of distance running. He drove all night, jumped on a plane and barely made it to Pennsylvania in time to race.
It was a rainy day in Slippery Rock and Castillo’s glasses fogged. So as he ran he picked out a color and chased it down, then picked out another color and chased it down. As he moved up in the pack, he realized there were no more colors, he had taken the lead. Castillo (32 minutes, 24 seconds) won the national race and when he turned around to see who was behind him, it turned out to be four of his teammates. Adams State won its first NCAA Division II National Championship in 1992 with the only perfect score of 15 in a NCAA history.
I shared that story with Silver, how a Native American kid shocked the world and led a team they said didn’t belong into the history books, hoping it might inspire him to reach for greatness when the going gets tough.
As I sat and watched the Royal kids compete in an elite race at Blue Heron Park on Saturday, they reminded me of the guys that ran for Coach … bunch of Hispanic kids taking pride in running tough. It’s all about heart and the guts to make it count.
It saddens me that Silver Beltran is no longer with us, but I do take comfort that he has found peace in the hands of God, and I will always remember that day in Blue Heron Park when a couple of guys from different worlds talked distance running.
Rodney Harwood is a sports writer for the Columbia Basin Herald and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org