“The body is a marvelous machine, and you can have it do just about anything,” said Roel Gonzalez, a UTSA student who is pushing his body and mind beyond the brink of what many consider humanly possible.
Gonzalez is an ultrarunner, which means he belongs to an exclusive group of individuals that have completed a run of over 26.2 miles. But the word “ultra” may not do justice in describing the extraordinary runs that Gonzalez has successfully completed over the past four years.
In Oct. 2015, Gonzalez attempted an absurd 223 mile trek from Austin to Corpus Christi in under 66 hours with only six hours rest. The incredible feat required careful planning. Gonzalez had his parents accompany him by car to provide both physical and emotional support. “My mom and dad were my crew,” said Gonzalez.
“They would wait for me two to five miles down the road. I’d get there, refill my bottles and snack on something.”
To replenish the calories burned during his run, Gonzales needed to consume 200 to 400 calories every hour. In order to do this, he had to get creative — eating everything from gas station breakfast tacos to sandwiches along the way. Imagine Gonzalez running down the side of the road with a breakfast taco in hand in full workout attire.
The breakfast tacos he ate during his run were not an anomaly. Due to the enormous number of calories burned during ultra races, aid stations that line the path every few miles have a variety of snacks many of us consider junk food along with water and Gatorade.
“It’s confusing,” said Gonzalez, “because you see the regular races and they have the bananas, the healthy stuff, the [protein] bars. You get to some of these ultra runs – they have Oreos, M&Ms and quesadillas.” When you burn calories like these runners do, anything with sugar (containing super-high amounts of calories) is crucial.
Despite Gonzalez’s impressive training regimen (on average running 12 miles per day) leading up his Austin-to-Corpus run, he faced some setbacks.
Around mile 66, Gonzalez felt some grumbling in his stomach – a result of dehydration, something a person just standing in the staunch Texas heat might experience. But he persisted, grinding through stomach pain and fatigue while his body began to shut down on him. He began to think to himself, “why am I doing this?”
In order to understand what kept him going that day, you need understand where Gonzalez comes from.
Gonzalez is no stranger to tough situations. He enlisted in the Army at the age of 17. He served as an infantryman on the front lines for 12 years.
He began his running career while in the Army, seeking the health benefits, clarity and peace of mind that came from it. Gonzalez did most of his running on treadmills in workout facilities while stationed in various bases across the Middle East. Content with staying in the military and finishing out his tenure, Gonzalez had to change his plans.
He was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. After his body rejected chemotherapy, he was forced into the intensive care unit. “I knew it was serious when my parents came to visit me,” he explained. Thankfully, after six months and multiple rounds of chemo, Gonzalez recovered.
At the age of 28, dealing with a myriad of personal problems extending beyond his health, Gonzalez left the Army.
“I was spiraling down a dark path,” Gonzalez stated, “I drank quite a bit. I got divorced. I wasn’t around my kids much.” Beginning his new post-military life was difficult, but instead
of running away from his problems, Gonzalez decided to use running to work through his issues. “I went for a run,” he said, “that’s what grounded me.” And still keeps him grounded to this day.
With his family at his side and a desire to bring awareness to the thousands of men and women that have passed away, Gonzalez trudged through the final mile of his 223 mile excursion on a humid day in Oct.
“The main purpose behind that run was veteran suicide awareness,” he stated.
While describing the physical toll that comes with carrying out ultra-marathons, Gonzalez said, “I’ve lost two toenails, I’ve fallen down a lot.” The constant pound- ing of foot against earth is astounding to withstand for multiple days.
The road is Gonzalez’s sanctuary and the world an untapped trail for him to explore. But it’s not for the accolades or the shiny belt buckles they award ultra- marathon runners. Gonzalez runs for his life. “I use it as my medicine,” he said. Gonzalez has completed seven races of 100 miles or more and two 100 kilometer runs in the past four years; Yet his modesty prevails – “I’m just an average Joe,” he said.
It’s apparent that this not-so-average Joe has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. He hopes to grow awareness for the sport and inspire others to follow in his footsteps.