The 2009 Tilden Tough Ten race fell on what might have been the hottest day of the year. It was an unseasonably warm Sunday in May — a day that coincided with San Francisco's 12K Bay to Breakers race, though in comparison to the Tough Ten, Bay to Breakers was a piece of cake. That Sunday the heat wave had begun in earnest. By time the runners lined up at 8 a.m., the air felt heavy and the sun scorched. Such extreme weather didn't bode well for the 300 runners about to tackle a hilly, ten-mile trail along Nimitz Way. "People were dying out there because it was so hot, and they were very exposed to the sun along the ridge line," said race co-director Gareth Fong. "Tilden had people getting medevacked out." Some runners got heat stroke. A few collapsed by the side of the road. Only one person broke an hour: A 22-year-old Mexican immigrant named Ivan Medina, who also had won last year's Tough Ten. He crossed the finish line at 59:29, more than a minute ahead of his nearest competition. Medina didn't even look winded, witnesses say.
Small and wiry, with cutting brown eyes and a boxer's frame, Medina is the current "it" guy among East Bay long distance runners. After winning this year's Tough Ten, he conquered the Lake Chabot half-marathon three weeks later, crossing the finish line ten minutes ahead of second-place runner Sylvester Coon. Thus, he's now two for three in the 2009 East Bay Triple Crown Championship, which culminates this Sunday with the toughest race of all, a nine-mile behemoth called Woodminster, which loops through Joaquin Miller and Redwood Regional parks. It's a rugged course that ascends a steep single-track trail and then delivers a second, one-mile hill called "Woodmonster" that starts at the bottom of a canyon and peaks near the highest point of Redwood Park. Last year Medina won the Tilden Tough Ten handily, but bailed on Woodminster because he got annoyed by all the gender and age handicaps. As of last Friday, he hadn't yet registered, but he says he plans to show up on race day. Fong tried to entice him with the prospect of a $100 prize — which means that Medina would just about break even if you add up the registration fees for all three races. He'll also get his name on a trophy that's displayed at TranSports running store on College Avenue. Medina says he'll do it for the glory.
Medina grew up in Michoacán, Mexico, where he played soccer just about every day as a kid — even when the temperature rose to 100 degrees. He immigrated to the United States at age fifteen and moved into his mother's house in Hayward. She had already been living in the East Bay for several years and started a new family here. Medina lives with his mother, her husband, and his younger half brother in a small house on Mission Boulevard. It's filled with bric-a-brac from their mother's burgeoning collection. Medina hangs out there with his half-brother during the afternoons, since he has about a four-hour lull between his morning workouts and his night job making pizzas for Domino's.
But even on his off hours, Medina never really stops moving. When he's sitting on the couch he leans forward like a runner crouched in position, with his eyes trained on some invisible finish line. Medina is an entirely home-grown athlete. He learned to play soccer on the streets of Michoacán, then played offense for the team at San Lorenzo High School. He ran for fitness back then — maybe three miles a day, at a moderate pace. During his senior year he started running with his high school soccer coach, who also was a distance runner. They began doing nine-mile loops around Lake Chabot, and Medina got in the habit of timing each of his workouts. He enrolled in Chabot College and joined the cross country team at Las Positas, where he became a star athlete. He kept ratcheting up his daily exercise regimen until it required super-human stamina.
Take last Friday's morning workout. It began with a three-mile jog over to Cal State Hayward, at an easy pace ("easy" for Medina is about 7:30). Then twelve sets of 400 meters, 73 to 75 seconds each with 50-second rests. Three miles easy back home, for a total of nine miles. The next day, he said, "I'm doing nine miles 'tempo.' It's like running 80 percent. You just keep the pace. I start running like a 5:40 mile and then finish with 5:30 miles." To top it all off, Medina said he'd be running around Lake Chabot, which isn't the same as flat road running — it'll be a grueling, hilly nine miles. The following week, he'll do a practice run on the Woodminster trail, to prep for the June 21 race. In total, Medina said he runs between 80 and 115 miles a week. He also plays club soccer and works out at 24 Hour Fitness four times a week. Some people might think he's overdoing it. Medina demurs. "No skipping," he said. "I think this is the year that I'm going to be competitive. Like, really competitive."
Distance running is a pretty intriguing sport, because it attracts such a mixed demographic, but there's a huge gulf between the people who do it for leisure and the people who do it to win. The conventional wisdom is that casual runners tend to be people of economic means who run for physical fitness or for vanity's sake — or because most of the proceeds go to charity. Then there are the elites, like Medina, who get invited to races, often have their registration fees paid for, and even get special placement at the front of the race. (Medina is an elite-invited athlete to the San Francisco marathon on July 26.) Elites see each other at races time and time again, and wind up forming their own insular group within the larger runners subculture. For them, it's a whole different game.
Medina doesn't listen to music while he runs. He doesn't own an iPod, but might buy a small one when he saves up enough money. He times each of his runs and doesn't cut himself any slack. In his mind, doggedness and self-discipline are indispensable to winning. Medina said he didn't train hard enough for the 2007 San Francisco marathon, and wound up falling apart at Mile 18 — despite being in the top ten at Mile 13. "I'd stop and then run again, and then stop and keep up on running. I ended up running like 3:08." This year will be different, he insists. No stopping, no skimping on practices. "Only if I don't have time," he said. "If I have to work all day, that's when I don't run at all. The next day I kill myself. I do maybe, like, twenty miles. And I do it fast."
His half-brother concurs. "That's it. That's his life," said George Cortez. "His heart belongs to his feet."