As a high school cross country and track coach, Darren James likes to tell his athletes that running is a metaphor for life.
James says if they can tune out that inner voice screaming for them to quit when things get difficult, or if they can get back up when they fall or shake off a bad race, they’ll forge a strength that will serve them the rest of their lives.
Yet, as a teacher, James says he’s no match for Justin Gallegos.
Justin, a 17-year-old senior distance runner for James at Hart High School in Santa Clarita, California, has cerebral palsy. His gait isn’t smooth. His motion isn’t efficient. He doesn’t have the muscle coordination most people take for granted. Even when he’s running at top speed, Justin is no match for his teammates or most of his opponents. Many times, he’s finished last. Nothing comes easy.
Yet he’s worked hard and improved consistently since Day 1 as a freshman. And that, says James, is why he’s such a wonderful teacher.
“He can sit there in front of the team and talk about the dedication you have to put in and how you fight when it gets difficult and all of those things, and when he says it, it’s like a thunderbolt strike,” says James. “It’s a lot more powerful than when you hear it from someone like me. I think the kids respond to that.
“When he’s out there, I think it’s crystal clear to them what that endeavor is, what he’s bringing to the table, what he’s doing, because they see it and they hear it every single day.”
Which is why, in many races, Justin’s teammates, coaches, parents, classmates and even opponents line the race route as he approaches the finish line to cheer and shout their encouragement.
“I think that could be misinterpreted why people run out there and do that,” says James. “It’s definitely his influence and the inspiration he brings.”
It’s not out of pity for a runner with no hope of winning. It’s out of respect for one with uncommon desire.
Falling and getting back up
Justin wanted to do something athletic and be part of a team in high school. He thought about going out for football as a freshman, but his father, Brent, counseled him to try cross country.
“I don’t like to discourage him or tell him things that he can’t do,” says Brent. “I was just reluctant obviously (and said), ‘As your father I’m concerned you’re going to get hurt.'”
So the two talked to James and fellow cross country coach Larry David. Brent told them Justin had done a lot of work on the treadmill and assured them his son could run the three miles required in a cross country race, and that he would work hard. Both coaches encouraged Justin to come out.
At first, it was rough.
“He fell quite a bit in the first week or so, to the point where I started wondering if it was going to work out,” says Brent. Justin’s knees and elbows took a beating. He had cuts, scrapes and bruises. Brent even bought his son kneepads to cushion the falls.
“He never once said ‘I don’t want to do this,’ or ‘I need a break,’ or ‘I need some time off,'” says Brent. “If he got hurt that day, nine out of 10 times he would just pick himself up and start running again even though his knees were bleeding.”
Justin says he had to get used to the new routine and the hours and the training. Despite the falls, he liked it. His coaches and teammates accepted him and he could feel himself getting better.
“I see it as a way to keep improving on myself,” says Justin. “In the past, and still sometimes here and there, I’ve fallen frequently. I fall more than most of my other teammates just because of how I walk and how my stride is. But over the years I’ve progressively fallen less and less. I’ve become a faster runner and improved on my stride.”
The coaches have a no-cut approach. As long as students show up and work hard, they can be on the team. James says Justin — who’s been running for the junior varsity — is an incredible worker.
Brent admits Justin was discouraged at times early on by finishing last or falling. But he always bounced back. After some time, he embraced the concept of running against the clock instead of opponents. At first, his goals were modest. He wanted to break 30 minutes in cross country by the end of his freshman year. He broke that in his first race.
“For me, that was definitely a sign that we were moving in the right direction and that cross country was going to be something that was going to work for me,” says Justin.
During the past three years, his improvement has been steady in cross country in the fall and on the track (800 meters, mile and 2-mile) in the spring. The exercise and hard work paid off.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot stronger because of the fact I train every day and strengthen my core muscles and my leg muscles,” Justin says. “I think it’s helped me walk better, too.”
This year, he set a personal best at the Woodbridge Cross Country Classic by running 23:58. He says the time made him feel “ecstatic.”
As a freshman, James says Justin ran about 8:30 in the mile. Last spring the goal was for him to go under 7:30.
“He exceeded that and ran 7:14, and I think he’s going to go under 7 and probably approach 6:30 (this spring),” says James. “His improvement has been really great.”
As a senior, he’s run all the courses multiple times, so he can focus on his PRs. When he doesn’t set one, says Brent, laughing, “He’s not happy.”
During the past four years, Justin has become well-known among other Foothill League teams and runners. Often, he says, opponents will congratulate him after races.
“I feel like we almost know all of each other, even though we really don’t,” he says.
James recalls a 1,600-meter race last spring when Justin achieved a goal of breaking 8 minutes, a mark his teammates could sense was in reach as the race unfolded:
“He’s coming down the last straightaway and the kids are running back and forth across the infield and all lined up along the straightaway knowing that here comes this huge goal, and he ended up running like 7:54 that night and broke it.”
James says he’s had the privilege of coaching runners who ran terrific times, “but that 7:54 was no less significant in the scheme of things. And the energy around it was really cool.”
The final race
A few months ago, Justin was the subject of a 5-minute documentary made by one of his classmates, Luke Peckham, called “No Such Thing As A Disability: the story of a runner with cerebral palsy.”
Luke, who’s known Justin since the seventh grade, gave Justin the chance to talk about what it’s like to run with cerebral palsy and what he’s hoping to prove. Clips of Justin running on the school track are woven into clips of the interview.
Luke says it was an opportunity to tell the story of a passionate person.
“Everybody admires Justin for how hard he works for what he wants,” says Luke of the respect Justin’s peers have for him. “People are astonished, so enthused, that he works so hard and does so well.”
To Justin, it’s been a lot of work, but also his passion. Since he started running, he’s become a student of cross country and track. He reads about the sports, the athletes and the finest feats. He says running will be a part of his life forever, and he hopes to continue in college for a club or school team. Someday, he’d like to compete in the Paralympics.
“It’s helped me become stronger physically and mentally,” he says. “It’s helped me learn to never back down from my challenge and always give your best at something. I’ve learned just because I have a disability, I can still do my best at running and improve.”
On Nov. 5, Justin ran the final cross country race of his high school career. For the first time, he ran for the varsity team.
More than 11 minutes after the winner crossed the finish line and almost five minutes after every other runner was done, Justin came in at 26:23.71. Like so many previous races, his final strides turned into a celebration.
“He’s like 300, 400 yards away and everyone started screaming and clapping all the way until he got there,” says Luke. “It was very cool.”
Justin called it an “awesome” and yet “bittersweet moment.”
James says the familiar sight of Justin putting total effort into every workout and every race has connected with many.
“Everyone knows who Justin is in the (Santa Clarita) Valley, so the Valley kind of rallies behind him,” says James. “And it’s so cool, because often times he is the last guy to come across the line, and we’ve been competitive and at each other all day long, and the day always wraps with this perspective, right?
“Justin coming across the line and everybody, regardless of what color singlet they have on, everyone’s out there supporting him.”