Running in Mexico

Adriana Fernández (Mexico)
at the NYRRC Women's 10K, 2000
(photo credit: Roland Soong)
Of the athletic sports, perhaps the one that captures the imagination is the marathon.  This is a sport that demands something extraordinary --- a 100m meter sprint is like hurrying to catch a bus, but a 26.2 mile run is not daily routine.  This is also a sport that rewards hard work above talent --- it is impossible to even complete the distance without a serious commitment to training.

The country of Mexico has produced a number of famous marathoners

  • Dionisio Ceron won the prestigious London Marathon three years in a row (1994 in 2:08:53, 1995 in 2:08:30 and 1996 in 2:10:00)
  • Andres Espinosa was second at the Boston Marathon in 1994 by just 4 seconds.  His time of 2:07:19 in that race is the current Mexican national record
  • The best finishing places by Mexicans in the Olympic marathon is German Silva in fifth place at Atlanta and Rodolfo Gomez in sixth place at Moscow.

In the famous New York City Marathon, 

  • Salvador Garcia became the first Mexican winner of this race in 1991 with a winning time of 2:09:28.  Fellow countrymen Andres Espinosa placed second; and Isidro Rico took fifth in the same race.
  • In 1993, after finishing second in the two preceding years, Andres Espinosa took first place in a time of 2:10:04.  Months before the race, Espinosa had replaced the Volkswagen symbol on his Jetta with a Mercedes-Benz ornament, representing the spoils of a New York City victory. Then he went to a forest near Mexico City to train at altitude (9,000 feet to be exact).
  • In 1994, the race was reduced down to two Mexicans near the end, German Silva and Benjamin Paredes on a hot day.  Near disaster struck when German Silva followed a police escort vehicle and took a wrong turn off the course.  Fortunately, he recovered and won in a time of 2:11:21.  Silva grew up without running water or electricity on an orange farm in Mexico's steamy Veracruz state where he ran to school everyday.  According to family legend, Silva took up running after the family mule pitched him off its back one day instead of getting him to class on time.  When asked by the Mexican president what he wished for, Silva asked for electricity for his tiny village of Tecomate.
  • In 1995, in 42-degree weather and windchills, German Silva still ran nearly the same race. He had a competitor at his side most of the way, not distancing himself from Englishman Paul Evans until nearly the 25-mile mark. At that point, Silva sprinted hard and won in 2:11:00 to repeat as the winner.
  • Perhaps the most memorable Mexican male runner is someone who did not win the race.  In 1982, Rodolfo Gomez dueled with the American Alberto Salazar all the way to the end, to finish just 4 seconds behind in 2:09:33.  That memorable race coincided with the rise of the marathon as a competitive sport as well as a mass participation phenomenon.  At the awards ceremony that evening, Gomez spoke in Spanish, at length and with passion. The only available translator was Salazar's Cuban-born father, José, who simply informed the audience, "Rodolfo says he loves New York, and he loves Alberto."  Gomez would go on to become an influential running coach.

What does it take to become a world-class marathoner?  Here is the description of German Silva's training program:

While many world-class runners work out near Boulder, Colo., where elevations range from 5,800 to 10,000 feet, the volcano where Silva and his teammates train - Nevado de Toluca - is higher still. The volcano, known as Xinantecatl in the native Nahuatl tongue, rises to 15,387 feet at its peak, making it Mexico's fourth-highest mountain. The weather surrounding it is a study in contrasts - almost always blisteringly hot at the bottom and frigid year-round at the top.

At those altitudes, a flatlander in marathon shape sees white flashes before his eyes while training. Some runners sleep on their backs at such heights because breathing is too laborious on their stomachs.

Silva and his running partners seek the pain that comes with the altitude. They live for up to a week at a time at a hostel on the mountain at 12,300 feet. Every morning, their feet pound against the sinuous, boulder-strewn paths. Every evening they return in subfreezing temperatures to the hostel, which has no heat, electricity or running water.

In between there are no showers, only a change into fresh running clothes, hasty meals of tortillas and beans and time to think about the training regimen ahead - another day's run up to the crater of the volcano, a second run along a plateau to a volcanic lake, and when the day or week is out, a run down the stark mountain.

"It's a place of suffering, more than anything. ... But doing it proves to yourself that you are prepared to endure a lack of comfort in order to be more, to become more,'' Silva said.

"It is a place you have to understand and have respect for. Running it is so hard that every race seems easy in comparison. For me, it gives me strength.''

Adriana Fernández in the women's marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics

In 1999, Adriana Fernández became the first Mexican woman to win the New York City Marathon in a time of 2:25:06 in a dominant performance by taking charge on a windy day and kept building her lead.  It would come as no surprise that she is coached by Rodolfo Gomez, trains at the Nevada de Toluca volcano and also at the Desierto de los Leones.  What does a victory in the New York City Marathon mean?  Here is what happened immediately to Adrianna afterwards:

"I enjoy going to all these events, but it does take away from your concentration (from training)," she said.  Fernández began running in a Mexico City park at age 15 to keep company with her father Daniel, a former amateur boxer, who told her that she needed to get fit and lose some weight.  She slowly realized she had the talent to go far but still continued her studies to become a lawyer. Fernández completed a five-year program in civil rights law after high school and graduating in 1994 before abandoning law in favor of a professional running career.

In the aftermath of her New York triumph, "there are many more women running in Mexico now,'' she says. "They need more time for you to see them'' at the world class level, "but they will develop.  This is going to encourage more women to run," she predicts. "The competition is going to be much stronger." Her coach, Rodolfo Gomez, concurred. "This will change the mentality of Mexican women. Most are counting on marriage and after that, nothing else. Maybe this will tell them they can do something better than the men."

Ana Guevara, 400m finalist
at Sydney Olympics 2000

Joel Sanchez, bronze medallist
50K race walker at Sydney Olympics 2000

Guadalupe Sanchez, 20K racewalker
at Sydney Olympics 2000

But the strength of a country lies not in one or two ephemeral individuals.  Excellence in international sports competition is usually built on top of mass grassroots participation.  We will now cite some data from the TGI Mexico study.  This is a survey of 11,040 respondents between the ages of 12 and 64 years old conducted by Moctezuma y Asociados in 1999-2000.  According to this study, 2.4% of the respondents said that they practiced athletics in the past 12 months.  Here, the term 'athletics' including running of all forms and distances.  The following table shows the geodemographic breakdown:

Geodemographic Class % practiced athletics
Geographical region
     Mexico City
     Balance of Mexico

Socio-economic Level

     Male 12-19
     Male 20-24
     Male 25-34
     Male 35-44
     Male 45-54
     Male 55-64

     Female 12-19
     Female 20-24
     Female 25-34
     Female 35-44
     Female 45-54
     Female 55-64



(source:  TGI Mexico, Moctezuma y Asociados)

Among those who practiced athletics, 72% said that they either completely agree or somewhat agree with the statement "I make sure that I exercise regularly" compared to 41% in the general population.

The most hated man in Mexico ---
the official who disqualified racewalkers
at the 2000 Sydney Olympics

Noé Hérnandez being interviewed
Joaquín López-Dóriga
on the Televisa network

Noé Hérnandez, 
silver medallist in the 20K racewalk,
2000 Sydney Olympics

A sport can be made more popular through mass and continuous exposure.  According to the TGI Mexico study, only 0.3% of the people have attended a live athletic event in the past 12 months.  At this time, there are simply not many track meets or road races being held in Mexico.  Among those who practiced athletics, live attendance rises up to 25.4%.

According to the same study, 2.7% of the people have watched an athletic event on television in the past 12 months.  We should point out that this survey was completed before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, in which Mexican race walkers had their usual share of good performances.  Among those who practiced athletics, the television viewing incidence rises up to 15.2%.  

Commercially, the TGI Mexico Study reports that 7.9% of the people have purchased one or more pairs of running shoes in the past 12 months.  Among those who practiced athletics, 42.0% have purchased running shoes.  The athletic shoe market is currently dominated by the global brands: adidas (27%), Nike (26% share) and Reebok (16%).



(posted by Roland Soong on 11/10/00)

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