Cesar Fuentes found running later in life - and his run crew even later. We discover why this self-motivated self-starter credits his running crew with opening up a whole new world.
Courtesy Frances Ramirez
Life doesn't always play out the way we think it will.
When Cesar Fuentes was growing up, the closest he got to an active lifestyle was pedaling up and down the streets of his hometown. Then, at just 18 years old, he had his first son - and the door to a healthier, fitter and more active lifestyle could have closed for good.
And yet, we never cease to be amazed at the different ways in which people find running.
Fast forward to today and a smiling Cesar - now a seasoned runner - sits down to talk with us from Chicago, where his partner Kat is about to take on the Chicago Marathon.
"I'm overwhelmed with excitement for her - I'm really proud", says Cesar, who himself has half marathons and more under his belt. "I said to Kat, 'do you think it would be wrong if I wore my medals for this interview?'" he laughs.
This is the story of how, during a turbulent period of his life, Cesar went in search of a hot shower - and found a passion for running.
"Being a city kid. I biked all over the place - it was my means of transportation"
Cesar's upbringing took in multiple towns and cities, but little by way of sports.
"My mother is from El-Salvador, and my biological father is from Ecuador. I was born in Boston, August 25th '81, but I grew up all over the place.", he explains. "I graduated from Cambridge and I lived in Cambridge the most, so I consider myself Cambridgian".
"Growing up I was active, but not involved in organized sport. I would hang around the streets, run round, ride bikes, steal bikes… stupid stuff," Cesar recalls. "I liked sports and I watched it, but I never participated. I did do a bit of minor league baseball - but I used to be a big kid so I couldn’t really run, they just put me as a catcher."
While he didn't get involved in much organized sport, Cesar didn't live a totally inactive lifestyle. It was on the streets, as opposed to the pitch or the court, where Cesar could be found on-the-move. However, exercise was simply a means to an end, not something Cesar actually thought about.
"I did bike a lot, being a city kid. I biked all over the place because it was my only means of transportation. Anywhere, everywhere, anytime. Never with a helmet, and sometimes with no seat or brakes either," he recalls. "It was just how I got around. As long as I had two wheels, I was good to go."
Thanks to limited physical activity and a sub-optimal diet - "...I didn't eat healthy. It was all rice, beans, meat, bread, carbs…” - Cesar admits he wasn't in good shape, describing himself (in typical light-hearted style) as a "voluptuous man".
Courtesy Frances Ramirez
When he got to high school, Cesar did show an interest in signing up for football. However, after missing the deadline, "The one time I tried to motivate myself to do something… it didn’t happen", that moment to embrace a more active lifestyle came and went.
If the first chapter of Cesar's story was that of missed opportunity, the subsequent chapter is defined by a single life-changing event.
"I didn't want him to grow up like me…I wanted him to be better than what I was”
Cesar's first son was born when Cesar was just 18 years old. Very few - if any - of us have our lives together at such a young age - and Cesar knows that he wasn't ready to raise a child of his own.
"It was a shitshow, to be honest with you," Cesar admits. "I was growing up at the same time as my kid was growing up. I wanted to go and party. I made a lot of bad decisions, I was reckless… ultimately I was still a kid myself."
Despite the challenges of raising the child at such a young age, and an on-off relationship with his then partner, Cesar was lazer-focused when it came to the health and wellbeing of his son.
"I kept him active," explains Cesar. "I didn't want him to grow up like me. I always wanted him to be better than what I was - and what I am. So he played baseball, soccer and, later, football."
Enabling his son's active lifestyle was no small commitment from Cesar, whose weekends and - increasingly - weekday evenings centered around his son's games and training sessions.
"It was a lot at times - and in the winter it could be bitterly cold out there, with ice on the grass," Cesar recalls. "But it was for him - and I loved every moment of it, giving him what I didn't have. Every weekend was the same: get up, grab a coffee, and go."
Cesar sacrificed a lot to give his son a healthy lifestyle, not least the energy and headspace to pursue an active lifestyle for himself.
"I wasn't thinking about myself - I had a kid to worry about! I was basically living and eating. By Friday night I just wanted three things: to eat, get full, and lay down."
"I needed to find somewhere to shower… and there was a gym right down the street"
Courtesy Frances Ramirez
It wasn't until years later, after the birth of his second son, that Cesar started to live an active lifestyle. Even then, after a couple of false starts, it was chance that started his running journey.
Running wasn't completely alien to Cesar, who had accompanied his uncle on runs in the past - albeit following him on two wheels! Eventually, he got the "itch" for wanting to go for a run - and started by trying to run a mile in his local neighborhood.
"I was aiming for a mile, but I don't know how I measured it! I had no Fitbit, no Apple Watch, or anything like that."
When Cesar does something, he goes all in. However, when it came to running, that attitude saw him push a little too hard, causing Cesar to "fall off" more than once, before taking up running again. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that, by chance, Cesar found a stable active routine.
"Me and my ex had broken up and I had moved out," Cesar explains. "I was staying with a friend and I didn't want to be a burden to him, so I was looking for somewhere I could shower each morning."
"It turns out there was a gym right down the street. So every day I went there, worked out, got my head straight - and had a shower! I did that for about 3-4 months, but at the time I wasn't particularly doing it to be healthy, I just needed somewhere to shower."
While it wasn't intentional, Cesar's new routine helped him to run regularly as part of his gym workouts, without him overdoing it or burning himself out. It was the beginning of a running journey that soon saw Cesar joining up with other like-minded people - including his partner Kat.
"Being part of a running crew was mind-blowing, to be honest with you"
Cesar met Kat at the same gym where he had begun working out - at a moment in time when both their lives were on similar upward trajectories in terms of fitness and health: "She was on her fitness journey, I was on mine. And then when we met we started working out together."
Cesar was always more keen on running than Kat, and it was he who first came across one of Boston's incredible running crews while out for a run in his neighborhood.
"We moved into the Hyde Park neighborhood - and I was running through there when I came across this big group of runners [who were part of the Live Fit Army run team]. They said 'Hey, come running with us on Wednesdays!'. So I went back and told Kat, we ended up joining them the following Wednesday… and that was that!"
Courtesy Frances Ramirez
Through word of mouth, the pair also discovered Boston running crews TrailblazHers and - eventually - PIONEERS Run Crew.
"It was mind-blowing to be honest with you," explains Cesar. "PIONEERS made us feel welcome, showed us love, and the support was fantastic. That’s what got us in."
"That was before we knew you guys partied," he laughs, "Before we knew you all got down with the get down!"
"I didn't see people like me at races - I didn't see a lot of big folks"
Cesar has no problem self-motivating himself when it comes to running. "I run because I want to be there for my boys - I don't want to die young," he says. "I'm not saying that running will guarantee health, or life for that matter, but I want to live healthily."
While he was incredibly self-motivated, joining a running crew opened up a whole new community for Cesar, and ultimately made it easier for him to get out on the street and clock up the miles.
"Running is awesome. It's therapeutic, it clears my mind, it keeps me centered - it’s everything that I need," Cesar explains. "But it's also a love-hate relationship. When you first get up in the morning, when you make that first push on your run, it's hard."
"And then I joined the run crew and it opened up a brand new community that I could be a part of. I was already dedicated to running, but having that community made it easier to push myself, or to just get out there and run in the first place."
"It's also expanded my horizons, I'm out here now in Chicago because of it. We’re running in Chicago tomorrow." Cesar pauses. "... I would have never thought that."
Prior to finding running crews like Live Fit Army, TrailblazHers and, in particular, PIONEERS Run Crew - Cesar had never come across a running group that he could identify with. He'd never seen running crews on the streets before - and the groups he came across at race events didn't seem like something he could be a part of.
"[Those running groups] were all white ladies, white guys," explains Cesar. "They were skinny - and they all wore these big jerseys because they were so skinny! They didn't seem approachable to me, I didn't think I fitted into a group like that. I didn’t see people like me at the races, there weren't a lot of big folks."
Courtesy Frances Ramirez
Even if Cesar had felt more comfortable approaching these groups, they were a far cry from the atmosphere that Cesar later discovered with the likes of PRC: "I certainly never saw a group of coloured folks, lit, with the radio on, just jamming!"
"There's nothing that you can't do, if you really want to do it"
As our chat with Cesar comes to a close, we turn once again to the Chicago Marathon - and the future beyond that. Tomorrow Cesar will be there to support his partner Kat every step of the way, and is keen to run a marathon himself in the next year ("Previously I had the longest run in the house - and now Kat's going to be running a marathon? No no no!").
There's no escaping that marathon's are really, really tough. But after spending an hour in his company, it comes as no surprise that Cesar has a clear and optimistic philosophy when it comes to achieving goals.
"It will be a rollercoaster, it will be tough, but there's nothing that you can't do - if you really want to do it," says Cesar. "With dedication, the right mindset and the right group of people - it's do-able."
Cesar's story shows that, even if you’re self-motivated and you get by just fine on your own, finding a like-minded community to run with can still expand your horizons, show you new ways of doing things, and even take you to new places.
New places such as Chicago, where Cesar plans on following Kat's progress via a familiar means of two-wheeled transport.
"I want to rent myself a bike or a scooter," he says. "And then I'll be able to follow her around the course and make sure it’s alright."
Life doesn't always play out the way we think it will - but some habits stay with us forever.
Courtesy Jason Williams