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Cristian Soratos finds stride at Montana State

Cristian Soratos' development into an elite runner came after his high school career. Courtesy of Montana State

Cristian Soratos’ family is loud.

They were the loudest at the Montana State University Invitational on Feb. 6. His grandparents, Teresa and Arturo Aldape, abandoned the warmth of Mexicali, Mexico, for frigid temperatures in Bozeman, Montana. His godparents, aunt and Tio Pedro Gutierrez, who recently retired after 35 years as a field worker, also packed the stands at Breeden Fieldhouse.

They wanted to catch a glimpse of the miler. The miler that sent the running community abuzz.

Soratos received the baton and took off.

He remembered hearing his grandmother yelling, “Vamos Cristian! Corre! Rápido!” His aunt shouted, “Corre Chato!” -- her nickname for him inspired by his snubbed nose.

“Being loud in sports has to be a Hispanic thing,” Soratos said.

Soratos anchored the Bobcats to victory in the distance medley relay in a school-record time of 9:55.77. His own split as the 1,600-meter leg was 4:02.

He jogged over to hug his family. Before he got his arms around his uncle, Soratos recalled Gutierrez asking, “Why didn’t you run faster?”

Soratos laughed it off. Aldape brought him in and asked, “What’s your next race?”

The 4x400-meter relay followed.

“What do you think you can run?” Soratos had been running 49-second quarters throughout practice.

“I want to see a 47.”

His uncle put the challenge out, and Soratos accepted it. He split 48.9 to catch a runner that was 20 meters ahead of him. Competitors have learned the hard way not to leave a race against Soratos to the final 100 meters.

The Questions

Soratos took the NCAA track and field community by surprise when he ran a 4:05 mile at the Montana State Open. Because the race was at nearly 5,000 feet of altitude on a flat 200-meter track, his time converted to a 3:56 mile, which ranked him as the top collegiate miler.

Where did he come from?

In the first week of January, Soratos spiked up at a local track in California for a solo time trial to see if he could break the 240-second barrier for the mile. In front of about 150 people, he took off with a pacer. He crossed the finish line in 4:01, solely off of base training.

“I’m ready for sub-four,” Soratos told everyone that day.

The Answers

Soratos was born in Salinas, California, to Mexican parents. The city is known for its farming and -- depending on the season -- has a large concentration of migrant field workers. Salinas is also becoming known for producing world-class runners, including U.S. Half Marathon champion Diego Estrada and world championship runner Danny Tapia.

Soratos’ Tio Pedro consistently runs half and full marathons competitively. Soratos heard enough success stories, so he started running for fun.

“Tio Pedro once decided it was a good idea to run a marathon in the middle of the summer down in Mexicali,” Soratos said. “One hundred ten degrees and 26.2 miles, but he won his age group. He encourages me through his tough and gritty nature. That’s what Hispanic culture is all about.”

At 5 feet tall, Soratos was a late bloomer and never raised too many eyebrows until he hit his growth spurt during junior year and made the cross country varsity team his senior year.

“I was nowhere near being the top guy,” Soratos recalled. “I started finding my talent during my senior year.”

His personal bests were nothing extraordinary, as he ran 2:03.27 for 800 meters, 4:23.26 for 1,600 meters and 9:52.59 for 3,200 meters. There would be no calls or letters from any Division I schools, so he was off to Hartnell College. His brother Vaughn, 25, was already there as a javelin thrower and talked him up to coaches.

“My coach and I joke around when we see the trailers for the movie ‘McFarland, USA’ and call it ‘Hartnell, USA’ because that’s what the culture was like,” Soratos joked. “There was a heavy Hispanic presence there, and it was comfortable. I wanted to keep running.”

Under coach Chris Zepeda, Soratos’ mileage boosted from running about 30 miles per week in high school to the low 80s.

“He wanted to work hard and be successful,” Zepeda said. “Once they got a little bit of that taste, they were willing to do anything. One of the things I preached to community college kids is, ‘You’re halfway there. You competed four years in high school. You made this commitment for another two. Why not go all in and see what you can do once some doors open up? Those same doors may not have been open after high school.’”

The beauty of the junior college track and field system allows for runners coming out of high school without much attention to try different events.

“Working with Zepeda taught me how to really commit and be dedicated,” Soratos said. “You have to work hard if you want to be the best of the best.”

The pain and toils of pushing his body in practice paid off with a Division I offer from Montana State to join its cross country and track team in the fall of 2012.

Not many were expecting what would come in his senior year.

Running Inspired

A week after the Montana State University Invitational, Soratos and the Bobcats headed to the University of Washington’s Husky Classic on Feb. 14. The family members that planned on seeing him race the mile in Seattle had an unplanned stop along the way.

“The night after I ran the distance medley relay, I get a call from my mom, and she told me my Tia Lupe passed away after a long battle with cancer,” Soratos said.

When he last left California, she was feeling better. She exited the hospital for a few days before dying. The last thing on his mind was having his family in Seattle, but running helped him cope with the loss.

After a workout on the track with the team, coach Dale Kennedy took Soratos off to the side.

“Saturday is going to be it for you,” Soratos remembers Kennedy saying.

Upon the conclusion of his aunt’s funeral service, Soratos’ mother and brothers Vaughn and Julian, 15, started their 15-hour drive back Seattle.

On the track, Soratos was getting ready to prove his converted mile time was no fluke. As the pacer stepped off the track with two laps to go, the Montana State star was up in front sporting his signature Sonic the Hedgehog socks that cover up his Philippians 4:13 calf tattoo.

A strong competitor made the pass with 300 meters to go. With 80 meters left, Soratos unleashed a kick that left one announcer saying, “What? Oh, my lord!” and “Who the hell is this kid?”

The board read 3:55.27.

Soratos let out a roar and was congratulated by teammates. Seconds later, he found his mother already in tears from the moment that he crossed the finish line.

“I’m so proud of you, Mijo. You did it. You finally did it,” Monica Aldape repeated as she hugged her son. “Your Tia would be so proud of you.”

Business in Fayetteville

Of course, making a U.S. national team for a world championship or an Olympic Games would be incredible. But there’s a first order of business: Winning the NCAA indoor title in the mile in Fayetteville on March 14.

“When I’m having a tough workout, I’ll envision guys like Edward Cheserek [Oregon] or Chad Noelle [Oklahoma State] in front of me, and it’ll push me,” Soratos said.

Succeeding in silencing the doubters, Soratos has found a new motivation to push himself through the semifinals and leave Randal Tyson Track Center with an NCAA crown.

“I’m having to reassess my motivation after shutting down the haters,” Soratos said. “Now it’s, ‘Can he win NCAAs, or will he choke?’ I don’t mind the talk because it’s motivation. My running does the talking.”

His foundation couldn’t be any stronger.

“I love making my family proud, carrying my name and representing where I started,” Soratos said. “Whether it’s Salinas, Hartnell or Montana State, I want to give back to that community in the very end. I was where those high schoolers are right now with doubts, being unable to go to a university and not much attention. I want to inspire them not to give up.”