ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Alexa and Danielle Aragon run the distance medley relay at the Albuquerque Convention Center Friday in the NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships, it won’t be their first visit.
The sisters and Notre Dame University teammates competed here Feb. 1 at the New Mexico Team Invitational – Alexa winning the 3,000 meters, Danielle finishing second in the 800.
The Aragon sisters’ history with New Mexico, though, goes back much farther than that.
And few athletes come by their running talent more honestly.
Their father, Chuck Aragon, was a state track and cross-country champion for Los Lunas High School in the 1970s.
He went on to Notre Dame, where he became the first New Mexican to run a sub-four-minute mile indoors, and to the 1984 Olympic Trials – where he missed an Olympic berth in the 1,500 meters by an excruciating five hundredths of a second.
He graduated from the UNM School of Medicine in 1987.
Their mother, Kathleen Pfiefer Aragon, a California native, ran for the University of New Mexico in the mid-1980s. Her times in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, 30 years later, still rank her among the 10 best in program history.
Kathy Aragon studied physical therapy in Albuquerque and maintains her license, though she’s not currently practicing. She competed in three Olympic Trials, most recently the marathon trials in 2004.
As kids, Alexa, Danielle and their younger sister Christina – a highly promising runner at home in Billings, Mont. – often visited their father’s family in New Mexico. There, they ran along the same trails and ditch banks on which their dad trained in his youth.
“My dad used to run with my grandma along a ditch pretty close to the house,” said Danielle, a sophomore, from South Bend, Ind., in a phone interview. “… And Bosque Farms, that’s where my dad used to run growing up.”
Chuck Aragon, a Billings anesthesiologist, still runs – but with far less intensity than he did in the ’80s.
“I do a little more biking these days,” he says. “…. (But) I try to run probably three miles a day, five days a week.
“It’s more so I can eat what I want.”
Running, nevertheless, remains a way of life for the Aragons.
Last summer, the family vacationed in Alaska. Learning there was an all-women’s fun run scheduled in Kenai, the four Aragon women all entered. Chuck was restricted to taking pictures.
“The race director introduced everybody to the course,” said Kathy Aragon. “We were out in a nature preserve, and he said, ‘Just watch for bears and moose.'”
Alexa, outdistancing bears, moose and other runners, won the 10K that day. Danielle finished third, Christina fourth.
Kathy finished fifth in the 5K.
Running as a family, Kathy said, has been “a joy. It’s just fun to share something and be physically active together.”
Alexa, a senior, agrees.
“It’s nice to have something the whole family can do together, especially when we’re on vacation,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to go explore different trails (together), things like that.”
Growing up Irish
Virtually since infancy, the Aragon sisters have known their parents were runners. All three got early tours of Billings, in baby joggers, as their mother trained for her next race.
Alexa was 3 years old, she said, when – riding in a baby jogger while her mother did a fun run – she asked to get out and start running.
Still, the Aragons never pushed their daughters into the sport. All three did gymnastics as well, and Alexa never ran competitively, she said, until she entered middle school.
The running gene, though, was too strong.
“It just became something that was second nature to them,” Chuck Aragon said. “They had some early success and enjoyed that, like being successful at anything (is enjoyable). And that’s kind of how it perpetuated.”
Alexa and Danielle won multiple state titles at Billings Senior High School and had plenty of scholarship offers.
Notre Dame was an obvious candidate.
The girls grew up, Chuck said, wearing Notre Dame apparel. The family went to Notre Dame football games. Joe Piane, a track coach at Notre Dame since 1974, is Alexa’s godfather.
Yet, Chuck Aragon said, he took a step back and allowed his daughters to make their own college choices.
Initially, Alexa said, “I honestly didn’t want to go to Notre Dame because my dad went there, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow him. (But) I went on my recruiting trip, and I just really liked everyone that I met, and the atmosphere.”
Danielle made recruiting visits to several other schools, but ultimately, “being able to run with my sister for two more years was a great draw. And, also, knowing how happy she was in the program.”
The sisters say they’ll take a similarly hands-off approach when Christina, a Montana state mile champion as a freshman and a cross-country champion as a sophomore, makes her college choice.
But, said Danielle, “I’d like her to come (to Notre Dame). I think she’d do well here.”
New Mexico fans
How well the Aragon sisters do on Friday depends, in part, on a couple of teammates.
The distance medley relay consists of a 1,200-meter opening leg, followed by a 400, an 800 and a 1,600 anchor leg. Alexa is scheduled to run the 1,200 leg, Danielle the 800.
The Fighting Irish qualified 10th among 12 teams in the relay. But, Alexa said, “I think we have a chance to do really well. We’re changing things up a little bit with our order.”
The Aragons won’t lack for support.
Their parents, who’ve traveled throughout the country to watch their daughters run, will be on hand Friday.
“That’s one of the pleasures of our lives,” Chuck Aragon said.
On hand, as well, will be many New Mexico-based members of the clan.
“I think my dad has told everybody related to us, and all his friends, that we’re coming,” Alexa said. “So we’ll probably have quite the cheering section.”