RIO RANCHO — Here’s a narrative twist in what usually is a straightforward sport: Tim Martinez had a scholarship to run cross country in college before he ever completed his first varsity race in high school.
On Saturday morning, he finally had one of each.
“It felt so good to race again,” Martinez said.
Almost exactly 18 months after his first attempt — which could have ended his life — the Rio Rancho High School senior crossed the finish line at the Rams’ invitational meet.
Where he finished — in sixth place — was not nearly as important as simply finishing.
“I’ve been working so hard for this,” Martinez said.
It was early September 2019, at Cleveland High, when Martinez, then still relatively new to running, collapsed within sight of the finish line.
He left the facility a few minutes later by ambulance, and spent the next three nights in a Rio Rancho hospital after suffering what amounted to a severe heat stroke.
“At the beginning of that race, I felt really good. We got off the line and I immediately went right to the front,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “Second mile, I put myself in a good place; I just wanted to kind of keep it there.
“(In the final mile), I was not feeling good at all. I was getting dizzy and lightheaded and not seeing straight. I thought about stopping a couple of times, but I wanted to finish the race.”
His Rams coach, Sal Gonzales, was attuned to Martinez’s plight.
“He really looked bad,” Gonzales said. “But not bad enough to pull him off the race. … (But) he was in really bad shape.”
Two Cleveland coaches, including head coach Kenny Henry, noticed that Martinez was in distress and ran with him for part of the race.
Henry was emotional and began to tear up as he remembered that day.
“He couldn’t hear a word I was saying,” said Henry, who has known Martinez since he was a child. “He was gone.”
Although Henry suggested Martinez pull up and to walk to the finish, Martinez said his competitive pride overrode logic.
“I remember being so embarrassed,” he said. “I was on the ground and everyone was checking on me. My dad was like, ‘Tim, don’t go to sleep.’ They gave me a bunch of IVs in the ambulance to keep me from dying. They said I could have died that day.”
It was his first-ever cross country race.
He had given up playing wide receiver for the Rams a few months earlier, during his sophomore track and field season, in the spring of 2019. He was going to run sprints, which receivers often do during track season.
“He wasn’t comfortable asking his dad to buy spikes (for sprinting), and he already had running shoes,” Rio Rancho coach Sal Gonzales said. “So he did distance.”
He competed enough two years ago to develop a taste for the distances, and said he experienced no regrets leaving football behind.
“He showed a real knack for it,” Gonzales said.
But, the night before his varsity debut at Cleveland, he failed to hydrate. He didn’t hydrate, or eat, the morning of the race, either. Those factors, in addition to the heat of that day, plus setting a pace that proved unsustainable, all contributed to his collapse. He knew something was horribly wrong in the final third of the race.
“I saw my buddy, he passed me — and he hasn’t passed me the whole season,” he said.
Martinez said he also suffered some liver and kidney damage as a result of that day. Doctors put him on the shelf, and he served, more or less, as a team manager the rest of that season.
Martinez didn’t return to cross country that fall, not for lack of trying.
He did eventually come back last spring, and ran a single 3,200-meter run at Sandia Prep, but the pandemic shut the season down a few days later. That remained the only completed varsity race he’s done at Rio Rancho.
“I am really nervous about Saturday,” he said 48 hours prior to the race. “I don’t want the same thing to happen again.”
It didn’t. It was the first of three races for the Rams in this shortened season.
But his running career will have some longevity. Remarkably, Martinez, even without a single completed cross counetry race to his name, earned a scholarship offer from New Mexico Highlands with literally no resume to speak of. Highlands is Gonzales’ alma mater; Martinez signed last November.
“One of the things that his teammates would say is, that he’s got a great competitive fire,” Gonzales said of Martinez. “People always say that about kids, and it’s kind of a cliche, but he really loves hard workouts. He’s really gotten into the process of training hard.”
Gonzales said a specialized device that allows athletes to certify training times and bolster their recruitment was of benefit to Martinez, who had to creatively put together a body of work in lieu of actual course competition times.
“I’m just really grateful for the opportunity,” Martinez said. “I can’t wait to get out there and start putting in mileage with the guys.”