The King of the Trails
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Rene Villalobos is less than halfway through the 2016 Rocky Raccoon 100 in Huntsville State Park, Texas, when the pain in his back returns. A year earlier, he had fallen on a patch of black ice late at night during Arkansas’ Run LOVit 100K and slipped a disk. The doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to run long distance anymore but, well, here he was.
He grimaces as pain shoots up his back. Soon the sun will sink beneath the canopy of oak trees and sweet gums overhead and out of sight. Villalobos uses a few unprintable words to gripe to his “friend” Sal (James Salvador), an Italian ultrarunner who encouraged Villalobos to quit dropping the F-bomb on long miserable runs and find the joy in running.
“Look at this and this and this,” he would tell Villalobos, pointing at the scenery. “And don’t worry about anything else. Enjoy it! This is all a gift.”
Salvador had passed away nearly 10 years prior, in April 2002, during a low-risk planned surgery. He and Villalobos had been running together for 20 years by that time, and were planning to run several ultras together in the coming weeks. Instead, Villalobos found himself and his sister, Clara, with Salvador’s family as the priest read his last rites.
Villalobos says he’s “not really too much into superstition.” He doesn’t have pre-race rituals or lucky socks. But he does have a lot of running buddies like Salvador who have passed away over the years, and he still communicates with them.
“That’s probably about the weirdest thing I do,” he says. “I always say, ‘Well, I’m going to take my angels for a run today.’”
Miles on Miles
Rene Villalobos (who pronounces his name “Rain-E,” with a delightful Texan twang), 59, of Fort Worth, Texas, is not your typical runner-looking dude. He has dark skin, bronzed by hours in the sun, salt-and-pepper hair and a goatee to match; until a few years ago, he weighed over 200 pounds and possessed a hefty paunch.
But looks may be deceiving in his case. Villalobos has run over 350 ultras, and over 150 100-milers. At one point, he ran nine 100-mile races in nine weeks. Counting unofficial races, by August 14, 2018 Villalobos says he had run 1,117 marathons. On the Mega Marathon List, he is ranked number five, with 1000 official marathon finishes. Let those stats sink in.
“Trying to explain Rene is almost as difficult as trying to explain trail running,” says Joe Prusaitis, the former longtime owner and race director of Tejas Trails, a collection of respected Texas races that includes Rocky Raccoon. Prusaitis has a long history of racing with and hosting Villalobos at races. “And I think the more you understand trail running, the more you would understand Rene.”
While not a household name or podium contender, Villalobos epitomizes a passionate approach to trail running. His training weeks might make even the pros blanch (see page 62 for Villalobos’s weekly running schedule), especially because, for over 30 years, he worked digging ditches and fixing pipes as a plumber, often in 110-degree Texas heat, before going on his weekday runs.
Things changed in 2004 when he got a job as Master Inspector for his hometown of Fort Worth. While he appreciates the air conditioning, being what he calls a “blue-collar runner” makes him proud, and he still does plumbing jobs for friends on the side.
“Once a plumber always a plumber,” he says. “Kind of like once a runner …”
Villalobos’ house is spartan—there’s no TV and few wall decorations.
“You know what minimize is?” Villalobos asks. “That’s me. Anything I have over a year, I get rid of it.”
The exceptions are his race bibs, including marathon-and-under bibs and medals, dispersed throughout his home like tiny monuments to his countless miles.
During the 2016 Rocky Raccoon, Villalobos is using his best sailor mouth to complain to his angels, and “they just sit there laughing,” he says. “They’re probably saying, you paid for it, you dummy, why you out there? You ain’t got nobody to blame but yourself.”
The Rocky Raccoon is made up of four 25-mile loops. It’s getting dark by the time volunteers and spectators catch sight of a Hispanic guy using a thick stick as a cane, moving slowly into the clearing. He’s obviously struggling—his stride is off, and he’s using the stick only halfway into the race. But he doesn’t stop. Villalobos hobbles back into the woods for his third lap, and, when he emerges again, he goes right on for the fourth.
Volunteers watch with concern and hope. The finish line looks increasingly like a ghost town as people pack up and go home.
In the woods, Villalobos repeatedly thumps the stick beside him like a third leg, occasionally griping to Sal, when no one else is around. He shuffles down the singletrack, over little wooden bridges, through brush and pine needles and endless roots as the sun rises.
“Pine trees and roots, that’s all it is,” Villalobos says. “What happens is you do four laps, and on the last lap all the roots have grown a foot.”
When he exits toward the finish for the last time, he is hunched over his stick, barely taking steps. He looks like he’s aged several years in a single night. In the miles since the last aid station, he’s fallen 20 minutes behind the cut-off time.
But he has “finished.” Racers and volunteers have tears in their eyes as he crosses the line. He doesn’t get an official finish time, but the race organizers give him a finisher’s belt, “because they said I was tough,” Villalobos says.
“When he sets out to do something, he just finishes it,” Villalobos’s running buddy Gerardo (Gerry) Ramirez says. “We’ve been through some races, in snow, like knee-deep snow, races where we’re drenched in mud; we’ve been hailed on, but I’ve learned not to give up because of him.”
Like an Old Chevy Truck
After he injured his back in 2015, Villalobos ignored his prognosis that he would never run again. In the month after his fall at LOVit, his place on the pain scale had moved from a 1 to a 10.
Instead of admitting defeat, Villalobos began visiting three different chiropractors, foam rolling, hanging from an inversion-board for 45 minutes at a time and stretching constantly. He realized he was running quite a few pounds too heavy, became more conscientious about food and lost weight for the first time in his life.
“I have learned through running how to listen more to what my body needs,” Villalobos explains. “Not what it wants, what it needs. I’m still learning that, even after all these years.”
Now Villalobos is 45 pounds lighter than he was the day he injured his back, which his chiropractor says will help his back enormously. A year after he was told he would never run distance again, Villalobos put 1,800 miles on his legs.
“I rebuilt myself like an old Chevy truck,” he says, laughing.
“When I get through [racing], I’m happy. When I lose that happy feeling, maybe that’ll be the time to stop, huh?” he says with his raspy chuckle. “Because I sure ain’t made a dime off of it. But I can’t put a price on it, because running has given me more than I ever could give it. The friendships, the battles you conquer and stuff like that, it’s just a priceless sport.”
Says his friend Prusaitis, “He’s just a bull-headed old guy that is going to hell bent for leather just to keep on going until they make him stop. And that’s kind of the personality of people in this sport of ultrarunning.”
“He’s also a super nice guy, very quiet, very reserved. And for a while he was trying to raise money because he had a niece who was dealing with cancer. So that guy’s got stories on top of stories inside of stories. He’s doing all this stuff, but he’s not even looking for any publicity.”
The Heart of It
Villalobos values the relationships and struggles at the heart of running far more than his performance.
“He’s one of those people that will help everybody,” Ramirez says. “He sees someone that’s having a hard time, he’ll stay with them … He’ll stay back. Because it’s never about placing, it’s never about his time, it’s always about just finishing a race, finishing a run. And finishing is his therapy.”
Another one of Villalobos’ close running friends, Aubrey Callahan, 35, says he sometimes gets fed up at races listening to other runners talk incessantly about past races and PRs. Callahan says Villalobos is a big proponent of remembering “the other aspects of just life in general, you know. Livin’.”
Not only is Villalobos largely unconcerned with time, he eschews the big-name races of the sport.
“I’m not into Western States, I’m not into Leadville,” Villalobos says. “I think they’re a circus.”
He calls these races the “Boston Marathons of trail running,” because to him Boston and Western are two faces of the same beast—both are names a popular culture recognizes, and attract bragging-rights bounty hunters.
“Those racers are like, once they’re done with that, they’re done,” he says. “They achieved their goal, and they don’t want to put no more effort. They don’t want to keep it up.”
Ramirez, who began ultrarunning under Villalobos’ mentorship, puts it this way: “Running is not about a bucket list. Running is just about running, for the true enjoyment of it.”
Instead of registering for famous 100-milers, they register for smaller unknown races that need more money and support. Indeed, peruse Villalobos’ (vast) ultrasignup resume, and you’ll see the bulk of his ultras took place in his home state of Texas, and many others in off-the-radar states like Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
“The small close-knit ones, those things are more like family,” says Ramirez. “Everybody really cares about everybody finishing. And he’s [Villalobos’s] more about that, to get to know every one of the runners out there. He’ll make a point to get to know their names, talking to them, running with them, sharing experiences with them.”
A Runner’s Family
Villalobos expends a lot of effort not only reaching out to people on the trail, but creating spaces to invite new runners into the fold.
Every Saturday and Sunday for the past 15 years (excluding those when he’s racing ultras), Villalobos has woken up at 2 a.m. to post on Facebook about the Joe-and-Ben-a-thon, his free community marathon at Sansom Park in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. The Joe-and-Ben-a-thon, named for two of his late trail-running buddies, is not so much a race as an open invitation.
Villalobos sets out aid stations at the 5K, 8-, 12-, 16- and 24-mile marks along the same marathon loop every weekend, whether he ends up running the route alone or with 20 people. In the summer, when homeless people snag water from his untended aid stations, Villalobos simply sets out extra.
Afterward, Villalobos pops his truck shell open to reveal a runner’s cornucopia nestled in the back: bars, Gatorades, peanut-butter pretzels, iced watermelon, nuts and gels. Villalobos invites everyone to join, strangers and friends alike. Villalobos’ friends and fans refer to him as “King of the Trails,” and the back of this truck is his feast hall, bringing new runners to the table, building a community around an old truck.
All this comes out of Villalobos’s own pocket. His race is free “because I think that’s a part of running, and I think that’s how it should be.
“It’s kind of weird, because if I charged, more people would probably come out.”
Growing up poor, he never wanted to get involved in a sport that would cost his parents a lot of money. As a runner, he could buy himself a cheap pair of shoes for $3 or $4 and just hit the road.
After he packs up the aid stations from his weekend marathons, Villalobos goes to his parents’ house a few blocks from his own, and helps his sisters care for their mother, who has fourth-stage Alzheimer’s, and his father, who is disabled.
Villalobos says his father’s side of the family are big jokesters, and will “give you a shirt off their back, even if they don’t have a shirt.” He says his mother, on the other hand, is more of a stern protector. “She wouldn’t hesitate to bump heads with you,” he says affectionately, and as he describes his family you can see the two sides of Villalobos taking shape: kind-hearted and stubborn as hell, in nearly equal parts.
He also tries to make running accessible for his family. His sister Clara Russo says, “There are a lot of Hispanic people who don’t run because it is expensive … and I was one of them. I had three little children, I stayed at home, I didn’t have an income.”
But Rene would always pay her entry fees. When their extended family wanted to be more health conscious, Villalobos started hosting an annual race at their family reunion, giving away old race T-shirts (autographed, since he’s a bit of a family legend) as prizes.
On Villalobos’ own runs, he never hesitates to take a new runner (or several) under his wing, whether it’s for a few miles, or a few years. In fact, his two best running buddies—Callahan and Ramirez—are also mentees of sorts. Villalobos even refers to Ramirez as “my protégé, my next in line, the next me.”
Both Callahan and Ramirez were struggling on the trail when they met Villalobos—Callahan was training to conquer his dreaded marathon bonk, and Ramirez was at a standstill deep within the pain cave, 40 miles into his first 50-miler.
Soon Villalobos had coached Callahan over and far beyond his marathon wall, and Ramirez was running his first 100-mile race with (guess who) at his side. Callahan says Villalobos is like his big brother he can talk to about anything.
Ramirez calls him his best buddy, saying, “I can’t put it to words, I literally love the man. He’s taught me everything I know about trail running and running in general.”
They’ve both taken up Villalobos’ torch since then, running 100-milers they would have never even considered toeing the line for before they met him.
“He gave me the tools to fall in love with running,” Callahan says. “And ever since then, it’s just been fun.”
Villalobos paced Ramirez through his first 100-mile race, running the first 70 miles by his side, guardian-angel style, before giving him a few parting words of wisdom and taking off.
“I think he could’ve won it if he hadn’t been with me,” Ramirez said. Instead, Villalobos placed second.
Villalobos frequently reaches out to disheartened racers who are considering DNFing, encouraging them to push through the haze of exhaustion and finish the race. Often he’s one of the last runners across the line, because he stayed behind to keep a straggler moving to the impossibly distant finish.
He tells people ultras are all about ups and downs: if you’re down, all you have to do is stick with it and you’ll get another up. Ramirez has seen him talk numerous racers out of quitting, and falters trying to describe running with Villalobos: “it is indescribably smooth and calming; somehow Villalobos is always saying the thing you need to hear the moment you need to hear it.”
When people thank Villalobos, his response is always the same: return the favor.
“Make sure that what somebody shows you, you show to other trail runners,” he tells them. “Everybody needs help every now and then. If you see somebody struggling, remember that somebody has helped you.”
It’s impossible to say how many runners have taken this message to heart, but Ramirez and Callahan sure did. They are the first ones to offer water, food or company on a dark night to a stranger, or to echo Villalobos’s optimistic words about ups and downs.
“I get stories where people come up and tell me if it wasn’t for me, they would’ve quit. You know, that’s what keeps me going,” Villalobos says. “If we can pass it on to somebody, give them the torch to keep it burning, that’s my goal.”
Villalobos finally sums up his message to the next generation this way: “It’s adventure. Adventure, that’s what it is. It’s terrible to live life normal. You need to try to be awesome.”
Brooke Stephenson is a runner, writer and student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This article originally appeared in the December issue of Trail Runner magazine.