An immigrant in South Central L.A. found ultras in his 40s. He won them in his 50s.
At mile 48 of this year’s San Diego 100, Ruperto needed a beer. The 58-year-old often enjoyed a gentle ale at aid stations, preferably a 4.5% Pacifico. He thought they gave him a little boost. The bad news was there weren’t any. His daughter, who had become his trusted crew chief, couldn’t be there that day to bring them. The good news was race director Angela Shartel knew who he was and exactly what he needed. She gave him a 7% IPA. He chugged it. Then, he won the race.
Raised as one of 12 children outside the small town of Jalpa Zacatecas, Mexico, Ruperto Romero grew up without shoes. Running for him meant hunting rabbits and chasing donkeys in makeshift huaraches. His first pair of real shoes were for church. At the age of 18, he immigrated to Los Angeles and settled in South Central near Huntington Park, mere blocks above tough neighborhoods like Watts and Compton.
When a cousin not only tempted him into running a marathon but paid his entrance fee, Ruperto didn’t have running shoes, and he didn’t have the money to buy any. The graveyard shifts at Western Treat, where he packaged up to 1,000 boxes of corndogs a day, paid only $3.75 an hour. With a wife and daughter to support, he couldn’t bring himself to spend a dime on something that seemed so selfish, so trivial.
Grudgingly, he went to Payless and relented on a cheap pair of runners for $10. He beat himself up all the way home. And when he finally struggled to the line at the L.A. Marathon he still didn’t consider himself a runner.
But 13 years later things changed as they do when someone you love is in ruins. His friend Hoberto was struggling with his weight and having a breakdown. At five-foot-six he had reached 265 pounds. He needed help.
Ruperto told him he could change. He could even run a marathon if he wanted to. Hoberto thought he was joking. “I’m just pigging out,” he said and shook his head. “Look at me. I’m fat.”
“You can do it if you want to,” Ruperto said and pointed at his own pudgy belly. “Look at me, I did it, twice.” But that had been over a decade ago. Now out of shape, Ruperto didn’t give up on his friend. “Just reverse little by little,” he said before pausing. “I’ll run it with you.”
Unlike lottery winners or casting call miracles that lead to stardom, in South Central, dreams fight upstream. In 1992, Ruperto was close enough to the L.A. Riots that the smoke filled his duplex rental. It was a day of fear. The family car, a ’77 Corolla, was stolen and the Western Auto across the street was picked clean like a carcass in the jungle. Still, Ruperto believed in the dream that all things were possible under the Hollywood sign.
Five years later, he started his own car repair shop. It was a miracle. Even he could own a home, buy a car, and now set his own hours.
As promised, he lined up with Hoberto at the 2004 L.A. Marathon. It was the best of races and the worst of races. Ruperto dragged himself across the line in 4 hours 13 minutes. But Hoberto, now 30 pounds lighter, finished in 4:45. A flood of emotion ensued as Ruperto hugged his buddy and told him how proud he was.
Hoberto had taken Ruperto’s advice and started by walking around his neighborhood. Longer walks led to jogging. Then three miles gradually became 10. Now, he was a marathon finisher and hooked on running. A year later, he had lost 100 pounds and was amped to get Ruperto to Santa Cruz for a 50k on trail.
Hoberto paid Ruperto’s entry fee, he knew it was the only way to get him to the race. This time, Ruperto spent more on footwear, and again felt bad about it. He now had two daughters and a son to take care of. At the first river crossing, he couldn’t bring himself to get the shoes wet, so he took them off. After wading over to the other side, he realized that with three more crossings of the San Lorenzo — if he did this each time, he’d finish last.
These shoes were made to run, he told himself, and if he didn’t give it his all, wouldn’t he be wasting that money? At the second crossing he dashed in like a child at play and soon passed a wave of runners, then another till he finished in 6th place. That’s the day the trail bug bit him. “The mountains, the trees, the grass,” he said. “It’s more of a feeling than the running – a memory of Mexico after it rains.” He was 40 years old.
Ten years and many ultras later, he won his favorite race: the Angeles Crest 100. It was his ninth finish. His family — who had arrived en masse to support him — surrounded Ruperto in matching shirts at the finish line.
“Humility and family” are what Shartel thinks of when asked about Ruperto. She remembers his devotion to the AC 100. “We did serious 8-hour workdays,” she says of the mandatory trail work in the Cooper Canyons. “It was sweltering heat and we all had heavy tools. He was a hard worker. Always willing to help. He had all the characteristics of integrity.”
Ruperto didn’t drink then. But for the past three years, he has a Mexican pilsner at every aid station. He only allows himself three-minute stops, so he drinks them fast. He pushes the pace, always, out of respect for the race and himself.
In 2019, he won the AC 100 a second time. It was his 11th finish. He was 55. “You’re never too old,” Ruperto says. “Get up and go run. Start now.”
He’s a recognizable figure in the San Gabriel Mountains with his sun-leathered skin and black Laker’s cap. He’s a celebrity, and selfies with runners is now part of the deal. Recently, a trail fan spotted him on a switchback and was overheard calling him “the mamba of ultrarunning.”
Though Ruperto’s repair shop closed seven years after he opened it, he’s now back to working with cars at a BMW dealership, which he calls a lifelong dream. But after five o’clock, he’s in his new shoes, zipping through Griffith Park – home of the movies. He passes under the Observatory of James Dean and La La Land fame and up toward the Hollywood Sign – the sun casting the hills a muted bronze. There’s no place he’d rather run and no place he’d rather be.
Filled with gratitude, he sees a city that adopted him. “It’s like the angel opened his wings,” he says of L.A. “The trophies, the shoes, the cars, whatever I’ve had in the last 40 years, it gave me.” On top of Mt. Lee, he throws his arms up in the air like Rocky atop the stairs and imagines he’s flying. In the distance, South Central is almost visible, sprawling behind the smog toward a horizon of hope.