By Kristopher Yanez/ El Inde
Amid a dark waning twilight abyss, the bright orange-accented adobe brick walls of the Quality Hotel Americana quickly receded behind Niko Garms and Daniel Valenzuela as they waded past the sleepy storefronts alongside Grand Avenue in Nogales, Arizona, on the early morning of September 16.
Aside from the rustlings of a camp of homeless people in a nearby alley, the otherwise typically plain-spoken running partners pressed on, steadfast in silently syncopated strides, warming up their bodies one last time.
Within the straightforward, one-mile stretch southbound from their cozy hotel suites to the coarse pavement of the starting line, the pair had become lost inside the surrealness of the moment.
It was the climax of physical, emotional, and mental highs and lows that had roller-coastered throughout the fleeting weeks, days, and hours that finally lead to this, the All Hope Run — a 58-mile charity run beginning at la frontera, the international border between the United States and Mexico in Nogales, through the Sonoran Desert and ending at the San Xavier del Bac Mission on the Tohono O’odham reservation.
Approaching the pervasive glow of the border, like a couple of kids on their first day of school, the runners were anxiously filled with fluttering nerves only rivaled by las mariposas, whose migration and name are synonymous to the region.
The recently turned 30 year-old Garms had anticipated a mental challenge of mind over matter.
He’d gone to Nogales the afternoon before, as he carb-loaded on a veggie pizza from Peter Piper Pizza and relaxed from his hotel bed watching “Pineapple Express.”
Anticipation had made him restless after failing to fall asleep initially at 8 p.m.
“You got to go to sleep.”
“You got to go to sleep,” Garms repeated to himself.
And, yet again, seemingly at every passing minute until pleading around midnight, once more, “please, go to sleep,” before eventually giving in to the exhaustion of knowing that he would have to be awake in just two hours to begin preparing to run.
Anticipation and nerves also had Valenzuela, 28, up late at night helping his 8 year-old son Maximiliano with homework and already awake early by 2 a.m. in full-on “dad mode.”
Between the repeated trips shuffling his family’s bags, backpacks, and son’s video games from the hotel room to his girlfriend’s car parked in the outside lot, the spurts of chilled air and a sip of stale hotel lobby coffee began to seize his body and fog up his headspace.
Growing up, Valenzuela’s family had crossed to and from Mexico countless times along the same route he was about to attempt to run; however, this time felt different.
The eerie hours and hushed town felt foreign as doubt crept in.
“The only way you’re getting home is you,” Valenzuela internalized, feeling calmer as Grand Avenue opened onto a familiar sight: a local gas station, the Mariposa Music Center across the street, and beyond that the United States Customs and Border Protection port of entry into a festive Nogales, in Sonora, Mexico.
Still-burning and just-kindled fiestas celebrating the national holiday, Mexican Independence Day, lit the shared sky above the border crossing station, as the vibrations of traditional banda music permeated the massive structural boundary onto its sleepy American sister city.
Staring on the border one last time, Garms and Valenzuela were immediately reminded of the All Hope Run’s original mission: to bring awareness and honor the journey traveled by Mexican migrants.
It put in perspective for the men the opportunity to run, for fun, from the border without the risk of losing their lives traversing the desert, or losing their liberty at the risk of being detained by Border Patrol — like the risk Garms’ grandparents and Valenzuela’s parents, Manuel and Beatriz, who had immigrated from Hermosillo, or his tío who had walked the nearly 150 miles north from Magdalena to Tucson, had once taken.
Ten minutes before 4 o’clock, instead of the pop of a pistol, the muffled reverb of distant bass drums and tubas kicked off the All Hope Run as the runners cut across Crawford Street, passing a Shell gas station, a McDonald’s, and a growing line of pedestrian and automobile traffic awaiting arrival across Mexico, leaving Nogales one step behind them.
“FROM A MUSTARD SEED INTO A MUSTARD TREE”
Before establishing All Hope Run, and even prior to the pair’s partnership, the runners began working as barbers together around 2015, first getting acquainted at Headliners Barbershop.
By 2018, the self-described “hair enthusiasts” found themselves working together again at the hipster-industrial-esque ’81 Barbers in Downtown Tucson, where a friendship formed around cutting hair, music, art, film, craft beer, their community, and a passion for exercising that naturally extended to running.
Runs together turned into training sessions that became brainstorming opportunities where the two would let their imaginations run as wild beside them.
While out running, Garms and Valenzuela are constantly communicating with each other.
Conversations and ‘what ifs’ range from admiring the endurance athlete David Goggins, to devising detours on runs designed to push their physical limits, to conceptualizing cross-country marathons like two real-life Forrest Gumps, and dreaming of one day, of running for a living.
Inspiration struck Garms while he was watching YouTube videos and listening to podcasts on Courtney Dauwalter, the 35 year-old ultramarathon runner who, according to a 2018 profile in The New York Times is, “The Woman Who Outruns the Men, 200 Miles at a Time.”
It’s a title rightfully earned, as Dauwalter has competed in countless ultramarathons — including most notably in 2017, the annual 240-mile endurance race through arid Moab, Utah — completing it in record time, eclipsing the second-place finisher, and subsequently, her remaining male competitors by 10 hours.
“I was just watching her process,” Garms explained. “She was a beast. What I was watching her go through inspired me.”
“When she reached the 50-mile mark and knew that she had to do that about four more times. I was like, man, 50 miles … I could do 50 miles.”
One afternoon at the beginning of summer 2020, Garms approached Valenzuela’s chair at the downtown barbershop to ask a simple, yet immense question:
“Yo! Are you down for an ultramarathon?”
Wide-eyed and bewildered, unaware of the term used to define a footrace with a distance of at least 50k, an inquisitive Valenzuela emphatically responded, “I’m in.”
White flashing headlights and trailing red streaks of taillights zoomed past the runners from Interstate 19 as they steadily completed the first 5k, 10k, and half-marathon of the All Hope Run with relative ease.
After ditching their Airpods, Garms and Valenzuela were able to settle into a comfortable, natural groove.
In the dim, brisk breeze, with each step, planting his Mizunos on the pavement, Valenzuela felt as though the run was just like another training session — including the faint rattling coming up his heel.
Glancing down his right leg, Valenzuela’s headlamp shone upon something slithering — and immediately sending the runner’s leg whipping and stomping in the air.
Sure enough, a few feet ahead of the men laid a small, dead rattlesnake.
. . .
While an encounter with a snake might be considered an omen or stop a run for most, it’s no problem for Valenzuela.
And, neither is falling down.
It’s actually the one reason why Garms and Valenzuela work so well together.
“Daniel doesn’t complain. I don’t complain,” Garms said. “He’s willing to show up and do it, and try, and not say, ‘No.’”
One mild moonlit July morning, when training for the ultramarathon was just beginning, the runners decided to trail run for the first time in a desert path near the Tucson Mountains on the city’s southwest side.
Both runners hastily stretched as Valenzuela eagerly led down the trail. Following close behind, Garms noticed Valenzuela jump off the path and nearly out of his skin.
“YO, YO, YO, YO, YO, STOP!” Valenzuela shouted out to Garms as he grounded himself to a halt before colliding into the coiled rattlesnake up ahead.
Struggling to find his footing on the uneven rocks and tossed stones in between the shrubs and cacti of the Sonoran Desert trail, Valenzuela’s ankle slipped from under him, luckily only tumbling into minor scrapes.
Uncertainty about his ability bubbled underneath the surface. He was surely having a “bad run,” but that didn’t deter him. Seeing Garms still standing by his side, Valenzuela realized he would always have someone to support him. He wouldn’t be alone and ultimately found the resolve to get up and finish.
“I sometimes train with fear. Fear that I won’t be able to do it again,” said Valenzuela, despite remarking that the duality of fear is also his motivational force.
Over the next two months, Garms and Valenzuela spent their early morning’s training with each other before cutting hair at the shop and spending time with their families and friends by night.
Trail running, running uphill, running downhill, adding distance, and increasing endurance. They trained daily on an alternating schedule consisting of evenly paced 5-to-10 mile jogs on “light days,” 10-mile full exertion “hard days” during the week, and “long-distance” Sundays, where they’d complete anywhere from 15 to 20 miles. In short order, they felt as though they could complete the run as if it were tomorrow.
Naturally, the run’s blueprint was drawn out during training sessions.
Initially called Pocos Pasos, or “Little Steps,” and later, Dos Cabezones, meaning “two big heads” — a play on their larger-than-life imaginations, on one run, “All Hope” formed out of the ether. Right away Garms and Valenzuela were fixated with the name and concept of a charity run that would give hope and serve as an inspiration for their community.
Both being Mexican-American, Valenzuela felt a natural connection to September 16 — Mexican Independence Day, and originally pitched the date of the run, as a way to honor their community, their families, and themselves. Garms unequivocally agreed.
The route carried on that concept and was selected as the simplest means of getting from Point A, the southern terminus of I-19 at the Nogales border, to Point B, back home to Tucson.
Running alongside I-19 allowed for a series of easily accessible mobile “aid-stations” that would be set-up roadside to allow the guys the opportunity to recharge and rest before tackling the next leg of the run.
Finally, with training nearly completed and two-and-a-half weeks to go until the target date of September 16, while at the shop, it had dawned on Garms that there was no formal organization for the All Hope Run.
“We need to scramble to get this,” said Garms to Valenzuela that morning.
Serendipitously, Garms’ first client that day had recounted about recently working with Mayor Regina Romero and Tucson City Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz, in partnering with Sunnyside Foundation, a charitable nonprofit which serves students, teachers, and families of Sunnyside Unified School District, for the We Are One fund, an effort to help raise money for immigration relief efforts in Tucson.
Intrigued by the idea of raising money for a local organization, Garms’ client promised to connect him with Kerri Lopez-Howell, the executive director for Sunnyside Foundation, in the coming days.
Behind the scenes, the ball began rolling.
On August 29, Valenzuela’s girlfriend, Adriana Guayante, created and began circulating a GoFundMe campaign for the charity run while at work.
Celina Duran, Garms’ girlfriend, helped as well by writing and reaching out to local running groups, organizations, and news outlets on the runner’s behalf.
“I realized that we had to be something more than what we were,” Garms added. “We couldn’t be modest anymore. We were doing it for us but we also had to realize that if we wanted people to donate money, we needed to get out there.”
While out for a training run on an overcast afternoon, the Friday before the run, Garms and Valenzuela met Lopez-Howell at the base of Sentinel Peak. The trio hit it off instantly.
The pairing made sense for Valenzuela, who graduated from Sunnyside High School in 2010, and for Garms, whose uncles and father, Anthony, are also alumni of SUSD, as well for both, whose families live in the surrounding Southside neighborhoods.
As the runners rounded ‘A’ Mountain, Lopez-Howell and a videographer filmed and interviewed Garms and Valenzuela for a short video promoting the partnership between All Hope Run and Sunnyside Foundation, wherein the guys pledged 100 percent of the proceeds from the charity run to Sunnyside Foundation’s Gives Day.
A 3-minute video was edited overnight and posted to Sunnyside Foundation’s social media channels the following morning. Within 24 hours, hundreds of views from the foundation’s video, including families, friends, businesses, and stranger’s retweets and stories reposting about two crazy guys attempting to run an ultramarathon on Mexican Independence Day, had generated viral buzz locally and drove donations.
Crooked Tooth Brewing Company, located off the Historic Fourth Avenue Merchants District, joined in support by offering $1 off pints for financial supporters of the charity run, while, ’81 Barbers and community advocates like Ray Angel Serrano of Unstoppable Tucson, continued to spread the word of the All Hope Run online.
While driving in the car with his son, Max, on September 15, Valenzuela tuned the radio to HOT 98.3 FM.
From the back seat, Max heard, “Tomorrow, starting at 4 a.m., Niko and Daniel, they’re going to be running from Nogales…”, as the locally popular hip-hop and R&B station said his dad’s name and gave a shout-out to the All Hope Run.
“I’ve always been low key,” said Valenzuela. “Once it started getting bigger, and I started noticing that people were noticing – then it was like, ‘F***.’”
This is more of like, ‘I got to get this done now,’ besides ‘We went out there and we failed,’” Valenzuela candidly confessed, feeling the pressure of fulfilling the ultramarathon with the eyes of family, friends, Sunnyside Foundation and the greater Tucson community staring on them.
. . .
The sun began to beat down on the runners as they neared 27 miles and the first, aid-station near the Arivaca Road Interchange in Santa Cruz County.
Parked in the distance was something, or rather someone familiar. Sitting inside a dark metallic, midnight sky-colored GMC Sierra, the air-conditioner blasting, radio bumping was Garms’ friend, Jerome, who would meet them with bean burritos, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, snacks, water, electrolytes, and extra equipment for the runner’s replenishment during their run.
Coming to a stop, Garms congratulated Valenzuela for completing his first marathon, and vice versa, as Valenzuela returned the favor by dousing a shirtless Garms with ice-cold water.
Literally running an hour-and-a-half behind the schedule set by Lopez-Howell, the men promptly pressed on.
Crossing into Pima County a few miles later, the wear-and-tear of 30 miles began to wane on the runners nearly halfway through the run’s route.
Valenzuela felt a growing discomfort in his knees with each step on the unforgiving pavement.
While enduring fluctuating body temperatures, a bare-chested Garms felt the sun’s rays ripping his energy away.
“You have to constantly be focusing on the pain, and the stride, and the cadence … If anything breaks your attention it can destroy you. Straight up, you’re going to feel pain in every part of your body. Accept it.” Garms told Valenzuela, now quoting Dauwalter,“‘You got to live in the pain cadence.’”
“LIVING IN THE PAIN CADENCE”
Daytime temperatures had dramatically risen nearly 40 degrees Fahrenheit from a refrigerated morning low of 58 degrees when leaving Nogales to a radiating 95 degrees (and higher) by noon across Green Valley, forming sheets of sweat and dirt layered on top of the runners’ tattooed brown skin.
The unseasonably dry, hot, sunny September weather was an element of the run, which the past few months of clement early morning trainings hadn’t prepared them for.
To their detriment, Garms and Valenzuela stopped communicating and retreated inward.
With each step, every sense sharpened.
Their hydration packs, refills from Jerome’s GMC, and the plastic water bottles tossed to them by a news photographer and passing highway patrol had rapidly depleted.
Motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses, and big rigs concussively rang off the highway, deafening the runners’ ears like an exploded grenade.
Fresh air was displaced with a rank mix of exhaust, waste, and roadkill.
An array of rotting wildlife, bugs, reptiles, rodents, a petrified toad which had been melted to the blacktop, and a cleanly-decapitated owl littered the roadside collection of cigarette buds, over-sized Styrofoam cups, and fast-food containers.
The interstate’s green and white road signage, which famously relates distance in metric units, was distracting and disorienting to mentally convert kilometers to miles as they inched closer to the finish line.
And, not to mention the pain which became real.
The hanging afternoon sun stiffened Valenzuela’s forehead into a series of folds and wrinkles across his brow forcing his eyes to squint, while splitting shins, cramping quads, and locking knees slowed his pace.
His own body deteriorating, Garms took the lead ahead of Valenzuela, as he felt his big toenail cut deeper into the tender skin on his foot.
Reaching the next aid station, Garms had nearly collapsed. Sitting down, his hip flexors stiffened, locking him cross-legged on the floor.
Emerging from Garms’ distorted vision, his tata visited the aid station to deliver nail clippers and a pair of cushiony socks.
Searching for the path of least resistance, Garms was ready to quit.
“Why am I doing this?”
“Maybe you should stop?”
“Stop. Just stop. Stop.”
“Just take a break.”
“Stretch your legs out.”
“No, no, no. Don’t do it,” said Jerome shaking her head, handing Garms a banana. “You got this. Don’t think like that.”
Helping to pull the runner’s legs from under himself, Jerome had physically and mentally raised Garms back up to his feet.
Before departing once more, Valenzuela repeated the very words Garms relayed to him roughly 10 miles back — to embrace the pain — and the runners continued on the ultramarathon.
“DIAMOND IN THE DESERT”
In pursuit of a swift end, Garms and Valenzuela veered off the I-19 Frontage road and into the stretch of desert that separated them from the finish line.
The Sonoran Desert provided the runners with respite. It was surprisingly peaceful, otherworldly, like another dimension devoid of the constant droning of highway traffic and unrelenting road.
“The White Dove of the Desert” glistened on the horizon as the partners switched off, simultaneously running and walking the final miles of the run in fatigue on the outskirts of the Tohono O’odham Reservation.
With small steps, sunken black eyes, sunburnt skin, and stiff joints, the native Tucsonans had made it home.
At approximately 4:30 p.m., nearly 12 hours and 58 miles later, in the middle of the mission’s barren parking lot, a small gathering of the runners’ families and close friends awaited their arrival and cheered Garms and Valenzuela into a numbingly painful, sprint-across-the-finish.
An on-site nurse hooked the physically battered, but emotionally elated runners up to medical IVs on arrival — scolding the dehydrated Dos Cabezones as they celebrated each step of their first marathon, ultramarathon, and charity run underneath sombreros, swigging bottles of champagne and sipping shots of mescal.
With the All Hope Run complete all that remained was the philanthropic goal. The GoFundMe campaign easily surpassed the initial goal of $1,000; however, overall fundraising fell short of the updated goal of $5,000.
“They ended up raising $4,000 for us,” said Lopez-Howell. “But what they really did was they brought so much awareness to our Gives Day campaign,” explaining that the partnership and exposure from All Hope Run drove an overall increase of unique and first-time donations for Sunnyside Foundation.
What started out as $1,200 small mustard seed of hope from Rincon Optimist Club blossomed to a $50,000 funded mustard tree because of the collective action of organizations like Sunnyside Foundation and charitable efforts like All Hope Run.
Altogether the money will maintain the operation of emergency relief efforts, addressing financial hardships that SUSD families have incurred during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, as well as, $2,000 education grants for teachers in STEM, literacy, wellness, arts, and culture, throughout the end of the year.
Despite the financial shortcoming, Garms and Valenzuela felt All Hope Run was a success.
“I want people in my community, people in general, to realize they are limitless,” Valenzuela said recognizing the obstacles they face. “I just want to give the youth, the strength to overcome those obstacles I faced and felt I wasn’t going to overcome.”
“I definitely just want to influence my community with nothing but positivity and hope. You know what I mean? So, if I can do that with one step, or two steps, in a mile, or however long it takes, then I’m definitely willing to do it.”