Life is the real marathon

  • By Larry Henry / Special to the Herald
  • Wednesday, April 6, 2005 9:00pm
  • Sports

At the age of 45, Isidro Casillas finally made it to the Olympics.

Julie Busch / The Herald

Isidro Casillas, of Silver Lake, trains for the upcoming Boston Marathon. Casillas, who works as a painter for Boeing, finally qualified to run in the Boston Marathon after trying for eight years.

After thousands of miles. After oceans of sweat. After mountains of sore muscles. After years of disappointment.

On the ninth try, he qualified for his Olympics – the Boston Marathon, the world’s most prestigious 26.2-mile footrace.

When that magic moment finally arrived last October in Portland, Casillas didn’t know quite how to react.

“I look at the clock and see that I can crawl in and make it,” he says, his eyes vibrant, his voice passionate, his hands animated. “What should I do at the end of the race?”

He did what any man with an appetite for life would do. He opened his arms wide as he crossed the finish line, like the Kenyans who always win the marathons do. He high-fived and blew kisses to complete strangers.

“People were looking at me funny,” he remembers. “I’m thinking, ‘You don’t know my story.’”

If they had, they would have embraced him and shouted, “Isidro, you’re the man.”

They didn’t know that he was one of 15 children, that his father walked out on the family and moved to the United States when Casillas was very young, leaving the mother to feed and clothe her brood on what she could earn from a small grocery store in Zacatecas, Mexico, a city four hours northwest of Guadalajara.

They didn’t know how he had to work as a small boy, delivering newspapers and helping out in the grocery store on Saturdays. “I hated it,” he says. “It (childhood) was supposed to be fun.”

They didn’t know that he came to Laredo, Texas, for a track meet in 1976 and didn’t get on the bus to go home. “I had a visa,” he says. “I didn’t go back.”

Instead, he moved to Houston, got a job and stayed with his dad before returning to Mexico in the late ’70s.

A friend from high school was visiting from the states, and told Casillas that he had a job as a foreman. Casillas went north with him but not until they got to Idaho did he find out that his friend worked in a winery. “I got there in the winter,” Casillas recalls. “I was planting and pruning. That wasn’t for me.”

His buddy didn’t like his job, either, and said he had friends in Seattle where there were many opportunities. “How big is this Seattle?” Casillas asked.

“It’s huge,” his friend said.

They lived in a house near Garfield High School and got jobs in the shipyards. “I was making $12.05 an hour,” Casillas says, his eyes as wide as half-dollars. “I was a rich man.”

He married an Italian woman from Kirkland and during their first year together, she made a cake and gave him presents on his birthday. And he cried.

“Why are you crying?” she asked.

“Just the fact that somebody acknowledged my birthday,” he said.

The way he remembered Christmas and birthdays as a child is there was never any money for gifts.

It soured him forever on those two special days. “I don’t want gifts,” he insists.

Instead, he has his children write him letters to tell him how he’s doing as a parent. “I put them in my lunchbox and read them at work,” he says.

He works for Boeing at the Everett plant, painting the 777.

He is a lean man, as one would expect of someone who logs hundreds of miles each year, often running from the Boeing fitness center down to the Mukilteo ferry docks, then back up that long, steep hill. “That is my favorite hill,” he says.

He is a persevering soul, as his nine attempts to qualify for the Boston race attest. For each race, he would put in 16 weeks of hard training. That’s on top of holding down a job and being a husband and a father; he and wife Gerri have four children, Nick, a sophomore at Seattle Pacific University; twins Katy and Christopher, juniors at Cascade High School, and Alyssa, a sophomore at Cascade.

Like their father, the twins are runners. Katy, captain of the girls track team, is a sprinter; Christopher a middle-distance man.

Alyssa is the artist in the family. “She can draw like nobody else,” her father says proudly.

Casillas is proud of all his children, proud of his family, proud of his heritage, proud of his adopted country.

He loves the United States, loves it for the opportunities it gave him, loves it for its generosity to the downtrodden of the world.

“When I hear people say the system doesn’t work, it saddens me,” he says. “They’ve got to see how the rest of the world lives.”

He has two flags hanging in his garage. The larger one is a U.S. flag given to him by his mother-in-law. It was presented to her after the death of her husband, an Air Force veteran. There is a smaller flag of Mexico.

One of his sisters once asked Casillas why he doesn’t have a large Mexican flag. He told her it was because he has sad memories when he thinks of the old country.

He came to this country for a better life. “I am a rich man,” he says in a beautiful accent with passion in every word. “I have a beautiful home, I have a beautiful family. I have two cars, for God’s sake.

“I believe in this country. There is no other place I would rather be.”

That isn’t to say he doesn’t love his birthplace. All of his siblings – all but one is still living – make their home there.

He praises his mother for the job she did in raising a large family. “My mother gets high marks,” he says. “I wish you could go down to Mexico and see my siblings.

“We’ve got teachers. We’ve got attorneys. We’ve got doctors in my family. They contribute to society with a single mom. It shows if you do things right, you get rewarded.”

His 70-year-old mother, Josephine, must be a very smart woman. Casillas calls her a psychologist.

When he was a boy, he would bring his report card home and give it to her. She would sign it without looking at it.

This confused him. “Do you know what that does to a kid?” he asks rhetorically.

Then his mother explained. “This is your future,” she would say. “Someday you’re going to be a father. You’re not doing this for me.”

From that moment on, Casillas knew that his mother trusted in him to try to earn good grades. “I always wanted to do good for her,” he says.

He did good by persevering in his long quest to qualify for Boston. It says something about his character that he kept trying. Three years ago, he missed by just 22 seconds and was heartbroken. But a year later, he was back at it. He again fell short. Then, last year in Portland, he made it.

He had run Portland twice before, and both times, his wife stayed in the hotel. This time, Gerri was there to greet him at the finish. “Why?” he asked. “Why were you here today?”

“There was something in your eyes that told me you were going to do it,” she said.

That trait, that sticktuitiveness, must also be central to the character of his oldest son, Nick.

Nick was diagnosed with bone cancer when he was 10 and his right foot was amputated. The doctors told him he would never be able to play baseball again.

“From that day on, he was a different kid,” Casillas says. “He was always trying to prove people wrong.”

The first time Nick tried out for the Little League Majors, he didn’t make it. “One of the twins said, ‘Are you going to cry?’” their father remembers.

No, Nick didn’t cry. He played in the Minors.

The next year at tryouts, Casillas was sitting in the bleachers watching his son.

A man he didn’t know came up and sat down beside him. “Have you seen number 35?” he asked. “Have you seen how he can throw and hit the ball. He’s awesome.”

Casillas didn’t say anything. He just smiled.

Wearing a prosthetic, Nick was an all-star that year and for the next several years.

In high school, he was a three-year letterman in baseball and football for the Bruins. He played running back. Few people knew about the prosthetic because he didn’t talk about it.

In a football game at Memorial Stadium his junior year, Nick tried to make a cut to his left, and as he did so, the foot broke.

The trainer came running out, saw the foot just dangling there and thought the worst.

By this time, Casillas was also on the field.

“Dad, you got my other foot?” Nick asked. “I’ve got to get back in.”

“You’ve got another foot?” the stunned trainer said. “What’re you talking about?”

“That’s the kind of character he has,” Casillas says.

Not unlike someone else we know.

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