Too small for football but on the track to attack

The track is vicious and painful, and Aris Valerio was ready because he has dealt with vicious pain. He ran a half mile in less time than it takes to get out of bed, a minute and 49 seconds to secure a spot at the National Championships back in May of 2023; the only man sent from Cal Poly Humboldt to race in Pueblo, Colorado.

by Dezmond Remington

The track is vicious and painful, and Aris Valerio was ready because he has dealt with vicious pain. He ran a half mile in less time than it takes to get out of bed, a minute and 49 seconds to secure a spot at the National Championships back in May of 2023; the only man sent from Cal Poly Humboldt to race in Pueblo, Colorado. The evening shadows were long on the track as the 800m final was due to start, and Valerio lined up in the pole position on the inside lane. 

It was already a long shot to get there. One of the fastest Division II 800m runners in the nation couldn’t compete because of a family emergency, allowing Valerio to take the final qualifying spot after the prelim races. The next 110 seconds were going to hurt, even without the added stress of a fast prelim the day before and the knowledge that a victory was unlikely. Valerio felt dead tired and scared. But there was no room to think about any of that when the gun boomed and the race started. A journey that started with failure and random chance went a little further. 

Valerio picked up distance running his freshman year of high school, only after his mom wouldn’t let him play football because he weighed about a hundred pounds. He had always been fast as a kid, so he figured he’d give it a shot after a neighbor told him exactly what cross country was. It wasn’t love at first sight. Valerio still isn’t sure why he stuck with it. Training is boring to him – racing is what makes it worth it. 

“I just love the anxiety of the races,” Valerio said. “I think it’s fun. It makes it more exciting because that’s what everyone’s feeling. Makes you show that you’re just more locked in than everyone else when you win. I think that’s exciting.”

His legs churn, eating up ground at a pace of over 18 miles an hour. The first 200 meters are gone in less than 26 seconds, and he’s still at the back of the seething pack. The screams of the crowd are loud, but it’s lost in the rhythm of pounding feet and gasping breath. His mind is blank. It always is at moments like these.

Valerio’s first brush with greatness came his senior year at Murrieta High School in 2019, when he ran 1:53 in the 800m and ended up being ranked in the top 20 high schoolers in the nation that year. He didn’t even really understand that it was a big deal right when he crossed the finish line. Someone had beaten him. 

It was a huge margin of improvement from even a month before that, over six seconds in an event that separates a talented collegian from the world’s best. He spent a year training at California Baptist University before transferring to Humboldt in 2020. One of his high school teammates had gone to Humboldt and recommended him to head distance coach Jamey Harris, who gladly accepted him on the strengths of his past races. 

Valerio’s career has had its ebbs and flows in his time in Humboldt. He’s one of the fastest 800 runners to ever compete for Humboldt, but he’s also suffered from hamstring injuries that left him unable to train and compete for far longer than he would’ve liked. Harris doesn’t regret recruiting him. 

“With any injury, anybody’s going to have a setback in their enthusiasm, and he was not immune to that,” Harris said. “But whenever he would have a little bit of a setback, he would climb out of it. He’s persistent in that way…on race day, he always brings everything he’s got. I never doubt that we’re going to get a full effort…he may not always be at 100% confidence, but we always know we’re going to get 100% effort.”

It’s hot, and the guy in front crushed the first half of the race in 50 seconds. Valerio is a few seconds back. Shoes thin as ballet slippers slam on hard rubber, the metal spikes grabbing the track. Reverberation swims up his legs. It hurts, but he’s had worse.

It wasn’t easy getting to Nationals. Setbacks weren’t solely those of muscle, bone and sinew. Some came from the brain. 

For a while, a bout with depression during the track season made Valerio consider not racing at Nationals at all, but after running 1:50.3 at the conference meet he reconsidered. He is open about his struggles with mental health. He said his depression comes from the death of his little brother, who passed away when he was in high school. Running, and the team surrounding him, has been one of the things that helped him get through it.

“I’ll go through spurts of being super unmotivated,” Valerio said. “And it’s super hard to catch myself and get back on my feet. [Coach] Jamey [Harris] and [the team] know all that. They’ve been super supportive about it.”

Valerio is a lot more than just an athlete to Harris.

“He’s a complicated beast,” Harris said. “It could be easy to see his consistent success on the track and think that things have come easy for him, but they definitely haven’t. He’s had a lot of difficulties that he’s had to work through and challenges that he’s had to overcome. I think that’s probably the greater accomplishment than being an All American and All-Conference a couple of times and being the second fastest 800m runner in school history. What’s more impressive is what he’s gone through and what he’s overcome to get there.” 

600 meters have come and gone, and the time has come for a last, desperate drive to the finish. There is no more sun in these last moments, the light blocked by the stadium seating full of screaming spectators. Way ahead, the front runner is run down like a deer in the dying moments of the race. Aris is still in the back, driving for a First Team All-American spot. A thousand miles away, people watch.

Valerio’s role on the team goes far beyond simple competition and point scoring. One of his closest teammates and a roommate during the track season when Valerio went to nationals, Sebastian Vaisset-Fauvel considers Valerio a crucial part of the team, although not necessarily always beloved.

“He’s just really down to the point,” Vaisset-Fauvel said. “He’ll tell you what’s up. He’ll tell you the truth, and sometimes people can’t take the truth… I think that’s what helps him stay true to himself.”

Although Valerio does sometimes take the abrasive role, Vaisset-Fauvel stresses that that’s not nearly the entirety of Valerio. 

“Aris can seem like an intimidating guy, but once you get to know him, he’s like a little baby,” Vaisset-Fauvel said. “He’s like my little child, even though I call him my dad sometimes. He’s a really good guy. Really good athlete. 1:49? That fits him, you know? That just fits him.”

Despite the incredible accomplishments on the track, Harris and Vaisset-Fauvel make it clear that Valerio is a human just like everyone else on the team, and that makes his appeal to his teammates that much more potent. 

“This is a regular guy,” Harris said. “I’ve seen this guy spill milk. This is a fallible human that I’ve ran with, that is running really fast, and that makes those accomplishments seem more attainable to me.”

Aris crosses the finish line, his hands going to his knees as he bends over the track. Last place, but still Second Team All-American. Next year will be better, he thought later. Next season will be the last, the best. It wasn’t just for him.

“I’m trying to go to Nationals to represent our team, our school in the middle of nowhere,” Valerio said. “‘Who is this Humboldt guy? This is crazy.’ I think you should want to run for everyone, not just yourself. You’re not going to get that far, only running for yourself.”

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