The first time Cristian Soratos broke the coveted four-minute barrier in the mile, some track and field enthusiasts sniffed, snorted or sneered.
There were questions. Cristian who? Montana State what? And mostly, why should we take his time seriously?
Soratos’ rhythmic legs had carried him across the finish line in 4:05 at the Montana State Open in Bozeman on Jan. 16. Because it occurred at 4,400-foot altitude and on a flat 200-meter track, the NCAA “converted” to the equivalent of a similar effort at sea level on a banked track.
The result: a whopping nine-second reduction to 3:56, the nation’s fastest collegiate mile for the indoor track season but also a pinata for purists who decried what they said was unmerited entry into an exclusive club.
Flotrack, the online bible for the sport’s fanatics, responded on its Facebook page with thinly veiled sarcasm.
“The running world went crazy,” Soratos recalled last week. “They said that’s not legit.”
How’s a proud runner to respond? Fast forward one month.
Still stinging from "the haters", Soratos toed the starting line at the University of Washington Husky Classic on Valentine’s Day. This would be his one meet at sea level – the one chance to leave no questions, to walk away with a sub-four-minute clocking saying, “My legs did that.”
Boy, did they ever.
Buoyed by a typically noisy contingent of dedicated family members from his native California, Soratos was a blur on the banked track.
He tailed the pace runner for about half of the race, took the lead when the designated “rabbit” stepped aside, and was passed briefly by Penn State standout Brannon Kidder on the final lap. Then, with less than 100 meters to go, Soratos shifted into a gear that elicited gasps from the crowd and public-address announcer.
When he crossed the finish line, he heard the same voice reveal the time: 3:55.27. It's the ninth-fastest in collegiate history and a half-stride shy of the NCAA indoor record of 3:54.54 by Miles Batty of Brigham Young.
It was also a dramatic exclamation mark on his ticket to Saturday’s NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in Fayetteville, Ark.
After catching his breath, Soratos was engulfed by teammates. His mother, Monica Aldape, emerged from the stands and tearfully embraced him.
Nobody would question him now.
“It's pretty amazing,” Soratos said.
Perhaps ironically, the question is begged today even more than when Soratos ran his converted mile in January: Where did this well-sculpted, deceptively leggy, 6-foot-tall wisp of a guy, who talks as fast as he runs, come from?
The son of a Mexican-American sheriff, Soratos remembers a youth filled with basketball, baseball, football and the unfettered joy of running with friends in the Grapes of Wrath trails, parks and artichoke fields of Salinas, Calif. He chose to join Salinas High’s McFarland, USA-esque cross country program mostly for its fellowship; his times in events from 800 to 3,200 meters were largely uninspiring, though he showed promise with a 4:23 mile on legs with limited mileage.
Soratos was left with one choice for an extended running career: nearby Hartnell College, a two-year school where a brother, Vaughn, was a javelin thrower and an uncle once achieved top times in the 800 and 1,500.
The coach, Chris Zepeda, liked Soratos' potential and offered a disciplined regimen that would nearly triple his weekly mileage. He saw on the diminutive frame genetic attributes similar to those of the great African distance runners: Long limbs, short calves and long Achilles tendons that produce exceedingly graceful strides.
"What I saw was a kid who was very undeveloped," Zepeda said. "As a senior he looked like a sophomore in high school. I had a feeling that, gosh, if he got 4:23 on 20 to 30 miles a week, what would he do if he ran consistently with a group?"
Away Soratos went, eventually setting the Hartnell record of 3:47.01 in the 1,500 meters in the conference championships. In a glimpse of his mental fortitude, less than an hour after his record-setting effort Soratos returned to the track to defeat an All-American in the 800.
Even so, the Division I schools that eventually came calling did so mostly on spec. There was little yet to suggest more than a serviceable cog in a mid-major program.
Soratos found his way to MSU through the tight relationship between Zepeda and Lyle Weese, who coaches the Bobcat distance runners. Weese, a four-time All-American at MSU and former Hartnell assistant, saw an athlete who'd made determined strides but still had room to improve in consistency, aerobics and nutrition.
“He always had a lot of ability,” Weese said. “But I think there’s a lot of different aspects to a student-athlete’s life, and they all need to be aligned.”
MSU brought Soratos north for a visit, site unseen.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was D-I or D-II. I didn’t know it was at elevation. But I loved it. It was an easy decision; I cancelled all of my recruiting visits.
At Hartnell, Soratos had learned how to train harder. At MSU, he learned how to train smarter, too, though he concedes that the temptation of Student Union hamburgers often proves irresistible.
“When I was at Hartnell, I really pounded,” he said. “I was killing myself every day. When I came here I learned how to take that and train smarter – have grittiness only on the days I need it. I take recovery and sleep very seriously.”
Soratos’ first two years at MSU were relatively uneventful, but clearly in his senior year he’s fused mind, body and spirit exactly the way veteran MSU head coach Dale Kennedy envisions it.
“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” Soratos said. “I’m talented in my own way, but the biggest ability I have is my mental competitiveness.”
Today, he dreams of more in an event that once drew large crowds to watch the likes of Jim Ryun, Steve Scott and Steve Prefontaine chase the mystical four-minute barrier. This summer, after the NCAA outdoor championships in Eugene, Ore., he will turn pro and pursue a berth on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
"If he raises the quality of his aerobic work, he'll run a 3:48, 3:49 or 3:51 somewhere in his lifetime," Zepeda said. "If he sticks with it he could be one of the best milers ever."
But the immediate task at hand comes Saturday in Arkansas, where for the first time Soratos won't be running in the shadows.
“A lot of people are doubting if I can win nationals because I’ve never been on the big stage,” he said. “But I expect to win the national championship when I walk away from Fayetteville. I don’t mind having a target on my back. I like it.”
And who says Seattle wasn’t a big stage anyway? For Soratos, it certainly was. He was determined to prove his converted mile time wasn’t merely a gift from the NCAA rule book.
“I was pretty nervous for that race because a lot of expectations were put on him, and people were almost attacking him personally because of the adjusted time,” Weese said. “A lot of people were waiting for him not to run well. But he handled it with an extreme level of confidence.”
Said Zepeda: "I know Cristian. I know his look of doubt and his look of 'I got this'. He gets a look on his face, nostrils flaring a little as the intensity of the race is building. There was no doubt, 800 meters in, who was going to win."
Ever since, Soratos has been flooded with interview requests, ESPN included. More important, he’s silenced the cynics. One of his most vocal even issued a mea culpa.
“The debate is over,” Flotrack wrote, bowing on its website after the sea-level run in Seattle. “Montana State's Cristian Soratos is legit and DESERVES respect.”