Alamosa Dreams: History, Culture And Family Drive This Duo

Photo Credit: Colorado MileSplit

After moving to the small, Colorado town where their father once pursued his own running dreams, Madeline and Lia Castillo have connected with their roots while also embracing a lifestyle that has brought their family closer. 

By Cory Mull - MileSplit

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Tuesdays in Alamosa, Colorado can often feel like an intersection of culture, history and identity for Madeline and Lia Castillo, the teenage daughters of '92 NCAA Division II cross country champion Phil Castillo. 

On the one hand, they're just training days, the typical weekly interval sessions the Alamosa High School girls and boys cross country teams conduct at Cole Park -- 600 meters of hard-nosed grass running, affectionally known as 'lappers.' But upon closer examination, those days might reveal something more innate for the pair.

After all, Alamosa remains a place where their father once found himself, too, on the trails and roads surrounding this town. It's where he realized his potential, fought for his rights as a Native American and where he executed on a vision that saw him -- and his team -- make NCAA history by becoming the first and only program to ever to earn a perfect score at nationals. 

But the Castillos are also surrounded by all kinds of history. Their teammates, Autumn and Elizabeth McQuitty, are the daughters of Adams State national championship alums, too -- and the offspring of Alamosa head coach Jennifer McQuitty. The Castillo's fifth teammate, Sarah DeLaCerda, is the daughter of Peter DeLaCerda, who was a member of that national championship team with Castillo in '92. Alamosa is also the high school where Joe Vigil, the legendary cross country coach, first started his career. 

Moreover, there's Lia's and Madeline's own culture as Native runners. Recently, they say, they're beginning to understand what that truly means. 

"I never really knew what it meant to be a Native runner," Lia said. "But recently I've learned about the history of Native runners and how that connects me with them. It's motivated me to strive for more for myself, as well as for my people." 

Both Madeline and Lia are chasing after something symbiotic this season, from an understanding of their own selves and a realization of their own history, to a physical manifestation of their own hard work: A state championship trophy for Alamosa. 

This weekend in California, the team will begin on their journey with one of their biggest meets of the season: The Woodbridge XC Classic. 

Success is within reach, but every little inch will count.

This year, the Alamosa coaching staff has employed a saying, and one that has history: Run like you can touch your teammate's shoulder

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Just months ago, in a banquet held in Colorado Springs, Phil Castillo was inducted into the Rocky Mountain Athletic Hall of Fame. That recognition came four years after he also joined Adams State's illustrious HOF member class. 

Sitting alongside his daughters, who were learning about some of his exploits for the first time in their lives, the occasion hit Phil like a brick wall. In many ways, he said, it began to connect two timelines together. 

"The one thing I've been careful to do all their lives," Phil said, "was that I haven't compared them to me. I was a national champion. I did a lot of things. But I wanted them to find their own way. They needed to blaze their own way."

A full 30 years had passed since his national championship for Adams State and his nine All-American finishes, including a runner-up finish in '93 at nationals. Madeline and Lia only knew that their father was a runner. 

But he was this good? 

"Being there taught me some stuff I learned that I didn't know before," Lia said. "We never got to see him like that. We never met Coach Vigil, who was his coach in college. It was really cool to see a video and to talk to him." 

"When I first learned about my dad being a runner," Madeline added, "it was really inspiring to me. I strive to be like him. What he did was really awesome. What he did motivates me to run more competitively." 

Even greater than their father's athletic accomplishments, though, was Phil's record off the course. 

A proud native of New Mexico and a member of the Pueblo Acoma tribe, Phil arrived on campus unknowingly stepping on to a campus whose sports teams were known as the 'Indians.' 

"When I first told my mom she sort of teared up," Phil said. "She said, 'Wow, I can't believe this is happening here.'" 

Long before the scope of social and cultural change shaped the course of various states and universities across America, Phil didn't shy away from the controversy that Adams State's mascot emitted. Instead, he fought for his rights. 

From his first year until his last days on campus, he said, he protested with other students, arguing that the university change the language deriding his Native culture. Amidst all of that, he said, he was forced to sacrifice relationships. He risked alienating himself from others. 

"I knew I was a good runner. But from what I saw, I believed I needed to do something about it," he said.  "And for the next five years of my life, we continued to hold rallies, we continued to get attention. For me, this was using running as a catalyst to put myself on a soapbox to talk about the issue." 

During his tenure at Adams State, Phil went to New York and appeared on television. He protested with fellow students and held sit-ins at the university's Presidents office. 

But through it all, he said, he was supported by his coach. And even when this social cause forced Phil to step away from the cross country team in his final year at the school, he said he didn't regret the decision. 

"I don't have no regrets," he said. 

Years after he left Adams State, he said, he received a letter from the new President of the university. It told Phil that Adams State was effectively eliminating the name of its mascot and holding a committee to rename the athletic teams which would ultimately become the Grizzlies. 

"There was something more important than athletics to me," he said, "and it was social change. I had to be on the forefront of that." 

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Madeline and Lia are just teenagers now, 16 and 17, respectively, but they are more traveled than most, the product of a father whose military work and professional background took him and his family to all parts of the country and even across the world. 

After Phil found incredible success at Adams State, winning a national title under Vigil in 1992 -- Adams State is still the only team in NCAA history to score a perfect 15 points -- he turned pro and then enlisted in the Army in 1998, where he ran with the WCAP program. 

He qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the marathon in 2000 and at his peak clocked a time of 2 hours, 19 minutes, entering into the elite annals of American distance running. 

He became a full grade logistics officer, earning the rank of Major, and spent 20 years in the military, accepting deployments to Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2011. But sometime after his final deployment, with four daughters and a marriage, he decided to make a change. 

"We've moved a total of 17 times in my career," he said. "It's been tough on the kids. The two older ones, I missed a lot of things."

Madeline was born in New York, while Lia's birthplace is Florida. Both have memories from various cities in the U.S., from stops in Virginia and Kansas, to even spells overseas in Germany and Greece.  

Before Phil retired from the Army and the family sold their house and moved to Colorado, the pair entered high school at North Pole High School in Alaska. It was there when he made a life-altering decision, he said: He was going to do everything in his power to be with his girls. 

"That was the time in my career where there were a lot of apologies laid out to my (older) girls for not being with them," he said. "In Alaska, with these two, I had my own classroom. I would see them in school every day."

Life in Alaska gave both Lia and Madeline a glimpse of what success in this sport would take. 

While ice fishing, snow mobiles and negative-50 days were the norm for the town of roughly 2,000, both runners found ways to train and compete in North Pole, Alaska.

Phil held the whistle for the first time. They ran and called him coach. 

"The culture in Alaska was a lot different," Lia said. "No one wanted to do it. Sometimes people would just run as a means to keep in shape for other sports.

"...But for me, it was part of my personality," she added. "I was the 'running girl.' And I just really fell in love with that. To run and have people know me for my sport, that felt good." 

As a sophomore, Lia finished 26th at the Alaska State Championships while her sister Madeline was 11th. While still new to the sport, the pair were beginning to find their legs. 

Meanwhile, both began to forge a deeper relationship with their father. 

"I think the bond got stronger," Phil said. "They would always each lunch in my classroom. I would see them in school every day. It was a great connection. And then with coaching, that opened up the door for me. It was fortuitous that I was able to coach them." 

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Two weeks ago, Lia was handed a gift from her aunt. It was a traditional Native dress, one that her relative had preciously held in her closet and which was designed specifically for her niece -- knee-length, black, adorned with Acoma Pueblo regalia, including hand-made ribbon work and a woven belt. 

Lia, who was wearing it for her senior picture, made sure to carefully put the attire on, piece-by-piece: Dress. Neckless. Earrings. Bracelets. Boots. 

This connection to her heritage only brought her closer to to her culture. 

"It just felt so surreal," said Lia, who's also going to wear the dress at graduation. "I had never worn any dresses like that before was amazing to see that part of myself." 

When Phil was contemplating retirement from the Army, he thought about relocation closely. Where would he take his girls next? Knowing his next move could ultimately be one of his own choosing -- and one that could place his family in a forever-home for the foreseeable future -- he thought about impact. 

His family's tribe, the Yellow Corn Clan (on his mother's side), was from New Mexico. He could have gone to Albuquerque. 

But so much of his life, the truly defining moments and the shaping of his identity, had been determined by this place in time 30 years ago. All the good and the bad. He chose Alamosa. 

"I knew what I was getting into bringing my girls here." 

The first months of Lia's and Maddy's introduction to Alamosa were, like other spells, an adjustment, from new classes and a new school to an introduction of running at 7,500 feet of elevation. 

"When we first moved here I couldn't breath," Lia said. 

But in time, as they acclimated to teammates and forged friendships, a bond was starting to be made. 

"They connected with their teammates," Phil said. "That's what sports do." 

At the Desert Twilight XC Festival in September of last year, both Lia and Madeline ran personal best times for 5K, with Madeline clocking a time of 18:38 and finishing inside the top 50 of the girls Sweepstakes race. Lia went 19:07 and was in the top 65. 

Alamosa finished seventh in the elite field. And yet, that performance only preempted their highlight of the season: Their second-place performance at the Colorado Class 3A Championships. 

The girls of Alamosa hadn't been this close to winning a title since 2014, when the program last earned the state trophy. That weekend, the first four girls on the team were in the top 20, while Lia came in 50th.

All this success certainly had its moment for the girls, and for Phil.

Still, more opportunity came. The Wings of America, an organization aimed at strengthening Native youth, named both Madeline and Lia to its national team for the USA Cross Country Championships. 

"There's a long line of runners in our native history," Madeline said. "You're running for them. It gives us more motivation to run." 

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The road to a state championship isn't what you envision, really. It takes miles and miles of endless grunt work. It takes the precision of speed training and the small little details, like sleep, rest and recovery. 

Success takes time, patience and a lot of those Tuesday workouts at Cole Park. 

Jen McQuitty likes to say those workouts shape her team of 12, and for a program aiming for a Colorado Class 3A title in 2022, every runner will count.

"I might say they have 10. They're like, 'Oh my God,'" McQuitty said. "They start out with three or four. And then after they're through them they say, 'OK, I got this.' Pretty soon, they're like 'This is light work.' That's what we always tell them." 

Routine has been key over the last two seasons. And that's what McQuitty and Phil -- he became an assistant coach last year -- have gone about bringing to the overall scope of the team. They want to see consistency and commitment. Just recently, on an off day, McQuitty said, the girls prepared a work-out on their own. 

What's more, Castillo's military background has rubbed off in positive ways for McQuitty, too. 

"He definitely keeps it disciplined and rigorous," she said, adding, "but he also brings the fun in cross country running."

As Adams State alums, history has shaped the way they coach. This year, they've employed the saying 'Run like you can touch your teammates shoulder' ...because it's the exact same motto their Adams State teams lived by. In fact, it's what propelled Phil and his team to a national championship in '92. 

In many ways, the spirit of their former teams lives on through this current generation, whether unconsciously or not. 

As for Phil's daughters, he knows their careers are winding down. Lia has one more year left, while Madeline has two. He thinks they both have a future in collegiate running. 

Phil says of Madeline, "she's an absolute head-hunter." Of Lia, he adds, "she's adopted a fierce racing attitude." 

Both will have their opportunities this weekend in California to run career-best 3-mile times at the Woodbridge Classic, historically known as the fastest course in the country for that distance. 

Phil believes wholeheartedly in his daughters and their future. As a father, though, it touches his heart another way as they've begun to embrace their heritage. 

"Much like me, running is one thing they're very good at," he says. "It's their ticket. It's their way out. That's how they look at running. I pray for them, my family members, my brother and his girlfriend, we often pray together. 

"That connection these two have, with running and the Native American community is tight-knit. There are a lot of connections with our people and running."

We say a word to each other before races, 'guumeh'," Madeline said. "It means 'Be strong' in a race. We can only say it to each other. We're running for our purpose."

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