An inspiration and friend

BY DIANE DARUTY

Runners from Newport Beach and throughout Southern California were devastated last week by the passing of local running legend, Juan Ramirez. Tragically, last Wednesday evening, he was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while running near Mile Square Park.

If you run Newport Beach’s Back Bay area, no doubt you’ve seen, and probably met, Juan. He was difficult to miss as his muscular body ran towards you and his warm smile greeted you.

If you knew Juan, he likely stopped to hug, chat, or run with you, even if only for a few minutes, as most of us couldn’t keep up with his quick pace.

“Every single time I’d see him he’d always stop and talk to me,” said Newport Beach resident Jen Hartog who knew Juan for 15 years. “I would tell him to keep going so I could watch his ‘gazelle-like’ strides.”

Juan with Kelly Flanders

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Submitted photos

Long-time friend and running partner, Kelly Flanders, greets Juan with a hug on the running path

Juan’s dedication to fitness was remarkable and inspirational. He typically ran 70 miles per week, topping 100 miles the weeks preceding a marathon. Juan’s daily visits to the gym for weight lifting produced his muscular physique, six pack abs and three percent body fat.

But Juan didn’t just look phenomenal, he was fast! At age 28, he ran his first marathon finishing in 2 hours 53 minutes. According to Runners World, only two percent of marathon competitors break the three-hour mark – undoubtedly almost none on their first attempt.

As the years and miles progressed, Juan smashed his debut time with a personal record of 2 hours 30 minutes. He completed more than 20 marathons, two of which he won – California International in 2000 and Napa Valley in 2008. Three times he placed in the top 25 overall at the Los Angeles Marathon. One Orange County publication, even reported on Juan’s Napa victory, titling the story, “Fastest Man in OC.”

Juan Finish Line Napa

Juan breaks the finish line in Napa Valley Marathon

While Juan’s athleticism was extraordinary, that was a small part of how he inspired people. His work ethic and positive attitude were amazing. He ran every day unless he was sick or injured, and could push his body through extremely difficult conditions and pain levels.

“Juan was the Forest Gump of Cal Coast,” according to Glenn Hamburger, former Cal Coast Track Club member and friend. “How many people can get robbed in front of a 7-11 right before a marathon, shake it off with a smile, and then take second place?”

Juan befriended all runners, from elite competitors to casual joggers. He seemed to know every runner on the road, track and at the races. When he saw them, he always smiled, and when time permitted, stopped to talk with them. He had a gift for making each person feel important.

“I’ll never forget his smile and cheering for us at a track workout,” Sagui Doering recalled. “Juan had already finished his laps. It meant a lot for such an amazing and elite runner to motivate those of us in the slow pack.”

Juan completed his toughest workouts with the few runners who could keep up with him. While his competitors conserved energy on their off days, Juan instead paced less gifted runners during their hard runs. The list of those he helped is long, and the percentage of those who achieved their personal goals with his assistance is high.

Juan not only acted as the “rabbit,” he offered advice, encouragement and emotional support. He helped most of them over the years and through dozens of workouts in preparation for marathons or other goal races. Those he helped included Kathy (Smith) Kobrine, Kelly Flathers, Rosalinda Acala, Louise Davis, Ashley Teran, Holly Hobson-Gery, Vivien Wadeck, myself, and many others.

Juan Morales first met Juan as he ran towards him on the Back Bay trail. He recognized Morales from Cal Coast Track Club and turned around to join him. They thereafter ran together weekly. Juan, who ran considerably faster than Morales at the time, agreed to pace his friend through his long runs.

“At first my long run was 12 miles,” Morales explained. “Juan had a knack for slowly pushing your boundaries and helping you believe that you could handle more. Soon, we were running 16 miles with the last several miles at a very fast pace. These runs prepared me to run my fastest half marathon while feeling stronger than ever throughout the race. Juan taught me to embrace the pain. The ‘Juan progressive run’ became a staple in my workout routine.”

Juan and Sylvia

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Juan and Sylvia Mosqueda

Over her elite running career that spanned decades, Sylvia Mosqueda qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 10k and marathon multiple times. Her personal record in the marathon was only three minutes slower than Juan’s, while her half marathon time bested Juan’s by a minute. Sylvia and Juan became running partners and grew as close and combative as brother and sister.

“Juan was the dependable person when it came time to meet for a run or race. But most importantly he was my friend. He would get mad at me or I at him, but he was my happy pill, my sunshine, and a friend who always told me the truth. I’m still trying to figure out what I’ll do without his laugh and smile,” Sylvia shared.

Juan dedicated his mind, heart and soul to running. Although, like most of us, he loved to win, Juan’s focus was achieving his goal time in each race he ran. When asked how he felt about winning the Napa Valley Marathon he replied: “It’s kind of weird, I don’t feel like a winner. I guess it comes down to the fact that I didn’t get my time.”

If we could all focus less on winning and more on doing our personal best, and help those around us achieve the same, the world would be a better place. The world is certainly a better place because Juan Ramirez set that example. He will be sorely missed.

Juan Wins His Weight

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Juan wins his weight in wine