BOGOTA – When Bogota runner Alberto Castillo crossed the finish line two weeks ago at the Bergen County Cross Country Group Championships, he, his teammates and his coaches knew that he was a winner.
He didn’t win the race – that honor went to Derek Barney of Indian Hills – nor did his team finish in the top spot overall, but finishing a five kilometer run in a personal best time of 19:30 a little over a year after having a stroke, completed an improbable journey for the Bogota High School senior.
One morning in September 2013, the young runner left his home for school as if it were any ordinary day, but soon discovered that he was feeling ill and his condition did not improve as he went about his day.
“I woke up like it was a regular day, but I had a headache,” said Castillo. “I walked to school and everything was getting worse. I didn’t feel well and as the day went on, it was getting harder to walk.”
Castillo called his mother and had her pick him up from school. While at home, he continued to feel worse until he finally went to the hospital. After two cat scans, the doctors confirmed that he had suffered a stroke.
The Bogota boys cross country squad is a close-knit group, united by a love for the sport, and it was not long before his teammates were by his side in the hospital to lift his spirits.
“Every kid was in his hospital room instantaneously,” said Bogota’s head cross country coach Jay Mahoney. “That’s what I remember most.”
For the next three to four months, Castillo did not run at all. He spent much of his time cheering for his teammates while attending physical therapy three days a week. Once his doctor and parents cleared him to start running again, he began jogging around town to restore back to fitness.
Returning to the Bogota track and field team in the spring, the coaching staffed eased Castillo back into the group’s workouts, but his boundless energy and enthusiasm for running were difficult traits to contain as he was eager to run again at full speed.
“At first, in the spring, we were definitely more cautious with him,” said assistant coach Pat Rochford. “He got the okay from his parents and doctor to start running again, but we were still more cautious. We didn’t want to see that happen again. You could tell after a few weeks that he was going to be fine. It’s hard to convince someone with that kind of drive to slow down. I think from the day he had the stroke he couldn’t wait to get out of there and get back to work right away.”
During the summer, Castillo and his teammates went out running every day and worked hard to get themselves into tip-top condition. It was also a way for Castillo give his life a sense of normalcy, preparing as he usually would for the fall cross country season.
“The support has been great,” said Castillo. “I really have to thank my teammates because without them I don’t think that I’d be here today. Running is definitely harder than before, but working out with my friends motivates me to keep going.”
Although it took him a while to round into form, when he crossed the finish line at Darlington County Park and beat his personal record for a five kilometer run by nine seconds, it was an affirmation that he had put his stroke behind him for good. He celebrated along with his varsity teammates, who captured the Boys Group D County title the same day.
“He ran all summer and came back and worked his tail off the whole time,” said Rochford. “He never made an excuse for himself. He was not running like he wanted to in the beginning of the season, but he showed up every day and he’s usually the first one there at practice.”
With his medical scare more than 14 months in his rear view mirror, his focus is now to finish his high school running career and move on to college. He no longer thinks about the day he went to the hospital, he simply desires to continue improving as a runner.
“I don’t think about it or let it affect me,” Castillo said. “If it gets in my head, I won’t perform as well as I know I can.”