Grismel Alonso-Soto was in a dressing room trying on pants. They didn’t fit — her regular size no longer fit. Again.
What came next might have been the accumulation of a million different feelings or the pain and frustration of watching the number on the scale climb while her ability to do the things she loved slowly slipped away. But Alonso-Soto remembers that day in particular as the one in which she finally declared to herself and to the world: I’m done.
“I was not going into the next pant size up. If that means walking out of here naked, then that’s what it’s going to have to be,” she remembers thinking. “It was, ‘I’m done. This is only going to get worse. You need to do something.’
“Every time I put something on, every time I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like who I was looking at,” she said.
It was more than what she saw, though. It was how she felt. She felt unable to do things with her two young daughters; she felt incapable of pulling off anything physical.
She was close to 220 pounds. She couldn’t run, so she walked. She signed up for exercise and dance classes. She changed the way she ate but not in a way that made her unhappy — in a way that she could live with and that she could sustain.
Her mom’s tamales? Great for lunch. No longer great for lunch, dinner and breakfast the next day.
“Kale and quinoa? They are not in my fridge,” she said. “I had to find something that works for me.”
The zumba and boot camp classes were working and she was feeling better. So she kicked it up a notch. She started driving from her home in Cloverdale to take P.E. classes at Santa Rosa Junior College.
“She was just head and shoulders above everybody else in work ethic,” said Lacy Campbell, the women’s basketball coach at the JC and a physical education instructor. “It was like a freight train. She would not stop.”
Campbell had to modify her class workouts for Alonso-Soto — not to make them easier, but to make them harder.
“It’s the mindset,” she said. “You don’t find people like that very often.”
And so it was last spring when cross country coach David Wellman was shooting the breeze with Campbell while her P.E. students ran through a conditioning workout.
“I saw this woman just hammering the workouts Lacy was giving her,” Wellman said.
Campbell told Wellman that Alonso-Soto “crushes my class.”
Wellman was silent for a bit. Campbell suspects he was timing Alonso-Soto as she did interval training.
He liked what he saw and approached the 31-year-old mother of two and asked her to join the cross country team.
“I told him, ‘I have no idea what you are talking about,’” Alonso-Soto said. “I never knew what tempos were, I didn’t know what pace was, I didn’t know my mileage.”
“I’m 31 years old. What the hell just happened?” she said. “I get a knot in my throat just thinking about it.”
This is not a gimmick for Wellman — or for Alonso-Soto. She is now the team’s No. 1 runner.
At the Delta-Mustang preview in September, Alonso-Soto was her team’s top finisher, coming in seventh by less than two seconds behind the sixth-place finisher. By all accounts, she would have been in the top three, but she got lost on the course. Alonso-Soto was the top Bear Cub finisher at the Sonoma State Invitational last weekend, coming in fourth overall on a hilly, difficult course.
“The time she ran in the Sonoma State meet would put her up there with any JC runners that I’ve had in the last six years,” Wellman said.
Her entire family was there. Her husband, her parents and her in-laws — the people who are helping watch her kids and take carpool shifts so she can better manager her school and sports commitments — were there to see the fruit of her work and theirs.
“On the curve, I see someone with red shorts coming; it’s someone from the JC,” her husband, Francisco Soto, said. “I saw the movement and I thought, ‘That’s my wife.’ When I saw her coming, I was ... how do you say that word? I felt it in my body. I was so proud of my wife.”
Alonso-Soto is consistent and reliable, said team captain Eunisse Manalo. And she will always bring it in a workout.
“With her, it’s always inspiring,” she said. “When she’s at 100 percent, you just want to be at 100 percent with her.”
And that’s just training. On race day, Alonso-Soto has proven a savvy competitor who belies her inexperience.
“She has an amazing finish, super strength,” Manalo said. “I think she has the mental strength to finish strong.”
And she has the mental strength to stay focused at meets where she stands out.
“I think my physical appearance doesn’t really scare anybody. It’s ‘What’s this grandma? She isn’t going to be any competition,’” she said. “Then I show them I actually have something under my belt.”
She’ll get another chance to show it Friday at the Toro Park Invitational in Salinas. It’s a key meet for the team to prove its mettle, according to Wellman. It’s also on the same course as the state meet — an event Wellman expects without question Alonso-Soto to make.
“She has a work ethic like no other. I can tell her to do 10 more than I have told anyone else and she’ll happily do it,” he said. “You can’t really coach that and I love it.”
It also adds to a bit of mystery about Alonso-Soto. Because she’s so inexperienced and because her work rate is so high, it’s unclear what she can do with this season.
When she thinks back on the years she was overweight, she is philosophical. No, those years weren’t lost, she said; those were years she was learning what she could be by understanding what she didn’t want to be.
“I feel like it was hibernation for 10 years. Like time stood still,” she said. “I think I wasn’t ready at that time. I think my body wasn’t ready at that time. I think my priorities weren’t ready at that time. I guess I just accepted it. I feel like I was just, ‘This is me.’”
Maybe that was her. But not anymore. One gets the feeling that the woman working out at the JC track on a cool Thursday morning is the real Alonso-Soto.
“Age doesn’t define what you are capable of,” she said. “You define what you are capable of.”
But for Alonso-Soto, it is less a definition than a question for which the answer seems to be continuously rewritten. What she was capable of a year ago is light years away from what she can do today. And tomorrow? She’s still working on it.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”