Overcoming The Rival Within

How cross country runner Andrew Villeda chooses to tackle life

Andrew Villeda racing for the finish line in the steeplechase event at the Bob Larson Distance Carnival hosted at UCLA on March 25.

As the last remnants of Saturday’s dawn have long passed, 18-year-old Andrew Villeda finishes his four mile run under the warm 9 a.m. sun with his loyal companion Shiloh by his side.

This nursing major is chasing down his dream. Taking a total of 17 units, maintaining a 3.85 GPA and being a part of the Mt. SAC men’s cross country team is no easy task.

Andrew Villeda takes a rest after running the 5K on April 1 at San Diego Mesa College. (Moises Marquez)

Wanting to learn piano for fun, he took on Music 17 alongside his general education requirements of biology, chemistry and public speaking. After completing the health academy and earning his Certified Nursing Assistant license at Cal High, he decided to pursue his passion – nursing.

While excelling in school and a demanding sport can be difficult, Villeda motivates himself by finding reasons to do so.

“You’re always going to find what you’re looking for,” he said. “I want to run because I want to be around the people that I care about. I want to improve myself. I want a chance at a scholarship [and] at going to state.”

Villeda said it’s better for one’s mental health to shift one’s mindset. While it is easy to find a reason to not do something when looking for one, Villeda has found it important to shift his perspective because the mind is a powerful thing.

This mentality has helped Villeda when he was struggling.

Villeda became familiar with competitive sports at a young age. He grew up doing competitive club swimming with his brothers from when he was 5 years old up until he turned 12.

Then, in eighth grade, he met a girl.

After talking to this girl for some time, he developed a crush on her and set out to impress her. Villeda decided that achieving the school record for running the mile would do the trick. So, he gradually started running more miles unaware that he was now getting into distance running. Although he eventually stopped talking to that girl, Villeda kept on running.

Villeda joined the cross country team freshman year of high school but ended up quitting when the coach forced him to run while he was seriously injured. He said that coaches can be overbearing and play a big role in how athletes view the sport.

Although Villeda stopped running for the cross country team, he continued to practice running with a friend who was on the team. They connected with other runners, brought their dogs along for runs and ran the trails around their houses together. They kept their mileage low in order to take care of themselves but still enough to get into good shape.

Andrew Villeda jumping the hurdle in the steeplechase event at the Mt. SAC Relays on April 9. (Bryan Jimenez)

Villeda said that running solo makes it easy to get into your own head.

“You really have to have the right mindset to be able to do distance running well,” Villeda said. “So much of it is a mental sport.”

Running in a group can be encouraging. Pains that would have been unbearable when running alone can disappear while running with others, especially running with people who have a good attitude makes the experience enjoyable.

The enjoyment of running with others continued to grow when Villeda started college.

His journey to Mt. SAC came about from being a little irresponsible. He had applied to Cal State Long Beach for their nursing program, but missed the deadlines to apply to other Cal States. Since he did not take school as seriously back then, he did not get accepted into the only university he applied to.

Hearing good things about Mt. SAC’s nursing program, he decided to attend Mt. SAC.

Unsure if he could keep up with the others on the cross country team, Villeda was skeptical whether he would be able to join Mt. SAC’s team. It took some convincing and encouragement from his girlfriend at the time in order to take that chance and join.

This was one of the best decisions he ever made. Villeda loves being on Mt. SAC’s cross county team. He said everyone wants to succeed and wants each other to succeed as well.

“I didn’t even realize teams like this existed,” he said. “When the people around you are happy, it makes you happy. It radiates out to you.”

He said the team felt unreal in the beginning. The group of runners are always positive and happy to be at practice – a huge change from the negative atmosphere of his high school team. On Mt. SAC’s cross country team, everyone genuinely cares about one another and pushes each other to get better.

While some of the runners on the team are on different levels of commitment and training, Villeda feels that they are inspiring and motivating while also making sure that everyone feels respected on the team.

Of course, they always have a fun time too.

One of Villeda’s favorite memories was during a meet at Occidental College.

When one of the other school’s team members jumped into the pool from the diving board, security noticed the group of guys pointing and laughing around the pool. As the security came rushing over to investigate, the guy jumped out of the pool and ran around campus with the security team searching for him with flashlights.

Villeda recalled how the rest of the guys made a game out of it and pretended that they were protective bodyguards for the president.

Even though track meets take up a lot of time, they also have a fun atmosphere. They fill their down time by joking around and hosting freestyle rap sessions. Though Villeda said the raps are terrible, they still have a good time regardless. While down time can be fun, the events are a more serious matter.

Villeda participates in the 1500m, 3000m, 3200m and 5000m, with his main event being steeplechase. Right now, his time is 10 minutes flat for the steeplechase event, but the time to qualify for state is just seconds away at 9:56. While cutting time is tricky, steeplechase in particular can be dangerous. Supervision is required whenever runners compete in it because one mistake can end the race.

While discouraging thoughts tend to slip into his mind when he’s struggling, Villeda said it is when you are at your weakest that you need to remember to be patient and stay true to the goal.

He described how it’s easy to welcome optimism when it is a good week, but a struggle when he is not performing up to his personal standards. Villeda said it is very important to set time aside to feel better, get back to it and persevere during the bad times.

Specifically in cross country, he said it’s important to not push too much when feeling that high of success. Knowing when to push and when to ease up to prevent injury and make long term progress is crucial. Paying attention to one’s body and what it needs is necessary to last.

To keep himself going, Villeda makes sure to do things he enjoys, especially when frustrated. He has a friend who owns horses and finds that spending time with the animals can really turn his day around.

He lives by the motto that time moves fast and it is important to appreciate the moment. If that moment is not the greatest, however, he leaves you with seven words:

“Suck it up and make it work.”