WeRunFar Profile: Noé Castañón

With genuine elation, Noé Castañón jokes that he’s a slow ultrarunner and that he’s truly indifferent to the speed at which he finishes his races. What’s most important to him instead is an unwavering, unapologetic commitment to train and complete each event. And perhaps equal to that is his commitment to supporting the running community which has given so much to him.

Noé Castañón after finishing the 2017 Hardrock 100. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

In truth, Castañón is not your average endurance athlete.

Castañón lives in El Sobrante, California, a city of 13,000 residents located about an hour north of San Francisco. Despite long rush-hour commutes, he works in Oakland as an auto mechanic. He’s worked at the same shop for 23 years and continues a career he started decades ago in his home country of Mexico.

A dual U.S.-Mexico citizen, Castañón was born and raised in central Mexico in his hometown of Fresnillo, located in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. He grew up in a household of 10 kids and was raised with traditional Mexican values, which he describes as meaning shared family meals, an important focus on chores and homework, and practicing the Catholic religion including Sunday church.

Castañón learned about San Francisco long before he immigrated to California. His father lived in San Francisco during the 1950s, and when his parents married in the ’60s, in Mexico, Castañón’s father largely remained in the U.S. for work. He owned a lucrative landscaping business throughout Castañón’s childhood. Castañón’s mom was a housewife in Mexico and raised the kids more-or-less alone while his dad economically supported the family. His dad traveled back-and-forth to visit them all.

Then, in 1987, as his dad steered his way back to Mexico for a home visit, he had a fatal car accident. Castañón was 17 years old.

“When a drunk driver killed my dad, that had a huge impact in my life. That’s one of the reasons I don’t drink. After that, there was too much suffering for our family. My dad, the provider, was no longer there. We had to start over. But we stayed together,” he said. He’d graduated high school at 15 years old and was attending college in another city for his automotive-mechanic degree. As a full-time student, he also worked. After his father passed, he doubled down on hours to earn a wage that would cover his living costs in full, including books, rent, and food. His siblings all got jobs, too, to help support their family. Each week, Castañón took an entire day to travel to the post office, where the closest pay phone was located, so that he could call home and touch base.

Close to a decade later, Castañón himself moved to the Bay Area—where two of his brothers had already relocated—in 1995. Back in the mid-90s, trail running in Mexico was pretty much nonexistent, he said. It was in California that his love for running sparked, in 2003. A friend invited Castañón to spectate Bay To Breakers, a race with more than 70,000 participants. The runners were so diverse—all ages and sizes—and he was stirred by the idea of their individual motivations.

“I felt embarrassed with myself. They were all trying something for themselves and I wasn’t trying anything. I thought, Next year, I want to be here, no matter what. It took me one year to train. That was my first-ever race, and it changed my life. I wanted to be healthy. Before that, I was a couch potato,” Castañón said. He says that wasn’t overweight, but that he was out of shape. After he started running, he shed a few pounds and the active lifestyle made him feel stronger and happier than ever.

In the months that followed, he ran 5ks, 10ks, and road marathons. Three years later, in 2006, he ran his first ultramarathon at the Six-Hour Distance Classic via loops in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. He covered 36 miles. “I said, ‘Wow, I did six hours? Next I’m going to run for 12 hours.’” Castañón was attracted to the challenge and novelty of ultras. The more he ran, the greater in love he fell with the process of training and racing. In 2007, he participated in the San Francisco One-Day 12-Hour Race, and the next year he ran on the event’s looped course for 24 hours. That year, he completed 85 miles.

Noé in his early days of road running. All photos courtesy of Noé Castañón unless otherwise noted.

“Some people think that running loops is boring, but I think it makes you mentally stronger. It’s very easy to quit on loops when you get tired. But if you focus on getting it done, you’re pushing yourself, and you can get it done. That’s not boring for me. That helps me to compete in other [even-harder] events—those races when mentally you don’t feel good but you need to keep pushing,” said Castañón.

In 2010, Castañón ran his first 100-mile race, the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile, and finished in 31 hours and 34 minutes. Since then and to date, he’s participated in thirty-five 100 milers, including three appearances at the Hardrock 100. His inaugural 2012 Hardrock holds his PR: 45 hours and 52 minutes. When he ran Hardrock in 2015, he finished with four minutes to spare before the 48-hour cutoff. He’d spent that spring healing a calf injury, which put him on crutches and sidelined his training for an entire month. He couldn’t start other events he’d planned to participate in as he healed. When he toed the line for Hardrock, many people called him crazy.

“I was chasing cutoffs but wanted to finish and I did. I was so happy to arrive at the finish line with my Mexican blood. I got a lot of messages from Mexican runners who were excited that a Mexican was in Hardrock. It inspired other Mexican runners to start doing 100-mile races,” he said.

Volunteering at an ultramarathon.

The sport of ultrarunning is still nascent but growing in Mexico. Though, the Mexican run culture doesn’t yet have the history of training, industry, or access to gear that exists in the U.S. A primary goal of Castañón’s is to help bridge that gap. Twice annually, he travels to Mexico to visit family—where his mom and six siblings still live—and always signs up for a race.

“I want to know the Mexican trail running culture and to learn how Mexican racers think. What are their questions, what can I learn, and what can I tell? I can share what I have learned in the U.S. When I started running, I made a lot of mistakes. When you have someone to help you, you can shine more,” he said.

For Castañón’s Hardrock debut, he registered as a U.S. racer. But later, he realized he could help strengthen the community of Mexican ultrarunners if he registered as a Mexican citizen, which he did for the Barkley Marathons as his second Hardrock.

“I’m trying to be a role model for Mexicans and to inspire them to not be afraid to try new things. I want to teach them it’s possible, that you just need to do your homework. I’m an average runner, and I’m able to share trails with first-class runners like Kilian Jornet,” he said.

Running Las Mariposas 50k in Mexico.

Ultrarunning coach and writer Sarah Lavender Smith first connected with Castañón close to eight years ago. They started bumping into each other at ultras, including Hardrock, and had mutual friends in the northern California running scene where they both then lived. She’s watched Castañón’s influence grow over the years. “Noé is an influential ambassador in the Mexican-American community of long-distance runners, raising awareness in North America about Mexico’s ultrarunning scene, and encouraging Mexican ultrarunners to train and race internationally. I appreciate his bilingual social-media posts, which enhance my knowledge about ultras he’s run while also prompting me to brush up my Spanish reading skills,” said Smith.

In 2011, tragedy struck again. Castañón’s Bay Area home burned down in a domestic fire caused by lit candles. The night of the incident, Castañón was running a 200-mile team relay race. He and his wife—who was unharmed—lost everything they owned, including their two beloved dogs who passed away in the blaze. With support from the American Red Cross, the couple stayed in a hotel for four nights as they searched for a temporary rental. It would be eight months before their home could be rebuilt. “Dealing with the insurance was a huge nightmare,” recalled Castañón.

The day after the fire, Castañón’s relay team pooled together their resources to give him the basic necessities like clothing and footwear. “The run community was really good to me. I felt blessed to have them on my side. After the first month of being homeless, I still had a job, and my wife and I were healthy, so little by little, we were able to be on our feet again,” he said.

Following the generosity of the running community during his time of personal crisis, Castañón felt compelled to give back more to others. The next year, he launched a nonprofit, Shoes for Runners, that collects new or used running gear and ships it to various running clubs and communities in Mexico.

“Many Mexican runners don’t have the basic gear or shoes [for running]. Some runners race with basketball shoes. Trail running gear in Mexico is expensive. It’s good to do something for others. It’s not what others can do for you, it’s what you can do for them,” he said.

A Shoes for Runners sign, Noé’s nonprofit.

Castañón loves to give back in general. On average, he volunteers for seven races and four trail-work days a year.

Says Smith, “Noé is a constant, cheerful, positive presence at ultras. He pops up everywhere. When he’s not running, he’s helping others at aid stations or by pacing. At my last 24-hour event in San Francisco on New Year’s Day of 2018, Noé showed up at daybreak, as if he could think of no better way to ring in the new year than by being with runners, and he began jogging by my side as I walked with fatigue. He began exhorting me with motivational sayings, ‘You can do this, you have the power within you! ¡Corre! ¡Fuerte!  He wouldn’t let me walk. I ran an extra mile before the time limit because of him.”

Ultimately, Castañón’s work ethic and kind spirit is unparalleled in all he sets his mind to. He works Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the auto mechanic, plus his long commutes, and plus his home responsibilities. Despite all this, he still makes time to train. He’ll finish ultras on Sundays and drive home to be back at work on Monday. After the 2017 Tor des Géants—his favorite race so far—he clocked back into work on time, albeit limping and tired.

The race makes a 200-plus-mile loop through the Italian Alps and climbs more than 78,000 vertical feet along the way. “In Tor des Géants, you pass steep, hard mountains. The views are stunning like Hardrock—but Hardrock is only 100 miles. This is twice the beauty with the views, and so much suffering but so much preciousness. When you pass the [high-mountain] villages, it seems like you’re living in another time. It’s amazing,” he said. Castañón finished the race in 2017 in 149 hours, 19 minutes. He ran it again, in 2018, but dropped at mile 122, due to injury.

At the finish of the 2017 Tor des Géants in Italy.

During the toughest race moments, Castañón is most motivated by his nuclear family and boss, but for different reasons than you’d might expect. They motivate him because they tell him that he should quit ultrarunning altogether. “They all say, ‘You never win, you spend so much money, you’re not fast, and you don’t get paid.’ Their lack of support is a reality, but I don’t take it personally. I don’t need to prove anything to them,” he said.

Castañón’s boss wishes he’d stop racing so that he’s faster—rather than sore—on the shop floor. His mom and a handful of his siblings fixate on the risk that’s involved in the sport. “Ultrarunning can be dangerous and runners do get injured—I’ve been injured. They are worried that the sport is too much pressure on my body and that I might be harmed,” he said. His wife is not involved at all. “At my first race, she said, ‘This is boring, I don’t want to spend the whole day waiting to see if you can run this.’ I don’t want to force her to come with me, and that’s fine. I’m going to keep doing it,” he said.

In the beginning, his pursuit of ultramarathons led to disagreements between them. At races, his friends would be greeted by their family members, which he longed to experience, too. Now, Castañón and his wife have a peaceful acceptance of each other’s personal time. She likes to read, and he prefers to run. Between races, he uses social media to stay connected with the ultrarunning community. “Ninety-five percent of my friends on Facebook are runners. I’m always feeding my soul with running and my friends like what I do. That keeps me positive,” he said.

He also focuses on the joy of sharing his race experiences with other runners and occasionally, his brother. Castañón’s sister and two brothers still live in the Bay Area. They speak on the phone often and his brothers are always excited to talk with him about running. One of them, Elias, has crewed for many of Castañón’s 100-mile races. Recently, Castañón was surprised to see Elias lose weight. It turns out that he’d started running, too.

This year has been one of the toughest yet. His injury at last year’s Tor des Géants was a torn meniscus. Following his surgery last November, the recovery was supposed to take five weeks—but his knee took six months to heal. He’s only recently started to run again. With no mobility for that long period of time, however, he missed running, gained weight, and watched his friends celebrate at awesome races. But Castañón’s resilient, positive, and holistic perspective once again overcame the challenge.

“In my running career, I am thankful I’ve been in every race I’ve ever wanted to be in—in races that most people will never race. I tell myself, ‘You can’t always shine. You also need to watch and celebrate other peoples’ achievements. It’s important to volunteer and crew. It’s not just running that’s important, it’s also important that we are involved,” he said.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Have you run with Noé Castañón at a race or on a training run? Or volunteered with him for trail work or on a race sidelines? Have you donated gear to his nonprofit? Leave a comment to share your Noé story!

Noé and iRunFar Editor-in-Chief Bryon Powell at the Oakland auto-mechanic shop where Noé works. Noé repaired Bryon’s car in 2016.

Morgan Tilton

is an adventure journalist who writes about the outdoors with a focus in travel, industry news, and human endurance. She is a recipient of multiple North American Travel Journalists Association awards including two double-award articles—“Wild & Broken: A First SUP Descent of Utah’s Escalante River” and “A Wild Space”—that share her first descent on stand-up paddle board of Utah’s wild Escalante River, a self-supported journey she shared with four friends. She works with close to 50 publications. Follow Morgan on her website and Instagram account.

There are 14 comments

  1. Annie

    I volunteered with Noé at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 a couple years ago. There was a woman from Argentina who was running for the win, but late in the race she ran into some troubles and wanted to drop out. Noé sat with her for hours at the aid station and decided to pace her to the finish, something he didn’t have to do. Seeing him selflessly help this stranger get to the finish line was amazing to witness. He is such a kind human and an example for all of us to be a better person. The ultra running community is lucky to have him.

  2. Gabriel Lartigue

    He tenido la fortuna de recibir mensajes y llamadas de el, dando consejos apoyo y siempre impulsandote a ser mejor, de verdad es una persona excepcional que admiro y respeto como corredor como compañero de Trail pero sobre todo como persona

  3. Karen Peterson

    Noe is one of the most supportive, kind and caring people I know. When I lived in the Bay Area my running club donated gear to Noe’s nonprofit. I would see him all over the place at races, helping others selflessly. I am so happy to see this profile – his spirit of persevering and giving back is a tremendous gift to our community!

  4. Allen Lucas

    That was a great article about Noé, and it captured him nicely – thanks! He helped myself and several others as we went for various goals at a ridiculously rainy, windy, and cold race back in January. Ever since I got my first 100K there, he’s been using that to get his brother Elias (who is no slouch on the trails) motivated to go for his first 100K as well. (Naturally, they were both volunteering at Western States this year – it seemed like everyone there knew Noé!)

  5. Brian Mulholand

    Noe is the big brother in ultra running that I don’t deserve. I have run countless miles with Noe and I hope to run countless more. I am so happy and humbled that you took the time and effort to highlight him. There is no better representative of the gracious characters that make up our community and sport.

    I have no better description than relentless love, support and inspiration.

    He is a real life hero!

  6. David Leeke

    The saint of ultra-running…
    When I see Noe at a race, if he is running or volunteering,
    I feel like it’s a lucky race.
    Whatever happens it’s a better day.

  7. Tamyka Bell

    I met Noè at Tor Des Géants in 2018 after a mutual friend told me to look out for him. He made my day at Western States this year with his warm and friendly smile.

  8. Myles Smythe

    Noe is amazing in so many ways. We met 8 or 9 years ago after we both DNF’d at Silver State. Not really knowing him, I quickly noticed how much he helps others, by seeing him volunteering at many trail events. After seeing his post a few months later on Facebook that he was running HURT 100 and didn’t expect a pacer to go with him, I stepped up and flew to Hawaii and ran 35 miles with him. Securing a great friendship with a wonderful and thoughtful man. Thanks for sharing his story!

  9. Austin Baird

    My first Hardrock was only my second 100 miler and I was pretty intimidated. I was throwing up at mile 13, wondering how I would make another 87 miles, when Noe stopped, gave me some advice, urged me to keep moving until I got to lower ground, told me to stick near his pace, and ran with me while telling me about his running experiences. He got me out of my funk and I ended up finishing in 47:30.

  10. Jason Chan

    Noé is the man! Always ready with good advice and a positive vibe. I ran with him at TRT100 in 2011 and have seen him there at Tunnel Creek AS many times after that. He just gave me helpful advice and guidance to get me through WS100 last weekend!

  11. Marcy Beard

    Noe!! He keeps popping up at ultras around the country, I’m always (but never) surprised to see him. It is a joy and a pleasure to talk with him, whether he’s running or volunteering. So friendly and helpful. If he ever offers you advice, listen. Thanks for this profile, it’s the first one I read all the way through :)

  12. Megan Finnesy

    Noe inspires and is an incredible ambassador for ultra trail running. His generosity and willingness to give back amaze me. We first met at the trail work days at Hardrock that I helped organize and lead. So grateful I have had the opportunity to get to know him a bit and get a glimps into his world.

  13. William Jackson

    I met Noe when I ran Tahoe Rim trail 100 in 2014. I still remember how genuine and helpful a person he was. A person anyone would be lucky to meet. A fitting tribute to a fine man. A thoughtless individual we all can learn something from. Makes trail running even better. Cheers

  14. Amanda

    I ran in San Francisco while in grad school (2009-2013) when I found trail running in the trails in and around the city. The trail running community there was so supportive and kept me sane during a stressful few years when I was otherwise stuck in the lab. Noé was very much a part of that community and at so many of the races I went to- and everyone seemed to know him! Always a smile and always supportive. Fantastic article about a runner who would never seek attention but definitely deserves the recognition, and who we can all learn a lot from.

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