My Brother, Chris Martinez

[Author’s Note: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I wrote a column for UltraRunning Magazine called “Twenty-Something” that profiled up and comers in our sport. In a November of 2001 column titled “Chris Martinez: Running for the People,” I discussed my young, newfound friend’s background, goals, and passion for the sport of trail running. Finding myself, less than 20 years later, writing a piece in his remembrance tears me up inside.]

Chris Martinez - 2014 Vail Scramble

Chris Martinez on his way to third place at the 2014 Vail Scramble in Arizona. Photo: Ian Torrence

The phone rang and I picked up the receiver. The voice on the other end said, “Hi Ian, I’m Chris Martinez and I found your number in the phone book. I live here in Moab[,Utah] and we passed each other while running last weekend on the trails between Oowah and Warner Lakes. There aren’t many trail runners in this town and even less that would venture that deep into the La Sals. I know you, but you don’t know me. I’d like to join you for a run sometime.”

And that’s how Chris and I kicked off our friendship. We met a few days later at the big, dirt parking lot along the Colorado River where Kane Creek Road turns from asphalt to dirt. We ran together for an hour, in the July heat, along Kane Creek toward Hurrah Pass. We hit it off, and two days later we found ourselves parked off U.S. Route 191 at the mouth of Lower Courthouse Wash. For more than an hour we ran upstream into Arches National Park. We followed no trail, but rather bounced from slickrock slab to slickrock slab—willow and tamarisk slapping our faces as we went.

I’m pretty sure Martinez did most of the talking on these jaunts. He talked about wanting to run his first ultramarathon and to win one someday; his father’s ultra exploits, like finishing the Tahoe 72 Mile; and how Moab was such an underrated trail running mecca. It was 2001, and even though mountain bikers already flocked to this small southeastern Utah town, Chris’s vision was to make Moab a trail runner’s destination.

The Amasa Back Trail became our go to. We probably ran, er, raced that six-mile loop hundreds of times. It is a quintessential Moab route—steep, rock strewn, and sandy climbs followed by an exposed, nail-biting descent through the cliffs that hang precipitously above the Colorado River. We added trails like Steel Bender, Metal Masher, Flat Pass, Poison Spider, Pritchett and Hunter Canyons, and Klondike Bluff to our repertoire.

Bringing Moab to the Masses

In February of 2004, we organized the first Moab Red Hot 50k. We did it fat-ass style and more than 50 runners showed up. To my knowledge, it was Moab’s first trail race. The course covered some of the trails previously mentioned, including our beloved Amasa Back.

Chris Martinez - 2013 Moab Red Hot

Chris directing the 2013 Moab Red Hot 33k and 55k in Utah. Photo: Ian Torrence

In 2007, after I had moved away from Moab, Chris changed the race course to its present alignment, paid for permits, and collected entry fees. It grew into one of the largest and most competitive winter 50k events in the country. His newly formed company, Grassroots Events, also offered lesser-known classics like the Moab Alpine to Slickrock (MAS) 50 Mile that pitted runners against the air-sucking altitude of the La Sal Mountains and the heat of the Moab desert and, of course, the Amasa Back Trail Races. He also served as a trail running guide for folks who were unfamiliar with Moab’s dizzying canyon-country layout.

Chris had done what he set out to do—introducing his home’s mind-blowing landscape to a growing generation of trail runners. In addition, he could always be counted on to step out of his role in Moab to help other organizations, including acting as race director at a few of the Arizona Trail Association’s budding events and manning a remote aid station at the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile.

Ian Torrence - Chris Martinez - 2014 Behind the Rocks 50k

Ian and Chris, after the inaugural 2014 Behind the Rocks 50k in Utah, where Chris was co-race director with Justin Ricks. Photo: Emily Torrence

Friendship Forged Through Adversity

One night, not so long ago, I offended a very large man at a local Moab tavern. After leaving the establishment, I found myself looking into his beady eyes surrounded by his accompaniment in a rear-entrance alleyway. Push definitely came to shove. As I was ingesting a face full of street curb, Chris, who I hadn’t seen for more than an hour, came flying in, literally, sans shirt. His strategically placed body shot saved me great bruising, probably a broken bone, definitely a bloodletting, and successfully distracted our adversaries. We ran fast and far into the night. I was terrified, but when I turned to Chris, he flashed me one of his big, reassuring grins. Chris was no stranger to confrontation—he was intense, always stood up for what he thought was right, and, most of all, he despised bullies.

In 2005, Chris reported to Ouray, Colorado, to accompany me over Virginius Pass and, then, into Telluride during the Hardrock 100. I struggled mightily, barely staying upright, shuffling for 16 dark and cold miles. Chris stayed with me, encouraged me, and kept his hand on my back the entire way. I had all but forgotten about that night until I received this text from him last month:

“Ian, I’m not sure if I’m going to go through with the upcoming chemo. This is the hardest decision I’ll ever make. I wish it were like taking a DNF at a race. At least I could see where I can improve on things like hydration, nutrition, and training and then come back the following year to redeem myself. I’m tired of feeling in pain and being sick but I don’t want to quit prematurely. You know, I’ll see how I feel at the next aid station and just maybe I needed that rest between stations to motivate. I will always remember when we came into Telluride at like 3 a.m. and you crawled into your truck. I was sure you were not getting up and we could go into town for breakfast when you woke up again. I woke up to find you nowhere around and heard you slept for a bit and took off to finish the Hardrock! I was so proud of you and knew I always wanted your kind of strength and spirit. You’ve taught me a lot over the years, and pushing through issues is one. Thank you.”

Moments Aren’t Enough

Chris was an important part of my life. In 2017, he filled the role as groomsman in Emily’s and my wedding. It was in September of 2018 when Chris called me, in tears, to tell me he had cancer. After surgery and a barrage of aggressive chemotherapy treatments, he was declared cancer-free. Last November, we joyously stood beside one another as he married Amanda. Unbeknownst to us, on that wedding-day morning, we’d join each other for our last trail run on a gently rolling singletrack outside of Grand Junction, Colorado. Chris’s pain returned in the winter of 2020, another invasive surgery ensued, and the operation was ultimately unsuccessful—the cancer had spread too far and too deep.

Chris Martinez - November 2019

Chris and Ian’s final run together in November of 2019 in Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo: Ian Torrence

Last month, Emily and I traveled back to Grand Junction to say goodbye and hug Chris one last time. He was gaunt, in pain, nauseous, and tired—the cancer was quickly consuming him. Chris spent his final days at home surrounded by his loving family. Though not related by blood, he and I definitely forged a bond as strong as blood. On June 12, I received my last communication from Chris: A one-lined text, “Love you, brother.” On June 25, 2020, at 8:23 a.m., Chris passed from here to there. I love you too, brother. I’ll miss you and I’ll catch up to you soon on top of Amasa Back.

During Chris’s struggle with cancer, he amassed substantial medical bills. You can help the Martinez family defray those costs by contributing on his GoFundMe page.

Call for Comments

In remembrance of Chris Martinez, kindly share stories of running or racing with him, and of attending the races he directed. Thank you for helping to keep Chris’s memory alive.

Chris Martinez - June 2020

Chris Martinez’s self-portrait sent to Ian Torrence on June 3, 2020. Image courtesy of Ian Torrence.

There are 22 comments

  1. Dan Burrier

    How could I ever forget MAS 50 as my first attempt—and DNF—at 50 miles. And Chris’s joyful encouragement at aid stations along the way. He did question the shoes I was wearing, saying “I’m not sure I could do this in those. Is that enough shoe?,” which for some reason is a comment that has always stayed with me. Privileged to stand with him at your wedding. So sad to get this news. A beautiful tribute Ian. Chris will always be a part of my trail runs; has been ever since I first met him, and the challenge of the course he put in front of me. Much love to all.

  2. Cmarrs

    What a beautiful article Ian, thank you. We will miss you Chris and will definitely go run an Amasa lap for you next trip to Moab. Love to his family

  3. John H Trent

    Beautiful tribute, Ian. All great writing just lets the story tell itself. This story does exactly that. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. Eric Lee

    Ian, thank you for sharing your stories. Every time I saw and hung out with Chris it was always smiles and with such a positive outlook on life. Sharing beta on great runs, laughing about the dumb things we’d done, or me trying to convince him that whiskey really wasn’t my thing. RIP brother.

  5. Heidi Rentz

    Warms my heart to be reminded of the special friendship you and Chris shared. Thank you for sharing your story, it’s damn awesome, so real and… raw. It’s been far too long since I went on a big adventure run with him, I’m struggling over here knowing it wont happen again. Cheers to the most loyal running buddy and pal one could ask for. Ian, I hope you and your wife will reach out to me if you ever make it down to Patagonia, Arizona! I’d love to take you two on a big run in honor of Chris. Teeth to the wind!

  6. hal koerner

    I remember that Feb run in ’04 almost like it was yesterday, what a legacy. I know how much you both loved Moab and what it meant to have a friend like Chris to share that vision.

  7. sarah

    Thanks for sharing this. It made me feel all the feelings – for Chris, for your friendship, and for the friendships I’ve forged through running. This is a really beautiful tribute.

  8. Dan Termine

    Man. Don’t know either one of you, and I’m still breaking up over here. May be the best article I’ve ever read on this site. Powerful and compassionate at the same time. Chris sounded like a great dude.

  9. Nick Arciniaga

    So sorry for your loss. Our loss. Carolyn and I worked overnight with Chris at Ian’s Stagecoach 100mi race. Chris was the life of the party, there to set up the mile 62 aid station, work with supporting runners all night with his famous grilled cheese, then clean up the next morning just to hurry to the finish line to celebrate with the runners. He was an amazingly kind and giving soul. We’ll miss him.

  10. John Vanderpot

    I know Ian a little bit and Chris not at all, but anyone who throws flying shirtless body blocks when his friend needs him was obviously the type of person you want to have around and the world will clearly be a little less without him in it…

  11. Sean Cunniff

    Chris really embraced everything about those race weekends in Moab. He just seemed happy to be in the company of so many like-minded people. My guess is that he was totally exhausted from putting on these events, but he was known to socialize late into the night on race day.

    It’s funny how a sport that involves spending hours alone in the mountains can also bring people together in a manner that transcends running. I really love Ian’s account of Chris cold-calling him for a running date. I can also relate, having started one of my most important friendships after being cold-emailed for a running date after I posted on the Ultra listserv of yore.

    It was also pretty clear that Chris had a special relationship with the landscapes where he lived and ran. I was among the lucky few that ran the Alpine to Slickrock race. It is hard to imagine a course that better captures the diversity of landscapes in the southwest. He also timed race day perfectly; the aspens were ablaze, and the long descent into the desert wasn’t unbearably hot. This race and course will always be among my all-time favorites.

    Rest in peace, Chris.

  12. Sara Martinez

    There is no words to describe my cousin. He was the true meaning of living your life to the max. I love you and will miss you.

  13. Elizabeth

    I don’t know you Ian… And never met Chris… But I know and love his sweet Amanda. Thank you for painting a picture that helps me know a bit of who Amanda loved and cherished – and why. He lived big and loved big. May God’s peace and comfort settle in the deep recesses of all your hearts.

  14. Renn

    Martinez was kind, fun, and energetic. Always up for a little friendly shit talking too. Although I only got to race with him a few times, volunteer at Red Hot once, and hangout with him a few times in Flagstaff – I really enjoyed his enthusiasm for life and his great sense of humor. He was one of a kind. I wish I could have gotten to know him better, Torrence. You were lucky to have shared so much with him. Thank you for the stories and in-memoriam. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.

  15. Rob Flowers

    A very moving tribute to someone of must have touched many people during his short life. I am sorry for your loss.

  16. Bob Adler

    One of the years I ran the Red Hot 55K, I was hanging around at the finish line (undoubtedly in or near the famous “beer garden”) when Chris came up to me, handed me a pair of new BD poles, and said I had “won” them. I didn’t think I had won my age group or anything, and I told him that, but he just smiled and said “you just earned them” and walked away, still smiling. That was just the kind of guy he was. He will be missed in the Utah trail running community and beyond.

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