The Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon is touted as “America’s Toughest Road Race.”
For Alfredo Huerta, crossing the finish line will also be a completion of sorts of a far longer, far more grueling marathon — his path to U.S. citizenship.
Huerta is one of 13 runners entered Saturday who will have competed in all 10 of the races.
However, for Huerta, 29, the finish will mark the first time he has crossed the line as an American citizen — a process that became difficult at times.
In fact, immigration troubles were part of the motivation to register for the inaugural Blue Ridge Marathon in 2010.
“I was going through the deportation process and had a lot on my mind, so I just took off running,” Huerta said.
Huerta was brought to the U.S. illegally by his mother when he was 8 years old. He had no legal status until age 22, two years after making it past the 2010 deportation efforts. The process of citizenship still took six more years.
Huerta had running in his past — he was on the cross country and track teams at Bassett High School, where he graduated in 2009. But he had not done a marathon before 2010.
“I looked up marathons around here, and there was one in Roanoke, so I said ‘Why not?’ ” Huerta said.
Success has come along the way. In 2014, Huerta finished 53rd. In 2015, he was ninth among the male finishers.
“Every year I have run to finish. My goal is to finish,” Huerta said. “I have become more competitive over the years. I never really thought I would finish in the top 10, but when that started happening.
“I’m like whoa, I’m top 20, I’m top 15, I’m top 10, I’m top 5, I’m top 4. Last year I was fourth. I’ve begun to get a little bit faster on the course. It’s been awesome.”
His fourth-place finish in 2018 came with a time of 3 hours, 7 minutes, 12 seconds.
Huerta said the citizenship process is lengthy and costly — he spent thousands of dollars to attain his goal.
The culmination of that effort came Sept. 21 when he took the oath of citizenship in the Poff Federal Building — a landmark near the race’s course. He said finishing the process in Roanoke was appropriate.
“[The citizenship process] was a very tough time in my life, and this race made me forget about everything for one day,” Huerta said. “It was a wonderful feeling seeing kids, spectators, participants and volunteers cheering me on and ask for high-fives. They made me feel like a superhero, and I’ll never forget that feeling.
“That’s why I keep coming back, because this race gave me something no one else had ever given me: Hope.”
Other 10-timers have their own special memories of the race.
For Roanoke native Chip Cody, the race is truly a trip down memory lane — or up memory hill.
“My first car broke down going up the 4-mile loop, so I take a special pleasure in running up a mountain that shut down an automobile,” Cody said in an email.
Now living in New Hampshire, Cody, 67, makes race weekend a family reunion. He’s able to visit with his mother, Betty Pence, brother Bruce Cody and sister-in-law Donna Cody.
“When I heard that Roanoke was going to have a marathon, I had to come run the inaugural race, and I have returned every year,” said Cody, a Patrick Henry and Roanoke College graduate who also ran in the 2008 Boston Marathon. “The race runs past some of the homes I lived in, and through some of my old neighborhoods.
“The Parkway and Mill Mountain also hold special memories for me.”
Jesse Merrill of Richmond was new to marathons when he signed up in 2010 for the first marathon when he was fairly new to the distance — his only marathon before then was the relatively flat Richmond Marathon.
Saturday’s marathon will be his 51st.
“That first year it was so beautiful, and the volunteers were so friendly,” Merrill said in an email. “It was so small, and all the course marshals stood up and cheered for me when I went by. It really made an impression on me.”
Kevin Green drives from Michigan to run the Blue Ridge, an annual trip and one of only a couple of races he runs each year.
“I received a free entry the first year and made the long drive from Michigan with my wife,” said Green, 44. “We immediately fell in love with the race organizers, the people of Roanoke and the beautiful mountains. ... It gets better and better each year.”
Like Huerta, Roanoke native Doug Scott, 34, was a marathon rookie in 2010.
“When I signed up the first year I was already looking for an excuse to attempt a marathon, and the opportunity to run my first marathon in my hometown seemed like a pretty good reason to take that first step. Once I finished the inaugural race, I was hooked,” said Scott, who now lives in Arlington.
“As a Roanoke native its really cool to run past scenes from your childhood and see people you know on the course,” he said.
Scott said another motivation to run is the trophy — the top three finishers in each age group get a “Runner’s Spike,” a replica railroad spike, with their medal. Scott earned one for the first time last year, placing third in the 30-34 group with a time of 3:34:09.
West Virginian Danny Keatley, 72, said this might be his last Blue Ridge Marathon. He has run in 52 events each of the last two years and has competed in 378 marathons lifetime, part of 864 total races that also include 57 ultra marathons.
Roanoke’s Marcus Speaker will mark his 10th race on Saturday, but it will be his last Blue Ridge Marathon for a while. He is going to adjust his schedule in an effort to try out some other races around the country.
Vernon Johnston of Salem said the first Blue Ridge Marathon was his first marathon. At 63, he notices it gets a little harder each year.
“Just run at a good pace and enjoy the scenery,” is Johnston’s sage advice.
The other runners competing for the 10th time include Dawn Weeks of Floyd; Julie Moore of Roanoke, Jennifer Gagnon of Hiwassee; Doug Jones of London, Kentucky; and Michael Pulley of Fayetteville, North Carolina.