About five miles into the Savannah Marathon, Juan Soto had a question for the leg captain biking beside him.
Soto, having never won a marathon before, simply asked if he was in last place. He quickly discovered his assumption was incorrect.
“No, you’re in third place,” the cyclist told him.
A surprised Soto kept his pace and moved into second place about halfway through the race. By Mile 19, the 30-year-old from Gainesville was leading the pack. A few miles later, Soto was minutes ahead and on his way to an unexpected victory.
“Before the last mile, I got really excited,” he said Monday. “I knew that second place was way behind. I already knew that I was going to get first place. I was so happy.”
Soto won the sixth annual Savannah Marathon on Nov. 5 with a time of 2 hours, 45 minutes and 44 seconds, almost two minutes ahead of the next competitor. The race snaking through downtown Savannah attracted about 18,000 people from the United States and 18 different countries for seven separate events.
But Soto outran the rest of the field after an average showing in the event last year, a result that shocked even his wife Karla. She was in attendance with their 18-month-old son and her sister, who was the first to tell her Juan had won the race.
“She kept insisting on it. I just couldn’t believe it,” Karla said. “We got to the finish line and we were looking for him, and when we finally found him he said that he won. I was like, ‘Really. What?’ I was as excited for him as he was.”
Their disbelief wasn’t based on any shortcoming on Soto’s part. He just isn’t a seasoned veteran when it comes to marathons.
Soto, who was born in Mexico before moving to Gainesville 13 years ago, originally played soccer before gradually becoming more involved in running. The first major event he participated in was the AJC Peachtree Road Race about five years ago, one of the several shorter-distance races that characterized the beginning of his running career.
That’s about the time Soto met Dirk Reaume, a Gainesville runner who greatly influenced his shift to marathons. They first met while out for a run on Riverside Drive in Gainesville.
“I see this guy pull off of Blue Ridge Drive. He’s in front of me, so I’m like, ‘This is my turf,’” Reaume said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’”
He eventually caught up to Soto, and the two bonded over running. Reaume, a 59-year-old who used to race with the Atlanta Track Club Masters Team, offered training pointers that better prepared Soto for long-distance races.
“He came out of the soccer background and started running,” Reaume said. “His runs were like three miles every day, the same thing every day. Because I had been racing and competitive for so long, I knew a little bit about training.”
With newfound knowledge in training tactics — like interval work and lactic threshold running — Soto progressed into marathons. He said he has run more than 10 such events so far.
That’s because of his strict training schedule. Soto estimated he covers about 60-65 miles per week, starting with a 20-mile run on Sunday before focusing on track workouts and easy-going runs over the next few days.
He’ll sometimes train before and after going to work at Diamond Auto Spa. It’s a grueling schedule Soto must balance with his professional and family lives.
“After my run, I spend some time with my child and my wife, he said. “They always attend every race. Wherever I go, they’re always supporting me.”
But all that training has paid off for Soto. His competitive spirit and “stick-to-itiveness,” as Reaume put it, are what earned him $500 and a trophy as the winner of the Savannah Marathon.
Even with a first-place finish under his belt, Soto already has another goal in his sights. He’ll significantly lighten his training schedule over the next few weeks before gearing up for the Albany Marathon, where he set his personal best of 2 hours, 40 minutes and 51 seconds.
The Gainesville resident hopes to break his record time at this year’s edition on March 4. Until then, Soto will be training as hard as ever.
“The marathon, like life, is about endurance,” Reaume said. “Juan personally is a good guy. He’s a good dad. He’s a real gentle, loving, kind person; a good dad and a good husband.”