In the middle of her freshman season running cross country at Hartnell College last year, Monica Ruelas felt like quitting.
“I wanted to give up on running because I felt like I was doing everything I needed to do and was not seeing results,” said Ruelas, a 2016 Gilroy High graduate and Hollister resident. “I got in a major running depression and was thinking to quit and just focus on school.”
Ruelas decided to stick with it and run things out, and what a decision it turned out to be. By winning the California Community College NorCal Midseason Preview at Shasta College on Oct. 6, Ruelas proved she’s a legitimate threat to become the first woman in Hartnell College history to win a NorCal Championship.
Ruelas won the Midseason Preview—a 3.1-mile course—in a personal-record 18 minutes, 7 seconds, pulling away from Julia Gonzalez of Diablo Valley College.
“I was shocked,” she said. “When I crossed the finish line, I was definitely surprised with the time I saw. I thought I would finish around 19 minutes, so when I saw low 18s, I was like, ‘Dang.’”
Ruelas continues to shock herself in her sophomore season, which has been downright spectacular so far. After being the team’s No. 7 runner last season, Ruelas has vaulted to the Nos. 1 and 2 positions for the Panthers in 2018. She got faster the old fashioned way—with hard work and taking the advice of Hartnell coach Chris Zepeda.
“I had this moment when I decided to tell (coach) Z I’m going to do it your way now and not my way because I was doing it my way and it wasn’t working out,” Ruelas said. “ Since then I’ve been putting my full determination in the sport. Before the season started, I was already running every single day. That moment is when everything changed.”
Of that, there is no doubt. Ruelas became more confident in herself and her abilities, and that has made a huge difference. In the NorCal Midseason Preview, it was Ruelas and Gonzalez dueling for the race win with one mile to go.
“At first she was leading for a bit and I was hesitant on whether or not to go,” Ruelas said. “I was just nervous not knowing if I would be able to stay with her. But when I hit the last turn of the course and went up a little hill, that is when I told myself, ‘You’re strong here so use your strength and go with it.’ I felt like I had more than her at the end.”
A year ago, Ruelas was never in a position for a race victory. Even if she had been, she would’ve shied away from making any bold moves. A year later, Ruelas continues to mature, gain confidence and develop a resolve that will serve her well as she will likely run at a four-year school. Ruelas gained confidence after a standout summer training session that included running in the Wharf to Wharf 10K race and the Salinas Valley Half Marathon.
“I came into the season with the mentality of making this season better than last season,” she said. “I wanted to value the hard work I put in and take that into races of being up front. I didn’t want to be afraid to be at the front because I was afraid last season. I didn’t believe in myself and didn’t have the belief that I could do it. I was still trying to figure out where I stood as a runner.”
Ruelas knows where she stands now, and so does Zepeda, who routinely takes in good high school runners—not great—and help transform them into athletes who excel at the community college and eventually four-year university level.
“Monica will add to our list of athletes that seem to undergo an amazing second-year transformation,” Zepeda said in an email to the Dispatch and Free Lance. “She’s on the path from going from seventh runner last year to conference and regional champion. Monica may become the first NorCal champion for Hartnell in 48 years. She’s also got her sights sets on earning top 14 All American honors in cross country. Most importantly, she’s learned to bring a group of young women together and work toward a team goal. More impressive than her individual accomplishments might be how she leads the team to the first state team title by a Northern California team in state history. That’s really what I would like her legacy to be.”
Ruelas’ older sister, Maritza, also enjoyed a solid career running at Hartnell. By the time the season ends, Monica’s times will trump Maritza’s, something she once thought was impossible. However, Monica has never been one to brag or put herself on a pedestal, especially with someone she admires.
Ruelas has already and continues to overcome challenges in her running career. However, off the track or course, she has also endured the loss of loved ones.
“I’ve lost certain people in my life who I thought were going to be there forever,” she said. “I’ve been able to accept those losses and move on, and always forgive instead of holding grudges.”
Looking ahead, Ruelas can’t imagine what it would be like to be an individual NorCal champion. No matter what happens, Ruelas is grateful she has the ability to run when so many others don’t.
“I just love cross country,” she said. “It’s always been my thing. I just love it.”