August 19, 2022 6 min read 8 Comments
By Ray Glier
In Giddings, Texas in 1940, Inocencio Cantu would pick cotton along a dusty road. After he got as much as he could carry in his hands he would stuff it into his sister’s bag. He was a migrant worker. He was 6.
When he was 12, Ino had his own bag for the cotton he picked. One of his sisters would routinely pick 300 pounds in a day. Ino would stay out past sunset to make sure he got 301 pounds.
There are not better explanations why Ino Cantu is still running the mile at 88 years old. His work ethic and his competitiveness and certainly freakish athleticism help explain him.
Then he continues on with his life’s story and there is more reasonableness to why Ino is still running.
When he was 13, Ino herded horses from the pasture in his bare feet so the horses could be hooked to the plow. Until the horses tired of being harassed by the boy and ran away from him, Ino gave chase. It was quite the speed workout.
He was barefoot because his one pair of shoes had to be preserved for school.
Ino would run in the woods around El Campo, Texas with his dog…for no other reason than just to run.
Ino didn’t practice with the other boys on the high school cross country team because he had to work on the farm after school, but the work made him stronger, more durable. He finished sixth in the state his senior season in 1951 with little training.
You can see the incubator for this 88-year old Masters Track star that goes back 82 years and it is not just one thing. Ino’s seedbed is full of rich stories of sacrifice and self-sufficiency….and winning.
He wrote a book about it.
Cantu has won 17 USA Track & Field Championships, and set seven U.S. records, and two world records, according to MastersRankings.com.
Two weeks ago, Cantu finally had to put silver medals for second place in his box at home in San Marcos, Texas. He is the top end of the age scale in M85, where you can lose some of your competitiveness, and Ino got beat three times by Elmo Shropshire (400,800, 1500) at the U.S. Track & Field Masters Outdoor championships.
“I’ve been doing Masters track since I was 40 and didn’t have silver medals in my box, maybe I lost a race or two, but I can’t remember,” Cantu said. “I’m glad I lost to a gracious man like Elmo.”
There was no enmity toward the man who not only beat him, but beat him three times. And not a peep from Cantu that Elmo was three years younger and Ino was at disadvantage. They are now pals.
Ino can run outside, but he can run inside, too. According to MastersRankings.com, Cantu was ranked No. 1 in the world indoors in the 800 in 2019 and 2020. He ranked No. 1 in the world in the mile indoors in 2019 for M85.
Cantu is a straight-up good person. You have to believe that upbringing as the son of a migrant mother and father from Mexico, and the collaboration needed to survive on the farm has something to do with it. Working in the swelter of south Texas helped shape him, too, he said.
Ino is one of 11 children. The family were sharecroppers working on someone else’s farm. He does not have stories of abuse as migrant workers. Just the opposite. “The owners of the farm were very kindly to us,” Cantu said. “We were grateful for that.”
When Ino’s family grew too many for one farm to provide enough money and food, they worked other farms, hence they were migrants shuffled off to other locales, which added to the grind.
“It was very, very hard, and we accepted it, that was our way of life, we had nothing else, and worked 10-12 hours a day in hot sun,” Cantu said. “I don’t know how we survived. I guess what didn’t kill us made us stronger.
“We lived in a very little house, always a small house, the family crammed in there. There was no indoor plumbing. We had an outhouse and we bathed outside in a No. 3 tub.
“But never did feel I poor. We always had clothes and food. We had enough to sustain ourselves and always had a big garden, but we ate very little meat.”
When a chicken stopped laying eggs then there was meat. It was Ino, the runner, who was sent by his mother to the pen to corner the chicken and bring it in to the pot.
Cantu was on the El Campo High School cross country team, but he couldn’t train with the team because he had chores on the farm after school. The coach let him stay on the team anyway, such was his obvious skill, and he finished seventh in the state as a junior and sixth as a senior.
Ino thought his running in competition was over after high school until he received a letter from the coach of the Victoria Junior College (now Victoria College) cross country team telling Ino he had a place on the team.
“My angel,” Ino said of the coach, Ed Shinn.
Cantu was so good at Victoria, the mighty University of Texas Longhorns gave him a spot on their cross country team in 1953 and 1954 for his junior and senior years.
In 1953, Cantu was second in the cross country championships for the Southwest Conference. In 1954, he won the Southwest Conference Cross Country Championship and was named All-American.
After college, he hitchhiked to San Diego to join the U.S. Navy’s track program. He served for two years on a tin can, a destroyer. He returned to Texas and taught Spanish, got his Masters, and became a counselor.
Ino married Josie and they had two children and that has to be part of this story because one of the kids, Hiran, is a runner. Boy, is he ever. Hiran, who was the captain of the Yale Cross Country team, will run in his 25th consecutive Boston Marathon next spring.
What many of you Geezer Jocks are here for is to grab a tip, learn something from this man, and further your training or maybe just your joy of exercising.
You came to the right place.
Ino doesn’t get hurt. He had one minor foot ailment several years ago, but it did not sideline him long.
The big reason for that is Ino does not play hurt. His body, not his brain, retains a veto on workouts, he said.
“I train hard for all my races, but I am always very careful,” he said. “If something doesn’t feel quite right I will stop in the middle of a workout and go home. I would wait 2 or 3 days, then go back out there.
“I don't believe in pushing through pain. Your brain will tell you to go ahead. But I listen to my body, not my brain. My brain is always trying to fool me.”
Ino also recalibrated his fitness as he grew older.
“Since I turned 80 I stopped doing long distance, the seven or eight miles, and do maybe two or three miles,” he said.
He describes San Marcos as “hill country” but says, “They are really inclines” and he uses those for workouts these days.
“I embrace it. I say ‘Give it to me hill, I'm going to give it to you’,” Ino said. “And I really, really enjoy hill work. Just something about it.”
The hill work is not what is impressive about Cantu's workouts. It is the speed work, which he does from December until June when the broiling sun drives him into the shade, or inside.
During those cooler months he works out three times a week. One day is a “tempo run” of about 1½ miles, up and down the “inclines” of San Marcos. Two days are the “speed work.”
I swear, the man said he does this at 88 years old for six months:
8-10 200s, about a minute in between each to recover.
6 300s, 1½ minutes after each to recover.
4 400s, 2 minutes to recover between each.
“Every once in a while, when I’m having a good day, I’ll do five 400s,” Cantu said.
You can choose any number of reasons why Ino Cantu is still running at 88 years old.
If you have stayed with Ino’s story to this point, good for you, because I left out what has molded him most. It wasn’t the farm work. It wasn’t the horses. It wasn’t his competitiveness, or his training.
“I basically attribute this to my spirit, the way I look at running and the way I look at life,” Ino said. “I have spirit.”
Age erodes many things. The lesson here is that it doesn’t need to erode our spirit. It can remain incandescent as long as we allow it. Ino is proof.
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