Jose Santos had a good reason to start running, though not nearly as far as he now often runs.
In October 1992, depressed about the separation of his marriage and regularly drinking, Santos was charged with driving under the influence and lost his driver’s license.
Out of a combination of necessity and self-imposed discipline, he began to run to work, 16 miles round trip.
“I had to do it,” Santos said. “I chose to punish myself, that was the whole thing about it. I tried to punish myself for everything that happened – the [pending] divorce, for not being able to keep my family together. . . . I found I couldn’t get away from the drinking. After the DUI I was as low as I could be.
“So with the running I said, ‘I can be better than this.’ ”
That got the Brazil native running, and he hasn’t stopped.
The 63-year-old has completed 116 marathons, including the Myrtle Beach Marathon every year since its inception in 1998.
He has found running to be cathartic.
“You learn a lot when you run marathons. You learn the most about yourself,” Santos said. “You think about stuff. You bring everything out of you. It’s you and you alone out there.”
Back in Myrtle Beach
While he started running in part because of family separation, Myrtle Beach serves as an annual family reunion, and he plans to run every year until his 30th at the age of 71 in 2027.
“Then after that I’m going to decide if I’ll keep going,” said Santos, of the Mint Hill suburb of Charlotte, N.C.
Santos’ stepson, Steven Walden, and daughters Sara and Janie Santos – who are all in their 30s – accompany him to Myrtle Beach every year.
“It’s a family affair for me,” he said. “I get my son, daughters, granddaughters, we take a weekend off from everything we worry about and go to Myrtle Beach.”
His family rented a venue in Charlotte to celebrate Santos’ 100th marathon.
“We absolutely have his back 100 percent,” said Sara, who books his travel itineraries and hasn’t missed a Myrtle Beach race. “We think it’s awesome and do everything we can to help him.”
Running the grueling races is Santos’ biggest passion aside from his family.
“Besides his children it’s probably the second most important thing in his life,” Sara said. “How many people that are 63 years old can say they’ve run 117 marathons, and straight through all of them. He’s finished every single one.”
Santos even ran the Myrtle Beach Marathon that was canceled in 2010 because of a snow storm. He headed south from the House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach, and because he was warned the finish line was closed and he may be arrested if he reached it, he ran 13 miles toward it and 13 miles back.
He ran his 116th marathon Saturday in cold and rainy conditions in Ellerbe, N.C., as a training run for Myrtle Beach and finished in 5 hours and 14 minutes. The warehouse worker at East Coast Trailer and Equipment plans to run Myrtle Beach in less than 4:45.
“When I get to Myrtle Beach this Saturday I’ll turn the jets on and I’ll try to run a real good marathon,” said Santos, who has been taking precautions to ensure he keeps his Myrtle Beach streak intact. “I’m trying to go to work every day, don’t get hurt, don’t do no more than I have to do. I try not to get hurt to get to marathon morning.”
His next marathon will be March 24, the All-American Marathon that incorporates Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C. Santos has run in the first five All-American races and is building a perfect attendance record in that event as well.
Santos ran his first marathon in 1993, finishing in 3 hours, 48 minutes. My son said, ‘Dad, you’re running pretty good. Why don’t you run a marathon?’ ” said Santos, who ran seven marathons per year for about the next 10 years.
He ran his personal best time of 3 hours, 15 seconds in his second 26.2-miler to qualify for the Boston Marathon, in which he finished in 3 hours, 11 minutes. “I was just running wild man, like there was no end to me,” said Santos, who then set the goal of finishing in less than 3 hours. He has never achieved it.
“I still feel this day if I could just run, eat and sleep I could do a 2-hour, 59-minute, 59-second marathon. I can do it,” Santos said. “But I work for a living so that’s out of the question. But I’ll retire within a year and a half from now and I can try to do this.”
Parentless in Brazil
The breakup of his family through a divorce was especially painful for Santos because he grew up as an orphan in Brazil.
He was befriended by U.S. Peace Corps member Gene Manion, who lived at Santos’ orphanage for about three years and promised to bring him to the U.S. to get an American education. Years later in 1973, when Santos was 16, Manion brought him to Charlotte along with a stepbrother, and two years later he brought another stepbrother.
Santos said he and his brothers returned to Brazil in 1977 and he was the only one who returned to the U.S. in 1980. In 1986, he was among the three million undocumented immigrants who received amnesty from the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.
Manion died in 2010, about a year after Santos became an American citizen.
“I was born in Brazil, and that’s where all of this comes from, from my heart,” said Santos, who often still gets emotional when speaking of Manion. “I came to the United States and I’m trying to do good, be proud of myself and make my American father proud. . . He gave me life, and that’s the main reason I run, I run for him today. He gave me everything.”
Santos said his former wife had custody of his children for three years after their divorce, but he gained custody when the kids were 12, 9 and 6 and continued raising them.
He said he promised the judge in his DUI case that he would never drink again, and he gave up alcohol altogether for three years. “After three years I said, ‘Man, life is boring. I’ve got to drink a beer,’ ” said Santos, who drinks beer but still doesn’t drink liquor.
“I had to keep myself afloat, and the best thing I found to keep myself afloat from everything was running. Running has kept my mind together through the years,” Santos said. “I still have a strong mind and believe I can accomplish anything I want to within my body’s limits. I still can’t run a 2-hour, 59-minute marathon, but I can think about it.”
Santos has celebrated his milestone decade birthdays by running the age in miles, beginning with a 40-miler on his 40th birthday, followed by 50-mile runs at the Bethel Hill Moonlight Boogie race in Ellerbe, N.C., for 10 consecutive years after he turned 50, and a 60-miler on his birthday three years ago, which he ran in 13 hours and 29 minutes but paid for over the next couple years.
His family doctor told him he ran too fast and his body ate the liner of his stomach for energy.
“I just now recuperated from those 60 miles. I’m good now, but those 60 miles did me in,” Santos said. “Right now I’m fine. My stomach is alright. I can eat and digest food the regular way. He told me all I had to do was eat proteins and eat steak and you’ll be alright. A runner doesn’t eat steak, but I ate some steak and that started to fix me up.”
Santos plans to retire n about 18 months, after which he’ll spend summers in Charlotte and winters in Brazil – where it will be summer – visiting two sisters he located in his 20s and going for at least one swim.
“One reason right now I think I run marathons is because I want to be healthy and one day I want to go back to Brazil and dive in the Amazon River and swim, and that will be a thrill,” he said.
But he’s also committed to return to the Grand Strand the first weekend in March until at least 2027 to continue his Myrtle Beach Marathon streak.
“As long as I can run, I’ll be there,” he said.