FIU student turned to marathon running during the pandemic

In 2020, with the world in the throes of the pandemic, Arnaldo Morales was one of many athletes looking for ways to stay active.

Running was one of few options available amid the COVID-19 lockdown, so the Florida International University student decided to go all-in. Morales, 21, chose not only to run but to train for a marathon along the way.

And while he has not yet participated in one, Morales is pursuing his athletic goals while maintaining a full academic course load at FIU.

Morales has exercised regularly since he was a child, but most of that was in and around soccer. His passion for the sport began at a very young age, when he lived in his home country, Venezuela, and continues to this day. And to be fair, from a training perspective, there’s running in soccer, of course, but it’s a different kind. So, he knew there was a transition to navigate as he walked into the world of running.

“Touching the soccer field disconnected me from everything and literally transported me to a dream,” Morales said.

And that passion has now transported to a different sport, one that will be able to carry throughout his life, one that has many benefits beyond the competition of it all.

And that’s important to Morales, who feels exercise is necessary and understands the positives that come with it in the traditional life cycle. In fact, during the pandemic, he was able to experience running’s mental benefits in addition to boosting his physical health.

“In a moment of loneliness, problems and many anguishes, I was able to use exercise as a therapy,” said Morales, who admits the pandemic went against his plans but describes it as an eye-opening experience.

He understands that taking care of his body should be a high priority, so he remained physically active despite ending his soccer career. While exercising helps him maintain a healthy body, his passion for marathon training goes beyond the fitness aspect of the sport.

“The exercise routine stayed with me as well as the competitor mentality, so I decided to continue competing specifically with myself,” he said. “That’s what you do in marathons.”

Luis Morales, Arnaldo’s younger brother, describes him as someone who is always “striving to reach his goals no matter what.” The older Morales has his objectives set in sight, and he tries to help the people closest to him do the same.

“I’ve trained with Arnaldo before, and I can admit that he is always pushing not only himself but me as well to my full potential,” Luis said. “Personally, I do see him as an incredible motivation.”

The younger Morales, amid the pandemic, also saw his brother overcome obstacles, like the rest of the world did, as life was changing.

“The changes I saw in Arnaldo were amazing, not only on his physique but on his attitude as well,” he said. “It made him a more disciplined person, and many other virtues he has now today, to keep pushing himself to greatness.”

Pushing himself to the limit means being able to manage his time as a student, worker and athlete. Depending on his schedule, he can start his days as early as 4 a.m. and go to work, study, exercise and go back to work before returning home and be ready to rest around 9 p.m.

Time management can be a complicated task for all students these days. Former Miami Hurricanes Cross Country star AJ Ricketts admitted that balancing his exercise, academics and extracurriculars was a challenge for him at first, but warns there may be a bigger task for athletes to face.

“Understanding the micro of preparation and training is what often elevates performance, but failing to understand the bigger picture of where you are at in your fitness and pursuit of fast times can have adverse effects as well,” said Ricketts, who is now a sports journalism professor at FIU, and just ran the Boston Marathon this month. “Learning how to be physically and mentally consistent with the higher demands placed on you in college over high school is often a challenge for young runners.”

For those reasons, Morales has an organized routine that helps him maximize his time. He divides his workouts between strength and cardio. And while he enjoys company when performing aerobic training, he likes to run alone, as it allows him to compete with himself.

Yet, even with an organized schedule, Morales has minimal free time throughout the week. His biggest challenge, he said, is getting enough sleep, and he acknowledges that having so many things to do can be stressful.

“Having to do many things sometimes brings worries,” he said. “But I always like to think that there is a solution even if at the moment I don’t know the answer.”

One of Morales’ goals, past a marathon, is to tackle an Iron Man competition. To achieve Iron Man status, athletes must compete in a triathlon event in which they race in three disciplines — swimming, cycling and running — and complete them in under 17 hours.

An important part of Morales’ healthy lifestyle is diet, though that’s not an easy part. It is, however, a mental confidence builder as well, and Morales understands that aspect, too.

“I try to eat healthy and more importantly express my feelings. I feel that the most important thing for not only having a healthy life, but a happy life, is to say what you feel and more if it comes from the heart,” he said. “Also, take advantage of every moment with my loved ones, value every day and smile.”

Diego is from Caracas, Venezuela and is pursuing his Bachelors' degree for Digital Communications and Media (Digital Journalism) at FIU.