cartoon of a starting line with one runner facing the wrong direction

One Foot Behind the Other

A backwards-running writer meets a band of young robotics engineers: the unlikely story behind Spare Parts. 

I love to run. I regularly enter local races in San Francisco and get pretty competitive. The problem is, I’m not a particularly fast runner. I spend most of my time getting passed by speedier entrants.

In the fall of 2003, I entered a 7-mile race from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge and back. I trained for months and still finished at the back of the leader pack. For days afterward, my knees ached. I considered looking for another sport.

While researching ways to alleviate joint pain, I stumbled across a competition called the Gambero D’Oro, which billed itself as the world championship of backwards running. That’s right: backwards running. It turns out there’s a small but devoted community of people who like to run in reverse. They call it “retrorunning.” Every year, hundreds gather in Northern Italy for a 3-kilometer sprint. It’s supposed to be easy on the knees.

It sounded ridiculous. How would you know where you were going? We weren’t built to run that way. Why would anyone try?

But my knees continued to ache, so during one morning jog I spun around and started trotting backwards along the San Francisco waterfront. It was terrifying and embarrassing. People stared as if I’d lost my mind, and I narrowly avoided collisions with pedestrians, porta-potties, and parking meters. It also took a lot more energy: After half a mile I was exhausted.

But it was exhilarating. Because I couldn’t see where I was going, I had to rely on my hearing and intuition. I memorized what the waterfront looked like so I could avoid obstacles. It was an intellectual challenge as much as a physical one.

I lined up at the start and faced backwards—an odd way to begin.

I began taking the sport more seriously. I found a coach, an Indian athlete named Veerabadran, who was one of the most accomplished retrorunners in the world. Veerabadran had broken the record for longest backwards run in a 24-hour period (85 miles) and was a serious competitor until he got hit by a truck (he never saw it coming). Now he coaches younger runners. He taught me the subtle art of avoiding potholes and calf cramps.

After months of training, I flew to Italy for the world championship. I was issued a number and a small helmet for the back of my head (in case of a fall). There were over a hundred entrants from across Europe and even another American. I lined up at the start and faced backwards. It was an odd way to begin.

When the starting gun fired, I darted off. Over my months of training, I had come to appreciate something surprisingly profound about the sport. It was hard to tell where you were running, but if you wanted to win the race, you couldn’t ever slow down. It was like life. I trained myself to hurtle backwards despite the fact that I didn’t know exactly where I was headed.

I ended up placing 20th and won nearly a kilogram of ham. I may have been a middling forward runner, but it turned out I was a pretty good backwards runner. I had found my sport, but the experience had an even broader impact on me. I realized that, sometimes, it’s important to do things that seem ridiculous, to push beyond what’s comfortable and maybe even logical.

At the time, I was working as a journalist in conflict zones. I covered the war in Iraq and the drug business in South America. I focused on big, impactful stories. But soon after returning from Italy I received a strange email. It was a press release describing a group of impoverished high schoolers in a gang-torn corner of Phoenix. From what I could make out (the press release was filled with typos and formatted horribly) these teenagers were building robots out of spare parts and entering the national Marine Advanced Technology Education competition, sponsored by NASA and the U.S. Navy.

It seemed far-fetched, but so did plunging backwards through the crowded streets of San Francisco. I was ready to give far-fetched a chance. Of all the national media outlets across the country that received the press release, I was the only one who responded.

When I arrived, a sign at the entrance to Carl Hayden Community High School proclaimed, “The Pride’s on the Inside.” I figured the administration was saying that because there wasn’t a lot to be proud about on the outside: The neighborhood was blasted with graffiti and trash. Seventy-one percent of students were below the poverty line, and few even considered college.

I found the robotics team crammed into a converted closet in the science building. They were an odd assortment of kids: Lorenzo Santillan was an ex-gang member, Oscar Vazquez was the school’s JROTC cadet of the year, Luis Arranda was a hulking giant of a kid who said little, and Cristian Arcega was a skinny brainiac. They thought the competition might be a path to a better future, but joining a robotics team in this environment sounded crazy, especially when they’d be competing against a team from MIT sponsored by Exxon-Mobil. (Their teachers assumed they would lose regardless so entered them in the expert division against college students.)

Yet all four possessed something I recognized from the backwards-running community: They didn’t care what other people thought. The Carl Hayden kids had been told they would never amount to much, so what did it matter if they tried something unusual?

Each student brought unique experiences to the team. Lorenzo repaired cars in his driveway and, out of necessity, had developed a creative approach to engineering. Cristian was a self-taught mathematician and scientist who could solve challenging technical problems. Oscar was a born leader. And Luis was big enough to pick up the heavy robot.

Still, it was hard to imagine how it would work out. The competition involved exploring a sunken mock-up of a submarine, taking fluid samples, and performing other complex underwater tasks. These kids lived in the desert—their school didn’t even have a pool. They had scant funds and little formal robotics training. Their robot was made of a milk jug, zip ties, PVC pipe, and donated parts. The team dubbed it “Stinky” because it reeked when they glued it together.

But Stinky’s looks masked the bot’s surprisingly robust capabilities. Since they didn’t have the resources to solve problems with expensive technology, the kids from Phoenix came up with innovative solutions. While other teams employed complex fluid sampling tools, Lorenzo used a small pump attached to a cheap balloon. They housed their electronics in a plastic briefcase, and when the case sprung a leak they filled it with tampons. They outfitted the PVC frame with an array of cameras, a pincer, a laser range finder, and an acoustic microphone. It might not have been pretty, but it was an engineering marvel.

To everyone’s surprise (including their own), the Carl Hayden team sped through an impressive series of underwater assignments during the competition. At one point, the big-budget robot from engineering powerhouse MIT ran into trouble, but the scrappy Carl Hayden bot was able to complete the task. When it came time for the engineering review in front of a panel of robotics experts, they nailed every question.

Of all the stories I’ve written in the past decade, theirs is the most meaningful to me.

The awards ceremony was tense. Based on the number of tasks Stinky had completed, Carl Hayden knew they hadn’t finished last. That alone was an accomplishment. They thought they might even get as high as third place. But when third went to another team and MIT was awarded second, they were dispirited. It appeared they hadn’t done that well after all.

“And the winner of the Marine Advanced Technology Education ROV Explorer-class championship goes to…”

The announcer began drumming on the podium. A deep rumble rose up around the room as others joined in. Only nine months earlier, the Carl Hayden students hadn’t known what an underwater robot was. They were merely a band of misfits. The announcer stopped drumming and leaned into the microphone. The room fell silent. “Carl Hayden!” he shouted.

The students from MIT stood up and began to clap. Other competitors began to rise, and by the time Lorenzo, Cristian, Oscar, and Luis made it to the stage, most of the room was on its feet.

Catch the hollywood version of this story and you’ll see it ends here, in triumph. Real life, of course, is more complicated. While the Carl Hayden robotics team became nationally recognized, its original members struggled to achieve the kind of success that seemed fated after proving they were among the country’s best underwater engineers.

At various turns over the past 10 years, they graduated from Arizona State University, picked beans in Mexico, served in the military, launched a catering company, and wallowed in unemployment. Meanwhile, the MIT students went on to work at places like Google and Apple. And yet, despite the obstacles that still confront them, the guys have never given up trying to build a better life for themselves and their families.

Of all the stories I’ve written over the past decade, theirs is the most meaningful to me—I still visit them in Phoenix on occasion. I think of them when times are tough and I’m searching for the strength to carry on. And then I find myself out for a run, facing the wrong way, but refusing to stop and give up.

Joshua Davis is the author of Spare Parts, the true story of the Carl Hayden robotics team.

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

Originally Published January 2015