Ruben Sanca Chases the Fastest of the Fast

Ruben Sanca knows he isn’t going to win the 2015 Boston Marathon. At least he thinks he knows.

Sanca didn’t win the marathon last year, but he came closer than most, finishing in 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 5 seconds, good for 21st among all male runners. (Rita Jeptoo, the winner of the women’s race, edged Sanca by eight seconds.)

The Boston Athletic Association counts Sanca among the race’s elite runners. He has an elite bib number, “35,’’ granting him special transportation to Hopkinton and access to a hospitality area with food and massages in Copley Square. Sanca looks elite. A sinewy 6 feet, 2 inches and 155 pounds, the Lowell resident doesn’t so much walk across a room as glide. He’s the guy in every running shoe commercial and magazine spread, the guy every weekend plodder aspires to be but isn’t.

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And yet there’s a sizeable gap between Sanca and the 20 men who finished the 2014 Boston Marathon before him, a gap that highlights the mostly unseen differences between athletes at the highest levels of competition.

Elite runners are born, but they’re also built. For Sanca, that means running 120 to 130 miles a week. It means running twice a day, early mornings, and late nights. In between runs, Sanca works as a business manager in the student affairs office at UMass-Lowell.

“It’s almost like he’s working two full-time jobs,’’ says Gary Gardner, who coached Sanca when he was a student at UMass-Lowell and still trains him now.

Ruben Sanca —Emily Maye/Tracksmith

Gardner and Sanca spent months orchestrating a training plan for Boston, dialing in the proper speed and intensity of Sanca’s many miles. Sanca often runs alone, in part because he’s got to work, and in part because very few people can keep up with him.

“There’s probably eight of them in New England who can do what he does,’’ Gardner says. “Actually, I may have overshot it. I don’t even think there’s that many.’’

The winter was hard on any New Englander training for Boston this year, but especially hard on someone putting in those kind of miles. Sanca, like many distance runners, prefers running outside to the monotony of a treadmill.

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“There’s some weeks where I’ll run an entire weekday outdoors and never see the sun,’’ Sanca says.

When Sanca can’t get outdoors, Gardner enlists members of his team or athletic department staffers to run alongside him and converse on the treadmill. Gardner will join Sanca on his easy runs.

“It’s a mental fatigure more than a physical fatigue if you’re out there every day,’’ Gardner says.

Sanca was born in Cape Verde, but his family moved to Dorchester in 1999. Now 28, Sanca attended Boston public schools. He loved soccer and caught the attention of Jose Ortega, one of the track coaches at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science in Roxbury, during his freshman year.

Ruben Sanca running for the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science. —Jose Ortega

“We noticed his stamina on the soccer field,’’ Ortega says. “He would never get tired. I said, ‘I would love to have that kid on the team.’’’

In high school, Sanca ran the long distances, and would go on to make the Boston Globe’s All-Scholastics team. Ortega remembers a skinny, talented kid who wasn’t a sure thing to succeed at the next level.

“We have athletes that come through that should have been running collegiately,’’ Ortega says. “Sometimes they just fall off and dont want to do it anymore. Ruben’s just one of those individuals who kept going.’’

Sanca made it his goal to compete in the Olympics for his native country, a dream he fulfilled in London in 2012, where he finished last in his heat of the men’s 5,000-meter race.

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Sanca ran his first marathon, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2011, finishing 17th with a time of 2:18:47. On pace to hit the qualifying time of 2:15:00 for the Olympic marathon, Sanca pulled up injured at mile 17 of last year’s Twin Cities Marathon and was forced to withdraw. That race came after his 21st-place finish in Boston, his first time running the biggest race in his adopted hometown.

Sanca’s injury is a reminder of the biggest difference between him and the competitors above him.

“Just the way that their preparation is, they have more flexibility during the training,’’ Sanca says. “If they hurt their leg, they can spend the day sleeping or get therapy all day. I’ve got to go to work. Over that four-month period when you’re training, that adds up and makes a big difference.’’

Gardner says, “Those real top guys, there’s not many of them who have a full-time job. If he wanted to take that step, he’d have to say, ‘This is my job.’’’

While not his job, Sanca takes his running seriously. He abstains from junk food and rarely drinks alcohol. He’d like to go skiing, but he won’t for fear it will tire his legs for training. This year, Sanca committed to training for Boston five weeks earlier than last year, and has seen improvement in his workouts.

“I believe that given how my training has gone this winter, I can run anywhere between 2:15 to 2:19,’’ says Sanca. “I hope to be somewhere in the top 20.’’

On Marathon Monday, Sanca will wake up at his father’s house in Dorchester around 5 a.m. Gardner acknowledges it’s unlikely Sanca will ever move into the group that challenges for the win, and Sanca says he’s OK with that. He likes his job. He likes his life. The pressure he feels is more about pride than collecting a paycheck.

“Last year there was some pressure,’’ Sanca says. “I went to Boston public school. It’s been almost 15 years since I volunteered handing out water at the two-mile mark.

“A lot of people have been waiting for me to run this marathon.’’