Israel Hernandez, a senior at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles with wavy, dyed-green hair, ran his first marathon in eighth grade. It was so much fun that he decided to do it several more times.
But in 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, while training for the Los Angeles Marathon, Hernández felt the first symptoms of a serious illness.
“He had pain in his chest and in other parts of his body,” said Hernández, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
His mother, Josefina Montero, freaked out when she saw his X-rays after taking him to the hospital. She cried a lot but never lost faith and encouraged her son every time he had to undergo grueling chemotherapy sessions.
Hernandez said she was inspired by her mother telling her that going through chemotherapy was like finishing a marathon.
“She told me never to give up and to keep going,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez missed the 2021 marathon race. He underwent six chemotherapy sessions and now goes to the doctor every six months for checkups. After being released by his doctors, he returned to his training group, Students Run LA, last year.
“It was very difficult because I couldn’t fulfill my dream. My dream was to be the fastest, but my mom told me that health always came first,” said Hernández, who ran the 26.2-mile marathon in 4 hours, 14 minutes in ninth grade; last year he ran it in 5:45.
“It’s understandable because I haven’t been running since the chemo. I hope this year I have a better time, ”she said.
On Sunday, Hernandez and 2,500 other students will run in the 38th edition of the marathon as part of Students Run LA. They will be joined by nearly 500 adult volunteer mentors, many of whom are teachers and administrators at the students’ schools.
The marathon will include athletes from all 50 states and more than 67 countries, on a course that begins at Dodger Stadium and passes through West Hollywood and Beverly Hills before ending in Century City.
Hernández’s courage and positivity has surprised his coaches, who say he has been gaining confidence as he has continued.
“What happened to him is something that he did not wish on anyone, but he has a lot of enthusiasm and energy. Other students or adults would have already given up. Keep coming back to train. I’ve run the marathon many times, but this is inspiring,” said Students Run LA Garfield coach Abraham Lopez, who has run the marathon 22 times.
For Students Run LA, the marathon is the culmination of seven months of hard work and dedication. It brings together more than 185 school groups representing disadvantaged communities, from the San Fernando Valley to Whittier, from San Pedro to Eagle Rock, and everywhere in between.
Raymond Eason, the Students Run LA coach at Garfield High, has coached the school’s students since 1998 and continues to do so along with Lopez, Erika Ramirez, and Cindy Cumbess.
“Israel has a lot of energy. With everything that’s happened, you wouldn’t realize it, because when he comes here he gives everything he has. It keeps the team very motivated,” Eason said.
“They learn patience and that they receive something important when they put in the effort,” López added.
Celeste Ortega, born in East Los Angeles and raised in Puebla, Mexico, is one of Hernandez’s eight teammates on Garfield. In normal years, the school’s team has a couple dozen running backs, but that number has dwindled during the pandemic.
Ortega returned to Southern California two years ago in search of a better future, while his closest relatives, including two younger brothers and an older sister, remained in Mexico.
“I came here for my family. I want to help them some day. I know that one day we will be together,” said Ortega, 18.
For Ortega, running the marathon has been an opportunity to expand her horizons, make new friends, and build community in a new home.
She arrived at school in the US in the spring of 2021 and lives with her aunt Jeanette Rosas and her cousin, Axel, who was part of the SRLA in Garfield. Axel learned that her cousin liked to run during a visit to Mexico and it inspired her to join the SRLA team.
“I want to be another source of pride for my family and the family I live with at the moment, and also all these achievements that I have achieved are thanks to my cousin Axel; he is the one who motivates me,” said Ortega, whose dream is to go to USC to study physiotherapy.
Being a part of SRLA has allowed Ortega to improve her English and build a community beyond her classroom. She said the best part of SRLA is working toward your goals with other students and teachers.
“It’s tough but for me, at first I thought it wasn’t much for me. I couldn’t take it anymore at mile 22; I felt like I couldn’t take it,” Ortega recalled. “But I liked it and now I’m preparing for my second race and I want to do a third.”